Perhaps the only acceptable factor of the coronavirus pandemic is the outlawing of the hug, including the group hug — which apparently has been replaced by the virtual hug.

This was evident when Scott Morrison addressed the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday. The focus of the talk was the development of skills and reforming Australia’s industrial relations system in the wake of COVID-19.

In the latter area, the Prime Minister set out his aim “to get everyone back in the room” and “to bring people together”.

He added: “No one side has all the answers, employees or employers; unions or employer organisations” and that “it is not beyond Australians to put aside differ­ences to find co-operative solutions to specific problems — especially at a time like this”.

Sounds like a virtual group hug, don’t you think?

As such, it cannot do any harm and may do some good. However, it is unlikely to substantially reform Australia’s industrial relations system, which has been highly regulated since the first decade after Federation in 1901.

From now until the end of September, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter will chair five working groups focused on award simplification, enterprise agreement making, casuals and fixed-term employees, compliance and enforcement along with new investment.

From the start of his address, Morrison focused on those who had lost jobs or presided over business closures or seen retirement incomes shrink and more besides. This was an expected response by a national leader who is concerned about his people.

The willingness of the ACTU, led by Sally McManus, to participate in the working groups has been welcomed.

After all, it was not so long ago that McManus, in her essay On Fairness (MUP, 2019), alleged that “the Murdoch press, big business and the Coalition … are desperate to prevent working people realising that campaigning for fairness alongside their workmates is the solution to low pay and insecure work”.

It seems that the ACTU secretary has undergone a kind of metamorphosis and dropped her class-war line. This is a sensible response to the failure of the ACTU’s expensive attempt to unseat the Coalition at last year’s election and a recognition that the attack by the likes of current opposition Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers on “the top end of town” bombed — most notably in areas with high unemployment and low job security.

It may be that McManus decided to permanently cease the class-war rhetoric that is shared by some, but by no means all, of her fellow trade union leaders.

Even so, her emphasis seems to be different from that of the Prime Minister in that McManus’s focus appears to be on those in the workplace — and not on the long-term unemployed who were out of work even before the current economic downturn.

Writing in The Australian on Thursday, McManus did not use the words unemployment or unemployed. Rather her focus was on “fairness, job security and work safety”.

She expressed concern that “more than 32 per cent of the workforce [are] in casual or insecure work”.

McManus said “when the bottom fell out of the economy as the pandemic hit, these workers bit the dust first and hardest”.

This is partly correct. But it overlooks the fact those hit hardest by the economic downturn are those whose businesses collapsed and who face personal fin­ancial ruin. And then there are full-time workers who have lost jobs or had to take significant wage reductions.

Even in the pandemic, McManus’s essential focus is on the medical impact rather than on the economic one.

To her, “the first challenge we face is ensuring that we don’t lose focus on avoiding a second wave of infection”. To others the prime task is to open as much of the economy as possible as soon as it is medically responsible.

For example, the expert advice to the federal government is that there is no medical reason borders between states should be closed.

Yet the governments of Queensland and Western Australia (both Labor), along with those of South Australia and Tasmania (both Coalition), refuse to allow the free movement of Australian citizens and residents into their states. This is having a devastating effect on tourism and related private sector industries.

Perhaps this reflects the reality of modern unionism. In the past four decades, trade union membership has dropped from about 51 per cent to about 14 per cent of the workforce.

Only about 10 per cent of private sector workers belong to trade unions — compared with close to 40 per cent in the public sector.

The current likely downturn is hitting hardest at the private sector. Those in public sector employment have barely been touched.

It is impossible to state with any accuracy how long the economic downturn will last and how soon Australia will return to the reasonable unemployment rate of about 5 per cent that prevailed before the arrival of COVID-19.

Currently Australians enjoy around the highest wages and best conditions in the world. These can be sustained only by increased productivity following economic reform including changes to the industrial relations system, which was made even more inflexible because of legislation by the Rudd Labor government.

It’s a big task — especially for a government that lacks a Senate majority. But the job will be even harder if journalists attempt to force politicians to rule out reforms before they are even discussed by the five groups appointed by the Coalition.

ABC radio’s AM presenter Sabra Lane interviewed the Prime Minister on the morning after his National Press Club address.

Her first question to Morrison was whether he could guarantee that no workers would be worse off under any new industrial relations system.

To Lane it was as simple as a “yes” or “no” matter.

To the Prime Minister it was yet another journalist’s “gotcha” question. Clearly some journalists have not joined the virtual hug — especially those such as Lane who enjoy secure, well-paying public sector jobs.