Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Behind the puffing and blowing on IR reform

Everyone in politics seems to have something to say about the reform of Howard's unpopular industrial relations laws. For three reasons, all to do with positioning.

On the one hand, there's the same game that happens after every election: the word 'mandate' is bandied about. As Prime Minister elect, Kevin Rudd says he has a mandate, and the reform should simply be passed. Various Liberals agree with him. On the other hand, Liberals such as Nick Minchen and Wilson Tuckey are defending the shards of Howard's legacy.

This, simply because Labor doesn't have a Senate majority. The Liberals do, and will keep it until July 2008, when the new wave of Senators takes office. Thence, it's all horsetrading with the Greens, Steve Fielding, and Nick Xenophon. Nick says he's happy to work with anyone, but that's just because he's angling for wooing from Labor.

The reason the Liberals are even playing the Mandate game is because there is now a fundamental issue at stake: the future of the Liberal Party. Without control of any State governments, there is no great claim to leadership left. It's not (just) about leadership of the Federal parliamentarians, it's about future philosophical direction. This matters particularly because the Liberals are a sometimes ragtag agglomeration of conservatives, right wingers, and "small-L liberals". In recent years, Howard's conservatism has dominated, although factionally the right (who are frequently, but not always, conservative) has dominated.

The inclusion of genuine liberals in a right-of-centre party is rather a peculiarity of Australia's history, not often repeated around the world. It could be said that this provides one of the strengths of Australian politics - maybe even a bastion of the Australian national character. That is, that aspects of tolerance - akin to social progressiveness - pervade both sides of politics, to one degree or another. (And then there's the right wing of the Labor Party...)

That is, if you go with the paradigm of western liberalism... there's not much else on tap anyway.

So various Liberals, in jockeying for position, are running up their banners for ideological leadership at the same time. And in the main it's the Liberal wets that are ready to shuck WorkChoices: Malcolm Turnbull, Chris Pyne, etc. Even Abbott the conservative is jumping off the WorkChoices bandwagon, although one has to wonder whether this is opportunistic or quixotic, as he is definitely no departure from Howard.

Nor is Minchen, who has clearly raised his flag. He and Abbott would single-handedly hold up the hard right of the party.

So when a Liberal talks about the merits of defending WorkChoices or not, the motivation could be to do with their nature, their leadership aspirations, or their ideological aspirations.

For many, there is strong temptation to repudiate Howardism, since the public just did. Whether they do or not depends on who ends up leading, and whether they can counter the traditional strength of the party's right.

Unfortunately, politics in Australia is not fully mirror-imaged. For a long time, the right wing of both sides has been the strongest.

No comments: