Peter Reith may be many things, but you always know where you stand with him. And now Tony Abbott, once Reith’s decidedly junior minister, knows where he stands with him, courtesy of Reith’s affable bucketing of him in the Fairfax papers.

You know where you stand with Reith because he has a becoming affection for political debate. I spent a morning with him during the election campaign in Albury when he campaigned with Sussan Ley. Entering a roomful of candidates in Albury, he went out of his way to introduce himself to them and have a chat, even if none of them were likely to trouble the scorers in a seat like Farrer. He has a lifelong politician’s respect for anyone willing to have a go, and enjoys having a go right back.

He was also the author of the Howard government’s first round of IR reforms that introduced individual contracts, a reform that would have become a permanent part of the Australian economic landscape had the Howard government not overreached in WorkChoices and given Labor licence to roll back IR reform to the early 1990s, except for high income earners. Now he can advocate for a return to individual contracts as much as he likes. And Reith knows perfectly well the dangers of doing so. He might have been in Europe while the Howard government was introducing WorkChoices, but he was shadow treasurer in the “Fightback!” years and saw first-hand not just Paul Keating’s campaign against the GST but his “take the contract or take the sack” attack on the “Fightback!” plan for individual contracts.

But that’s Reith — not one to let losing an argument deter him from advocating what he believes in.

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The 1993 election also saw Nick Minchin arrive as a new senator from South Australia, and there’s some relevance in that to the weekend’s shenanigans. In his maiden speech, Minchin complimented Labor on its campaign again “Fightback!”, subtly mocked John Hewson’s commitment to policy honesty and warned his own side a GST would require bipartisanship to implement. Minchin’s valedictory speech last week contained a similar warning that Australians wouldn’t accept anything more than incrementalism on IR reform.

Minchin’s role in thwarting Reith’s bid for the presidency is thus more than just about the ever-peculiar alignment of personalities and ideologies among the moderates and conservatives within the party; it also reflects, even if partly by coincidence, the growing tension over Abbott’s unwillingness or inability to offer any policy substance.

In that context, Reith is a walking, talking affront to Abbott’s policy minimalism, and the tension will by no means be lessened by Reith’s clear sense of being casually betrayed by Abbott over what turned out to be a critical vote for Alan Stockdale. “Let’s aim higher than a rerun of the Fraser years,” Reith said in his Fairfax piece. For Reith, that’s a devastating line with a long history. He liked to say it during the “Fightback!” years. For Reith, “the Fraser years” were code for a period of wasted opportunities and missed chances for reform when the Liberals had let Australia down. For him, the Liberals had a duty to use their time in government to undertake major reform and to do so they had to be upfront about their plans with voters before an election.

But Abbott and the Liberals’ tenderness over WorkChoices aren’t the only hurdles for Reith and the expanding band of would-be IR reformers in the party’s ranks. Pushing IR reform risks the same mistake Labor has repeatedly made: of not convincing voters of the nature of the problem before offering a reform solution like a mining tax or carbon price. One of the many problems with WorkChoices was that, given it was introduced at a period of rapid employment growth without an accompany wages boom, there was no perceived policy rationale for it, beyond looking like the Liberals wanted to do over the unions and prevent workers from taking advantage of low unemployment.

The Reith reforms in the first term of the Howard government worked better politically because unemployment remained stubbornly high in the long aftermath of the early ’90s recession. For that matter the Keating enterprise bargaining reforms of 1993-94 were explicitly intended to encourage business confidence while unemployment remained at near-recession levels after 1993.

At the moment there is no sign of any wages boom despite low unemployment, and industrial disputation remains at all-time lows — and noticeably lower than under WorkChoices. All we have are assertions that Labor’s Fair Work IR framework is a problem, without any accompanying evidence.

And like John Faulkner, Reith now appears deeply pessimistic about the chances of the party reform package he put together in the wake of the 2010 election being implemented, given the opposition of key incumbents who, like their Labor opposite numbers, have much more to lose than to gain from reforms that empower the party’s grassroots. Why undertake controversial reforms when we’re so far ahead in the polls is the excuse, rather like the excuse of Labor powerbrokers that controversial reforms should be left on the shelf because the party is so far behind in the polls.

Abbott might rue that vote for Stockdale. Reith and his eagerness to prevent a return to “the Fraser years” will be much more interesting without being encumbered by the party presidency.

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