Abbott: WorkChoices wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Keep quiet on industrial relations—until now, that was the Coalition’s plan for sweeping to power come 14 September. But after coming under serious pressure from business groups and the right of the Liberals to reintroduce WorkChoices-style policies attacking unions and working conditions, the Coalition has finally released a policy to take to the election.

The media has gone along with complaints from business that the Coalition’s plan is “soft”. (Hospitality and tourism bosses in particular were hoping Abbott would announce Coalition for abolishing weekend penalty rates).

However, there are plenty of nasty elements they have not spelt out.

The Coalition has tried to claim there will only be minor changes. The Liberals remain spooked by the opposition to WorkChoices, seen in the Rights at Work rallies and their 2007 election defeatAbbott has tried to divert attention from his plan to attack union rights by focussing his comments on “dodgy union officials and their supporters”.

But he wants a Registered Organisations Commission that will function as a union watchdog, providing a greater capacity for the state to interfere with union finances and governance, and to tie unions up in investigations and court cases.

Abbott will further restrict union right of entry to workplaces, making it almost impossible for unions to get access to workplaces where they don’t have members. He will reintroduce Howard’s industrial police for the construction industry, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

For all the talk that WorkChoices is “dead, buried, and cremated”, Abbott wants to lay the basis for the reintroduction of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) by expanding the use of Individual Flexibility Agreements (IFAs). This will bring us closer to individual contracts, a way of dividing the workforce and breaking down collective agreements and union power.

Abbott also wants to make sure industrial action is always confined to circumstances where the Fair Work Commission is satisfied unions and bosses are bargaining in “good faith”. And negotiations for “greenfields agreements”, where unions and employers negotiate a union agreement on major projects before they begin, will be automatically forced into Fair Work if there is no agreement within three months. Arbitrated Fair Work agreements will no doubt favour the employers more than workers.

Dead, buried, cremated?

Despite Abbott claiming WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated”, it is obvious that the Liberals have plans to re-introduce it by another name. Abbott proposes to establish a Productivity Commission review of the Fair Work law that will provide the excuse to push further anti-union legislation.

He is promising to take proposals from that review to the 2016 election. But the Business Council of Australia is in a hurry. Chief Jennifer Westacott said employers did not have time to wait until 2016 to crack down on penalty rates, and reintroduce anti-dismissal laws and individual contracts.

And like the LNP in Queensland, the Coalition will commission an audit of Federal finances to justify major spending cuts and attacks on jobs.

This is exactly what John Howard did after he was first elected in 1996. His discovery of the famous budget “black hole” was the excuse for him to drop all his “non-core promises”, privatise the Commonwealth Employment Service and attack education and government services.

The Howard government was in power less than a year before it attacked unions with the Workplace Relations Act. It was never raised before the election.

Abbott is already promising to cut 12,000 public service jobs through attrition. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey announced that a Coalition government will start a “[wind] back of universal access to payments and entitlements from the state”. He has plans to abolish Centrelink offices by moving its operations to the Post Office!

Fighting Abbott

As successive opinion polls have given the Coalition a winning lead, Abbott has become more confident to reveal his real policies.

But still Abbott has held back from announcing the full re-introduction of WorkChoices because the Liberals are still concerned about reviving any Your Rights at Work union campaign.

That should be a signal to the union leadership. This is no time to go quiet in the hope that Labor will somehow sneak back in. The union movement has been too quiet for too long, thinking that going quiet will help Labor’s electoral fortunes.

The best preparation for an Abbott government is to mobilise union power now. Mass Your Rights at Work demonstrations backed by strike action against budget cuts and the Liberal state government cuts could boost workers’ confidence, shift the political mood and show Abbott and the bosses that there is a union movement prepared to fight back.

By Amy Thomas


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