The contenders for the Liberal Party leadership are divided over whether they will seek to block Labor’s proposed industrial relations reforms.
The likelihood that Labor will not be able to pass legislation through the Senate in its own right – or even with support from the Greens – means the Liberal and National parties could be in a position to delay or prevent the wind back of current industrial relations laws.
It is a question that will be central to the future direction of the Liberal party – backing the laws would help the party adopt a more moderate image, a change some believe is crucial if it is to regain its appeal with the electorate.
Liberal leadership front-runner Malcolm Turnbull appears most keen to take a new direction, acknowledging that Labor has a “mandate for change”. He says a Liberal Party under his leadership would “look very carefully at the detail of Labor’s proposed changes” but has refused to commit to rejecting the laws.
By contrast, former health minister Tony Abbott has been forthright in his view that the Liberal Party should stick to its guns. “I don’t think there’s anything that they are likely to propose to the existing Workplace Relations Act that would improve it. So I think whatever they put up we should vote against.”
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The third contender, Brendan Nelson, takes a position somewhere between the two, arguing that while the party needs to acknowledge the electorate’s strong message about WorkChoices, he would oppose “any retreat at all from unfair dismissal law provisions”.
Various other senior Liberal figures have lined up on either side of the argument, with Helen Coonan and former workplace relations minister Joe Hockey in favour of passing the laws, and Julie Bishop (a candidate for the deputy position) and Senate Leader Nick Minchin against.
Business groups are also mixed in their views on whether they would like to see Labor’s IR reforms blocked.
National Independent Retailers Association spokesman John Brownsea says achieving certainty is now a bigger priority for many business owners than fighting to retain WorkChoices.
“I just think we need to move on. We’ve got a lot of members who are in limbo right now; they’re not employing now because they’re not sure what they’ll be dealing with,” Brownsea says.
The worst outcome for employers – and the Liberal Party – would be to force Labor to a double dissolution election, an outcome that Brownsea believes is a real possibility if its industrial relations reforms are blocked.
Restaurant & Catering Australia chief executive John Hart takes a different view. He says that while his organisation’s focus will be on working with Labor on the implementation of its policy, the Liberal Party should simply judge Labor’s policy on its merits and vote accordingly.
“They need to decide whether the legislation is good or bad for the country – their position on unfair dismissal is pretty well known – and I’d be happy for them to vote on that basis,” Hart says.