It's just a jump to the left

The middle ground of Australian politics is an uncomfortable place to be. Going into the August 21 poll, both sides of politics knew that is where they had to be to win the popular vote, but they also knew the unsustainability of centrist posturing once the battle was over.

And this week, with the two major party leaders away, the forces pulling the parties back to either side of the ideological divide have been on display.

First came The Australian's spirited piece of journalistic leg-work, which dug up nine Coalition MPs, including four who agreed to be named, who want Tony Abbott to scrap his commitment to leave the Fair Work Act alone (Clamouring for a tougher Tony, October 5). They're arguing, it would seem, that he only promised to leave it alone if he won. It took acting opposition leader Warren Truss to smack them down – no changes here, he said through gritted teeth.

Then the pull to the left began for Labor in a speech by new ACTU boss Ged Kearney to the National Press Club yesterday. She outlined a number of challenges for "the political party that the union movement formed – the ALP" (read: we made you, and we can unmake you).

The ACTU is celebrating two consecutive years of growing membership which, if the numbers check out, arrests a long decline. It also wants to arrest several other trends in the Australian workplace – in particular the growing numbers of workers in "precarious employment", which Kearney suggested might be fixed by forcing employers to offer permanent jobs to casual workers filling the same role for six continuous months.

Following the big-picture approach of her predecessor Sharan Burrow, Kearney wants to find ways to unlock more of the nation's super savings to rebuild some of the nation's creaking infrastructure – with, of course, industry super funds leading the way.

"What the industry tells me," she said, "is that we'd just need some minor adjustments to make a greater flow on investment possible. This could be through some form of preferential infrastructure bonds or an approach to tendering that splits construction from ownership and operation. Along with greater economies of scale and more deal flow, such projects can be viable."

And she raised the creeping problem of our ageing population. Having noted in passing that "the population debate is largely a red herring", Kearney pointed out that "older Australians staying in their own homes for as long as possible is admirable and desirable. But much of the caring falls on women, who struggle to care for children, maintain a job and hold together their own relationships. Some industries are now creating leave entitlements akin to those for workers with young children, allowing them to spend more time with aged parents."

What she didn't say, but what springs out if you join the dots, is that a large number of young migrants are needed to replace any workers taking time off to care for elderly family members or, to be more frank, to care for the elderly directly in aged care facilities.

In the US, authorities let this army of workers trickle across the border from Mexico, denying them suffrage and a range of basic services and rights while they perform the nation's least desirable jobs. In Australia, both sides of politics will have to tackle the problem more pro-actively – we might turn back the boats, but we'll have to let in plenty of planes to make up future labour shortages. Oliver Marc Hartwich sums up these looming problems nicely in a piece this morning entitled 'The small Australia nightmare'.

So where does this all leave Julia Gillard? Actually, she and Tony Abbott find themselves on a sandy island of centrism that is gradually being eroded by fairly evenly split rivers of popular opinion on either side.

To believe the restless Coalition MPs, small businesses are growing increasingly frustrated with having to give unfair dismissal protections to 'workers' when, in the case of small family businesses, they thought they were the workers.

To believe Ged Kearney, the nation can, and should re-regulate parts of the IR landscape to cope with growing job insecurity and an ageing population.

Those are the rains that will wash the sand, day by day, from beneath Gillard and Abbott's feet in coming months. Let's see which of them loses their nerve first and strikes out for the more familiar shore.

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