Mandate theory and WorkChoices

In terms of legislation popularity, the WorkChoices package of reforms will likely go down as one of the most disastrous in the nation’s history. In March 2007, an AC Nielsen poll reported that just 24% of respondents supported WorkChoices. Despite a mammoth advertising campaign including the shamelessly sneaky dropping of the WorkChoices tag from government materials, the policy is indisputably one of the key factors that contributed to the Howard Government’s downfall at the hands of voters in November 2007.

It is this basic fact that underpins Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s strongly-phrased ultimatum that the government’s first tranche of industrial relations reforms should be passed by the parliament (in other words, the Opposition) by Easter. Given her breadth of her super-portfolio, Gillard is sure to be keenly aware that if she is to deliver on the Rudd Opposition’s pre-election commitments over the coming term, the less politically controversial aspects of the government’s agenda need to be addressed quickly. Given that high-profile Opposition members (no less than the Opposition Leader) have already been quoted as saying that “WorkChoices is dead”, and that support for the legislation has always lagged significantly behind opposition, ratification of the incoming government’s revised IR platform would seem to be a political fait accompli.

Well, it isn’t according to some. From her usual perch in The Australian on Monday, Janet Albrechtsen concocted a really quite elaborate argument demolishing “mandate theory” in an effort to explain why the new government can not merely assume that it has a mandate to push its legislative changes through:

Mandate theory in Australia is a similarly ethereal and, dare one suggest, phony device.

Indeed, the claim by the Prime Minister and Julia Gillard that the 2007 election result gives the Coalition no choice but to support Labor’s industrial relations legislation, to be rolled out in parliament today, is not merely intellectually bogus but stupendously hypocritical. 

With the aid of a sweeping host in references covering outspoken former Labor leaders Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating, all the way through the long and desperate years Federal Labor spent in the wilderness of Opposition, Albrechtsen seeks to reinforce this central point. Unfortunately, I think she misunderstands the point. I don’t think Rudd or Gillard are seriously suggesting that the Opposition has a strict ethical imperative to support its legislation, as a result of the mandate provided by Australia in November 2007. The Opposition can of course do whatever it wants to make trouble for the government within reasonable behavioural bounds, and after over a decade of scratching around opposite the government benches, there is no doubt that just about every member of the Labor parliamentary caucus understands this point quite keenly. Brendan Nelson’s Opposition are well within their rights, in a simplistic sense, to use their Senate majority to force an inquiry into the government’s proposed industrial relations changes.

However, the political realities are quite different, and it is this point that Albrechtsen seems to gloss over entirely amidst her self-satisfying obsession with hammering Labor on “mandate theory” in this column. As nobody who has observed Australian politics over the last couple of years seriously doubts, WorkChoices was not a popular piece of legislation. The merits and demerits of the legislation are debatable, but the unpopularity of the legislation, ably assisted by an aggressive and big spending union campaign, was not. If the Opposition uses its temporary blocking majority in the Senate to unreasonably delay the passage of the government’s IR reforms, there is a very strong possibility that it will prove politically destructive for them. The union movement behemoth will re-emerge. Rudd and Gillard will feel quite justified in reminding their supporters that the Coalition just doesn’t seem to want to listen to what they were told by Australia on election day. Brendan Nelson, already beleaguered and seeming to all the world like the Opposition’s version of Simon Crean (viz. “Mr. 15%”), can hardly withstand the turmoil that a further public backlash against his leadership would provide.

To state it succinctly, Albrechtsen is dead right when she says that the Opposition effectively has a mandate to block the government’s reforms if it so desires, given that it controls the Senate. Perhaps in her next column, she will reveal the location of the inexhaustible supply of political capital that she plans to provide to the Coalition to support their endeavours in this area. Gillard will no doubt bring the shovel.

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