Some day in the future they might release the secret internal polling that backs the claim made by both sides now that Workchoices was the decisive election winner last year – and which conflicts with all the published polls that showed industrial relations was never anything more than a middling issue in 2007. But if the public never saw such polling, neither presumably did Kevin, given that one of the first acts he did when he took over from Beazley was to tone down Labor’s anti-Workchoices campaign and keep it that way until the election.

Not only did Rudd tone down the campaign, he fine-tuned it. Making it less about workers rights and the unions (from which he has distanced himself ever since) and more about fairness and the Liberals’ ‘extremism’. It was a good move as it shifted it from Labor’s now irrelevant links with unions, to Howard’s equally irrelevant anti-union attack.

Battling it out last year were two parties who had lost the purpose for which they were formed and for which most of the remaining members left in these no-longer-mass-parties, had joined them. The phoney IR battle was always more for internal reasons to mobilise their own base than to win new supporters, and when it was used electorally it was less to conduct the old IR battle than to portray the other side as still caught up in it. So the Liberals portrayed Labor as still in the grip of the unions without mentioning Workchoices, while Labor attacked Howard’s ‘extremism’ without mentioning the unions.

It is easy to see why Labor, especially those from the left like Gillard, will want to claim that Workchoices decided the election, it gives a pro-union mandate for Labor to introduce its most anti-union legislation in its history. For which, by the way, despite everyone claiming Workchoices was a hot issue, has caused Labor not the slightest bit of trouble. It’s probably because since AWAs were a flop with employers and never significantly adopted, Labor’s new IR legislation will make as little difference to industrial reality as Howard’s did.

However, banging on about Workchoices still has an external purpose, even if now limited to the confines of Parliament and those on the opposite bench. It allows Gillard to play with the heads of the Liberals.

Since the election the Liberals have been wrestling with the classic dilemma of a party that has lost its reason for existence. Hold on to that reason and you make yourself look irrelevant, drop it and make everyone wonder what you are for. For the last year, the Liberals have wrestled with this back and forward with Abbott and Bishop holding on to Workchoices and those like Nelson distancing himself from it.

They now appear to have settled on the perfect compromise. It is a way of dropping the Workchoices line without having to stand up and say something that would be intolerable to the party and especially the old leadership, namely that anti-union legislation is wrong, or more accurately, unnecessary, given that unions can’t even influence the party they created without paying for the TV ads. So Turnbull stood up yesterday and fingered the perfect scapegoat. It was the electorate that made them do it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 26 November 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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