Green cop, red cop?

With Adam Bandt as deputy, Christine Milne can take a more centrist line on issues as they arise in the Senate. If she doesn't there'll be little room to manoeuvre when businesses topple and joblessness rises.

Is Adam Bandt playing 'bad cop' to Christine Milne's 'good'? Yesterday he stared menacingly across the interrogation table, stubbed out a cigarette, and told employers that in here, no one can hear you scream.

Perhaps just after he's picked up a telephone book with which to beat the detainee about the head, Milne will burst into the room to stay his hand – "Take a few minutes Officer Bandt, I'll handle this."

The war of words yesterday was over the Greens' role as the Senate's balance of power party, and whether or not they'll use that role, as the Democrats did, to "take the harsher edges off the legislative program of the government of the day", as ACCI boss Peter Anderson put it in a speech to the Australian Labour and Employment Relations Association (the new name adopted by what was formerly the Industrial Relations Society).

Anderson is pretty sure the Greens will only add "harsher edges" as amendments to the Fair Work Act are proposed when the current review of the Act is concluded.

In his speech Anderson said: "What I do urge is that the Greens, in the exercise of their balance of power functions in the Senate, take a more centrist position on specific Bills, given that much of their ideology is not the majority view of the community

"From the 1980s until 2005 economic reform was achieved through the parliament with a compromise here and there, such as Paul Keating’s introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1993 (but with secondary boycott provisions remaining), Peter Reith’s statutory individual bargaining in 1996 (but with a no disadvantage test) and John Howard’s goods and services tax in 1998 (but with food, health and education exempt).

"A hard collectivist line on industrial relations might appeal to the faithful, but it’s hardly the basis for balance in a modern industrial relations framework."

Bandt reacted with a familiar and proven line – that the Greens are "protecting people's rights at work".

He said in a statement: "Productivity increases will come by building better cities and investing in education, not by lowering wages and conditions.

"The majority of the community is with the Greens in protecting people's rights at work. Big business needs to stop its repeated assaults on wages and conditions and instead work with the Greens to build a 21st century clean energy economy that will lift living standards for all of us."

Well, yes and no. There are two different time-scales at work here. For many of Anderson's members, there is no time to boost productivity in the way Bandt is suggesting. Large sections of the non-resources economy teeter on the brink of recession, a fact driven home by comments Prime Minister Gillard will deliver in a speech later today that will increase pressure on the RBA to cut rates.

To firms in what Gillard calls "a number of sectors of the economy most under strain [which] are arguably more sensitive to interest rates", controversial Fair Work Amendments – particularly those pertaining to abolishing penalty rates for the struggling hospitality industry – are life and death decisions. Their timeframe is months, while Bandt's nation building vision would take years.

Anderson said yesterday: "We know that clear thinking about industrial relations is never a popularity contest."

That's right. It's an unpopularity contest. And ACCI will win that one in voters' eyes, and the Coalition will be tarred with the same brush.

Promising to "protect rights at work" proved a deadly political weapon for the ALP at the 2007 election, and it will now be used by the Greens to try to add more House of Reps seats at the 2013 election.

The Greens smell blood in the water right now. Besides hoping to keep winning support away from Labor, they see new constituencies emerging from Australia's growing pool of swing voters and a rights at work campaign will at least appeal to young voters in that pool – many of whom have jobs in the struggling sectors such as retail and hospitality.

Hammering the 'rights at work theme' is a populist strategy and the Greens will have no qualms about using it, when they themselves are up against one the most successful populist campaigns in Australian history – the Coalition's daily attacks on the Greens' cherished carbon pricing.

The beauty of having Adam Bandt as deputy is that new Greens leader Christine Milne can take a more centrist line on the issues as they arise in the Senate. Let the bad cop yell across the table, then burst in to the room and deliver something like moderate reforms to the Fair Work Act.

If she does not, she is leading the Greens down a hard-left road that leaves them little room to manoeuvre when businesses topple, joblessness increases and the ideological purity of 'rights at work' is seen in the cold light of sectoral recession.

Anderson told me yesterday that he wants the Greens to remember the days of the Labor-unions accords, under which many wages fell in real terms, allowing the economy to grow and the 'social wage' (Medicare and the super guarantee) to rise.

That's not as mouth-frothingly right wing as the Greens will make out. Milne's job is clear – let the lieutenant have his say, but preside over a Greens Senate team that balances 'rights at work' with actually having some kind of 'work' at all.

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