The government is undoubtedly eager to make industrial relations a major issue at the next election. Thus yesterday’s release of the review of the Fair Work Act was accompanied by much huffing and puffing from Bill Shorten about what the opposition’s position is.

The Coalition’s actual position is that it is so scarred by WorkChoices that it won’t do anything to give Labor the chance to run another scare campaign. Thus Tony Abbott’s insistence that, despite the Coalition being headed for a massive win, despite business insisting change is required, despite many Liberal MPs demanding change, his government would not do anything beyond “cautious” changes to the existing legislation.

That’s in spite of his own insistence, in the face of all evidence, that the Fair Work Act has major problems.

But Abbott’s unusual caution is justified. Polling shows more than half of all voters believe the Liberals would bring back WorkChoices regardless of what Abbott says; nearly half express concern about the prospect. Perhaps they’re right; Abbott himself declared in his book Battlelines that WorkChoices was a political mistake but may not have been an economic mistake.

The mere presence of IR in public debate appears to be unhelpful to the opposition in this regard; recently, levels of concern about the return of WorkChoices have increased as the “productivity debate” has been ramped up by business.

And if that’s true, Shorten doesn’t really need to get Abbott talking about IR. The longer business talks about the need to dump the Fair Work Act, the more voters might feel that’s exactly what the opposition will do.

Perhaps it really is time for Abbott to listen to his colleagues and take a bolder position on IR.

Peter Fray

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