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Today In History
On July 8, 1902
John McGraw, accused by Ban Johnson of trying to wreck Baltimore and Washington clubs, negotiates his release from the Orioles

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IF YOU’VE GOT QUESTIONS ABOUT SOLAR ENERGY ... Not all that long ago now President Barack Obama "announced that ... grants will be available for those wishing to do research in renewable energy ... such as wind [and] solar." The next day "German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG said ... it will acquire a 28 per cent stake in Archimede Solar Energy S.p.A. to expand its expertise in solar thermal power plants." Meanwhile, for mere mortals who just want to know more the OpenSolar blog in the San Francisco Bay Area has been expanding its resources for letting you "ask questions about solar technology and get personal answers from experienced solar professionals and installation owners." All this remains one big piece in the big new clean-energy future that lies ahead. You can check it out in depth at ABOUT OPEN SOLAR!

Written by Greg Barns  
Tuesday, 02 December 2008  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes to think of himself as a northern hemisphere variant of former Australian prime minister, John Howard. Harper plays his politics tough, loves nothing better than burying his opponents, and has adopted from Howard the habit of dividing Canadian society into those who are ‘ordinary’ or ‘mainstream’ and those who are members of ‘the elite.’

Mr. Harper has utilized the services of a number of Howard and Australian Liberal Party advisers in the three election campaigns in which he has led the Conservative Party of Canada. (And note that, just to keep things nicely confused, the Australian Liberal Party has an aggressively conservative wing, which John Howard occupied proudly.) But it would appear that Mr. Harper and his advisers have not taken on board, or if they have, have not quite learned, the salutary lesson of how ideological obsession killed Mr. Howard’s political career in November last year

Thus current events in Canada make you wonder. Have Mr. Harper and such advisers as Guy Giorno (from the old Mike Harris regime in Ontario) not understood that one of the major reasons their dear Antipodean friend disappeared from the political scene was his passionate desire to create a pure free-marketeer’s labour market in Australia? This drew on an ideological obsession with industrial relations reform that finally manifested itself in a policy called WorkChoices. And this ensured that the very people who had supported Howard for four elections finally turned on him and voted him out of office in November last year.

Mr. Howard had, since his days as leader of the Australian Liberal Party opposition in the 1980s, sought to destroy the power of unions in Australia by deregulating the labour market. While the Australian workplace had become more flexible in the ensuing years, Mr. Howard decided to land the final blow after he had won the 2004 general election, and gained control for the first time of Australia’s elected upper house, the Senate. (Which, because it is elected, is much more influential than the still unreformed Senate of Canada.)

Despite a booming economy and record low levels of unemployment, Mr. Howard insisted that the workplace laws needed to be liberalized even further for Australia to remain competitive in the global economy. His solution was a package of reforms named "Workchoices." It dramatically shifted the balance of power in the workplace in favour of the employer. Particularly in small businesses, employers could sack employees with little justification and workers could be signed up to terms and conditions that were below the minimum standards set for their particular industry or job classification. And to many people all this offended the Australian notion of a ‘fair go.’

WorkChoices quickly unraveled for the Howard government. It gave the union movement, which had been struggling for membership and relevance over the past 10 years, a new lease on life. And more significantly, because WorkChoices particularly affected part-time workers and lower-income employees, it became a source of concern for a large group of voters who had voted for Mr. Howard in each election since 1996. when he won office by stealing seats in traditional blue-collar and lower-income white-collar areas.

Mr. Howard’s opponent in the 2007 election, Australian Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, made WorkChoices a central issue in the campaign. He promised that if elected he would abolish WorkChoices. It was a promise that swung votes his way — enough to tip Mr. Howard out of office.

The lesson in John Howard’s WorkChoices misadventure for Stephen Harper and any ideologically driven political leader for that matter is clear. Ideological obsessions are dangerous things. They are best left in the cupboard, only to be brought out for selected friends and soulmates to view. While Mr. Harper has obviously learned much over the years from his fellow conservative Mr. Howard, pursuing ideology in a manner that could only be described as a fit of hubris, is not something he should be emulating. We will now have to wait and see whether Mr. Harper will pay the same price as Mr. Howard, for failing to learn the lesson.

Australian lawyer and policy consultant Greg Barns was a political adviser to the Howard government from 1996 to 1999 and is a regular commentator in Canada on Australian politics. His Canadian appearances include CBC Radio and the Toronto Globe and Mail. He also comments on Australian politics in Australia and other parts of the global village, in such publications as the Melbourne Age and the South China Morning Post.


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