Stealing Labor's Thunder


Kim Beazley is already claiming next year’s election will be a ‘referendum on the Howard Government’s unfair Industrial Relations laws.’ But Latham claimed the 2004 election was a ‘referendum on Medicare‘ and look where that got him.


John Howard’s Industrial Relations ‘reforms’ will be a key issue in Election 2007, but will the terms of the debate really be dictated by the Bomber?

‘This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust,’ John Howard told us, stepping up to the podium to launch the Liberal Party’s campaign at the 2004 Federal election, and, at the same time, pulling the rug from under a potential Labor campaign focus on Howard’s personal integrity.

Fast forward to 2007 what rabbit will Howard pull from his hat to frame the terms of this election campaign?

I can imagine this: ‘This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about jobs.’ Not Industrial Relations, but what Howard sees as the fruit of his IR legislation: jobs, and the economy, stupid.

He might continue:

We have given the Australian people and the Australian nation the most important Industrial Relations reforms of the past 100 years.

Reforms that have created jobs for tens of thousands of Australians by reducing red tape and giving employers certainty.

Reforms that have removed the barriers facing those on welfare wanting to move into the workforce. Reforms that are about keeping the most strongly performing economy in the Western world on track. Reforms that keep us competitive.

A change to a Beazley Labor Government would see these reforms rolled back. Don’t believe that there is no difference between us. The crucial difference is that Labor would set aside these reforms, create chaos for business, irresponsibly destroy thousands of jobs, and hand back control of this country to the Trade Unions.

And so, John Howard, instead of waiting for Labor to attack him on IR, grabs the conch, and gets Beazley on the back foot before he’s even had a chance to burble. Every time he opens his mouth to talk about IR, Beazley’s going to look as if he’s responding to the agenda set by Howard and yet, he needs to keep doing it anyway because IR is certainly a vote changer.

But every time Labor suggests that working conditions have been eroded by WorkChoices, there will be a Coalition counter-claim that it’s better to have a job than no job at all even if it’s a job where you don’t get paid extra for working on Saturday, or on Anzac Day.

Every suggestion by Labor that AWAs should be abolished will be met with the Coalition’s tailor-made examples of how well AWAs work in parts of the mining industry. Labor can show how 99 per cent of AWAs disadvantage workers, but the Coalition can latch on to the 1 per cent that don’t, and howl about Labor walking all over workers’ rights to negotiate individual agreements.

And every suggestion by Labor that the Howard Government’s changes are unfair will be met by Coalition rhetoric on the bad old days when the Trade Unions ran the country and the fact that they want to run it again.

If he’d thought before he spoke, Greg Combet would have realised that he was auditioning for a key part in the Government’s television advertising spots when he claimed recently, ‘we used to run the country and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we did again.’ Maybe he was being ironic, but the punters aren’t going to recognise that when the clip is played back for the thousandth time in prime time.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

The only (logical) fly in the ointment for the Coalition here, is that either the unions are a walking corpse (which means that reducing their power is in line with community sentiment, anyway), or they are a powerful ogre that needs to be wiped out. They can’t very well be both.

Perhaps Howard’s IR agenda has actually been a lightning strike that reanimates Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps unions have been given new life as the last bastion for the worker against what is increasingly seen as unfairness and imbalance the loss of a fair go and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

The Coalition, therefore, has an incentive to call an early election. The earlier the election, the fewer the number of workers affected by the IR changes and if Howard sees economic problems on the horizon he’d have even more reason to dash to the polls early, next year.

And it will surely be Howard, not Costello. Despite the Treasurer’s leadership tanty in a teacup, the polls, the punters and the voters all think Howard is a better Prime Minister, and a more likely one.

Over the weekend, Howard gave his strongest indication yet that he’ll stick around for election 2007 and Centrebet’s punters are also pretty sure Howard’s going next year, not this year. Barring a major health issue, he’s likely to stick it out another 18 months perhaps an early election in March, with an orderly handover in December?

So what strategy is Labor likely to adopt to counter the political genius that is Johnny? It’s not likely to be a successful one. A Labor insider says:

Beazley’s all too prone to go with what the last person he was talking to said. His recent policy decision to scrap AWAs was because people got in his ear about unionists ‘Only 50-something per cent of them vote Labor. Get all the unionists to vote Labor, and you’ve won an election.’

Policy-on-the-run’s not going to beat a Coalition that’s focused and disciplined enough to know what its key messages are and ensure everyone sticks to them, and smart enough to make sure the few key messages are those that can be spouted with conviction by all their candidates. Neither is too much policy with too much detail.

Labor needs to get everyone  – from Shadow Ministers to backbenchers, from senior staff to electoral officers – in a room, and hammer into their heads what the issue du jour is: Industrial Relations. From now until the 2007 election, no-one should issue a press release, do a door-stop, talk to a journalist or make an off-the-cuff remark to their mates at the pub about anything that doesn’t relate back to IR.

And it should relate back to IR in under 10 seconds the average sound bite is less than 10 seconds, and shrinking, as someone should point out to Kim Beazley. Although our Labor insider insists ‘Beazley has dramatically reduced the size of his sentences and the size of his words,’ the Bomber still has some lessons to learn about speaking succinctly.

By the time Election 2007 comes around, IR should be something Labor owns. It’s the only way John Howard won’t be able to turn what should be solid Labor ground into quicksand during the campaign.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.