The Prime Minister knows he owes his extraordinary electoral success to the support of the so-called Howard battlers, who are not going to be particularly pleased about a hard-hearted industrial relations system.
The Howard Government’s still unseen industrial relations reforms are creating considerable grief in the wider electorate – and the details of the package are still three months away.
The Government has not handled the reform package at all well, failing to explain why such radical reforms are necessary and compounding this by botching the delivery.
More seriously though, there appears to be a rift inside the Government as well, which suggests the Government itself is in two minds about how far it believes it must go in smashing the current system to make way for a new industrial landscape.
The usually sure-footed Kevin Andrews has found himself in the middle, trying to argue the merits of a package which appears to be a work in progress.
Recent media reports about workers’ rights to a meal break and paid public holidays being removed under the proposals uncovered deep tensions within the Government over the direction of its policy.
The Government was already feeling the heat from what has been an expensive, clever and strategic advertising campaign funded by the ACTU, which views the proposed reforms as the greatest threat to organised labour in 100 years.
But the latest problems were also self-made, coming from within senior Coalition ranks and caused by a split between the Government’s political ideologues and the moderate conservatives.
More broadly, it signalled a clash between economic and family policy.
Under the proposed reform package, minimum workers’ rights will be reduced from around 20 conditions to just five.
The new minimum standards will be a minimum hourly rate of pay (currently $12.75), eight days’ sick leave, four weeks’ annual leave, unpaid parental leave and a maximum number of weekly working hours (currently a 38-hour week).
While the ACTU had begun its campaign blasting the removal of penalty rates, Victoria’s new Family First Senator Steve Fielding zeroed in on the fact that meal breaks and pay for Christmas Day, Good Friday and Anzac Day could no longer be guaranteed.
Senator Fielding’s foray into the debate was discomforting for the Government because he is a conservative challenging the Government’s commitment to conditions which underpin family life.
However, Treasurer Peter Costello argued that the stripping of meal breaks and public holidays out of awards was a good thing.
Mr Costello also argued that “smoko” was a thing of the past, and that workers might be happy to negotiate away such things in order to get home earlier.
Judging by the ensuing reaction, voters did not agree, and within 48 hours, Prime Minister John Howard had slapped down his Treasurer.
Mr Howard almost single-handedly overturned Government policy and increased the number of minimum conditions from five to seven.
Paid public holidays were “sacrosanct”, Mr Howard declared, while promising that meal breaks would also be protected when the legislation was finally brought before the Parliament.
In actual fact, Mr Costello was only articulating the Cabinet’s original decision which was to strip the award system of all but the very basic conditions and leave “the market” to decide the rest.
This is the true goal of the industrial relations ideologues inside the Government and the Treasury.
Prime Minister Howard’s political antennae are such that he at least appears to be alert to the potential political disasters ahead for a government willing to take the families’ right to paid Anzac Day away.
Mr Howard also knows he owes his extraordinary success to the support of the so-called Howard battlers and, more recently, the Tasmanian timber-workers, who are not going to be particularly pleased about a hard-hearted industrial relations system.
The Government faces another six months of IR pain, and quickly needs to establish what is necessary and articulate why.
Otherwise it will be giving Labor the easiest ride back into political relevancy.