Nicholas Way

Unions, even the wider community, is still uneasy about WorkChoices. Business must start promoting the system’s positives, or risk losing it if Labor wins office.

Business, you’ve had fair warning

As the opinion polls continue to show the chasm between Labor and the Coalition resembles the Grand Canyon, more business leaders and employer groups will find it necessary to beat a path to Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd’s door.

They will have plenty to talk about: tax, the skills shortage, global warming and infrastructure, to name but four. But you can guarantee one issue will head the agenda: industrial relations.

Employers have taken to the WorkChoices legislation like a duck to water; for small business, the exemption from an unfair dismissal regime that they considered “unfair” and the removal of the many award conditions that employees once enjoyed have been manna from heaven.

If Labor wins the federal election it’s a situation that will change, and not only because Labor’s soulmate, the union movement, will demand it. That will part of the equation; expect the next ACTU Congress to run up a long list of demands from their parliamentary brethren in the likelihood of a Labor win.

But Labor isn’t just responding to union demands; whether business likes it or not WorkChoices is still unnerving a large chunk of working Australians. It mightn’t be them personally that have suffered a loss of conditions, or lost their overtime, but anecdotally they’ve heard enough stories to make them nervy. An effective union campaign has reinforced those fears.

The Howard Government always argued that WorkChoices would be like the GST: it would become accepted after workers’ initial fears had been laid to rest.

Well, it’s into the second year of WorkChoices and those fears still pervade the community. The Government must take some of the blame for the way the former Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews, in particular, mishandled the issue.

But business, too, has failed to sell the message. No doubt for every union message of a worker being exploited there are positive stories about workers benefiting from WorkChoices. But they haven’t been told; once again business has been given a lesson in PR by the unions.

Now business had better get its act together. No more excuses. It needs to get into Rudd’s ear and extol the virtues of WorkChoices and the costs of turning back the clock.

But it needs to pick its mark, isolate those parts of the legislation that have been critical in making their businesses more productive and be prepared to compromise in other areas. It will be a new experience for business having to deal with Labor at a federal level. Judging from the polls it had better start learning pretty quickly.


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