Why Tony Abbott is tanking on the Fair Work review
Badminton is not the only game where the putative contestants might indulge in a spot of tanking - throwing a match - in pursuit of a longer-term goal.
Sports fans are reeling after eight Olympic badminton players were disqualified for trying to lose early-round matches in London. Apparently, they wanted to avoid coming up against certain opponents later in the draw.
On the same day as the “bad-blood in badminton’’ story surfaced, we were reminded of our own version of the dark art of tanking: the Coalition’s pseudo-opposition or soft-shoe shuffle on industrial relations reform.
The three-member independent panel set up to review Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Act and which reported yesterday, should have been an easy target for Tony Abbott.
In normal times, ie like those before John Howard’s ouster for his WorkChoices flight-of-fancy, something as union-friendly as the Fair Work Act, and the decidedly narrow review established to assess its operation, would have been the subject of unrestrained conservative ridicule.
Now, this most contested terrain of the 2007 election year has been strategically surrendered as the Coalition eyes the bigger prize in 2013.
WorkChoices of course sidelined unions and tribunals, curtailed the right to strike, cut penalty payments, allowed harsh new individual statutory work contracts, and made it easier for bosses to fire employees. It was a free marketeer’s dream.
Yet its replacement, the Fair Work Act has been given an easy run by shell-shocked conservatives despite it rolling all of these changes back.
Employers complain the new system has introduced whole new rigidities in the labour market, harmed productivity, and swung the pendulum to unions’ advantage even as employees vote with their feet. ABS data shows fewer than one in five workers are paid-up union members and that this ratio drops to fewer than one in six if you exclude the public sector.
As for Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten’s hand-picked panel, while they were well qualified, none was known to be philosophically opposed to its core precepts.
Tony Abbott offered some muted criticisms yesterday suggesting the review had been a case of Caesar investigating Caesar and should have been left to the more independent Productivity Commission, but this hardly went to the core of things.
In the hands of the Coalition’s past IR warriors such as Peter Reith, John Howard, and Kevin Andrews, a statute like the Fair Work Act would have been frontally attacked and the review panel derided as mere barracking to be expected from members of the despised industrial relations club.
But these are no ordinary times.
The Coalition is odds-on to win the next election and has been advised to deep-six its true anti-union feelings.
Conversely, Mr Shorten and Julia Gillard, who would relish a renewed IR argument believing it might be the only thing that can save them, are desperate to whip up the issue.
If only they had the Tony of old.
In his pre-leadership policy book, Battlelines, Tony Abbott was scathing about the Fair Work Act while explaining that “WorkChoices wasn’t all bad’‘.
On the latter he endorsed John Stone’s opinion that “it would be churlish to deny its remarkable success during its brief life in boosting Australia’s labour market performance’‘.
As for the Fair Work Act, he described it back in 2009 as restoring compulsory arbitration by the back door by reaching back past Paul Keating’s 1993 enterprise bargaining reforms.
Yet by 2010 when he was leader and facing the prospect of victory, debate on IR was closed down and the new system would be given time to bed in. WorkChoices was officially “dead, buried, cremated’‘.
Now as employers worry about declining productivity, there is little to encourage them coming from the Opposition.
“We do need to address these issues,’’ Mr Abbott conceded yesterday, before diluting that intent with the rider “and that may very well involve changes to the Fair Work Act, but the point I’ve made all along is that they will be careful, cautious, prudent, responsible changes within the framework of the existing act.’‘
It is all part of the game but Mr Abbott it seems, is having trouble keeping the shuttlecock in play.
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