Interview: Rock Solid
Industrial: Eight Simple Rules for Employing My Teenage Daughter
Politics: The Johnnie Code
Energy: Fission Fantasies
History: All The Way With Clarrie O'Shea
International: Closer to Home
Economics: Taking the Fizz
Unions: Stronger Together
Review: Montezuma's Revenge
Poetry: Fair Go Gone
The Locker Room
When the Truth Hurts
The Johnnie Code
John Howard is a man constitutionally of the Right, root and branch. He has proved to be remarkably flexible in his attachments and his disposition of public funds as a vehicle for retaining his hold on the government benches. But in one arena his views have been rock solid - that of 'industrial relations'.
Thrust into the portfolio of Business and Consumer Affairs when Malcolm Fraser came to power in December 1975, Howard distinguished himself
With press disclosure of irregularities, in mid-1977 Howard as dumped into a new job of Minister for Special Trade Negotiations, where his major task was flogging uranium (a job to which he has returned almost thirty years later).
By chance, Howard became Treasurer in early 1978, and spent the next five years out of his depth, representing the opinions of his Department. He also ushered in a review of the financial system, courtesy of his then staffer John Hewson.
The chaos of the early 1980s in wages policy, in the context of resources boom and collapse, provided the medium for Howard's involvement in industrial relations. Here were the seeds of his long-term attachment to the dismantling of the arbitration system.
In late 1982 the Government was mooting a wages pause. The Industrial Relations Minister, Ian McPhee, was in favour of legislating to control public sector wages and attempting to use the Arbitration systems, both federal and State, to clamp down on all wage claims for the duration of the pause.
Howard as Treasurer wanted to freeze award wages and allow wage bargaining at a firm or industry level. He wanted to legislate to shut out the Arbitration Commission from the process, preventing the Commission ensuring flow-on from individual wage gains. Howard wanted to reinforce the industry-by-industry bargaining that had arisen when the Government abandoned the centralised system, then focused on wage indexation, in July 1981.
With Labor in office after March 1983, the Opposition's first action was to attack the Government's 'prices and incomes accord', even though Prime Minister Hawke had noted that average weekly earnings had escalated by over 16% in the year following the abandonment of wage indexation.
The Opposition continued its own internal dispute over what IR plank to adopt, with disputing 'dry' forces led by Shadow Treasurer Howard and 'small l liberal' forces led by McPhee. The wages blowout following 'deregulation' meant that the dries were then facing an uphill battle.
McPhee had been the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations only since May. He had replaced the West Australian lawyer Ian Viner, to that date one of only two IR Ministers since the Department was created in 1940 (the other being Clyde Cameron) to not hail from Melbourne, the hotbed of the IR Club. Viner lasted in the job only for a year, before he was removed from the position. Viner had tried to hurry up the snails-pace move of the Department to Canberra from Melbourne, and break it from the alleged hold of the Club. But when Labor got in in 1983, Viner's efforts
But back to 1983. Unabashed by the wages blowout under his watch, Howard used his Budget reply speech in September to attack the 'Industrial Relations Club'. Said Howard: 'the time has come when we have to turn Mr Justice Higgins on his head'.
Now Howard wouldn't have known Henry Bourne Higgins (the man who invented the family basic wage in 1907) from Adam. But that omnipresent right-wing ideologue, none other than Gerard Henderson, had had an article in the June issue of Quadrant attacking the IR Club, whose essence was duly reproduced by the then drop-kick hard line economic columnist in the Australian, Des Keegan.
The only thing going for Howard's agenda was its clear differentiation from Labor, which, under Hawke and Ralph Willis, and magician Bill Kelty, in the reins was a powerhouse act for wages restraint.
In this context, Howard hired Henderson as senior staffer in early 1984. Henderson presided in Howard's office for three years to December 1986, filling Howard's ahistorical head with Henderson's view of history, and revving up Howard on the hideous evil that was the contemporary IR system.
Contemporaneously, the IR system was being examined at Hawke's instigation by a Committee of review, whose members were all part of the 'IR Club'. The 1985 Hancock Report defended the reigning system, and in a pedestrian fashion. The most important consequence of the Hancock review was not its substance but the fact that it mobilised the New Right into action. The H R Nicholls Society was created, holding its 'Arbitration in Contempt' conference in March 1986, and the Business Council of Australia adopted the IR system as its premier bete noire (behind both of which was the monied Hugh Morgan and his satrap ideas man Ray Evans). The New Right has never looked back, and Howard could now cheer from the sidelines.
Howard attained the leadership of the Liberal Opposition in September 1985, replacing Andrew Peacock. But Howard's leadership went down like a wet dish rag. A year later, a pollster discovered that Howard's popularity was rubbish, and the pollster was promptly sacked. Two years later, things had got worse. There was 'a leadership vacuum, a lack of authority'. Howard was judged the 'most unwanted leader of the Liberal Party' since polling (and the Party itself) began in the 1940s. Howard as preferred Liberal leader was down to 14% popularity by the end of 1988.
But the inside pundits agreed - Howard was no 'quitter'. The Liberal Party's federal Director, Tony Eggleton, claimed, presciently: I've worked with every leader of the Liberal Party and he is by far the most resilient and toughest of them all. He's certainly had the roughest road. Yet he has an absolute determination to become Prime Minister.
Meanwhile the McPhee-Howard wet-dry conflict continued. Howard had sacked McPhee from his frontbench in April 1987. In August 1988 McPhee crossed the floor to vote against Howard when Howard wanted an immigration policy to discriminate against Asians. The Victorian Party machine set to work and in April 1989 McPhee lost pre-selection to David Kemp, with Howard watching 'passively' on the sidelines while his greasy staffer Graeme Morris was working the media.
In May, the federal Party decided that Howard's public unpopularity and his failure to support McPhee was too much, and Howard was overturned as leader in favour of Peacock again. This move was to be Howard's short-term loss but long-term gain, with the loss of McPhee a blow to the wet constituency in the Party.
Howard went into limbo for a year, but in April 1990 became Opposition Spokesperson for Industrial Relations, a position he held until he again became leader of the Opposition in January 1995. (In the interim Howard had failed to get support in three successive leadership battles, against Hewson twice and against Alexander Downer.)
Howard's by now long-term ambition on the IR front was given a kick along by the election of Jeff Kennett in Victoria in October 1992. One of Kennett's first acts was an attack on the State arbitration system and the abolition of State-based awards. Howard's Press Club speech immediately afterwards had Howard claiming that a Coalition victory in the upcoming elections would see a common front with Kennett at the federal level on IR. Richard Court won a Coalition victory in Western Australia in February 1993 and proceeded to institute a draconian IR regime in WA, with variations on a Victorian theme.
These developments would have warmed the cockles of Howard's cold heart because the lesson was that radical change was politically achievable. Moreover, the fierce battle that broke out in late 1995 when Rio Tinto led the charge to individual contracts and left its award-based workers on lesser earnings at the Weipa bauxite mine was claimed to be a natural product of Labor's own 1993 legislation, the Industrial Relations Reform Act.
In addition, a survey of leaders of Australia's biggest companies in December 1995 had them preferring Howard over Keating by a wide margin. Howard was on a roll.
Howard announced his IR package in January 1996, with an emphasis on individual contracts, via Australian Workplace Agreements, and the removal of authority of the Industrial Relations Commission from oversight. It was a matter of choice, said Howard. But Government and union movement politicking forced Howard to promise a continuing award regime of some substance and that no worker would be disadvantaged under the new regime.
He was lying, and nobody believed him. A subsequent poll found that 63% of those surveyed did not believe Howard's 'rock solid guarantee'.
(Howard had also promised to tackle 'in a more direct and dedicated fashion the ongoing problem of the current account deficit', and that the Coalition's foreign policy would focus on increasing ties with Asia. Joke.)
No matter. Howard was duly elected in March. All promises were off, and the Workplace Relations Act was introduced into Parliament post haste. The small matter of a hung Senate allowed Howard to legislate his binary IR system, but the more nasty elements were deferred. Finally in July 2005, the Workplace Relations (WorkChoices) Act was legislated and any previous promises of fairness were seen to be hollow.
Howard had achieved his goal of an IR revolution after almost 25 years in the making. This agenda has been the one constant in his political life. One has to give it to Howard for his patience. But of course, he has had behind him the considerable resources of the New Right and its corporate backers.
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