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Qantas dispute - part of a major workplace upheaval

By Malcolm Colless - posted Monday, 31 October 2011

The media has variously compared the industrial war inside Qantas to the 1989 pilots' dispute, which saw domestic airline services crippled, and the 1998 showdown on the

nation's waterfront when Patrick Stevedores took on the Maritime Union of Australia in a showdown over work practices.

The Qantas dispute certainly shares the high drama associated with these earlier issues but it has to be seen in a broader political and industrial context. While not underestimating for a minute the economic impact of the Qantas shutdown it is part of a grassfire of industrial disputes spreading across the country. This has engulfed a cross section of public servants including those in the maritime and airline industries, namely customs employees.


This surge in industrial activity may well reflect a belief within the union movement that this is the last chance to lock in multi-year pay rise deals with employers in government as well as the private sector before Labor is kicked out of power at the next federal election.

For Prime Minister Julia Gillard it is very much a case of the chickens coming home to roost. After all she was the architect behind the current industrial framework which we were assured would bring fairness and stability to the shop floor in place of the Howard Government's Work Choices policy.

Gillard drove this with unrelenting vigour backed by the physical and financial support of the ACTU through the 2007 election campaign. She then put this into effect as Deputy Prime MInister and Minister for Education and Workplace Relations after Labor came to power under Kevin Rudd.

In recent months the Government and the unions have promised to return to their successful anti-Work Choices campaign in the lead up to the next election to scare off any conservative attempt to overhaul Gillard's policy which swung the industrial balance of power sharply in the unions' favour.

The Qantas dispute is a major test, so far, for her industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, but the way things are going it won't be the last.

Apart from rattling the sabre over Work Choices and firing a salvo at Qantas management's lockout decision, the ACTU has been noticeably quiet on the turbulence which is affecting industry and the economy on numerous fronts. It seems to clearly lack the political clout and relevance that it enjoyed in bygone years.


Meanwhile all of this puts pressure on the conservative Opposition to come up with a viable industrial relations policy that it can take into Government. It needs a workable alternative to Gillard's industrial relations policy and it needs to get a mandate for this at the election if it wants to emerge with economic credibility.

Work Choices had its flaws. Even John Howard now concedes that scrapping the no disadvantage test was one of the biggest mistakes he made. Labor and the unions will attack any industrial relations policy which Tony Abbott brings down as the son of Work Choices no matter what it contains.

But Abbott cannot allow himself to be intimidated by this. The simple fact is that Gillard's Fair Work alternative has failed and must be replaced if Australia is to be seen as a safe haven for investment.

While time is running out for Labor the time has come for Abbott to step up to the plate on this fundamental policy issue and stare down his detractors outside, and also inside, the coalition.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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