“In the lead-up to the last election we indicated that we would be taking measures early in the term of this Government to secure fairness and flexibility in Australian workplaces,” the Prime Minister said in a presser on Monday.

“It’s our belief that Mr Howard’s industrial relations laws were the most extreme that this country had ever seen in the history of our Federation. And today in Cabinet, we’ve taken our first step towards the removal of those laws.”

But extreme in what way? Extremely difficult to comprehend? WorkChoices represented perhaps the most complicated bureaucratisation of IR. Labor must know this. After all, they came up with a very simple and savvy policy on independent contractors.

Ken Phillips says of WorkChoices in the current edition of the IPA Review:

As a total package, the workplace reforms ultimately proved to be riddled with inconsistencies in terms of its themes, principles and design. The legislation itself was complex and produced major compliance issues for employers. This confused and quickly numbed the Coalition’s politi­cal capacity and strategy…

Under WorkChoices, managers must comply with highly complex, detailed and often confusing ministerial regulations, subject to change at ministerial whim. WorkChoices in fact caused enormous business frustration and behind-the-scenes lobbying, which the Minister frequently ignored…

The design of WorkChoices reflected a confusion of competing and inconsistent agendas within the total work­place reform package. The construction reforms applied free-market and rule-of-law principles and proved hugely success­ful. WorkChoices was an arrogant expression of belief in Big Brother government and a denial of the rule of law.

The government’s confusion over reform was reflect­ed in its incapacity to sell the reform package. Few, if any, government ministers or backbenchers could explain the re­forms. Supportive advertising fell flat and became counter-productive because no clear message came through.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions undertook an unprecedented lengthy campaign which delivered clear ‘rule of law’ messages that unsettled the government’s political ori­entation and confidence. The government’s inconsistencies created and sustained the ACTU’s campaigning opportuni­ties.

Kevin Rudd fed off this opportunity…

Now, however, the same complexity is causing problems for the new government.

The Australian reports today that “Unions have threatened to campaign against the Rudd Government unless the Coalition’s workplace laws are dismantled in 12 months, after Julia Gillard confirmed that Labor’s planned restoration of unfair dismissal claims could be delayed with other changes until 2010.”

The Workplace Relations Minister says, “We are drafting that bill as quickly as it can be done, bearing in mind it is a complex job and one about which we want to consult.”

The Government faces a delicate balancing act. However, if realism could prevail in Craig Emerson’s independent contractors legislation, it should be able to prevail here.

Industrial relations academic Andrew Stewart told AM this morning:

One of the sensible reasons for taking time is that the current legislation is so complex, and we saw that the Howard Government ran into a lot of difficulty by adopting a bull-at-a-gate mentality with its reforms. It rushed legislation through in a tearing hurry, with not very much consultation, and as a result it had to keep tinkering, it had to keep making changes. Labor’s clearly intent on avoiding that sort of mistake. They’re going to want to take the time to get it right.

And the union movement may just have to wait. Despite the complexities of WorkChoices, unfair dismissal laws is one thing the Coalition can agree on.

Nothing is likely to happen on this particular point until the new Senate sits.