Howard’s out-of-work choice?

The comments by John Howard reprinted in this newspaper today illustrate the problems that the Coalition will have trying to convince the electorate of the value of its industrial relations plan during the upcoming election campaign. WorkChoices is unpopular, and it’s helped Labor enormously, so the Prime Minister knows he’s going to have to combat his critics if he’s going to keep his job. This speech shows how the PM plans to go on the offensive in trying to link Australia’s economic prosperity to WorkChoices, as he needs to do if he’s to have any chance of keeping his job. On the evidence of this speech, his chances of winning the argument, in this policy area at least, are not good.

It’s typical of the Howard approach to politicking to portray a series of threats to our relaxed and comfortable existence. We were told that re-electing the Prime Minister was our only defence against the scourges of terrorism, refugees and higher interest rates, and a convincing majority of us believed it. As ever, John Howard has painted an idyllic picture of the "relaxed and comfortable" Australian way of life – in this instance a "prosperous, secure and fair Australia – a confident nation at ease with the world and with itself." But this time, the threat is much less immediate. It’s "regulation" of the economy, and in particular, of working arrangements.

The problem is that this time the scare campaign lies with Howard’s opponents. The unions’ ability to play on ordinary Australians’ fears of lower pay and more arduous conditions is far more emotive than abstract talk about international economic competitiveness. He says "Work Choices is not just about more jobs and higher wages", without, of course, having proven that it is – particularly the latter. But people associate the policy with losing their jobs to people who will work for lower wages.

"Crucially, the industrial relations system Kevin Rudd has promised to give us will bring back the worst excesses of centralised wage fixation," Howard says. And for business owners, this is probably a cause for concern. But most Australians don’t own business, so they see centralised wage fixation not as an ideological evil, as Howard does, but as a welcome safety net. "Rudd has made his work choice. He has put union power ahead of workers’ jobs," Howard says. But the question is this. Who is going going to change their vote on this basis? Which person who isn’t already a dyed-in-the-wool Coalition supporter will trust John Howard this time? Because most people thinks WorkChoices is about preserving or creating jobs. They think it’s about reducing wages, removing benefits and forcing people onto precarious AWAs.

It’s also fascinating to see him try to link in the economy and the environment, where he says "Economic growth and technological change have given mankind not just greater material wealth, but also cleaner air and water." That’s an extremely contentious statement, given the destruction wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the environmental degradation evident around the world in rapildy developing countries. It might be more fair to say that technology has recently started to help us repair the air and water from the severe damage wrought by economic growth. And no thanks, of course, to the years of myopia on climate change by his government that see Tim Flannery pondering returning his Australian Of The Year award, if you believe today’s Crikey.

But it makes sense strategically. As Gerard Henderson noted yesterday, the polls show that voters still view the Coalition as considerably better on economic management – even if not much else at present. We all know that John Howard is basically the last person to get on the green bandwagon – showing just how deeply climate change has penetrated into the national consciousness in the past few years. By arguing that environmental improvement depends on sound economic management, he’s trying to link his policy strong suit with his weakest. It’s a clever intellectual pirouhette, but not a convincing one.

To put his arguments together, then, he seems to be saying that protecting the environment depends on a strong economy, which depends on WorkChoices. A very tenuous argument.

Right now, people are nervous about WorkChoices and they’re nervous about climate change. And on these issues, Kevin Rudd seems more credible than Kim Beazley ever did. That’s why he’s ahead of the polls. And his opponent is going to need a lot more than this kind of sophistry to claw the numbers back.

Which is not to say he won’t. Anything could happen. A serious security issue could send the voters rushing back to the "MAn of Steel".But if this nebulous argument is the best John Howard can muster to defend a policy that has always seemed like a largely ideological crusade to crush the unions, rather than a bold vision for Australia’s future, then the Prime Minister is the one facing imminent dismissal.

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