Shellshocked and bedraggled Liberal MPs will hold a two-day election post mortem and way-forward strategy meeting in Canberra starting tomorrow with most media attention focused on their differences over Labor’s “Sorry” declaration. But what about WorkChoices?

This is their first gathering since the 24 November election debacle which saw Liberal numbers in the House of Representatives shrink from 74 to 55, partly because of a voter backlash against John Howard’s anti-union legislation.

With the Rudd Government proposing to consign WorkChoices to the dustbin of history and introduce a new industrial relations framework, the question is — what will Brendan Nelson’s Opposition do?

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Do the Liberals vote against WorkChoices, the policy they took to the last election, or do they continue to support it as suggested by industrial relations spokeswoman Julie Bishop and others? By continuing their support for Howard’s laws they will be showing loyalty to the misguided business leaders who raised some $12 million to promote Work Choices in media advertising in the run-up to the election. The hard right believe that staying loyal to Howard’s laws will ensure more corporate cash will be on offer at the next election in three years’ time.

In reality, the Liberals sans Howard are in a very prickly position: they are stuck with a deeply unpopular policy that was bankrolled by big business but rejected by the electorate. Do they abandon the policy and give a slap in the face to their big corporate donors or what?

One thing they will be anxious to avoid is using their current Senate majority – it ends mid-year with the swearing-in of newly-elected Labor and Green senators – to frustrate Labor’s new legislation and give Prime Minister Kevin Rudd the trigger to call a double dissolution election.

In the latest Newspoll, Labor has improved its popularity to 58 per cent with the Coalition dropping to 42 per cent. Any snap election on those figures would see the Liberals reduced to a mere rump in federal parliament.

The odds are that this week’s Liberal summit will decide to cut adrift from WorkChoices which only a few months ago was an article of Liberal faith. (The Nationals were less enthusiastic about Howard’s anti-union obsession but loyally marched behind the Liberal standard like well trained sheep going through the dip).

If the meeting also decides to support Rudd’s “Sorry” statement to indigenous Australians, this will mark the dramatic start of the unravelling of Howard’s legacy and his outdated, divisive and mean-spirited hold on the party’s philosophy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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