John Howard

It would be a mistake for the business community to interpret Tony Abbott’s flagging yesterday of a royal commission into the union movement as an acceleration of his timetable to deliver the most glittering prize on their bucket list.

Labour market reform may well be at the top of the corporate world’s to-do list, but for Tony Abbott it’s still policy non grata.

You might recall back at the beginning of 2013 – as Australia started to whirl down the political plughole to the September election – every business leader, corporate lobbyist, and their dog were whingeing and whining for ‘productivity improvements’ in the form of lower taxes, less regulation and IR reform.


But Abbott was, and still is, wary of moving too quickly on changes to labour market policies: that’s one piece of John Howard’s history he doesn’t want to repeat.

Abbott may well be charging around like the proverbial bull in a Peter’s of Kensington store, reducing every Labor policy he can find to smithereens, but when it comes to workers’ rights, conditions and wages he’s going to tread very carefully.

The business community’s wish list is long, and Abbott has made a virtue of throwing them the easy stuff first.

Hence the ‘scrapping’ of the carbon and mining taxes (although there’s the small matter of the Senate refusing to oblige), creation of the PM’s luminary-packed business advisory council, inquiries into the financial sector and competition policy, and yet more white papers on tax reform and energy policy.

Yet Abbott remains silent on IR reform. In his prime ministerial addresses to the twin anti-union bastions the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (in November) and the Business Council of Australia (in December), Abbott uttered not one word about the topic. His speech last week to the World Economic Forum was similarly bereft.

That’s not to say Abbott has lost his nerve on reforming workplace relations, only that he will do it at a time and in a manner that suits him. Abbott told the BCA his government would be a reforming one in the tradition of Hawke and Howard, and that “good government does what it can today so that it can get what it wants tomorrow.”

While this was a plea at the time for understanding of his need to occasionally accommodate the protectionist whims of the National Party (concerning foreign ownership of the grain handling monopoly GrainCorp), it just as easily could have been a call for patience on IR.

john-howardTony Abbott served for a time as John Howard’s Industrial Relations Minister, and while he was Health Minister by the time WorkChoices was introduced, he knows full well the cost of plunging headfirst into a melee with righteous and cashed-up unions.

The Liberals had judged that community anger over WorkChoices would dissipate by the 2007 federal election, but the union campaign kindled a spark of job anxiety in the hearts of Australians that kept smoldering right up to the time they kicked Howard out of office.

This time, Abbott is going to take out the unions before they even get a chance to light a fire under him.

As ALP Secretary George Wright warned the National Press Club after the 2013 federal election, the Coalition will work to weaken and delegitimise the union movement this term, so they’ll be in no shape to defend workers next term when the government moves onto work conditions and pay.

Then again, some of the more dodgy unions are doing a fine job of disenfranchising their members without any assistance from the Coalition.

Meantime, the shrill calls from business for ‘greater flexibility’ and ‘fairer practices’ in the workplace have mostly gone silent, but they’ve not disappeared altogether. Business and their advocates are now focused on the Commission of Audit (chaired by the BCA), and an upcoming Productivity Commission review into workplace relations.

The purpose of these exercises is twofold. The first is to otherwise occupy, and therefore placate and silence those who keep inconveniently calling for Abbott to be serious about the ‘urgent’ need for IR reform. The other is to ensure that when the resultant IR reform policies are unveiled in the lead up to the next federal election, the business community has no choice but to share ownership and take some of the heat for the policy changes they’ve espoused. It’s called having some skin in the game.

The Coalition is a natural ally of the business community, undoubtedly, and many of their policy goals comfortably align with those of the Abbott Government.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for friends or foes to assume Abbott is beholden to the corporate sector. Despite a number of notable misjudgments since being elected, Abbott is unlikely to take a misstep on IR.

Unlike his mentor John Howard, Abbott won’t let policy purity or the inveigling influence of business divert him from smart politics, the key to his ongoing political survival.



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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.





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