'Warm and cuddly' Hockey is new IR Minister

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'Warm and cuddly' Hockey is new IR Minister

Joe Hockey, one of Prime Minister John Howard's more genial middle-ranked front benchers, is the new Minister for Workplace Relations.

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Joe Hockey, one of Prime Minister John Howard's more genial middle-ranked front benchers, is the new Minister for Workplace Relations.

Hockey, appointed in today's ministerial reshuffle which saw existing IR Minister Kevin Andrews shifted to immigration, will have the task of stopping the haemorrhaging that the WorkChoices legislation is causing to the Government's electoral popularity.

Late last year Hockey was appointed by Howard to help Andrews sell the WorkChoices changes, but they have continued to be a problem in the Government's polling, with a significant proportion of workers believing they are, or are likely to be, worse off.

He will be helped by having former Employers First employment relations director, Tim McDonald, on his staff as senior advisor. McDonald joined Hockey late last year in his capacity as assistant to Andrews.

IR a 'minefield' for Govt

Pressure was on to move Andrews from the IR portfolio because he was regarded as having failed to successfully sell WorkChoices to an unconvinced electorate, however well he may have managed to guide it through parliament.

Industrial relations has become such a minefield for the Government that both Andrews and Howard have continually avoided answering Labor's House of Representatives questions about the impact of WorkChoices on individual workers and their families.

Howard instead has focused on the general vigour of the economy, arguing that 'overall', workers are better off than they were. Andrews parroted that approach, but added a layer of unconvincing bluster attacking Labor's employment record.

With WorkChoices showing up in the polls as a major danger to the Government's re-election, Labor putting its new Deputy Leader Julia Gillard into its crucial IR shadow portfolio, and the ACTU apparently having $30m to spend on a new burst of anti-WorkChoices TV ads, the time had come for the Government to find a new IR warrior.

HIH disaster

Hockey has moved across from his Human Services portfolio, where he has been busy pushing the new version of the Australia Card through its gestation period.

One problem for Hockey is that he still carries the load of being the Minister for Financial Services — his previous more senior portfolio — during the HIH disaster.

However Hockey was rapidly moved to the Small Business and Tourism portfolio once HIH collapsed, partly to avoid having to answer questions in Parliament on the debacle. Hockey thus escaped most of the opprobrium for the financial watchdog, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, being fast asleep while under his supervision.

Health Minister Tony Abbott was the pick of many political commentators to return to his previous IR ministry in the reshuffle, but was understood to be reluctant to do so.

Can he beat Gillard?

Hockey will now have to confront new Shadow IR Minister Gillard, a former high ranked industrial lawyer and regarded as one of Labor's better performers, in Parliament and on talk-back radio.

He will certainly be more 'warm and reassuring' than the renowned head kicker Abbott, who is regarded as having outpointed Gillard when she had the shadow health portfolio, but will he be able to carry the argument as Labor and the unions hit him with example after example of WorkChoices workplace 'victims'? The future of the Howard Government may partly depend on the answer to that question if WorkChoices remains a hot election topic .

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