Yesterday Prime Minister Julia Gillard began the task of wrenching the political debate in Australia back towards Labor’s preferred territory of industrial relations.

Climate change and refugee policies have been a disaster, in both cases because of the alliance with the Greens — an arranged marriage that has been so expertly exploited by Tony Abbott.

Gillard needs to move the national boxing match back to WorkChoices, and at the same time Abbott has to make sure he maintains a mandate for industrial reforms and doesn’t rule out rewriting the Fair Work Act to introduce more flexibility in the workplace, while at the same time not appearing to advocate a return to WorkChoices.

Gillard didn’t mention the Greens in her speech to the NSW ALP state conference yesterday, but a week of Green-bashing by the NSW Right had highlighted the difficult problem of Labor’s dance between its traditional blue-collar union backers and the progressive urban Left being steadily captured by the Greens.

Labor’s problem is that, unlike the Liberal and National parties, Labor and the Greens can never be in coalition because there is a fundamental ideological discord between environmentalism and trade unionism.

Unions and greenies used to fight over Tasmanian logging, now it’s the impact of carbon tax on manufacturing jobs. The 2010 agreement between the Greens and the ALP was signed during a lull in these two battles: in 2010 Tasmanian premier David Bartlett had negotiated a fragile agreement with the Greens over old-growth forests and Gillard had, at the time of the election, ruled out a carbon tax.

So a deal, not a coalition, was possible between the traditional enemies of organised labour and environmentalism. That deal is now, inevitably, fracturing because putting a price on carbon is designed to shift employment away from the strongly unionised business in manufacturing towards new more entrepreneurial, less unionised, businesses in renewable energy and services.

The final straw for the NSW Right last week was the Greens’ “purity” in refusing to support Labor’s policy of offshore processing of refugees in Malaysia, which might have sidelined the boat people as an issue. But that’s the problem: the Greens are successful because they are pure; as a mainstream party the ALP must engage in compromise.

Gillard’s speech yesterday was entitled “Labor — not a brand, a cause” and it was all about rebuilding Labor’s “brand” as the party that protects workers’ rights from the predations of WorkChoices.

In it, she referred to a speech last Wednesday by Abbott in which, she says, he “accidentally told the truth”.

It was a speech to the Tourism and Transport Leaders Forum, and there was nothing accidental about it. He deliberately and carefully began preparing the ground for a new Coalition IR policy to take to the next election, knowing that this will be his most important task — more important than climate change and refugee policies.

No team wins a grand final without a good defence. Abbott’s forward line is “the toxic tax” and “stop the boats”, but Gillard’s team will kick goals if he doesn’t get his story on WorkChoices right.

In March I suggested he would propose an expansion of the existing “Individual Flexibility Agreements” within the Fair Work Act as the means to introduce flexibility without rewriting the entire act, particularly on weekend penalty rates.

In last week’s speech, he said: “You do need more flexibility in your workplace arrangements. Individual flexibility agreements must be made more workable and we will do that.”

He must do this because he doesn’t want to get caught as Gillard did on carbon tax, when she said before the election: “There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.”

That has been her greatest single error. Because of it, Abbott will probably win the next election no matter what he says, but his longevity as PM may well depend on how well he sets up a mandate for the next wave of workplace reforms to be introduced after the election.

To guarantee the small business vote at the election, he needs to offer more flexibility — specifically on penalty rates and unfair dismissal.

But he needs to avoid appearing to promise he will bring back WorkChoices, while making sure he doesn’t promise he won’t.

*This article was originally published at Business Spectator