Tony Abbott gets away with many things, his critics charge. The media too often fail to hold him to account, to pull him up, to challenge him. To the extent that that’s true on other issues, it isn’t on industrial relations. In fact, Abbott can’t take a trick on IR.

He’s the one who thought it was a bad idea in the first place when the Howard cabinet considered WorkChoices, the one who called WorkChoices “a catastrophic political blunder” in Battlelines, who in that book even questioned Holy Writ about individual contracts, saying “the much-touted abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements could be insignificant by comparison” with the requirement for good faith bargaining. He’s the “dead, buried, cremated” bloke.

And yet everyone, it seems, is conspiring against his resolution. Most of his party is well to the right of Abbott on IR, and wants movement on issues like unfair dismissal. The business community is talking incessantly about productivity and the need for flexibility. His former colleague Peter Reith is an enthusiastic spruiker of IR reform. And then John Howard beams in, from what according to Abbott is ancient history, to offer his own take.

Labor ministers, of course, were like seagulls on a chip with it. Too bad that Howard wasn’t even talking about WorkChoices, but primarily urging a return to the Reith-era Workplace Relations Act of before 2005. Too bad that the recent Fair Work Act review identified Labor’s “replacement” for AWAs, individual flexibility agreements, as too complicated and inflexible to use, and recommended a series of changes to them. That was lost in the mix, reflecting the exact problem that confronts Abbott — he can’t even talk about IR reform without every utterance being taken as code for WorkChoices.

That’s why when he does talk about IR reform, he sticks to a meaningless incantation. The Coalition thinks there’s a “militancy problem, a productivity problem, and a flexibility problem” but, he said yesterday, all it would do would be to make “cautious, careful, responsible change”. He similarly said they’d make “careful, cautious, responsible change” in May, and “careful, cautious, responsible change” back in February. The only deviation was when he slipped up earlier this month and added a “prudent” to “careful, cautious, responsible changes”.

Having built an entire, and successful, political strategy on what happens to a Prime Minister when visibly seen to break a high-profile commitment — voters may forgive you if you fail to do something you commit to doing, but look out if you do something you’ve promised you won’t — Abbott is the least likely of anyone in his party to decide, once in government, that it’s time to revisit WorkChoices. But voters don’t believe it. Even more Liberal voters think he’ll bring back WorkChoices in government than don’t. The incessant business lobby push for IR deregulation has lifted the proportion of voters very concerned about a return to WorkChoices to its highest level since 2010.

Kevin Rudd’s success as opposition leader lay in carefully picking a few clear points of distinction with John Howard and sticking to those while ignoring everything else. Abbott’s so-far successful strategy has been entirely the opposite. But on IR, he’s trying hard to do a Rudd and keep minimal distance between himself and the government. The problem is, no one, even on his own side, appears happy to let him keep doing it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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