CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Labor's cumbersome IR policy
, September 15, 2007
The Gillard/Rudd IR plan is cumbersome, complicated and protracted, and will mean many workplaces will have different workers on different systems.More time and effort was expended inside Labor on the second version of its industrial relations policy than on any other policy it will take to the election.
With polls showing the Howard Government heading for defeat, senior Labor figures have been convinced for some time the election can now only be lost by Kevin Rudd scoring an own goal or by the exposure of a major flaw in one or more of its key policies.
Such is the caution inside senior Labor ranks that there has been a major internal debate on whether it is even necessary to release any major policies at all - a debate which has been completely missed by the Canberra press gallery.Extraordinary decision
To this end, Labor took the extraordinary decision not to proceed with a new tax policy for the coming poll.
At the last election, when Wayne Swan and Mark Latham announced a re-jigging of the family payment/tax mix, they got caught in a trap when they declared an end-of-year payment "did not exist" for many families because their taxable income had eaten into it by the time tax return time came around.
As shadow Treasurer Mr Swan has decided not to fall into the same trap.
The decision to avoid a major tax overhaul has caused enormous frustration for Treasurer Peter Costello, who says Labor is proving itself as a policy-free zone and a party without substance.
Similarly, when Kevin Rudd recently announced his health policy, including a possible takeover of the states' responsibilities for running hospitals, it was revealed that nothing much would happen for three years.
The federal and state Labor governments would work together to find a solution to the "blame game", with an added injection of cash, but if this did not work, Mr Rudd would begin moves to take over the hospitals.
Even then it was not certain whether there would be a referendum, a plebiscite or a policy seeking a mandate at the following election.
The "health policy" was a way of avoiding a serious run-in with the states and was spread over such a long time-frame; it created the perception, at least in the public's mind, of implementing incremental and sensible change in an area front and centre of their minds.
However, the biggest potential policy pothole for Mr Rudd was always going to be industrial relations, because his greatest vulnerability was Labor's association with the unions, and particularly militant unions.
Hundreds of hours of work went into negotiating and arguing through the many fine details of the policy, including how to manage the transition backwards from the Howard Government's new Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) to a system based on awards, albeit a streamlined version.
It was a difficult task - like trying to unscramble eggs - and the end result is a mish-mash of pre-WorkChoices, WorkChoices and post-WorkChoices.
Labor hardheads knew any fatal flaw in the policy would discredit Kevin Rudd's central claim to being a steady-as-she-goes, responsible economic manager.
Mr Rudd demanded mistake-proof policy, while spokeswoman Julia Gillard knuckled down to the task because she knew any major blunder would be catastrophic for her own political career.
Rightly or wrongly, Ms Gillard was blamed for the failure of Mark Latham's Medicare Gold policy at the last election.
A double strike against her name in two elections would have killed off for good any leadership aspirations she might have had.
And Mr Rudd, while currently running high in the polls, knew he could not afford to get business offside a second time. An irresponsible policy which pandered to the unions would have done his plan to win government at his first outing considerable harm.
Business was horrified when shown the first policy, and insulted when it was delivered to them by Ms Gillard on a take-it or leave-it basis without consultation during Labor's national conference in April.
In the new version Mr Rudd has found a way to get rid of AWAs, without causing major dislocation to business planning. Some AWAs will remain in force for another five years, but the WorkChoices system will be gradually dismantled over a number of years rather than in one hit.
Workers earning $100,000 or more will have to fend for themselves and be taken out of the award system altogether."Flexibility" clause
But all awards and collective agreements will have to have a "flexibility clause" to allow workers and their employers to negotiate special arrangements.
Mr Rudd has also elected to keep many of the "anti-union" policies, such as secret ballots for strikes and tough right-of-entry rules which make it very difficult for unions to even get in the door of some factories and workplaces.
The Gillard/Rudd IR plan is cumbersome, complicated and protracted, and will mean many workplaces will have different workers on different systems.
The policy seeks to maintain some of the flexibility of the Howard Government's WorkChoices, but keeps a tight leash on union power.
A few unions have complained about this, but the ACTU has been forced into accepting the deal. Most unions in fact have had to bite their tongues to the point of bleeding, but will doubtless demand major concessions of a Rudd Labor Government if it wins power.
Nevertheless, Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard would have been pleased with the analysis and comment after the launch, because most concluded that the policy struck a balance between business and union interests.
Despite the shortcomings and criticisms, the policy was generally well received - to the enormous relief of senior Labor figures who now believe that it will be sufficient to get Labor across the line.