There are five stages of grief, they say. Most members of the Federal Liberal Party are still at various points on that journey, some well-advanced down the road to acceptance, some still angry about being turfed out, most, still raw and hurting, somewhere in between. But nearly everyone has moved on from denial. Even Julie Bishop has been dragged away from the corpse of the previous government. Yes, her fingernails may be leaving Warner Bros cartoon-like tracks in the ground as she goes, but she has finally figured out that her plan to revive Work Choices was never going to work.

Which leaves Dennis Shanahan. Judging by today’s effort in The Australian, “Treasury slams Labor’s IR plan”, Dennis not merely hasn’t accepted the death of the previous Government, he’s sitting by the corpse and reckons he can feel a pulse.

Admittedly it’s something of a triumph to have extracted a document under FOI from Treasury. For all this Government’s rhetoric about greater transparency, so far they seem almost as obsessed with information management as the last lot – witness the rumour we ran yesterday (which has been confirmed to us) that the Prime Minister’s media handlers don’t want him being filmed while on radio.

But you can’t help but wonder if the Government was more than happy to let such an obviously useless document go out to The Oz, knowing full well they could demolish it, as Julia Gillard did last night, by pointing out Treasury’s “economic assessment” was prepared before the ALP actually released its industrial relations policy.

It was also slightly embarrassing timing given that Institute of Public Affairs IR hardliner Ken Phillips devoted an AFR article yesterday to describing how the Government’s reforms were consistent with both the Keating and Howard individualist models of workplace bargaining.

On ABC Radio this morning, Michelle Grattan suggested that the document obtained by Shanahan might’ve reflected Treasury’s willingness to offer the then-Government advice it wanted to hear. Possibly. But you don’t even have to go that far. The provenance of the briefing almost certainly lay in a request from Costello’s office for a minute on the impact of an identified set of hypothetical Labor party reforms which may — or more likely may not – have had much to do with the IR policy the Opposition eventually produced.

It’s not merely that public servants only gave the previous Government the advice it wanted to hear – Ministers were not exactly in the habit of asking for advice they didn’t want, either.

As a result, the Government got what it sought – a brief explaining how centralised wage-fixing, unfair dismissal laws and wage-price spirals were bad, and individual contracts and minimal protections were good. Not exactly the damning Treasury indictment of Labor being waved round by Shanahan.

Also problematic is that the Coalition failed to oppose the Government’s rollback of Work Choices and has repeatedly declared it dead. This is the one giant problem with their efforts to conjure up some drama about the wage-inflation consequences of the Government’s reforms.

Still, credit to Shanahan for keeping the faith and maintaining his lonely vigil beside the corpse of the Coalition Government. Perhaps it’s not too late for one more “Newspoll shows Howard preferred economic manager” story.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey