Pity the poor party strategists who had to spend Sunday re-writing their MPs’ off-the-cuff parliamentary taunts and jibes after the Griffith by-election.
Inconveniently, the fresh election to replace outgoing low-profile federal MP, Kevin Rudd, refused to give either of the major parties much to crow about.
Kevin Rudd congratulates Terri Butler after she won the seat of Griffith
The Labor opposition retained the seat, but with a small swing against them instead of against the government, which is usually what happens in a by-election. This pretty much cruelled Labor’s hopes of credibly claiming the Griffith result sent “a strong message of protest to Tony Abbott” about his cuts to healthcare, childcare and super fast broadband.
Even so, the outcome in Griffith was hardly happy-dance material for the Coalition. In Bill Glasson they had a strong local candidate, who’d campaigned in the seat for over a year and reduced Rudd’s margin from 8 per cent to 3 per cent at the 2010 federal election.
No expense was spared by the Coalition when the departing Rudd gave Glasson another chance. Various luminaries from the Abbott ministry jetted into Griffith to shake hands, kiss babies and draw attention to the Labor candidate’s flaws, including her audacious membership of a union. Yet the ALP’s Terri Butler won the seat, so the Coalition can hardly claim the result as “a repudiation of Labor” with any credibility either.
So today’s first session of the new parliament for 2014 could be a case of not mentioning the war (in Griffith). The rhetorical battleground will more likely be industrial relations.
Reform of industrial relations or labour laws is high on the wishlist of Australian business. Right or wrong, they blame these laws even more than the carbon tax for their lack of profitability. When businesses say they need more ‘flexibility’ in the workplace to become more productive (read: profitable), they’re saying they want the government to make it easier for them to adjust (read: cut) wages and conditions.
But PM Abbott knows that a government promising IR reform can be signing its own death warrant. He saw it first-hand as a minister in the Howard Government, which was defeated by a strong campaign run by the unions and Labor against WorkChoices. (Don’t mention that war either).
Abbott has two-step battle plan instead. Firstly he’ll weaken the unions by tarnishing their credibility in the eyes of the public with some over-egging of entitlements for unionised workforces in the embattled auto manufacturing and fruit processing industries, as well as the Royal Commission into union corruption that he announced yesterday.
A happy by-product of this (for Abbott) will be reduced union membership and therefore fewer dollars for the unions to donate to the Labor Party.
The second part of Abbott’s plan is a Productivity Commission inquiry (kinda like a royal commission but run by economists), which will spell out how the labour laws should be reformed. In doing so the PC will essentially provide Abbott with a skirt to hide behind when he takes those recommendations to the next election “in the interests of the nation’s future productivity”. (You heard it here first).
Even though the sabres will be rattling on the IR front in parliament this week, there’s still the business of governing to be done.
Treasurer Joe Hockey will reprise his role as Budget Salesman-in-Chief, continuing to soften up the Australian public with trust-enhancing media profiles while sternly intoning the age of entitlement has now become age of responsibility for households and industry. In an attempt not unlike mass hypnotism, Hockey hopes to have so converted us to economic frugality by the time the Budget is handed down in May, we’ll welcome him shoving his hands in our pockets.
Directly flouting Hockey’s parsimony, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce will try to convince his free market colleagues that assistance for drought-affected farmers is not the same as propping up unviable businesses.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will continue to say nothing.
And, in between parliamentary questions on the 2017 departure of local auto manufacturer Toyota, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane will quietly ask himself for the zillionth time: “why did I ever agree to take on the industry portfolio… again.”
MORE ARTICLES BY PAULA MATTHEWSON
*Paula Matthewson has worked in and around federal politics for nearly 25 years, variously as a media adviser and lobbyist but now as a freelance writer. She’s been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009, and in 2013 founded the popular group blog AusOpinion. She blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog and tweets as @Drag0nista.