For the past few years, the Federal Opposition, the union movement, the Greens and folks from various other quarters have used the WorkChoices package as a flag to rally around in opposition to the Howard Government. In political terms, this purportedly âpro-flexibilityâ? but unashamedly âpro-businessâ? package of reforms gaveÂ credence to the possibilityÂ that the Labor Opposition could finally wrench back federal control from the Liberal / National Coalition. Put simply, the idea that WorkChoices would hurt ordinary Australian families was gaining some traction, ably assisted by some example cases (e.g. Spotlight, Cowra abbatoir workers) made highly visible by the union movement and the media.
As Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley famously pledged to rip up the WorkChoices legislation. Not withstanding the likelihood that Beazley would inflict himself with some truly grievous paper cuts on the floor of the House of Representatives, there were murmurs from some within the Labor Party that this was too strong a stance. Concerns about alienating business and/or reinstituting the infamously unsuccessful ârollbackâ? approach to policy marketing were certainly not unfounded. New Opposition Leader Kevin Ruddâs language in relation to WorkChoices started becoming decidedly more furtive and restrained, while his star continued to soar in the polls.
We have all been waiting to hear what the Labor Party will actually advocate for the countryâs industrial relations system heading into this yearâs election campaign, and after yesterdayâs National Press Club speech [PDF] by Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd we have a pretty good idea.
It will certainly not please everyone.
Reading through the transcript of Ruddâs speech, one gets a sense that the Opposition Leader is trying to deliver a fundamentally mixed message. On the one hand, Laborâs anti-WorkChoices rhetoric remains strong. Rudd re-iterates Laborâs pledge to âget ridâ? of the governmentâs industrial relations package and labels the laws repeatedly as âunfairâ?.
On the other hand, it is difficult to ignore the fact that while Labor remains committed to repealing the WorkChoices legislation, it appears no longer committed to rejecting the political gist of the legislation in entirety. Under a prospective Rudd Labor Government, employees employed by businesses with less than 15 staff would not have recourse to the unfair dismissal claims system until they have been there for at least one year. For those employed by a business with more than 15 staff, recourse to the unfair dismissal claims system would not be available unless they have been employed for six months. Itâs hard not to see these proposals as a wink and a nod to the business community, at the expense of workers rights.
Excepting this controversial new approach to unfair dismissals, there were a few more key announcements from Rudd yesterday. Firstly, Federal Labor is proposing a new national industrial relations system, and will not hand control back to the states. This was something of a given.Â Secondly, AWAs will be abolished by a Rudd Labor Government, and as Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Julia Gillard described last night on Lateline, existing workers with AWAs will be allowed to complete the current term of their agreement before moving to another âindustrial instrumentâ?. This is a good defensive strategy with which to fend off accusations that the abolition of AWAs would create chaos.
Thirdly, under a Rudd Labor Government, a secret ballot would be required before industrial strikes can be called by workers. This proposal is somewhat pro-business but is also pro-democracy; certainly I think the possibility exists that union members may sometimes feel pressured to vote a certain way when ballots are held publicly.
Finally, a new independent umpire will be established to set the national minimum wage and to arbitrate in relation to unfair dismissal claims. The new unfair dismissal system proposed by Labor purports to be âlawyer-freeâ?, and also somewhat decentralised, with local offices established to better meet the needs of regional and rural businesses. A âfair dismissal codeâ? will be developed in consultation with small business that clearly establishes the guidelines that employers should follow when considering the dismissal of employees.
So in summing up, there is certainly a lot to chew over in the announcements that Labor made yesterday. I am personally unsure as to whether to be disappointed by Laborâs watering down of their stance or impressed that Rudd is really trying his darnedest to take both business and the unions (e.g. everyone)Â along with him. Probably both.
These two alternate perspectives are no doubtÂ well represented out there amongst the broader left. Just looking at the top two blogs on the blogroll at Polemica, Anonymous Lefty has already had a bit of a go at Labor over its capitulation (in some respects) to the business lobby. Meanwhile, Armagnac has felt the need to break his blogging silence to suggest that Ruddâs announcements are a âpotential masterstrokeâ? â with Labor positioned well to pull in left preferences if not always primary votes, and to pull a few supporters away from the Liberal/National camp.
But I am certainly interested in hearing all your views, and how everyone thinks this will impact Ruddâs chances later this year. Is it folly or genius to try to half or three-quarter appease everyone in this way?