Ged Kearney: Don't buy Abbott's conversion on WorkChoices

10 August, 2010 | Speeches & Opinion The control of spin and a lack of real policies has been a common lament in what has been said and written about this election campaign.

And if there is one area where spin has reigned over substance and policy seems strangely absent, it is the Coalition's approach to industrial relations.

The focus groups appear to have spoken.

In the months after he became Liberal leader, Tony Abbott rejected the stance of his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, and asserted that the Liberals would make major changes to the Fair Work laws that had replaced WorkChoices.

Like his political hero, John Howard, hardline industrial relations policies are part of Abbott's DNA. He sought to distance himself from the phrase WorkChoices, but made no secret of the fact that he wanted to bring back its core elements: the removal of unfair dismissal protections, and individual contracts.

This was the "real" Tony Abbott.

And then the spin doctors got hold of him. They told him their focus group research showed that WorkChoices was electoral poison, that Australians wanted security and respect at work, and that he should keep quiet about IR.

It must have been a bitter pill that Abbott swallowed, but he agreed to let the spin doctors have their way and has gone through a charade of pretending to reject his lifelong commitment to IR policies that attack workers and their rights.

But it's been about as convincing as Norman Gunston's comb over.

It's sometimes forgotten that for almost three years, Abbott was workplace relations minister in the Howard government.

He laid the foundations for WorkChoices. Even though the Coalition did not control the Senate at the time, there were myriad ways in which Abbott was able to pursue an agenda of attacking workers and their rights during his time as minister.

His record makes disturbing reading. It includes opposing decent wage increases for the low paid, winding back unfair dismissal protections and taking legal action against workers.

And there's also a history of damning quotes springing from his lips. Such as in the speech, he made to an industrial relations conference in 2002:

"If we're honest, most of us would accept that a bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband, notwithstanding all his faults, you find that he tends to do more good than harm."

This is the history that the spin doctors are trying to wipe from our collective memories. And they've been pretty successful.

On day one of the campaign, Abbott declared: "WorkChoices is dead, buried and cremated." Nice line, but what does it really mean? Unfortunately, none of the dozens of journalists following Abbott around the country on his campaign bus have asked that question.

It is incumbent upon the nation's media to put our political leaders under scrutiny. This is even more important in an election.

But in the case of Tony Abbott and his IR policy – or lack of one – this hasn't been happening. He's been let off the hook and allowed to get away with glib one-liners without explaining to the Australian public what he really meant in his budget reply speech when he said he would remove unfair dismissal protections and reintroduce individual contracts.

Well, in the absence of proper scrutiny from the media, unions will be asking these questions. We have a duty to, because we remember that before the 2004 election, John Howard never uttered a word about his plans to introduce WorkChoices.

Not a word.

He introduced WorkChoices not only without a mandate, but without having faced any accountability from the national media.

It is absolutely appalling that so far into the election campaign, Abbott is refusing to release an industrial relations policy or honestly tell the public what he has planned.

We are determined not to let this happen again.

Abbott must answer some basic questions, such as:

  • Do you support the current unfair dismissal protections for all Australian workers?
  • Do you agree that all workers, including young people, should be protected by a robust safety net of National Employment Standards and awards and will you rule out any moves to reduce the current safety set of minimum pay, conditions and rights, including annual leave and sick leave?
  • Will you rule out making changes to the way that minimum wages are set and commit to an entirely independent process by Fair Work Australia?
  • Do you support collective bargaining and will you rule out the increased use of or scope for individual contracts or individual flexibility clauses in agreements or awards or other mechanisms?
  • If elected, will you rule out spending taxpayers' money to reduce the rights of workers in universities, schools, hospitals, community services, government departments, publicly funded services or industries that receive government assistance?

Given the man's track record, it is impossible to believe he's undergone some kind of latter day conversion.

Instead of sitting back lamenting spin, I'd encourage the media need to pierce through it so Abbott is not let off the hook so easily.

After all, this man could be our next prime minister.


Article originally appeared in National Times 10.08.10
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