Wednesday, 5 September 2007 

The latest Newspoll has produced a sea change in the media’s expectations of a Labor victory.

This is nothing much to do with the poll itself. It showed a move back to Labor in line with some other recent ones (except the F-F Morgan Poll) but otherwise repeated the landslide numbers that have been a feature of all of the polls since the start of this year.

It is the media that has changed. It spent most of this year discrediting these numbers, even polling organisations like Newspoll and Galaxy joined in, doubting their own findings and arguing that the public could not possibly mean that. The Treasurer still thinks it could be that those polled have a chicken in the oven when answering the phone and are not thinking straight, and Mr Shanahan seems to think he has a point, but otherwise most media commentators are finally registering what has been staring them in the face all year.

Having finally to accept the obvious, the media now has to think of a reason. Kath & Kim’s timely intervention into the debate may account for the current preferences for Workchoices being the reason, it is hard to see what else would. It may be possible that concern over work contracts that apply to 5% of the workforce is sweeping the nation and ending Howard’s 11 ½ year government. It may be possible that polls like Galaxy, ACNielsen, industry surveys and the government’s internal polls that say the public is largely indifferent to Workchoices are all wrong.

But if Workchoices was a key reason for the government’s coming defeat, it would make the Labor leadership one of the most tactically stupid in modern electoral history, because why then have they spent most of this year toning down their objections to it? Kerry O’Brien asked this and whether Labor’s early objections was just posturing last night and got his answer as the debate between Gillard and Hockey progressed. At the beginning both sat opposite each other as though this was just another re-run of the great IR debates between these parties in the 20th century. By the end Gillard was reminding that Labor has no objections to individual contracts and they were only talking about awards on 5% of contracts anyway. Hockey was asking if Workchoices was so bad why Labor wanted to keep ‘vast chunks’ of it.

Away from all of this political play-acting the real situation was brought out in a report published yesterday by the University of Sydney, surveying employers in the eastern states just before Workchoices came in. In early 2006, 83% of workplaces were completely union free, only 3% reported industrial action, over two-thirds of those employers with unions reported good relations and only 4% wanted major changes to IR. In other words, Howard brought in IR legislation that even employers did not need. This would explain then why employer take up of AWAs has been so small and why they were so reluctant to defend Workchoices.

So if Howard’s IR laws were not even needed by his own supporter base, why did he bring them in? The Director in charge of the survey put his finger on it yesterday on AM:

There’s a major disconnect between the way in which the policy debate is conducted and what’s actually happening on the ground in workplaces.

IR policy debates are used primarily for product differentiation between the two major political parties. They really don’t mean that much to most workplaces on the ground.

‘Product differentiation’ is what this is really about. The real reason this government is heading for defeat is that it stands for nothing. Rather than Workchoices being the reason for the government’s defeat it was meant to help it because, while unpopular like GST, at least it made it look like the government stood for something. By making it seem as though Howard’s electoral problem is that he is bringing in something draconian, instead of irrelevant, it turns reality on its head and misses what this election is really about, something that has been a feature of media commentary all year.

The fact is that the industrial relations debate is over. What we are seeing now is a ghost of something that died over a decade ago when Labor ended the role of the unions. This is its last appearance because Labor, headed by the first non-union sponsored leader in living memory, is about to end it. There are still those wedded to the past (in both parties) who think Rudd is toning down his opposition to Workchoices for electoral reasons but will turn back to the unions when in government. In reality, Rudd’s current direction is exactly where he is going. If anything he is probably being more pro-union than he wants to for internal reasons, something that will be much less of a problem after he takes the party to a resounding victory.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 5 September 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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