IR is now Abbott's carbon tax

Just as the Greens failed to foresee their carbon push draining Labor's power, it seems some Liberals are forgetting voters' susceptibility to swallow a 'return to WorkChoices' argument.

The leaking of comments by John Howard at an off-the-record Westpac business forum will have one important immediate effect – the restriction of honest, open debate behind closed doors.

The Chatham House principle that was breached when a recording of his remarks was handed to the Fairfax media – not to mention federal law that protects the 'perception of privacy' when such recordings are disallowed as evidence in our courts – is intended to encourage frankness and honesty.

Who'll have the guts to speak freely at the next business or political forum? Will each discussion start with "please turn off your mobile and hand in your dictaphones"?

On the other hand, whatever else you might think about Howard, his extraordinary career marks him out as one Australia's canniest political operators of all time.

Did he mean for those comments to be leaked? It's impossible to say, but it certainly recalls the episode of the US political drama 'The West Wing' in which President Bartlett fails to notice the 'on' light on a TV camera, and says some very candid things that are instantly relayed around the nation.

The difference is that Bartlett pours scorn on his political opponent (later intimating to a colleague that he knew full well the camera was on) whereas Howard's comments will hurt his greatest ever protege, Tony Abbott.

It hasn't been a good week for Abbott. Having avoided the ABC's 7.30 program for so long, his grilling by Leigh Sales last week made him look either ignorant or afraid of major policy debates – in a way John Howard never was.

(In passing, it's worth noting that former leader Malcolm Turnbull also copped a pretty good hiding over his broadband policy from the ABC's Lateline presenter, Emma Alberici, last Tuesday evening.)

Then a few days later, as Abbott tried to hose down speculation about the apocryphal 'return to WorkChoices', serial IR blabbermouth Steve Ciobo told Sky News: "The kind of complete lack of leadership by people like Wayne Swan to make out that it should actually be illegal for an employer and employee to have an individual contract, it's just ridiculous."

The honourable member for Moncrieff also backed Howard's (private) call for unfair dismissal laws to be reviewed: "And frankly the last thing that [SMEs] need is to be punished for making a poor employment decision, where they get someone who turns out to be a bit of a bad egg..."

Indeed. Or worse, a bounder, cad or rotter.

The net result for Abbott is probably his worst week as leader since the 2010 election.

Last Monday's Newspoll put Labor at a primary vote of 35 per cent – well short of the 38 per cent that allowed Gillard to form a minority government, but well up from the low-water mark of 26 per cent.

Then Leigh Sales revealed that Abbott's razor sharp advisors, lead by the formidable Peta Credlin, had become more like the hare in a tortoise-and-hare race by failing to prep Abbott on the reasons behind BHP's pulling of investment from the Olympics Dam project.

That conversation, in essence, involved BHP and Leigh Sales saying "Labor's tax regime had nothing to do with the decision", and Abbott saying "never mind what BHP actually says, it is due to the carbon and mining taxes".

And then came the Howard controversy. By attacking Swan, the IR true-believer Ciobo has also shone a spotlight on Abbott's "lack of leadership" on the issue.

What Ciobo seems to forget is that if the Australian people can be duped repeatedly on the severity of the carbon tax package – the very source of Abbott's success so far – then they can also be repeatedly duped with the 'return to WorkChoices' argument.

Labor remains likely to lose power, and see its biggest reform – carbon pricing – ripped up by Abbott. Its mistake was to give too much ground to the Greens, who insisted on the 'fixed-price' period of the ETS, that made it look a bit like a tax. Had they not pushed for this, Gillard would not be suffering the fallout over having lied about a 'carbon tax' – because she never promised not to introduce an ETS.

In short, the Greens pushed hard for what they really wanted, and forgot that if Labor lost power, they'd end up with no carbon price at all.

Similarly, Ciobo, and other backbenchers privately or publically agitating for stronger IR reforms, are pushing too hard for what they really want, and forgetting that unless Abbott wins the election, there'll be no IR reforms at all.

In political terms, then, Abbott's IR comments are spot on: that there are some adjustments that need to be made to Labor's flexibility provisions in the Fair Work Act, but nothing major.

It's a terrible indictment of Australian political discourse that both these issues are so grossly misunderstood by the electorate. The Labor carbon pricing package is very mild policy, that will have almost no effect on the economy (and only a small impact on carbon emissions).

Likewise, the reforms that Ciobo and Howard would like to see are also pretty mild changes – nothing like the WorkChoices package that played such a large role in the 2007 voter backlash against Howard.

But these are the political realities that both sides have to work with. Abbott's endured a week of beatings, and one can only suppose it will be Gillard's turn again soon.

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