Say what you like about John Howard, he gave us a bunch of politicians who never pretended to be nice guys. Yes, Peter Reith is back. When Tony Abbott swore that WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated, it seemed a fair bet that one of the architects of the policy had dropped of the perch too, public affairs-wise.
But that’s not the case. At first, it looked like Reith was going to be knocked down before he got started. Reith put his hand up for the presidency of the Liberal Party — and almost got there. The deciding vote against him was cast by Tony Abbott for Alan Stockdale. According to Reith, the Opposition leader had previously declared his support for Reith’s bid.
So where has Peter Reith been all this time?
If it seems like a long time since we’ve seen Reith, that’s because he’s been busy. It’s some 10 years since he resigned his seat of Flinders. Greg Hunt took his place, not long after he’d written that thesis on carbon taxes that he’s had to work so hard to disavow. Reith left politics to help defence contractor Tenix maintain good relations with the Howard government. He went on to a plum job in London as a director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Abbott may be a boxer but Reith is one of the warriors of the Liberal Party. He emerged from the loss of his bid for the presidency barely bruised. In 1998 the waterfront dispute revealed that Reith had no great need to be seen as a nice guy and his recent form shows that nothing has changed. Other stalwarts of the Howard era have stayed quiet but for Reith, a decade’s silence was enough.
On Monday Reith took to the opinion pages to make the case for the Libs to stop cowering on industrial relations and to get over the electoral damage done by WorkChoices. "The Liberal Party has to take responsibility for labour market reform in Australia because the Labor Party is hopelessly compromised by the fact that it is owned lock, stock and barrel by the unions." Ever since Howard lost the 2007 election on WorkChoices, Liberals have kept quiet on workplace relations but all of a sudden, labour politics are in the news and it’s the Coalition who is leading the discussion.
It’s notable in this context that Abbott was Reith’s successor as minister for workplace relations under Howard. Reith went so far as to accuse Abbott of acting like a Labor factional boss in shifting his support on the presidency. Fighting words, indeed. The Libs have kept a tighter ship than their counterparts on the other side of the house insofar as dirty laundry is concerned. That’s why it was striking to read Reith compare the Opposition leader unfavourably to state tough guys Barry O’Farrell and Ted Baillieu. From an old hand like Reith, this can only be viewed as a calculated gesture.
Reith’s Fairfax editorial contained more than a nod to the relationship between the business community and the Liberal Party:
"It was good that Abbott publicly called for the business community to make the case for reform. I hope he means it. Since that call, the voices from business have been growing louder. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s retrograde changes to workplace relations law are slowly burning our economy and in time the voices of embattled business will be heard across the country."
The voices of embattled business have been heeded before by Reith, most significantly in 1998 when as minister for workplace relations he backed Chris Corrigan and Patrick Corporation against the Maritime Workers Union in their efforts to de-unionise the docks. Given the extent of Patrick’s efforts to hobble the MUA, and Reith’s support for that effort, his re-emergence as an advocate for listening to business is particularly worrying.
As Stephen Mayne told PM, Reith is an easy target for Labor. "He was the shadow treasurer when John Hewson introduced Fightback and that failed miserably at the polls. And he was obviously very closely involved with WorkChoices which led to a defeat of the Howard government." Be that as it may, his return to public life has not bolstered support for Gillard, even as the ACTU and ALP has leapt on the prospect of a tougher Liberal line on industrial relations.
It was Abbott’s turnaround on the party presidency, the SMH editorialised, that allowed Reith to break ranks and come out to advocate his hardline industrial relations agenda in public rather than in the partyroom: "The problem for Abbott is that Reith is no lone voice. Business is increasingly perplexed about what Abbott stands for (what he stands against is much clearer) and his backbench is more and more restive over the muzzle it is made to wear in terms of advocating policies once the natural domain of conservative politics."
Heather Ridout of the Australian Industry Group has supported the call for reform — as has the business world broadly. He might also have revealed some tensions within the Liberal Party but in a few deft public moves, Reith has managed to force a commitment to review industrial relations policy from Abbott.
Yesterday, Fairfax reported Abbott’s concerns about "a lot of very worrying signs of increasing industrial militancy" and a promise to review IR policy. Today there’s news of Reith’s plans for an industrial relations think tank. He’s got the current chair of Woodside Petroleum, Hugh Morgan, onside and they’re recruiting "executive support".
Yes, Peter Reith is back and he doesn’t care if you hate him. Christopher Pyne, eat your heart out.
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