When Tony Abbott returned to Australia from Nelson Mandela’s memorial service he flew into a political storm over the flagged closure of Holden.
It would have been a stretch at the time to regard the car maker’s loss as an opportunity to tackle industrial relations.
Nor could he have expected that several weeks later he would be given a leg-up from the most unlikely of supporters – high-profile trade union boss Paul Howes.
A set of unrelated circumstances, that started with Holden and included travails at Toyota – so far the only car maker that will be operating in Australia after 2017 – and ailing fruit processor SPC Ardmona, has gifted the Abbott government an opening to push workplace changes.
All three created an opportunity to strike out at over-generous “sweetheart deals” between business and unions, and talk up the need for greater workplace flexibility.
The coalition is adopting a nip-and-tuck approach to industrial relations in a campaign of skirmishes rather than a full-frontal assault, learning from the experience of Work Choices, which alienated workers during the Howard years.
It has turned on its head the traditional alliance it enjoys with big business attributing equal blame for their part in the perceived failures of Australia’s industrial relations system.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz could not have been clearer when he addressed the Sydney Institute in late January.
Big employers, he said, needed to say “no” to unaffordable union demands.
Mr Abetz lashed out at what he called “sweetheart deals” between “weak-kneed” employers and “unreasonable” unions.
He lamented business would come to him advocating for workplace relations reform, effectively blaming the system for their own shortcomings.
A few days later, Abbott cited an over-generous enterprise agreement with workers as one of the reasons his cabinet rejected a $25 million lifeline for SPC Ardmona.
Treasurer Joe Hockey went further, describing reported clauses of the agreement as “astounding”.
“If that is what they negotiate, then please do not come to the government asking for other taxpayers’ money when those agreements fail,” he said.
Mr Abbott is not backing away from his criticism despite finding himself in a messy stoush with one of his own MPs – Sharman Stone whose electorate will suffer most from SPC’s possible closure.
The decision was tough, but “defining” he said, as he drew a line on entitlements and cushy enterprise agreements.
What happens at Toyota threatens to become a potent symbol of this guerilla war.
The car maker is seeking to vary its enterprise agreement to improve productivity, including reducing the the Christmas shutdown period from 21 days to 10 days.
Mr Abbott, Mr Abetz and Mr Hockey have attacked the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union for its refusal to negotiate changes.
Mr Hockey in his “end of entitlement” interview this week said unions were “biting off the hand that feeds them” by resisting change.
Toyota legitimately had gone back to the workers and asked them to limit the Christmas shutdown 10 days because it wanted to a guaranteed market in the Middle East, he said.
“The AMWU took them to court and said `No, we want to stop this.'”
The government opened a new front with a submission to a review of the award system requesting the the Fair Work Commission consider whether penalty rates should apply to “particular” sectors.
It wasn’t said out loud, but it was an oblique reference to similar calls being made by the hospitality and retail sector.
The submission unsurprisingly provoked criticism from Labor and the unions, who accused Abbott of wanting to attack the wages and conditions of low-paid workers.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten accused the prime minister of being out of touch with ordinary Australians.
“(He) has no idea about how millions of people earn their pay,” he said.
Not so, Mr Abbott said: “If you’re a low-paid, worker one of the things you often love to do is work late nights weekends because it does substantially increase your income,” he said.
But it was Mr Howes who, intentionally or otherwise, put a lid on yet another blazing IR row.
He told the National Press Club in Canberra this week the current system – about which debate had become a “blood sport” – was dragging down the Australian economy.
Since 1998 there had been eight different IR frameworks.
Mr Howes called for a new deal with business and government to move the system beyond the Work Choices and the Fair Work eras. He proposed a “grand compact”, taking a lead from a trade union leader who became the nation’s leader – Bob Hawke.
Mr Abbott was quick to accept the olive branch, keen to let the past – especially Work Choices – be the past.
Labor and the unions were not so accommodating.
Mr Shorten ridiculed the idea, describing as a “fantasy” the prospect of a compact between the prime minister and unions.
“How can you sit down and form an accord with a series of organisations that you want to have a royal commission into?” he asked, referring to a possible expanded inquiry into union corruption.
But that’s another story, and another gift for the government.