16/10/2007 - 22:00

WorkChoices a bridge too far

16/10/2007 - 22:00


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State Scene’s $20 Ozcall rechargeable phone card worked overtime last weekend.

State Scene’s $20 Ozcall rechargeable phone card worked overtime last weekend.

The reason was that several perspicacious right-of-centre political contacts live in Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne.

All, plus some insightful Perth contacts, were telephoned and quizzed on who they believed was likely to win the looming federal election and why.

None believed John Howard would be victorious. And all said the major reason for Mr Howard’s coming demise was his decision to fundamentally rearrange workplace governance because of his long-standing drive against unions, which form the primary segment of the Labor Party’s funding base.

This point was made in several ways, with the most common being that the Liberals had squandered the trust of the so-called ‘Howard battlers’, who have been so important for Mr Howard’s past electoral success.

One put it thus: “Howard, soon after 1996, found himself in the same position as Ronald Reagan, who created what were called the Reaganite Democrats.

“This meant many long-time Democrats backed him and the Republicans nationally.

“Similarly with Howard, tens of thousands of traditional Labor voters who continued backing Labor at state elections cast their vote for him in 1998, 2001, and 2004.

“These people trusted Howard. But his WorkChoices ideological jihad means they now feel he’s betrayed their trust.”

One said the WA Liberal MP who has most greatly benefited from this movement of Howard battlers away from federal Labor was Canning Liberal MHR, Don Randall.

This informant claimed that, at the 2004 Latham election, 10 of the 11 Armadale ballot boxes showed Randall majorities, whereas at the next state election, Labor carried all 11.

Yet another contact said Mr Howard’s portrayal of the Liberal Party as a ‘broad church’ was transferable to Liberal backers.  He said the “alliance” of Liberal voters included “rusted-on” Libs, small business owners, monarchists, anti-socialists, state righters, that is, federalists, plus, from 1998 onward, the Howard battlers.

According to several informants, small business has little to be grateful for from the Howard years.

“As far as the state righters are concerned, they rightly see Howard as the biggest Canberra centralist since Gough Whitlam,” another added.

“But it’s the battlers he’s well and truly lost through WorkChoices.”

Another claimed Mr Howard had consciously appealed to patriotism, fundamental Australia cultural values, including emphasis on family, and various widely admired traditions.

But then he launched moves against workplace arrangements, and that’s seen as an assault on people’s incomes and thus their families, particularly children about to enter the workforce or those who have just done so.

“The unions have very shrewdly fashioned their multi-million dollar advertising campaign to highlight the threat to families,” another said.

In other words, Labor’s advisers have succeeded in largely undermining Howardism by stressing that WorkChoices threatened that which the Liberals claimed they valued most.

Another drew attention to a recent comment article by Padraic McGuinness, editor of the conservative-oriented monthly, Quadrant magazine, who wrote: “One of the few crucial issues of the coming federal election must be what the outcome will mean for the future of the union movement.

“Related to this is the future of the Australian Labor Party.

“For years now the unions have been in decline from the historical peaks of their power and membership.

“Structural and generational changes in the economy have been rendering them of lesser and lesser interest to much of the workforce, while changes in labour market arrangements over the past 25 years have greatly reduced their once-central role.

“Their very success, or at least the success of social democratic reform, has also made them superfluous – where from the beginnings of unionism one of their important functions was the creation of a welfare framework, the transfer of this role to the state and the government generally has made their social function of virtually no importance.

“And yet the federal parliamentary Labor Party is becoming a top-heavy agglomeration of professional unionists.

“This will, of course, be composed of many different strands of opinion – some radical, some conservative – but the unifying factor will be support for a unionised structure of the workforce, with legislation favouring the powers of union officials.

“This has been what the election campaign has so far really been about: not just the restoration of the traditional powers of the unions, but their aggrandisement.

“The fact that there is a lunatic fringe – mainly, it seems, located in the electrical trades union, which has noisily threatened all kinds of reprisals against employers when Labor regains power – should not distract from the far greater importance of the relatively sane but still union power-oriented heavies such as Greg Combet and Bill Shorten, who will wield real power whenever a Labor government is elected.

“Unlike the self-indulgent thugs, these people have the sense to remain moderate and careful in their public statements, at least until the victory is won.

“They will remain moderate in speech, then, but not necessarily in action.

“In the event of a Labor win at the federal election, the union faction (stronger than any nominally Right or Left faction) in the Labor cabinet and caucus will have a determining say in the formulation of industrial relations and workplace policy, as well as economic policy generally.”

After reading this I again telephoned this contact to say the McGuinness assessment certainly appeared insightful.

I added that if unions were becoming increasingly irrelevant, as Mr McGuinness contended, Mr Howard would have been wise to leave things alone since unions would have eventually withered away and he’d have continued being seen as a friend of the battlers and thus been assured of another election victory.

My contact fully agreed.

To summarise: what seems to be the major reason for the expected end of the Howard years was the PM’s impatience to see unionism decline rapidly, rather than withering on the vine.

It would have been far wiser to have allowed the unions’ decline to take its own course than trying to hasten it since that’s become a bridge too far.

Battlers, it seems, are ambivalent about unions.

They may view them as not worth joining, but they also seem to regard them as something that, at times at least, are necessary.

Battlers don’t necessarily trust, at all times, situations in which they may find themselves unrepresented in a workplace.

By setting out to hasten the demise of unions rather than just watching them slowly vanish, Mr Howard, to use Mr McGuinness’s words, has paved the way for “their aggrandisement” via Kevin Rudd-led Labor-inspired legislation.

And Mr Howard seriously underestimated Labor’s ability to find a leader after he’d trounced Mark Latham.

Mr Rudd has emerged as something of a political Eddie McGuire.

Interestingly, he did this for four years via weekly appearances on Channel 7’s Sunrise breakfast show with the naïve Howard government minister, Joe Hockey, for reasons of political balance.

That ongoing exposure not only gave Mr Rudd free television practice but also much-needed exposure before hundreds of thousands of morning viewers, especially women.

This, as well as the loss of those battlers, certainly helps explain the disparity in Labor’s and the government’s ongoing polling results – 56-to-44 points.

All my contacts suspect that the ongoing polling gap is set to become a 30-odd seat loss for the Howard government. One even suggested it’s likely to be more like 35 seats.

If that happens, let’s hope Mr Rudd, as PM, makes a better fist of overseeing Australia’s affairs of state – with or without aggrandised unions to burden business and us all – than Mr McGuire as Channel 9’s short-lived CEO.

However, one contact added that a desperate last minute Howard-Costello promise to slash taxes by a truly whopping amount might swing the pro-Labor 56 to 44 polling to 49 to 51 pro-coalition. I guess that’s what Mr Howard is hoping for following his $34 billion tax cut announcement earlier this week.



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