Reith blasts Abbott on IR reform
Michelle Grattan, The Age
June 28, 2011
FORMER Howard government workplace relations minister Peter Reith has accused Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of dragging his feet on industrial relations reform.
In a stinging criticism of the man whose vote cost him the Liberal Party federal presidency, Mr Reith has compared Mr Abbott's conservative position unfavorably with the bolder approaches on workplace issues taken by Ted Baillieu in Victoria and Barry O'Farrell in NSW.
Writing in The Age, Mr Reith points out that Mr Baillieu and Mr O'Farrell both backed him in the Liberal presidency ballot, while Mr Abbott and Western Australia's Colin Barnett - both workplace relations conservatives - voted for incumbent Alan Stockdale, who won 57-56.
Advertisement: Story continues below ''It seems that the reformers on workplace relations were also supporters for party reform; once a reformer, always a reformer,'' Mr Reith writes.
A Reith campaign for the Coalition to take a robust industrial relations reform program to the next federal election will irk Mr Abbott because it will encourage those within the party who believe the opposition must advocate change. They include senior frontbenchers Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb and a ginger group of younger backbenchers.
Mr Abbott wants to play down industrial relations as much as possible, fearing Labor's ability to frighten voters about a possible return to WorkChoices.
Reverberations from the bitter Liberal presidency contest continued yesterday, with Reith supporters insisting Mr Abbott had encouraged Mr Reith to run. A senior source in the Stockdale camp, meanwhile, said Mr Abbott had indicated several times that he would vote for Mr Stockdale, to whom he showed his ballot paper.
The Liberals are gearing up for a battle over how much to implement of Mr Reith's blueprint to bring more democracy into the party. The blueprint criticises the ''fiefdom'' at the top, with a tight exclusive relationship between the leader, president and party director, Brian Loughnane.
In his article in The Age today, Mr Reith writes that he promised Mr Abbott that, as party president, he would suspend public advocacy of workplace reform, thinking this was the best way he could support Mr Abbott and ''quietly encourage good policy''.
He had been more than surprised to find after the ballot that Mr Abbott had thrown his support behind Mr Stockdale. ''I have no idea why,'' he writes.
The Liberal Party has to take responsibility for labour market reform, Mr Reith writes.
These issues ''are at the heart of productivity and, in the end, about living standards. Australia's productivity performance has been poor in recent years. We cannot pretend that this problem does not exist''.
In a line going to the heart of Mr Abbott's fears, he says: ''Too many people are too worried about WorkChoices.
''If we jump in fright every time Nick Minchin says the ALP is salivating at the thought of the Liberals doing something necessary, then Australia's prospects are not looking good.''
Senator Minchin, backing Mr Stockdale, warned Labor would be able to rev up a damaging campaign on IR if Mr Reith became president.
Mr Reith points out that Mr O'Farrell and Mr Baillieu have not been deterred from industrial relations initiatives by Labor reprises of the WorkChoices bogyman. ''Luckily these two premiers will not be deterred by a scare campaign and they will act in the public
interest. By addressing practical problems with specific reforms, these premiers are demonstrating an approach that Tony could emulate,'' Mr Reith writes. He says Mr Abbott's current policy is that the workplace issue ''is dead, buried and cremated''.
''The ambivalence about workplace relations reform on show at the Liberal meeting is a continuing concern not just for me but for a growing number of Australians running businesses large and small. The Liberals must win at the next election but winning is not enough.
''Let's aim higher than a rerun of the Fraser years. In the same way that Baillieu and O'Farrell have put aside fears about the bogyman the next federal government also needs to be pro-reform''.
He welcomes Mr Abbott's call for the business community to make the case for reform but adds pointedly: ''I hope he means it''.