Slamming Abbott on SPCA isn't enough

The Coalition's charge against SPCA workers could hand Bill Shorten a tremendous political advantage. An accord with workers could be just the ticket for Labor, but Shorten would need to bring unions to heel.

As the reality of the SPCA situation hits home, there are two questions that need answering: one immediate, one longer term.

The immediate question is what political advantage have Prime Minister Abbott and Treasure Hockey given to opposition leader Bill Shorten, with their charge against the hapless workers of SPCA?

The accusation of ‘lying’, which Liberal backbencher Sharman Stone will no doubt lose some sleep over in the weeks ahead, is damaging. So is the feeling, among voters, that the government’s leadership team weren’t the only ones misrepresenting the situation. Many voices were raised to back then before the facts were clear.

Each assertion Abbott and Hockey make will be taken with a pinch of salt for a good while to come.

One would expect Shorten to make hay from this incident. But can he? The opposition leader’s performance to date has been meeker, milder than his supporters hoped. The thundering act of opprobrium required here may be beyond him. We shall see.

But that immediate question also feeds into the longer-term question. Is Shorten here just to stoke and then lead a union war with the Abbott government? While there are no doubt elements of the left who think he should, three decades of industrial relations experience says his leadership will be defined by restraint.

As Australia firms struggle to compete in the tough business environment of 21st century Asia, the ‘great reckoning’ (The Great Australian Reckoning is upon us, January 30), as I have called it, is not optional. It’s the crushing pressure that will reshape Australia for better or ill.

To recap, the end of the terms of trade boom, the end of the construction phase of the mining boom, and the realisation that Australia is a price-taker on just about everything ­– including the sometimes manipulated prices of our core commodities – means we have to rapidly expand value-added export industries to take up the slack in employment and incomes.

Fruit processing is just one piece of that jigsaw, but the SPCA debate has been first about the state’s role in seed funding new investments. It's ugly, and it goes against the grain of those who see a better economy flowering without government help.

But in this case, as industry minister Ian Macfarlane and many of his Liberal Party colleagues began by arguing – with strong support from the Nationals – the jobs involved are just too valuable in an era of economic transition.

Now that the Labor opposition in Victoria is trying to out-bid the Napthine government in stumping up $30 million to help SPCA, it looks likely the decision of whether or not to invest in the new plant, to be made on February 18, could still go the workers’ way.

That said, the SPCA fracas was not only about the role of the state in business, but also shines a spotlight on a bigger question for Shorten. I have suggested a number of times that if Shorten is to play the historic role expected of him, he will have to be the author of some kind of new ‘accord’ with Australian workers. We simply won’t navigate the ‘great reckoning’ without some kind of shift in workers’ expectations.

Abbott and Hockey have revealed their version of this new pact: a fairly ruthless cutting out of dead wood to allow workers and managers to grow up incredibly quickly. It’s a kind of ‘take it or leave it’ approach.

That’s a pretty big cultural shift of a nation in which we’ve all had it so good for so long. The question facing Abbott is whether new jobs that he hopes will spring up to replace old can happen in time to save the Coalition from electoral wipeout in 2016. Again, we shall see.

But on the other side of parliament, Shorten is in a position to start sketching out a new deal with workers; one that would return union power to a middle ground. The fear among many national commentators is that Shorten’s links to the ‘bad’ elements of the union movement are just too strong, and that he would not be able to bring them to heel.

If he could, however, Shorten would have a vast terrain of political advantage before him. The federal government cannot keep borrowing to prop up jobs, and the role of small, targeted deals like the SPCA offer made by the Gillard government is limited.

When Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Bill Kelty, Simon Crean and others set about restraining wages growth in the 1980s and then creating enterprise bargaining to replace to the old systems of arbitration, they needed something to buy the voters’ acceptance with.

With Medicare, tax reform and cuts, fiscal restraint (under Hawke), the super guarantee, and the flexible pay and conditions in the enterprise bargaining process., the Hawke and Keating governments were able to give something in return for telling the nation’s workers to tighten their belts.

Now, we have Abbott and Hockey saying ‘let the invisible hand of the market tighten your belts’. Shorten’s comeback will have to be good if is to offer any realistic alternative.

There is one giant outstanding issue for Australian families that has not been adequately dealt with - something Shorten could use to buy the respect of workers who he has to tell that the good days are over.

That issue is good, affordable childcare. Not paid parental leave, but childcare in all its other manifestations.

With a national scheme to sort out this thorn in the side of every working family, Shorten could offer a new deal – less pay, but a more productive and better life ahead.

No doubt others will see different areas in which an ‘accord’ could be struck. Whatever the deal, if Labor does not formulate a plan and argue it consistently up to 2016, any political advantage from the SPCA case will be lost.

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