Nicholas Way

OK, we know Labor is surging in the polls, but just what, exactly, is its IR policy? We need to know – now.

Spell it out, now

If the results of the past four elections mean anything, then the “small target” option is simply not an option for Labor. It has to spell out its policies and then argue their merits in the court of public opinion. Nowhere is this more evident than in industrial relations.

The Howard Government is certainly not backing away from WorkChoices, the legislation it introduced after securing a Senate majority after the 2004 election.

A deregulated labor market has been central to John Howard’s political thinking for decades. Although he has been willing in the past to compromise on political commitments – remember “no GST”? – on this issue he will not take a backward step. His political credibility is on the line.

Labor, however, is yet to define its position on industrial relations. We know it is anti-WorkChoices. But what’s it for?

Labor’s surge in the polls under Kevin Rudd’s leadership has been tied, in some part, to the electorate’s dissatisfaction with WorkChoices; they believe it has swung the pendulum too far the bosses’ way.

If this is the case – and Labor and the unions continually tell us that’s the evidence garnered from their internal polling – then why can’t Labor spell out its position. Surely the party’s national conference must be the cut-off point for delineating a policy and then arguing for it.

Certainly small business wants to know where it stands with Labor on this critical issue. For example, WorkChoices gave businesses with less than 100 workers exemption from unfair dismissal legislation – and they don’t want to lose this right.

To date, Labor has waxed and waned on unfair dismissals. It knows the unions want it reinstated for all employees; ACTU secretary Greg Combet has made that abundantly clear.

At the same time Labor knows that this policy will be anathema to business, especially at the small end of town. Small businesses that endured years of having to “buy off” disgruntled employees certainly have a case.

But Labor must remain true to itself; if it stands for anything it must be the rights of working people. Letting WorkChoices stand as it is will tear the party’s heart out.

Business is not going to like it. But far better to spell its policies out now and have the debate than let this policy vacuum continue.


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