Is it possible to declare that Howard has won most of the work reform policy debate? This is a counter intuitive idea but look at how much of WorkChoices Rudd has adopted.

Locked in permanently under Rudd are the WorkChoices right of entry and pattern bargaining restrictions, bans on secondary boycotts and orders against unlawful industrial action.

Retained for the bulk of a Rudd government’s first term and sometimes beyond is the ABCC and it’s funding, the building code of practice, existing AWAs (for the length of the agreement) and allowing new AWA’s in workplaces where AWA’s currently exist.

Variations on the AWA theme are introduced by allowing award free common law agreements for employees earning more than $100,000.

And the surprise element is that collective agreements and awards must have a clause providing for individual employees to create variations. Depending on the detail this could be Rudd’s AWA’s by another name. Much more detail is needed, however. For example, under the old award system individual variations to agreements were possible but they had to go through a complex and lengthy approval process, sometimes taking years which neutered their application.

If Rudd’s individual agreement variation clauses truly enabled individual employees to strike one-on-one deals with their employer, bettering the collective agreement or award and without artificial restrictions on doing this, Rudd would have near replicated Howard’s post WorkChoices AWA model.

In these respects Howard should rightfully claim policy and moral victory. For all the emotional wailing about the evils of WorkChoices Howard has achieved long lasting change to the nature of Australia’s workplace culture. The ALP’s adopting Howard’s reform agenda. Traditional ALP supporters must be confused by Rudd’s positioning.

But this is where Rudd’s political strategy melds with policy. By pushing off major changes into the future he softens business opposition, minimizes the immediate damage his changes would do to jobs and the economy and buys political time to (potentially) massage more movement toward Howard’s reform agenda.

Rudd’s risks are threefold. Business won’t like being forced into collective agreement making. It neuters management control, creates management cultures of accountability avoidance resulting in business underperformance. Watch profits go south! Imposing unfair dismissals on small businesses personally angers small entrepreneurs. They fear and hate being personally screwed by rent seeking employees. And Rudd’s continuing lack of policy detail means his true policy intent is still unknown.

But the politics demonstrate high Machiavellian expertise.