Howard caves to unions on IR

Oddly enough, no one seems to have used this headline, but Howard’s announcement that the no-disadvantage test will be revived for workers earning less than $75 000 is a big concession, at least in symbolic terms, to the union campaign against WorkChoices.

We’ll have to wait for details to see whether the concession is as substantial as it appears. As regards the $75 000 limit, it’s fair enough to say that workers on incomes at this level are in a reasonable position to protect their own position in bargains with employers without government intervention. Administratively, though, a distinction like this sounds like it’s going to be something of a nightmare to manage.

Meanwhile, the same story indicates that the mining companies, representing one of the few sectors where both workers and employers are doing well out of the new arrangements, is prepared to negotiate a compromise with Labor. Gillard’s remarks of a day or two ago may have been politically heavy-handed but they reflected reality – it would be a foolish business that went all out in a campaign against a party that is quite likely to be in office in a few mohts. (by contrast, the unions don’t have much choice about backing Labor – the Libs hate them unconditionally).

14 thoughts on “Howard caves to unions on IR

  1. But after Gillard’s comments about business getting ‘injured’ in the contact sport of politics – the question business is now asking itself is ‘does the ALP hate us unconditionally’ (or at least – does the future potential deputy-PM hate us unconditionally). If the answer is yes, then business may conclude that it has nothing to lose by overtly and financially backing the coalition.

    The ALP IR policy was always going to be more pro-union than Howard – what business wasn’t expecting was how far it moved, the lack of consulation (very embarrassing for Eddington!) and the bully-boy rhetoric from Gillard.

    Howard has now very astutely positioned a modified WorkChoices as the middle-ground. That will resonate well with middle Australia who are benefiting from decades low unemployment – which rightly or wrongly Howard can claim are a result of his economic management and IR policies. It will be an easy scare campaign – don’t elect the inexperienced Rudd and ‘married-to-the-Unions’ Gillard – they’ll take us back to an era of inflexible work conditions and high unemployment.

  2. the question business is now asking itself is ‘does the ALP hate us unconditionally’

    I don’t know if personifying business makes sense. The question is what do business people and investors think? Business is not a hive mind with a unified view of the universe.

  3. Howard never caves when the focus and pressure is on him. He always changes tack according to his own timing. In political terms this is a very sound strategy and a big part of what makes him look strong.

  4. Yes, JH has now adopted the position that the ALP could have taken, their options have been reduced.

  5. I think this will be widely interpreted as a Howard flip-flop and a cynical attempt to appear to respond to people’s genuine concerns. I don’t think it will work at all, electorally.

    But what would I know.

  6. In principle, Howard’s concession seems sensible and compassionate. In practice, depending on the detail, it could either prove unenforceable or a bureaucratic monster.

  7. Pr Q says:

    Gillard’s remarks of a day or two ago may have been politically heavy-handed but they reflected reality – it would be a foolish business that went all out in a campaign against a party that is quite likely to be in office in a few mohts. (by contrast, the unions don’t have much choice about backing Labor – the Libs hate them unconditionally).

    There is considerable assymetry in partisan alignments to social class organizations. The ALP is certainly more sympathetic to Big Business than the LN/P is to Big Unions. And the ALP can be more antipathetic to Big Unions than the LN/P is to Big Business.

    If I was Howard I would be trying to bring Julia Gillard into the partisan debate as much as possible. In fact Howard, being Howard, is doing just that. She is a real electoral turn-off to undecided sexist voters.

    The best thing that Julia Gillard can do for social democracy would be to slip on some long white gloves, sit demurely in the background and pretend she is Kevin Rudd’s adoring wife ala Janette Howard. That way the ALP could have a dream ticket leadership team, a mini-me Oppostion Leader and a mini-me Opposition First Lady.

    But it’ll never happen.

  8. Howard’s concessions may have been trumpeted by the Australian newspaper but this is hardly a ringing endorsement. The problem that Howard faces it that as the detail becomes apparent his announcement will be seen as a knee jerk reaction to Labor. He won’t be seen as anything other than a politician fighting for his political life with concessions that are overstated and oversold.

    One thing that workers can see is the graph in the Sydney Morning Herald today where profits are rising inexorably whilst wages are going south. Meantime the quality of life is reduced as stress becomes an ever present companion for many and mortgages are out of reach or high. Meantime the stress translates to broken relationships and kids without parents for much of their lives.

    The problem for Mr Howard is that whilst he keeps on putting in fixes for the problems his policies have created people are beginning to realise that he is a large part of the problem and that his solutions son’t work as they are based on policies supported by the likes of Bill Heffernan.

  9. It will be interesting to see how this plays out politically. One of the most notable features of the Howard government is the way they almost never take a backward step. No matter how much criticism they get in the media about an issue they do not retreat from policies or positions in even the smallest of details unless they have absolutely no choice.

    Somewhere along the line Howard re-discovered something that a famous previous propagandist realised which is that when arguing over a point in politics you should never ever ever admit a mistake or concede a point. In politics (as opposed to policy) there is no room for middle ground. In the public’s mind there is only room for one side or the other to be right. What this means in practice is that you should never ever ever admit a mistake or concede a point. The only effect it has is to weaken both your own credibility and that of your point because the public interpret this you lacking faith in your own idea. In general this has been a very successful approach by the Howard government.

    My guess is that this concession by Howard will only weaken his position. He has been saying until he is blue in the face that work choices is great for everyone. This new policy address’s a problem that Howard has virtually been claiming does not exist. It will primarily make the electorate feel the government does not believe its own rhetoric about Workchoices. I think on some level Howard is aware of this, but I guess he has been forced to into it by the polls.

  10. Too little, too late for Howard.

    The latest Morgan poll has the two party preferred result as 61 to 39, which would be a complete slaughter of nearly all of the coalition reps. But wait, it gets even better, because the 61:39 result assumes the same preference distribution as the 2004 election. That distribution is obviously going to change somewhere in line with the primary vote, so that the actual result could be something like 70 to 30. Goodbye Liberal Party in its entirety.

  11. “He always changes tack according to his own timing.” or to put it another way “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

  12. Of course it’s a concession from Howard. He wants the animosity to WorkChoices buried by election time. Correspondingly, Labor wants the employer groups not to go ape during the campaign. Therefore, it’s flushing out the angst now, leaving it time to spend a lot of effort assuring the employer groups that they’ll be inside the tent pissing out if Labor win. Two things you can be assured of with employer groups: a herd mentality, and a coat-and-tie dislike of actually doing any political heavy lifting (ideally, that’s what they have the Liberal Party for). But their great fear is irrelevance, so they’ll hedge their bets and keep quiet during the campaign (which won’t be easy, given the Libs will be screaming “unions unions unions” every 20 seconds).

    Anyway, the IR debate will soften for the next month with the great giveaway budget and a lot of grandstanding. The Libs will start infighting if there’s no appreciable poll bounce. It just means people have stopped listening.


  13. I guess it gets lost in the noise, but this is not a return to the old “No Disadvantage Test”. The new policy applies the test to workers moving to individual contracts with the same employer. There won’t be a no-disadvantage test against some external set of union-set criteria, eg awards, and no test for hiring new employees.

    So this is a purely transient measure, and blunts the biggest criticism of WorkChoices: that workers could be worse off with the same employer (not that it has been happening much – the unions and labour have been scouring the country for examples and have come up with what, one or two companies?).

    If it wasn’t for the bureaucracy I’d agree with the change: it’s one thing to have all conditions on the table when you’re looking for a new job because you can pick and choose between employers. It’s not really fair to have your conditions reduced if you have already negotiated a set of conditions with an employer (whether explicitly or implicitly via acceptance of award conditions). After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: a contract is a contract.

    So not really a backflip at all. It still doesn’t let the unions sit at the negotiating table where Labour wants them on the flimsiest of pretexts.

    Remember, Costello was a solicitor in the “Dollar Sweets” case – one of the classic examples of union thuggery. Howard/Costello will never give the unions power to behave like that again.

    I predict this will be enough to get the coalition over the line.

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