Friday, May 14, 2010

Abbott Signals Return To Work Choices

So far, Tony Abbott and the opposition have been scoring political runs by highlighting the failures of the government. And there has been plenty of ammunition to work with: the home insulation debacle, perceptions of wasted money in the school hall construction program, broken promises on childcare centres and private health insurance, and policy backflips on climate change and even the COAG health agreement which wound up leaving the states in charge of the implementation. Despite the legitimate reasons for borrowing money to prop up the economy and protect jobs, the budget deficit has also provided the opportunity for the opposition to accuse the government of spending too much, at the cost of too much debt, with too little to show for it. That’s why Tony Abbott chose to fling Kevin Rudd’s own words back at him last night in the Budget Reply speech and proclaim loudly that “This reckless spending must stop.”

Of course, what we saw last night was more than just a budget reply. It was a campaign speech for the election due to be held before the year is out. As such, the strident criticism is only to be expected, and as long as it seems to be striking a chord in the opinion polls we can be sure that it will continue. However, with the reality of the election drawing ever closer, it’s time for Tony Abbott to deliver more than just criticism. It’s time for him to start outlining just exactly what he would do if he becomes Prime Minister. On this front last night’s speech offered very little, but the little that it did offer should sound a warning. Aside from a nebulous promise to bring the budget back to surplus “at least as quickly” as the government, and a plan to trim the public service through natural attrition over two years, the big moment for Tony Abbott was near the end of the speech when he mounted what can only be seen as a defence of the old Work Choices policy.

Despite prefacing his remarks with the observation that we all know that the previous government went too far, the tone of his voice and the expression on his face seemed to suggest that he didn’t really believe it. Then came the “but”, and everything that followed seemed be an argument that despite its unpopularity, Work Choices was responsible for creating the prosperity that saved us from the worst effects of the Global Financial Crisis. Tony Abbott gave every appearance of suggesting that Work Choices was the right policy and that the Australian people were the ones who had made the mistake for rejecting it. He gave every appearance of blaming us for having the stupidity not to recognize how well off we all were thanks to Work Choices and the Howard Government. Those were not his words, but the nature of his argument can easily be construed as conveying that meaning. Then he sealed it with his promise to bring back individual contracts.

The reason John Howard was so successful was that he was able to appeal to middle Australia, as well as those who aspired to move up to the middle class. He gave rise to the phenomenon of the so called “Howard Battlers”. These were the people who maybe started with very little, but were prepared to work there way to prosperity. They were described as the aspirational voters. Then Work Choices disempowered workers who aspired to better things by eroding their pay and conditions, taking away their bargaining power in the workplace, and disenfranchising them after they trusted John Howard to look after their best interests. That’s when Howard’s Battlers became Rudd’s Working Families. Now, Tony Abbott has the opportunity to win back those working families and convert them into Abbott’s Battlers.

That’s not going to happen if he disenfranchises them again by taking away the means for them to pursue their aspirations.

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