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Business fails the Howard Government

By Michael Baume - posted Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Their delay has made the task much harder, but at last major business organisations are putting their money where their (ineffective) mouths have been to defend the Howard Government's labour market reforms.

The focus group research that prompted business organisations to put up a reported $10 million or so towards a campaign defending WorkChoices revealed that voter concern as expressed in recent opinion polling was due to a lack of defence of the reforms, particularly from business, as voters could not recall what business had been saying about them.

The failure until now to counter the union-led attack on WorkChoices (possibly due to a fear of retribution if Labor wins this year's election) may have put those reforms at serious risk under a union-dominated Labor government.


Contrary to the absurd claims by the unions attempting to justify their spending of multi-millions of members' money on a political campaign (that by their own admission about 30 per cent of unionists do not support), it is only now that major business groups have come up with an actual commitment to fight for the reforms with anything more than press releases, speeches (generally to the converted) and a bit of lobbying.

Their belated commitment follows the ACTU's promise to follow up its recent dishonest advertising campaign with more "unprecedented" spending on advertising and the recruiting of a national army of activists armed with a "dirty tricks" campaigning manual aimed at defeating the government over WorkChoices.

So while the ACTU manual continues the TV scare campaign and tells its canvassers in marginal seats not to tell people the facts that the WorkChoices laws provide a safety net of a minimum wage and four weeks annual leave and sick leave, (and even to infiltrate church and "faith" groups and meals on wheels to do so) the only serious attempt to spread the truth about IR had been left to the government's much-criticised advertising campaign aimed at explaining what the facts really are on workplace reform rather than the fiction in the ACTU propaganda.

However, the Business Council of Australia had been reported to be planning an advertising campaign if Labor persists in going to the election with a union-friendly IR policy that turns back the clock to before the Keating reforms. But now BCA is to back up with meaningful action the words of Chairman Michael Chaney that "There can be no winding back of these [recent] core elements of workplace deregulation, given their crucial importance to future prosperity...The [ALP] policy outlined will destroy jobs and increase unemployment".

And the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said recently it wanted "to make sure that more balanced information about workplace laws is put before the Australian community" as they are "much more balanced than portrayed in the media debate or in union television advertisements".

So, according to the media, ACCI is "actively considering an advertising campaign to back the government's laws", even though their chief executive, Peter Hendy, believes the government's recent softening of WorkChoices by introducing a "fairness test" was unnecessary and would expose business to more red tape.


But the business community can take a big dose of responsibility: the government had to make these changes in order to get itself out of the political hole it fell into - as a result of the ACTU's expensive, but successful, campaign to make WorkChoices so on the nose in the electorate that the opinion polls had Labor miles in front. To counter the ACTU's lies on IR, there was not one paid peep out of the business community despite its huge stake in the outcome.

The excuse was the same as the lame explanation by the Australian Industry Group's Heather Ridout when, last week, she scotched media reports that in conjunction with the construction industry, AiG would be paying for an advertising campaign to defend WorkChoices. "We are an apolitical organisation and we have made it clear we have no intention of being involved in a paid advertising campaign". AiG should have a responsible role to play in workplace reform as an industrial relations issue; the fact that reform has been disgracefully politicised does not give AiG a valid excuse to avoid its responsibilities.

So if defeat is inevitable and the IR clock is turned back, AIG will do no more than lie back and think of Justice Higgins, despite having described Labor's IR policies using words such as "deeply worrying", "dangerous", "serious concerns", "deeply disturbing", "real problems", with "significant commercial consequences for business".

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on June 18, 2007.

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About the Author

Michael Baume is a former Australian Financial Review investment editor and a former Liberal MP.

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