Wednesday 28 September 2011

Janet Albrechtsen | commentary on Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott, a warrior is not afraid to come out fighting

Nicholson cartoon
Cartoon by Peter Nicholson. Source: The Australian

IT'S a sad day when the leader of the Liberal Party backs off from a philosophical fight. It's even more disappointing when a Liberal warrior does so. Yet that's what Tony Abbott did last week when he announced that the Liberal Party no longer supported individual contracts. "We did once, but we don't now," Abbott says, pointing out that the focus should be on solving problems, not philosophical positions.

No one is talking about arcane debates among ivory tower academics. This goes to the heart of relations between employers and employees. Fixing problems is fine, but the best solutions depend on ideas that have been tried and tested. And those ideas form the philosophical underpinnings that explain the difference between Liberal and Labor.

Unlike many lightweight Liberals, Abbott has a proud history writing about the Liberal philosophy of the freedom of the individual and contesting the ideas of those who would stifle such freedom in the name of misplaced paternalism and big government.

Now consider the Prime Minister. Julia Gillard has little history of staking out what she believes. Her positions have been defined by opportunism. She was a member of Labor's left faction when it suited her rise up Labor's ranks. She has never penned thoughtful papers, let alone books, on her convictions. Just stump speeches devised by spin doctors to get where she wanted to be. When Gillard replaced Rudd last year as Prime Minister, she worked hard to mimic John Howard on strong borders because that suited her. In  Battlelines, Abbott explored the Liberal philosophy: "The task is to prioritise the country's most pressing problems and to devise practical remedies that reflect the party's enduring values and principles. The Liberal Party has a natural preference for freedom."

Yet now Abbott appears to be running away from a philosophical fight based on that freedom preference just when one is most needed. When the world is facing enormous economic challenges, the best practical solution is to ensure Australian workplaces have the flexibility to confront a looming economic downturn. Instead, the re-regulation of the workforce under Rudd and Gillard has left businesses hamstrung, returning Australia to the pre-Keating days of centralisation.

It's easy to forget Paul Keating's vision of industrial relations, which he explained in an address in April 1993 to the Institute of Company Directors: "Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model that places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards . . . Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses . . . We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons . . . to awards to being full substitutes for awards."

When Keating introduced the Industrial Relations Act 1993, its stated objective was "encouraging and facilitating the making of agreements, between the parties involved in industrial relations, to determine matters pertaining to the relationship between employers and employees, particularly at the enterprise or workplace level".

Gillard has re-regulated the workplace, failing to understand that improved productivity is not achieved from a centralised system mandated by government.

As Liberal MP Andrew Robb said in 2005: "Productivity is not 'national'. It is generated personally or, at best, at the enterprise or workplace level. Centralised wage determination took from those who worked productively and gave to those who did not, discouraging the potentially productive from doing anything more than necessary. Rather than the productive or the innovative being rewarded, it was the industrially strong who received the dividends of the centralised system."

Gillard has taken the country back to this. And no one should imagine this is not a philosophical battle. The unions know it. The ALP knows it. And Abbott ought to know it, too.In Battlelines, Abbott observes that when Howard talked about political ideas, he didn't invoke philosophical concepts. Ministers didn't bring proposals to cabinet based on "conformity with any kind of orthodoxy". Proposals weren't categorised as " right-wing", "conservative", "liberal". "As long as voters could see the common sense in the former government' s proposals, the government prospered politically," he wrote.

As Liberal leader, Abbott's task is to explain the Liberal philosophy of freedom in the workplace where common sense dictates that employers and employees ought to be able to enter into individual contracts if that is the desire of both parties. And common sense dictates that a "no-disadvantage test" will protect employees.

Ignore those who say there is no real divide between Left and Right any more. Howard dragged Labor to the centre on many issues from border protection to indigenous policies. But one need only look at the workplace to see the divide still exists. And it has everything to do with ideology. Remember too that philosophical arguments aren't wrong because they are philosophical. They become wrong when they promote ideas proven wrong by history. By re-regulating the workplace, Gillard and Rudd sit on the wrong side of history.

That's why it's time for the Liberal Party to step aside from the self-imposed shadow that has hung over the party since the ACTU campaign against Work Choices. A similar campaign won't work as it did in 2007. For starters, if Work Choices alone explained Howard's loss, voters would have been ready with baseball bats. Instead, Australians had simply grown tired of a longstanding government.

Second, there is now a toxic whiff this year emerging from unions. The scandals within the Health Services Union have uncovered union greed, sloth and disregard for some of the country's lowest paid workers. No one imagines this is solely a scandal within the HSU. Just ask yourself why is the broader union movement so silent, when it should be asking questions of the long history of questionable conduct at the HSU.

Third, the rosy future imagined in 2007 is very different from this year's looming economic uncertainty.That's why Abbott, as Liberal gladiator, ought to gird his loins for a workplace battle with the ALP. If his intention is to introduce major changes after the election, he ought to ask for a mandate. If his intention is to do little as PM to return greater freedom to the workplace, he ought to think again.

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