‘No more WorkChoices’ a non-core promise for Abbott?


‘No more WorkChoices’ a non-core promise for Abbott?

Pressure is building on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to revert to a ‘core and non-core’ approach to IR policies, by ruling out individual work contracts before the next federal election and then bringing them in afterwards.


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Pressure is building on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to revert to a ‘core and non-core’ approach to IR policies, by ruling out individual work contracts before the next federal election and then bringing them in afterwards.

On Tuesday night’s 7.30 Report Abbott expressly ruled out individual contracts, saying:
‘We don’t support statutory individual contracts. We did once, we don’t now.’
Abbott, a former IR Minister, knows WorkChoices was poison for the Coalition at the 2007 federal election and has no intention of taking anything that looks vaguely like WorkChoices2 to the next election, due in 2012/13.

In fact, recent media reports, which have not been denied, say that the two biggest opponents of WorkChoices in the Coalition party room were Abbott and then IR Minister Kevin Andrews. However, Prime Minister John Howard pushed it through.

Matter of faith
Abbott’s current problem is that individual contracts are a matter of political faith for many in his party and they are insisting such contracts be part of the Coalition’s IR policy at the next election.

And they are taking up the fight in public, rather than behind the closed doors of the party room.

Former IR Minister Peter Reith last week published a major article in the Financial Review urging Abbott to produce a tough IR policy.

Following Abbott’s repudiation of individual contracts on Tuesday, Reith said on last night’s Lateline program that he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ at Abbott’s position.

Reith said it will be damaging for Abbott at the next election if he shies away from the topic to avoid a political fight with the Labor Party.

‘I’m not going to belt into Tony here and now but I do say to him, as I’m sure others are saying within the party, this is an issue we really need to look at very closely,’ he said.

‘I think he needs a decent mandate going into the next election ... if we are not up-front about what we are going to do and if we don’t have a substantial policy we’re not going to get any reform and Australia cannot afford to have 10 years of a re-regulated labour market.

‘An incoming government is a government that will want to stay in for more than one term, so if you don’t start to turn around some of the economic negatives then you’ll end up in the same situation as Rudd and Gillard.’

Reith disagreed that a WorkChoices style IR policy was not relevant in today’s economy.

‘Julia Gillard has been taking the system back to pre-1993 ... so some of the things that have been done in the past ought to be resurrected,’ he said.

‘These issues have been around for a very long time and sure our general circumstances have changed ... but the need for productivity in businesses is a constant.’

He said more Liberal MPs should express their views on the matter.

Big policy issue
‘I just think this is a very big policy issue. It needs to be considered carefully, a lot more talk needs to go on about it and I’d encourage Tony Abbott to think about the consequences of this because there is quite a bit at stake.’

Liberal backbencher Jamie Briggs, a former IR adviser to Howard, also backed Reith.

Briggs, who has been arguing for stronger IR policies for months, said he would continue to argue for individual statutory agreements, because ‘genuine’ workplace flexibility could not be achieved without them.

He said that because no IR policy was before the Coalition party room he would continue to debate the need for individual contracts despite Abbott’s statement.
‘You can’t have genuine flexibility without a form of statutory individual contract with a no-disadvantage test,’ Mr Briggs said.

Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer offered support for Briggs, saying:
‘We need to have the debate. In the course of the Coalition developing its industrial relations policy before the next election, I’m sure we will debate a range of issues.’
Attack from business
Now business organisations have joined in the attack on Abbott’s position, with the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) accusing Abbott of ‘thumbing his nose’ at employers in rejecting the return of statutory individual contracts.

Steve Knott, AMMA chief executive, said given Abbott’s refusal to support individual contracts the Coalition must now commit to making a range of changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 to allow employers to strike more flexible workplace deals.

He said that if Abbott did not make the changes he would be ‘trashing’ a core constituency of the Liberal Party.

‘People forget they have been in opposition for four years so they have had plenty of time to come up with an alternate IR policy,’ Knott said.

‘And their policy to date is no change.’

‘Well, if you put yourself up as an alternative government, four years of saying “no change” in a key economic policy area, in the face of overwhelming evidence, we have problems with this new system, is not very inspiring to the business community both large and small.’

ACCI chief executive Peter Anderson said he was disappointed individual statutory agreements would not be part of Coalition policy.

‘I’m concerned that the statement rules out statutory individuals, because they existed for the 10 years before WorkChoices,’ he said.

Best option
‘Statutory contracts are the simplest and cleanest way if there is a proper safety net,’ he said.
Ai Group chief executive Heather Ridout said her organisation believed individual statutory contracts with a strong no-disadvantage test were ‘the best option for employers’.

Coalition IR spokesman Eric Abetz stood beside Abbott to the extent of saying he had ‘set out our position and that is it’.
However, he also made the point that ‘at the end of the day it will be the Coalition members of parliament that will determine our policy’.

If Abbott cannot admit publicly that he will reintroduce WorkChoices, but with a safety net, he may have to indicate to his Caucus colleagues that he may be more flexible after the next election than he can be before it.
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