WorkChoices belongs in the past: Abbott

Former prime minister John Howard with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Picture: ANDREW MEARESOpposition Leader Tony Abbott has moved to shut down speculation the Coalition will return to WorkChoices, saying there will be “no going back to the past”.

Earlier today, the government seized on a call from John Howard to return to individual employment contracts, saying you could ”bet your bottom dollar” that Mr Abbott would bring back WorkChoices.

“Let’s face it: John Howard is two prime ministers ago, John Howard is three Liberal leaders ago. That was then, this is now,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Mackay today.

In a speech given earlier this month but published today in The Australian Financial Review, the former prime minister called on the Opposition Leader to bring back individual contracts and toughen up unfair dismissal laws.

Despite the unpopularity of WorkChoices, Mr Howard said the industrial relations regime was not the ”main reason” the Coalition lost government in 2007.

”I think we have to address this issue again,” he told a forum hosted by Westpac.

”If you’re asking me, there is no reason why this country should not go back to the workplace system we had between 1996 and 2005, where you had individual contracts.”

This morning, Treasurer Wayne Swan said Mr Howard’s comments indicated the Coalition would bring back WorkChoices.

”If Mr Howard, who was a Liberal prime minister for 12 years, is talking about bringing back WorkChoices, then you can bet your bottom dollar that Mr Abbott is bringing back WorkChoices,” he told reporters in Canberra.

But Mr Abbott said the Coalition would not seek to be ideological in the industrial relations arena.

“There will be cautious, careful, responsible change within the framework of the existing [Fair Work] Act,” he said. ”There is no going back to the past.”

This follows Mr Abbott’s often repeated declarations that WorkChoices is ”dead, buried and cremated” and Labor’s long-running argument that the industrial relations regime would return under an Abbott-led Coalition government.

Liberal backbencher Steve Ciobo was more outspoken today, adding his support for individual contracts and a relaxation of unfair dismal laws.

He told Sky News that small businesses were “doing it tough” and needed the “monkey of regulation” of their back.

Mr Ciobo said it was “absurd” that in this day and age individuals could not have a contract with their employers.

The Liberal MP also dismissed Mr Swan’s comments about WorkChoices as a ”tired, old argument” and said the Treasurer should ”get over” himself.

”It just shows what a broken old man Wayne Swan is,” Mr Ciobo said.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten called on Mr Abbott to reveal his industrial relation policy and ”repudiate his old boss, Mr Howard, or indeed agree with him”.

Mr Shorten said Mr Howard had made the comments in frustration at his protege’s “timidity” on the Coalition’s policy plans.

‘‘We all know the opposition, or at least the strategists in the opposition leader’s office, think that a workplace relations debate is the equivalent of them eating a bowl of rat poison,’’ Mr Shorten said. ‘‘Even though we know that many in the opposition … are itching for that debate.’’

Claiming the Coalition intended to strip workers of penalty rates, Mr Shorten said such benefits for thousands of workers, including hospitality and office shift workers, meant the difference “between making ends meet and not making ends meet”.

“The Coalition has an IR policy in witness protection,” he said. ”We want a debate on industrial relations … We say to Mr Abbott, bring it on. Politics should not be a guessing game.”

Mr Swan also seized on positive comments Mr Howard made about the Australian economy, arguing the former prime minister had ”belled the cat” on the Coalition’s carbon tax ”scare tactics”.

In his Westpac address, Mr Howard said: ”When the Prime Minister and the Treasurer say that the Australian economy is doing better than most, they are right. I agree with them.”

Mr Howard also said there was ”no doubt” the Australian economy was performing relatively well, but added the ”overwhelming” reason for this was found in Australia’s ”geography” or mineral resources.

Describing the Westpac speech as ”remarkable”, Mr Swan said Mr Abbott should follow suit and stop ”trash talking” Australia’s economy.

”If it’s good enough for John Howard to acknowledge the strength of the Australian economy, it ought to be good enough for Tony Abbott,” Mr Swan said.

With Jessica Wright

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