Mobilising the base on industrial relations

Public opinion on WorkChoices is remarkably stable. Another Newspoll reported in The Australian this morning shows that despite a multi-million dollar propaganda campaign by the government, a huge scare campaign by the unions and Labor, and some objective labour market data, overall responses to Newspoll’s questions have changed only modestly since they were first asked in October 2005. The same situation is evident in the work of other polling organisations.

The biggest changes are to questions about the overall economy and about job creation. Since the first Newspoll, the proportion of people saying that the changes are bad for the economy has increased from 40% to 47%. This change was evident by the April 2006 survey and is essentially unaffected by anything that has happened since. Those saying WorkChoices is good for the economy are also up, but by a lesser margin – 31% to 34%. This peaked at 38% in December 2005. Some previously uncommitted people are now offering opinions.

On job creation, the proportion saying WorkChoices is bad has gone from 39% to 45%, and good from 30% to 33%. The answer that is most likely to be correct, ‘somewhat good’, is given by 21% of respondents.

The most stable response is on personal impact. While people tend to be over-pessimistic about their employment prospects, they are more realistic about their own situation than that of others. Since the first Newspoll, those saying they will be better off has increased from 11% to 14%, and those saying they will be worse off has increased from 32% to 33%. Those saying it won’t affect them has increased from 44% to 48%.

It’s only by digging deeper into the results that we can see a possible larger effect of the propaganda efforts on each side. For example, in Newspoll’s first survey 19% of Labor supporters thought that WorkChoices would be good for the economy. By the latest survey, that was down to 13%. Among Coalition supporters, the proportion thinking it would be good for the economy increased from 49% to 62%. At the aggregate level, partisan belief in WorkChoices being bad for the economy is up 3% on the Coalition side to 22%, and up 7% among Labor supporters to 69%. But among Labor supporters there is a change in opinion intensity, with those rating it as ‘very bad’ up from 38% to 50%. To a lesser extent, the same effect can be seen in the job creation question on the Labor side: a change in aggregate results (up 7%) and a larger change in strength of opinion, with ‘very bad’ up from 29% to 39%.

On the personal impact question, the story is more complex. On the Coalition side, those believing they will be better off is up 6% but worse off is up 2%. Labor supporters have improved their view of WorkChoices, with better off up 3% (to 7%) and worse off down 3%, all of this coming off ‘lot worse off’, down from 29% to 26%. Labor supporters’ negativity about personal effects peaked in December 2005.

The two major parties seem to have influenced their own supporters’ general views of WorkChoices. But that’s not who they need to influence for this to affect the next election’s outcome. From Labor’s perspective, they ought to be worried that over the last 14 months they haven’t in net terms convinced anyone – not even their own supporters – that WorkChoices will make them personally worse off. From the Coalition’s perspective, they ought to be concerned that even on job creation, where their argument is most compelling from a theoretical point of view, and supported by the strong employment growth since WorkChoices started, more people think the reforms will be bad now than they did in October 2005.

19 thoughts on “Mobilising the base on industrial relations

  1. Fair comment Andrew but I read things a little differently from you. First, from a voting point of view, the ‘personal impact’ results seem surprisingly large (not small) to me – with 1/3 of adults expecting to be personally “worse off” (a little or a lot). I thought the figure would be less than that (more like 1/5) as the main losers will be low-skilled workers with no individual bargaining power.

    But my second point is that personal impact is not the main driver of the vote: Australians do care a great deal about the ‘other guy’ (often members of their own extended family).

    Nearly half say the economy will be adversely affected. This too surprises me as most economists would see the reforms as neutral to positive for the ‘economy’ (as conventionally measured). If they had asked about the impact on ‘society’ (such as worker control over their working hours and family time, earnings inequality and inequality of opportunity) the ‘bad to very bad’ responses would I supect go up to 60% plus! And voters worry at least as much about societal effects as they do about economic effects.

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  2. Andrew, to add to my second point – that people are not guided only or even pricnipally by self-interest when they vote – there was a recent survey of members conducted by the Association of Professionals, Engineers, Scientists and managers. All of these people are likely to be the same or better off as a result of the IR reforms. Yet a majority said the reforms were ‘unfair’. There is some literature (cited by Ross Gittins SMH 16/2/05) showing that people support redistribution because of their “well-developed sense of fairness” even when it is not in their own personal interest. How this translates at the ballot box I do not know.

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  3. Fred – Though as the ‘worse off’ has in total barely changed since October 2005, I’m not sure what basis you have for saying you would expect it to be less. It’s probably an exaggeration of the number who will be negatively affected, but not too surprising given the partisan influence on opinion and employment negativitity we can find in other polls that do not mention WorkChoices.

    As for discrepancies with economists’ opinons, alas there is little evidence in any of the research I have done that the masses understand economics.

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  4. Andrew, tangentially and without any data to support my argument (!) – my guess/judgement is that Labor’s campaign has helped shore up the ALP primary vote amongst its base – the ALP primary vote has shown a general steady slight increase since Beazley took over nearly two years ago.

    I’m not commenting on the efficacy of the different side’s campaigns on people’s views.

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  5. Andrew – It seems to me that the most important measure of the campaign’s success would be issue salience.

    It’s difficult to change people’s minds about an established issue. A far better strategy is find the issues which favour your candidate and push them up the agenda.

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  6. The angst about IR will remind some of us about the shock and horror that greeted the proposals of the dreaded New Right 20 years ago when Labor and left people dipped into bottom of the their repertoire of slander and abuse. I wonder what Fred thought at the time when people like Andrew and I were described as fascists, troglodytes, grinding the faces of the poor etc etc.

    Now the usual suspects are trying to ramp up the rhetoric again, but what is the evidence that harm will be done by reducing the power of powerful trade unions to engage in collective bargaining, with or without strike action?

    It is interesting to find a reasoned case that casts severe doubt on just about every assumption that has driven the trade union movement for over 100 years.

    Click to access champion2006.pdf

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  7. The right to withold one’s labour was the one hard fought for personal freedom that set the modern worker apart from his/her predecessors pre collective bargaining.

    For proponents of the new (retro-regressive) IR legislation like Rafe Champion (surely a stage name) to pontificate on this and other worthy forums about the inherrent benigness and fairness of the new system is cynical in the extreme! These new laws are nothing but a thinly disguised attempt by self appointed ‘born to rule’ neo-con economic rationalists to return to an early nineteenth century feudalistic society.

    What these poll results do or do not show under the scrutiny of analysis is IMHO irrelevant other than to demonstrate that this Coalition Government’s other agenda – that of controlling the education system to ‘dumb down’ the Australian population isn’t working. It appears that we are no more or less fooled into believing the Government’s propaganda regarding Workchoices (oxymoron) than we were when it was first mooted.

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  8. I am not certain that I am a proponent of the new IR legislation, a 700 page Act and some hundreds of pages of regulations is an Irish kind of deregulation.

    I am in favour of getting straight on the historical role and function of the trade union movement, taking account of good (education) and bad (use of violence) and looking for more of the good and less of the bad in future.

    Surely we can find some common ground on that agenda?

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  9. But concern isn’t the regulation… which is probably a small half-shuffle in the right direction. My problem is with the centralisation of the legislation and the further undermining of federalism.

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  10. As I owe Robert favours for fixing my comments, I am not going to delete his comment for breaching the abusing other commenters provision of my comments policy. But please, no more! (And aren’t the Irish reasonably good on deregulation, anyway?)

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  11. Fair enough, Andrew, and thanks for your indulgence, but Rafe abused me first!

    Turning to the substance of your post…

    You note that “Some previously uncommitted people are now offering opinions.” These new opinions tend to be opposed to WorkChoices. This suggests that labour’s campaign is convincing the undecided.

    I also think that Fred Argy is right that people are likely to vote based on how they think laws will affect other people, especially if those other people are their family and friends. I would say that’s especially the case on IR, given that the argument against WorkChoices is that it is too individualistic and that solidarity is important.

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  12. WorkChoices will be a vote changer for me. I will vote against it and the Liberal government. I do so with great anger on behalf of my children.

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  13. For proponents of the new (retro-regressive) IR legislation like Rafe Champion (surely a stage name) to pontificate on this and other worthy forums about the inherrent benigness and fairness of the new system is cynical in the extreme! These new laws are nothing but a thinly disguised attempt by self appointed

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