Former Labor pollster Rod Cameron says most Australians support a deregulated workplace and that Kevin Rudd must confront the trade unions over industrial relations, The Australian told us on Saturday:

“I think Work Choices is exaggerated as a vote winner for Labor,” he says. “John Howard went too far with Work Choices. I would judge it has helped Labor with a 1 per cent shift but not a 5 per cent shift.”

This morning, however, the Sydney Morning Herald tells us that Labor polling taken last week shows that Kevin Rudd’s industrial relations policy has received strong support among swinging voters:

Asked to assess the impact of Work Choices on working families, the poll found that 16 per cent said it was good, 8 per cent said it made no difference and 57 per cent said it was bad.

Who’s right? Probably both. Industrial relations is an issue – but so is the union movement. Have a look at what Cameron says:

The majority of voters are unsympathetic to the unions. With a few notable exceptions such as (ACTU secretary and ALP candidate) Greg Combet, union spokespeople don’t appeal to middle Australia. People tend to see union leaders as having a chip on the shoulder and being bitter whingers. They have had their heads in the sand for too long. The point is that there is a lot of anti-Howard and anti-government sentiment in the community on the basis that Howard is yesterday’s man. But Rudd cannot possibly be credible on his claim as the man of the future with this industrial relations policy.

A minority of people aren’t happy with the changes in our workplaces but they are happening anyway, often without a lot of fanfare. The thought of Labor unscrambling this shift and returning to a more regulatory union system is anathema.

It’s quite possible to be concerned about WorkChoices without believing the union movement – or any more centralised wages fixing system – offers a solution.

It’s all about the optics – about perceptions of fairness. Unions aren’t a prerequisite for this, as Kevin Rudd knows. Indeed, some assertiveness on the subject would do perceptions of his leadership no harm.

The crucial issue here is the arithmetic; the impact of voters’ views of industrial relations policy how they cast their ballot.

“I think Work Choices is exaggerated as a vote winner for Labor,” says Cameron.

“John Howard went too far with Work Choices. I would judge it has helped Labor with a 1 per cent shift but not a 5 per cent shift.”

Most people agree with the first part of his comments – John Howard included, given his revamping of his IR reforms the week before last.

But what about the last party? That 1 per cent won’t comfort Labor, but they don’t need to worry about the figure reaching 5 per cent.

After all, as Malcolm Mackerras has pointed out, all they need is a uniform 3.3 per cent swing to win government.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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