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Henry Thornton - Politics: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Business lacks courage Date 01/08/2010
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Business leaders that bemoan the Coalition's backdown on amending the Fair Work Act need to dip into their own pockets and try and make it happen - a lesson they can, ironically enough, learn from the Union movement and its succesful campaign against the Howard Government's WorkChoices legislation.
By John Roskam Email / Print

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Six days into the Federal Election campaign and WorkChoices has dominated the news on five of those days. We know all about Tony Abbott ducking and weaving and somersaulting on whether WorkChoices is alive, dead, or just cryogenically frozen.

If Abbott isn't careful this could be the second Federal Election in a row that WorkChoices has helped sink the Coalition. Certainly the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have done a brilliant job at demonising WorkChoices. But there's more to it.

The Coalition has allowed itself to be defined by the single issue of Industrial Relations (IR). At the moment the only two Coalition commitments that most voters could name would be Abbott's tax on business to pay for parental leave, and his promise on WorkChoices.

It's perplexing that Abbott has got himself into this position, given that he's written an entire book about what he believes in and why. He was a Federal Minister (of various portfolios) for nearly a decade, compared with current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has been a Federal Minister for less than three years.

Given its interest in Abbott's Industrial Relations policies, you'd think the Canberra press gallery would press Prime Minister Gillard on the problems with her own Fair Work legislation. Alas - no such luck. If ever proof was needed of the different standards journalists apply to Labor and Conservative politicians - this is it.

Matthew Spencer should be a household name, but he isn't. The media's priority is getting a "gotcha" moment against Abbott.

Spencer was a then 17-year-old employed at a hardware store operated by the Terang and District Co-op in country Victoria. He worked there after school from 4pm until the store closed at 5.30pm.

His situation was no different from thousands of other young Australians in part-time retail jobs. Spencer was working to earn enough money to pay back his parents for the loan they gave him to buy a car.

In February this year, he was told that he had lost his after-school shift because of changes to the industrial award covering the retail industry. As a result of Labor's "Fair Work" legislation, businesses are banned from offering shifts of less than three hours' duration.

An appeal to allow a two-hour minimum shift and to give special consideration to school students was dismissed. The vice-president of Fair Work Australia, Graeme Watson, acknowledged that jobs would be lost as a result of the award changes but he said the legislation gave him no choice but to uphold the three-hour minimum.

This decision doesn't quite match the ALP's promise made before the 2007 Federal Election that no worker would be left worse off by Labor's award changes.

On Wednesday at the launch of a new trades training program for students, the PM was asked, considering she thought work experience was so important, "why won't you clear the way for kids to get after- school jobs?"

Her answer was: "Well I certainly believe the Fair Work Act has got the balance right." And then the press conference moved on to asylum seekers.

It's no wonder people such as Brambles and Bluescope Chairman and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) board member Graham Kraehe are frustrated. As Kraehe said a few days ago: "It is disappointing that some of the rigidity put in place by Fair Work Australia will not be addressed in the next parliament. There are some flaws in Fair Work Australia that need to be urgently corrected."

Kraehe is right, but his disappointment is misdirected. Given the current situation it would be political suicide for Abbott to suggest changing the Fair Work Act. If he did so the ALP and the ACTU would oppose him tooth and nail, while most business organisations would stand on the sidelines.

If business wants the Coalition to take up the Industrial Relations (IR) fight it is going to have to do more than just talk about it - it will have to fund it as well something it has shown no inclination to do.

This week the ACTU endorsed a $1 levy on every union member to fund advertising against WorkChoices. That's $1.8 million that will be spent to, in effect, campaign against the Coalition.

If business leaders want changes to the Fair Work Act they could urge a levy on companies to pay for a campaign to achieve this. Of course this won't happen. It's much easier to sit in the boardrooms of Martin Place and Collins Street and murmur complaints about the Federal Opposition and its lack of policy bravery.

At least there's one thing that can be said about the union movement: it puts its money where its mouth is. The same can't be said of business.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 July 2010,

John Roskam is the Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

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