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The coalition’s costly obsession with individual workplace agreements

By Luke Williams - posted Friday, 7 September 2012

Tony Abbott is treading so carefully on industrial relations it has become excruciatingly fun to watch.

In the last week, Howard has spoken out on industrial relations, we’ve seen the disastrous Grocon-union dispute, more of the workplace bullying debate, continued and unwarranted Fair Work Act criticism and of course, the calls for Abbott to spell out his actual policy on IR.

But the Coalition knows the IR issue threatens to remind the battlers of the inequitable neo-liberal ideology at the heart of their agenda


On Industrial relations, three is the magic number – Abbott is absent on detail and big on the verbigeration of bland three-pronged slogans, they are;

  1. Australia has a “militancy problem, a productivity problem, and a flexibility problem”;
  2. Abbott assures us Workchoices is “dead, buried and cremated”; and
  3. Abbott has repeatedly said he will undertake “cautious, careful, responsible change” (strangely, he has said this some three times already this year) on IR laws.

The mystical number three also appeared when Abbott was forced to publicly rebut the man who in many ways is his political idol, after it was revealed former Prime Minister Howard told a private forum hosted by Westpac last month that ‘‘There is no reason why this country should not go back to the workplace system we had between 1996 and 2005, where you had individual contracts”.

Mr Abbott responded by saying the former PM was ‘‘three Liberal leaders ago. That was then; this is now.’’

Numerology aside (“Hope, Reward, Opportunity” is also currently the Liberal Party’s slogan), where exactly is the Coalition on industrial relations right now?

Abbott hasn’t even used the Grocon dispute as much of opportunity for union bashing, obviously because of his fears for reigniting the 2007 election sentiment.


Minister for Workplace Relations Bill Shorten has called for Abbott ‘‘to bring on the workplace relations debate we have to have.’’

One thing that is clear is there is the obvious risk of Mr Sydney North-Shore, private school boy Abbott being seen as a friend of big business. Industrial relations is historically a crucial part of the Australian political landscape, not because the electorate is obsessed so much about their wages and conditions but because it is a values barometer in our relatively egalitarian culture.

In Abbott’s defence, he is on the record for being the “least enthusiastic” in Howard’s 2005 cabinet when it came to the Workchoices legislation. Abbott was reportedly worried about Workchoices leaving the Coalition on the wrong end of an “us and them” divide. Indeed, Abbott may well take a less hard-line neo-liberal approach on some issues than some of his Liberal colleagues. In this way, industrial relations risks not just alienating the battlers from the Coalition, but splitting the “wets” and the real IR ideologues within the Opposition.

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About the Author

Luke Williams is a journalist completing a Juris Doctor in Law at Monash University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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