Lately the work reform debate has started spinning in unexpected directions. Last week Julia Gillard criticized the government for creating a massive bureaucracy around employment regulation. Craig Emerson seems to be picking up on free market arguments. Dean Mighell has attacked Kevin Rudd for not understanding the “harsh realities” of industrial relations. What’s happening?

The answer lies in the significant misunderstandings about the nature and structure of the government’s workplace reforms. Unions attacked the reforms for unleashing unrestrained employer power. They succeeded in locking in significant community concern around the “evil bosses” theme.

But the reality is that the reforms impose heavy constraints upon employers to the extent of micro managing the employer-employee relationship. In effect the micro managing that occurred under the old industrial relations system has been transferred to the bureaucracy. The style and content of the micro managing has changed but not the central policy thrust.

The real union complaint is that they have been dealt out of the micro managing exercise. And for unions the reality of how workers are actually treated is of secondary importance to the need to maintain imagery of the oppressed worker.

The greatest weakness of the government has been that their new bureaucracy has taken time to get up to speed. But it’s starting to get there. The political punt of the government is that the politics with catch up with the truth of their policy in time for the election. That is, many voters will realize that bosses are restrained.

The ALP perhaps may be sensing this, explaining the shifting ground of Rudd, Gillard and Emerson. The threat to the ALP is that the government’s micro managing of employers may succeed in diminishing the unions oppressed worker imagery, just enough to neuter union influence with swinging voters at the election.

Hence the ALP seems to be probing for new avenues of attack. It would be odd if they discovered the free market!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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