Federal Politics

License article

PM sits pretty as the see-saw tilts yet again

Tony Abbott must feel pretty lucky. He wins a leadership ballot at the end of 2009 in which he initially had no intention of even nominating, and just over a term later is Prime Minister.

Australia promptly wins the Ashes in a 5-0 clean sweep. Then, having ducked serious industrial relations reform for fear of sparking a difficult war with the unions post-WorkChoices, the nation's most powerful union leader offers to help him do just that.

The national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union, Paul Howes, even goes as far as to validate employer complaints, admitting unions demonised WorkChoices for their own propaganda purposes and abused their workplace leverage to achieve unsustainable wages growth in some sectors.

It follows Howes' previous endorsement of the Abbott government's policy of applying criminal penalties to union officials found guilty of malfeasance. Howes' idea of an industrial relations ''grand compact'' remains vague, and has already attracted its share of sceptics, but it could be a political and economic game-changer.


It potentially offers the chance of fundamental reform in an area normally characterised by such entrenched adversarialism that progress is contentious and gains have tended to be temporary.

As he said in his National Press Club address on Wednesday, as a union official since 1998, he had worked under eight ''significantly different'' industrial relations laws.

This is what Howes calls the ''industrial relations see-saw'', in which the ascendant side imposes its will on the other until such time as the power relation shifts.

Clearly, the last election marked one of those shifts and Howes, who is as astute a reader of the political landscape as there is within the union movement, has read the situation. His solution revives memories of the prices-and-incomes accord achieved under Bob Hawke's Labor government in the 1980s. That is both its strength as an idea and its weakness.

The accord required unions to surrender their industrial power to demand above-the-odds wage rises, in exchange for moderate wage outcomes and improvements in the social wage in areas such as Medicare, employer superannuation, and so on.

It paved the way for growth after significant restructuring of the economy through such things as financial deregulation, dismantling of trade barriers and privatisation.

But it was a different time.

Like Howes, government and employers are also reading the mood. Their assessment is that Howes is proposing a return to the corporatism of the accord, where big unions, big employers and the government set the outcomes in order to deal unions back into the game.

And their response is to say this is not the workplace relations system in Australia any more.

Still, with Bill Shorten characterising everything the government is proposing as anti-worker union-bashing, the olive branch being extended by Shorten's successor at the AWU must feel like manna from heaven.

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