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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 649

Mr PUNCH(10.17) —When one has the opportunity to talk about the policy incoherence and ferment that besieges the Opposition, one could talk for 15 days rather than 15 minutes. I rise to speak tonight on the Opposition's wages policy and industrial relations policy. I draw to the attention of the House the fact that the average male breadwinner's pay packet in this country today would be at least $71.80 per week less if the Liberal and National parties had got their way on Australia's wages policy in the period in which the Australian Labor Party has governed this country since 1983. The Opposition, of course, has consistently opposed national wage case increases to the wage and salary earners of Australia. But, with breathtaking hypocrisy, it claims to be concerned with family living standards.

The facts are that since the Labor Government was elected in 1983 there have been five national wage cases, the cumulative value of which today is $71.80 per week on average weekly earnings for full time adult male workers. At this stage, Madam Speaker, I seek leave-I have cleared the matter with the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt)-to incorporate in Hansard a table showing the effect of those five wage cases.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

































Cost of Liberal Policies-$71.80

Mr PUNCH —Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I thank those opposite. Further, the Liberal and National parties can hardly be pro-family or really concerned with standards of living of families in this country when their policies would have deprived the average families of this country of a figure in wages of that proportion. What is more, the Liberal Party's commitment, as outlined by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) as recently as last Saturday, to abolish the Prices Surveillance Authority, would exacerbate the plight of families even further. In fact, the position really would be much worse than the $71.80 a week that I have calculated if the Liberal and National parties' opposition to wage increases in one form or another that has occurred in 18 out of the last 20 national wage cases were taken into account. Honourable members opposite should not be under any delusion for one moment. Their wages policy is well accompanied by foolishness in policy making.

The industrial relations policies of members opposite can best be summarised by one word-unconstitutional. To understand this, let us look at the matter in more detail. Let us begin with a most noteworthy quote from the former head of the coalition's back bench committee on industrial relations. the honourable member for Lyons (Mr Burr), who said in December 1986:

The concept of replacing awards with contracts is fraught with danger. It is appropriate that employers should have scope to make private arrangements with their employees. However, any private arrangements must work from a base established by the Arbitration Commission. To attempt to do otherwise would leave workers vulnerable to exploitation and no doubt set the stage for an intense industrial battle between unions and employers

What then is the legislative basis for this revolution, this radical new development in industrial relations that is supposedly being put forward by honourable members opposite? Even more fundamentally important, where is the constitutional basis for this excursion into the unknown? The constitutional basis for any system of voluntary contracts in this country is at best unclear and certainly non-existent for many small businesses-the very group whom those opposite claim they represent. Let us not forget that at the last election this very same Opposition opposed constitutional amendments which would have made it possible for its policy-if it ever sees the light of day-to be put on a much firmer basis.

In terms of constitutional power, would the New Right urge the Opposition to base its industrial relations and wages policies on no constitutional concept at all? Is it really serious about the conciliation and arbitration power, the corporations power, the external affairs power, the territories power, the interstate trade and commerce power or the incidental power? Indeed, what does the Constitution say about voluntary agreements and their regulation? The Constitution does not permit legislation regulating industrial matters directly. It provides for the prevention and settlement of interstate industrial disputes by conciliation and arbitration. It is simply not possible to set up arrangements for voluntary agreements using this power or, indeed, any of the powers that I have just mentioned. Therefore, the policy would have to rely on other constitutional heads of power the like of which honourable members opposite do not seem to be able to identify. But to the extent that the present scope of these and other heads of constitutional power would mean pushing the scope of the Federal Government's legislative powers into areas that have traditionally belonged to the States, I believe that this is something the premiers of Queensland and Tasmania in particular should look at when they consider the policy format of those opposite. It would appear that the corporations power is the main source of proposed constitutional power on which the Opposition seeks to rely. Under this power Federal laws can be enacted with respect to foreign, trading or financial corporations. Whether this power can be used to support voluntary contracts is quite unclear.

The Federal Government already has a clear power to deal with interstate industrial disputes by way of conciliation and arbitration. The High Court of Australia could find that the corporations power could not be used to extend that power. But even if the corporations power could be used, there are many businesses that are not corporations-especially small businesses. These are the businesses which honourable members opposite say this policy is specifically designed for. As at December 1985, which is the latest date for which figures are available, there were more than 400,000 non-farm private enterprises which were not corporations. They employed more than 1.6 million employees. They constituted 28.5 per cent of all employers in the non-farm private enterprises.

The trade and commerce power could perhaps provide some support, but this applies only to businesses engaged in interstate trade or overseas trade, which of course the majority of small businesses are not. Therefore, we have the quite absurd situation, in considering the Opposition's industrial relations power, that while the Opposition's policy focuses on enterprises with fewer than 50 employees it is precisely in this area of small business that there is a clear lack of constitutional power to apply such a policy. One must ask whether the Liberal Party, the Federal National Party, Joh's National Party, the drys, or the wets, to which the honourable member for Lyons belongs, contemplate amending the Constitution in order to seek wider Commonwealth powers and to deny the States some of theirs. That could be the only logical, rational explanation for what they have put forward.

That leaves us with a wages policy that would cost the average wage and salary earner in this country to date $71.80 a week and more if the other national wage cases applying before this Government came to power were taken into consideration. We have an adherence to that policy whereby those opposite are saying that there will be no more wage increases until 1989; we have a wages policy therefore that will not only limit the functional spending power of families in this country but also set them so far behind that even future wage increases which might come about by a rebirth of productivity which those opposite say they can deliver, would not ever allow them to catch up. So we have a wages policy that will grind families of this country into the dirt.

That is before one takes account of the additional $27 a week that the abolition of Medicare and the privatisation of the health system that those opposite advocate would cost. It is also before the social wage would be crippled in this country with education cuts, social security cuts for those who need social security, and housing cuts for those who need public housing. Before any of that is done we have a wages policy and a social wage platform by the Opposition that would drive 80 per cent of Australians into the ground.

Then we have an industrial relations policy that is unworkable. We have had very clear indications from Business on its thoughts about the industrial relations scenario that would result from the Opposition's policies. The Confederation of Australian Industry, for example, in a recent Press release on 2 February commented about extending the sphere of industrial relations beyond its traditional conciliation and arbitration power. It said:

Indeed, provided safeguards are put in place, the CAI supports the Hancock Committee recommendation which would permit the use of voluntary agreements consistent with the conciliation and arbitration power.

CAI is, however, totally opposed to the use of the corporation power, the external affairs power, or any other alternative powers to be found in general industrial legislation.

That leaves us with a scenario in which we have a wages policy which deserts the rest of the nation and an industrial relations policy which is unconstitutional and which has been criticised by big business itself in this country. It has to be said that those opposite would be launching the industrial relations scene in this country into the great unknown and as a result the greatest level of industrial conflict that the country has ever seen would inevitably arise. I ask Opposition members who they think would really be at the front line of this new industrial civil war. It would not be big business as represented by the CAI; it would be small business and the farmers-the very people--

Mr Nehl —They are going broke under your Government.

Madam SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Cowper will cease interjecting.

Mr PUNCH —For those listening tonight to the radio, I say that the interjector is obviously a member of the National Party of Australia, and I say no more. So we have a situation where this industrial relations policy which those opposite say is for the small business people would in fact be putting them in the front line of a new industrial relations civil war. That returns me to my initial point. The policy incoherence and ferment that now characterises the Opposition is so grave-it is exemplified by tonight's proceedings-that, for the first time since 1912, we have a government condemning the lack of Opposition policies that are coming forward. Those policies are so incoherent and so poor that the people in whose interests they purport to be-that is, families in the wages policy area and small business in the area of industrial relations-would be hurt the most. That is how grim and how lacking in policy development those opposite have become.

I conclude by saying that it is in the interests of the democratic traditions in this country that we have an Opposition that at least has a semblance of policies; it is in the interests of the people of this country that we have an alternative government. Quite demonstrably we have no alternative government. No alternative policies are being logically put forward by that side of the House. We have a situation where there are now four conservative leaders in this country-the honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock), the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard), the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) and the Leader of the National Party in Queensland. We have four alternative leaders with not a semblance of a policy between them, not a semblance of detail between them. Rather, we have an incoherent mess that would see the wages and industrial relations structure in this country decimate the economy in less than a few months should those opposite win the next election which I believe, starting from tonight with our exposing their lack of policies, will not happen.