Earlier in the week, Pollytics blog reported an Essential Research poll finding that most people believe that Tony Abbott would bring back WorkChoices. Labor has been dusting off its old anti-WorkChoices rhetoric to take political advantage of this.
But will the same scare campaign work twice?
Though many WorkChoices policies persisted well into the Rudd government’s first term – indeed some aspects of their re-regulated IR system didn’t start until last month – the stories of workers being ripped off by bastard bosses using WorkChoices over the last couple of years have been hard to find, certainly much harder than the anti-WorkChoices ACTU advertising before Howard’s defeat would have led us to believe.
Indeed, the WorkChoices era in the Australian labour market was remarkably good. Unemployment sank to 30 year lows before the GFC hit. Despite claims that bosses would use their new powers to ‘unfairly’ sack workers, involuntary job losses dropped to very low levels.
Even after the GFC hit, the still primarily WorkChoices governed labour market put in an exceptionally good performance. The GFC was the ‘fairest’ economic downturn we have ever seen, with instead of big increases in unemployment the shock of reduced income was widely absorbed in lower real wage outcomes and shorter hours. These are much easier to recover from than a job loss.
In retrospect, WorkChoices looks rather better than it did to many people at the time.
We are also now comparing WorkChoices not with vague notions of ‘fairness’, but the specific ‘Fair Work’ system. Fair Work has already done what WorkChoices never did: force employers to sack workers. We can expect a steady stream of stories of undesirable consequences as the old IR Club comes back to try to impose its view of the labour market on the economy.
On the other hand, there is strong and persistent public opinion in this country that weak workers should be protected by the IR system. Despite the overall negative reaction to WorkChoices, most people did not think that it would personally have a negative effect on them. Opposition was primarily driven by concern for others.
The trick for the Coalition in tackling industrial relations will be to minimise the perception that it will be ‘unfair’ to workers who are in a vulnerable position. It is however a difficult trick to pull off, since as last time the status quo – however unjustifiable (such as some penalty rate regimes) – will be defined as the benchmark of ‘fairness’. Small, evolutionary changes without tackling all issues at once are likely to be the best way to approach this.
Labor will still spin every change as WorkChoices II, and it will have some effect. But given their own IR problems, the clearly exaggerated problems with WorkChoices I, and a smallish Coalition target I doubt it will be the issue it once was.