WorkChoices Demon Used To Fire Up The Labor Base

Nothing scares the pigeons more than WorkChoices.

Anyway, that’s the theory. Just a hint of industrial relations reform (no matter how vague) by anybody remotely associated with the Coalition (no matter how obscure) brings out the WorkChoices demon. Ministers pound out tweets. Hawker Britton squawks. WorkChoices is back!

It’s like a verbal tic – it’s what you say when you’re not sure what to say. WorkChoices is for Labor Party strategy what “umms” and “errs” are for impromptu speeches.

One day in February 2010 the ACTU said it would campaign against Kevin Rudd’s industrial changes – they did not believe Fair Work was fair enough for workers. The next day Julia Gillard put out a press release: “Abbott must come clean on WorkChoices”.

“Australians can’t trust Tony Abbott on WorkChoices”, the ALP told Australia citizens during the 2010 election. The next day Abbott promised that WorkChoices is dead, buried, and cremated. Undeterred, two days later Simon Crean sent out a press release: WorkChoices “has been dug up, dusted off, and is ready to be rolled out should the Coalition be elected.” Labor’s divining rod finds WorkChoices everywhere.

So no wonder the Labor Party went into convulsions when this week the Australian Financial Review reported that John Howard wants revive the industrial relations debate. It’s the perfect storm. The guy they defeated, calling for the policy they campaigned to destroy. Wayne Swan rushed out a press conference. Abbott-to-bring-back-WorkChoices was again the message of the day.

But Howard wasn’t even talking about WorkChoices. The former prime minister wanted Abbott to adopt the Peter Reith model, which predated WorkChoices by nearly a decade. As he said, “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.” This line was widely cited in articles which nonetheless claimed Howard was calling for the return his post-2005 policy.

At most – at most – Howard suggested the Fair Work Act’s loose unfair dismissal provisions be tightened. His words: “you have got to do something about unfair dismissals.”

This is a reasonable view, even if you don’t agree with it. Under WorkChoices, one exception to an unfair dismissal finding was if an employee was made redundant for ‘genuine operational reasons’. That exception has been replaced by a vaguer ‘genuine redundancy’ standard, which (for instance) only allows dismissals if workers cannot be given another job elsewhere. This new standard turns industrial judges into human resource managers. Questioning the new standard isn’t revolutionary. Howard’s view is modest; almost shy.

Anyway, Howard’s views are moot. He’s no longer prime minister. There is no reason to believe Abbott is thinking about touching this hot potato. Dead, buried, and cremated, remember? Given his campaign against the carbon tax, there’s nothing a first term Abbott government will be more sensitive to than charges that the Coalition has broken an election promise, or didn’t tell the voters about its plans. The firmest guarantee an Abbott government will do what it says is how brutally they’ve attacked Labor for doing the opposite.

WorkChoices is an apparition. When it is mentioned, it rarely has anything to do with the specifics of what the 2005 reforms actually were. Four years after it was abolished, WorkChoices is now less a policy than a freelance stand-in for anything that might fire up the Labor base. That is, anything that might bring back the old magic of the 2007 election campaign. In those happy days, Labor campaigned as if WorkChoices was the culmination of a century of Tory attacks on the Australian settlement.

But for the right, WorkChoices is an emblem as well: emblematic of an aging government willing to trample Australia’s institutions to get what it wanted. The right wasn’t much more sympathetic to Howard’s last industrial relations reform than the left.

WorkChoices took industrial relations forever out of state hands, eliminating any principle of federalism in workplace policy. And it was an extraordinarily complicated piece of law. It increased, rather than decreased, government involvement over labour markets.

It is mostly forgotten that the great workplace bogeyman, the HR Nicholls Society – the fortress of managers’ rights, the unions’ bête noire – was opposed to WorkChoices. In 2006 ACTU boss Greg Combet described WorkChoices as “Kremlin-like”. The president of the HR Nicholls Society, Ray Evans, agreed. “It’s rather like going back to the old Soviet system of command and control, where every economic decision has to go to some central authority and get ticked off.” He went on: “I don’t believe the Howard Government is that keen on freedom.”

This makes recent claims that the rebirth of the HR Nicholls Society is a harbinger of WorkChoices comically ludicrous.

But then, what does it matter? The point of talking about WorkChoices isn’t to warn Australian workers. It is to find anything that might restore Labor’s support. WorkChoices is a scare campaign, sure. It’s also very tired and probably futile.