IR emerges as first election battleground

As Australians head to the polls on August 21, workplace relations has emerged as the first major battleground between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

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Just three weeks after seizing the Labor leadership from Kevin Rudd, Ms Gillard will go to the Australian people to ask them to make her prime minister.

“Today I seek a mandate from the Australian people to move Australia forward,” Ms Gillard told reporters after her visit to Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

It will be the first winter campaign for more than two decades — and gives the public a choice between two electorally untested leaders. The last time that happened was in 1993 when Paul Keating went head to head with John Hewson.

Ms Gillard has triggered the campaign after a testing few weeks in the leadership, where she has attempted to put out spot fires on the mining tax, asylum seekers and climate change, with varying degrees of success.

The nation, she says, has a choice between Labor, with its plans for the future, and a backward-looking coalition.

“Now my commitment to this country stands in stark contrast to the commitment of the opposition,” Ms Gillard said.

“Their gaze is fixed in the rear-view mirror, rather than on the road ahead.”

The economy, along with issues like education and health, will be central to the Labor campaign.

Ms Gillard vowed to make Australia a more confident nation.

“I believe to my core that the best days of this nation are in front of it, not behind it, and there’s no challenge too big, no challenge too tough, that we can’t conquer it, if we work together,” Ms Gillard said.

But Mr Abbott hijacked Labor’s campaign slogan of moving forward to make his point that the nation needed to get rid of the current government.

“The prime minister wants to move forward because the recent past is so littered with her own failures,” he said.

“If we stay with Labor we’ll be moving forward, to more debt, more taxes, more spending and more boats.

“Labor needs to move out for our country to move on.”

He warned the public they couldn’t believe in Ms Gillard – not even Mr Rudd could trust his deputy.

And he stressed her frontbench was filled with members who were jumping ship.

“Why should people trust a government that can’t say who would be the foreign minister, who would be the defence minister and who would be the finance minister if the government is re-elected,” Mr Abbott said.

“And why should people trust a prime minister who can’t guarantee that she would serve a full term because she can’t be sure that the factions would let her.”

On day one of the campaign, both leaders relied on tried and tested lines to make their point.

And the major issue of the day was a re-run of 2007 – workplace relations.

Even before Ms Gillard had visited Government House, Mr Abbott fired the first salvo, with a pledge to put a three-year moratorium on any changes to Labor’s existing workplace laws.

He wants to extinguish Work Choices – the issue which played a major part in the Howard government’s 2007 loss – as an election threat.

“I am a conviction politician but not in defiance of the electorate,” Mr Abbott told a Liberal National Party (LNP) conference in Brisbane.

“I have well and truly absorbed the lessons of the coalition’s 2007 defeat.”

But Ms Gillard insists the coalition can’t be trusted on industrial relations.

“Mr Abbott, whatever words he tried to camouflage it in, remains committed to bring back the worst aspects of Work Choices,” she said.

The opposition leader’s attempt to show the coalition had moved on suffered somewhat when his workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz indicated that while they would keep the Fair Work Act, there was still room to tweak regulations.

“We will not be revolutionising, or indeed reforming, we would only be tweaking and that is what our policy will confirm,” Senator Abetz told ABC radio.