While the financial crisis and economic downturn has played havoc with the Government’s emissions trading plans, it occupies the same tactical position on industrial relations reform that it did last year. Which is to say, completely dominant, and ready to use the issue to inflict maximum hurt on the Coalition.

Anyone who reckons different — viz., The Australian’s anti-union cheer squad — is letting their ideology get in the way of the facts.

For a while, employer groups were starting to get traction with their campaign against elements of the Julia Gillard’s bill, but issues like union right of entry and compulsory bargaining never got any real momentum behind them. The issues are too arcane to really generate extensive debate.

More specifically, the argument that the economic slowdown required the Government to revise its bill in favour of employers was never going to work. Even a prolonged recession will only send unemployment to 10-11% tops. That leaves nine out of 10 workforce participants in a job. Arguing that they should surrender their rights for the sake of the employability of those without a job isn’t going to work. And if anything, people are likely to feel that a recession is the time when their industrial rights need the most protection, not when they and their kids can walk out of one job and into another like they can during a boom.

In any event, the impact of the Government’s reforms are likely to be swamped by rising unemployment from the slowdown.

The Senate dynamics are also more favourable to the Government. There is still talk of the Government’s mandate, which is the latest a mention of a mandate has been heard in the electoral cycle for many years. The Greens have been pushing for more worker-friendly provisions, including greater freedom to bargan, and now want to add restrictions on executive remuneration to the bill when it comes before Parliament this week. Bob Brown tipped his hand, however, when he said late this morning the Greens wouldn’t be blocking the bill — although he did intimate that the success of Green amendments might make Government-Green negotiations on forthcoming legislation like the ETS easier.

Steve Fielding voted against the WorkChoices legislation and Nick Xenophon said immediately after the election that his position on WorkChoices was much closer to the ALP’s than the Liberals’ and that it had been the primary reason for the Howard Government’s defeat, although he wanted some balance on the issue of unfair dismissal.

On that basis, you can see why Julia Gillard is happy to negotiate with the cross-benches and leave the Coalition to stew in its own ideological juices.

The Coalition’s official position on IR is to keep as low a profile as possible and hope the issue goes away. Can you name the Liberals’ IR spokesman? And no, it’s not Peter Costello, who will happily talk about the subject all day.

There are plenty in the Coalition party room who want to take the fight up to the Government on IR. Some in fact wanted to make IR the issue on which they took a stand rather than the stimulus package. The sentiment is especially strong among senators, possibly because they have not had to endure Julia Gillard beating them up in Question Time on Workchoices, which is a fate Coalition MPs will face this week.

This is not about denying the outcome of the 2007 election, although there are more than a few Coalition MPs who still blame it all on the ACTU’s “scare campaign”. Rather, in their view, this is about core Liberal values, and abandoning them for electoral benefit is not acceptable. The internal debate is therefore one of how their opposition is expressed so as to minimise the damage.

Given the Liberal Party haven’t managed to take a trick lately, it may yet become another debacle.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey