An IR cartoon, but Abbott's not laughing

Tony Abbott likely advocates individual workplace contracts with a no disadvantage test. But the Coalition has turned national debate into such a caricature it's impossible for anyone to state their true position.

It is a measure of what a disaster 'WorkChoices' was for Australia that the Coalition can’t even go back to something that isn’t it.

In a recent speech John Howard called for a return to pre-2005 individual contracts – that is, before the so-called WorkChoices amendments removed the no disadvantage test for new awards and contracts.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has now had to remove nostalgia from his platform: "that was then, this is now. John Howard is two prime ministers ago and three Liberals leaders ago”.

Obviously it is a sad reflection on modern politics that we can’t have a sensible debate about anything, and that Oppositions cannot have policies. The last Opposition Leader to have a policy was John Hewson in 1993 and his humiliation paved the way for six subsequent elections in which dissembling and backside-covering was the name of the game. We are heading for a seventh.

Everyone now knows that the ALP’s outlawing of individual workplace agreements was a bad idea for the country as the nation is hit by the double whammy of rising costs and a high dollar.

John Howard made it possible for firms to bypass unions and deal directly with their employees if both sides wanted that; the union-funded ALP made it impossible again.

One of the reasons the ALP won the 2007 elections was that, in 2005, new amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 1996 removed the so-called no disadvantage test, which allowed individual agreements to remove penalty rates.

The decision by Howard and his then minister Kevin Andrews to knock off penalty rates has turned out to be a long-term disaster. I thought then, and still think, that the no disadvantage test should not have been removed but customers don’t pay any more for their goods and services on weekends so firms shouldn’t have to pay their staff more if the employees are happy with a deal.

John Howard now agrees. He advocates individual contracts with the no disadvantage test, as embodied in the 1996-2005 law.

I’d say Tony Abbott definitely agrees with this but can’t say so. The reason is that he has so distorted the national debate with such wildly cartoonish characterisations of Labor government policies, like the carbon tax and refugee processing, that sensible policy discussion has become impossible.

He knows he would get his own medicine if he adopted any policy that involved any amendment whatsoever to the current IR laws.

So because of the dysfunctional state of national politics, Australian companies are reduced to hoping that the Opposition can slip into government while lying about its intentions on the subject of individual contracts. They want him to say: "There will be no individual contracts under a government I lead”, in the manner of Julia Gillard on the subject of carbon tax.

We now have both major parties adopting policies that everyone knows they don’t believe in, because power is more important than ideals. No wonder the Greens are doing well.

As for workplace relations, in my view it is a matter of competition policy: the position of unions in bargaining should not be guaranteed by law but should be purely a matter for workers to decide. The law should protect the workers’ conditions, but not the unionists’ jobs.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter

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