End of an era: Industrial relations

Tuesday, 18 December 2007 

It is extraordinary how much has slipped past behind the irrelevant sideshow about Workchoices and AWAs, a work contract that covered only 7% of Australian workers.

This year’s pantomime of union thugs in braces and hard-nosed employers conducted on our TVs has disguised some profound changes in the industrial relations landscape, which again have been missed with yesterday’s launch of Labor’s IR agenda.

By making a fuss about AWAs, Rudd and Gillard have been able to abandon some of Labor’s, and the union movement’s, most cherished positions. It is not just that it looks like Labor will keep much of Howard’s unfair dismissal provisions in tact. Nor is it that most of Howard’s restrictions on unions’ right to enter the workplace has been maintained. The right to strike is now only legal in a prescribed bargaining period for a collective agreement (so strikes against Workchoices would have been breaking the law) and only following a secret ballot, something that Labor had never supported before.

But probably the most profound indication of how much the industrial landscape has changed is Labor’s Fair Work Australia body, which is to replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The AIRC was the latest version of a body that has been adjudicating union-employer disputes since 1904 but which had its powers cut back by Howard. Through most of Howard’s government, the unions, and some in Labor, had wanted the powers of the AIRC to be restored, and by it, the importance of union representation.

However, the reality of the marginal role of unions nowadays makes any such representation, and its adjudication, irrelevant. When Rudd and Gillard launched the FWA in April, the Liberals claimed it was illegal because it combined the role of arbitration and enforcement in one body. They later quietly dropped that objection. Presumably because they realised that under Rudd’s IR agenda it didn’t really have a role of adjudication anymore, as with industrial action so restricted, there is not much left to adjudicate. Gillard has presented Fair Work Australia as a ‘one stop shop’ but it is probably more accurate to call it a ‘no stop shop’.

Labor’s IR agenda may not differ much in substance from Howard’s, but it does differ in its politics. Howard’s IR program was a faux Thatcherite attempt to politicise an attack on the unions. AWAs, Workchoices and his cutting back the powers of the AIRC were all designed to push unions out of the industrial landscape and give the Howard government an agenda it desperately needed. The problem was that Hawke and Keating had done most of the job and the unions were already becoming a marginal force by the time Howard took power. It was why business had little interest in AWAs when Howard brought them in 1996 and why he had little success when he tried to flog them again through Workchoices a decade later.

What Rudd and Gillard have done is not change the reality of individual contracts and restrictions on union activity, which reflect the real position of unions in Australia today, but depoliticise it. This is why they keep going on about Howard’s ‘extreme’ laws when they bring in laws that are remarkably similar (and are so slow to get rid of Howard’s). Howard left himself vulnerable to it because as his IR agenda met nobody’s needs, least of all business, it was easy to portray it as nothing more than Howard’s ‘bitchy vindictiveness’, as Keating so nicely put it.

It was also because Howard’s agenda had so little basis in reality, that despite the $30m union campaign and Labor’s uninspiring one, Workchoices never appeared as anything more than a middling issue for the electorate in Textor’s research, Fairfax focus groups, AC Nielsen and Newspoll surveys, including the one following the election. This is something that is vigorously ignored by left wing commentators who, like Howard, want to pretend that the old IR debate still has political reality, when in fact 2007 is likely to be the last time it is a serious issue. The role of Workchoices in the Labor victory has especially been mantra to those in the party who want to believe it is the one they thought they joined. Don’t worry, Rudd and Gillard will sort them out.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 18 December 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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