Polling published since I wrote the article confirms the findings I report. In the Weekend Australian last Saturday, George Megalogenis cited surveys by left-leaning pollster Essential Media Communications that anti-WorkChoices opinion was stable across 2006 and 2007. The huge sums of money spent by both sides on WorkChoices propaganda had little if any net effect on the basic yes/no question.
My reading is that the anti-WorkChoices campaign was able to tap into set public opinion that labour market institutions should protect low-paid and vulnerable workers, and so it all it had to do was convince people that WorkChoices was contrary to their beliefs. That was accomplished by the time polling started in mid-2005.
What we still can’t be entirely clear on is whether the Coalition’s backdown on AWAs and the introduction of a ‘fairness’ test – a major watering down of WorkChoices on a key aspect of public concern, rather than just an advertising campaign – made any difference to the basic yes/no question (Megalogenis’s article doesn’t say when in 2007 Essential Media polled).
A recent Sensis survey found the lowest proportion of their respondents, 26%, in 10 surveys since August 2005, saying that WorkChoices would have a negative personal impact. The highest negative personal effect was 45% in the first survey. The fact that fewer people were perceiving negative personal effects is probably not significant in itself; opponents of WorkChoices have always massively outnumbered those with personal fears about its consequences. The issue is whether the fairness test dealt with the concerns some members of the public had about WorkChoices sufficiently for them to drop their opposition to the reform package.
There is some indirect evidence that it might have changed the yes/no balance, in an improved Liberal ‘better to handle’ Newspoll result on industrial relations in October. I thought then that this was mainly Liberal-leaning voters coming back, and preferring Liberal to Labor is not the same as supporting WorkChoices. But it is possible that overall opinion on WorkChoices wasn’t quite as bad after the fairness test backflip as before.
The Coalition’s policy reversal on AWAs did not, however, deal with the unpopular abolition of unfair dismissal laws. As I show in my Policy article, support for repeal of unfair dismissal laws doubles when it is restricted to smaller employers – but only to about a quarter of the electorate. With the unfair dismissal aspect of WorkChoices still there, perhaps overall opinion did not change.
Unfair dismissal is the trickiest part of the Coalition backdown on IR reform. Many of the Coalition’s business supporters see ‘unfair’ dismissal laws as unjust and unreasonable. Business backing is necessary to the Coalition’s revival as a political force, so steering a path between business and public opinion will not be easy.