Tip toeing into the industrial relations limelight went Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations, Eric Abetz. With the media assembled, last Thursday Abbott and Abetz did a softly softly policy soft shoe shuffle for the cameras, declaring that the Coalition's new Industrial Relations platform would in no way resemble or revisit the disastrous Work Choices policy introduced in 2005 that went a fair way to costing them government in 2007. Gone was the promise to dispense with unfair dismissal laws and the overly inflammatory anti-union rhetoric conjuring up visions of attack dogs on stevedore work sites.
In it's place were pledges to extend access to existing individual flexibility arrangements to all workers and re-emphasise the importance of productivity in enterprise bargaining under the Fair Work Act, restore right of entry provisions, and ensure that unions must negotiate first and strike later under protected industrial action. Governing for all the nation they reiterated ... with a reassuring smile. The new workers-friendly approach from the conservatives has its critics of course. The Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry are howling that the new policies haven't gone far enough, but Abbott is not about to frighten the horses this close to an election that can only be lost if he falls at the last hurdle.
The real intentions of the Coalition are naturally quite different from what they are promising in public. You don't have to be a political scientist to know that conservative governments have always put the needs of business first and the workforce second. The fact is the holy grail of every conservative political party is the crushing of union power, forcing all employees to sign individual contracts without the protection of collective bargaining. It's the old divide and rule tactic that the Right does so well. Under the Work Choices regime this was implemented by dispensing with unfair dismissal laws originally put in place to protect employees from having a gun held to their head over their pay and conditions. In addition, Work Choices legislation made it difficult for unions to take industrial action - a right recognised and protected in international law.
Mr Abbott can play it safe, safe in the knowledge that the present Labor government is on the nose so much (unfairly) with the public that the election is basically a shoo-in. And with union reputations at an all time low he will be able to claim a mandate to implement change, just as long as it isn't Work Choices. But the truth of the matter is change is not enough for the Coalition. They have always wanted to completely dismantle the union movement. So the people can be assured that at some time into their first term should they win government the Coalition will begin to twist the knife, turn the screws and bit by bit their worker-friendly IR policies will start to have a distinctive 2005 look about them. Watch this space.