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Tuesday, 23 September 1997
Page: 8210

Mr BEVIS(6.22 p.m.) —The whole issue of preference for unionists has been one of the most misrepresented issues in the entire modern history of industrial relations debates in this country. The present Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business (Mr Reith) has indulged in the same time-honoured practice of misrepresenting the entire process of preference for unionists. I notice that he seems to replace the words `preference for unionists' with `compulsory unionism' on an interchangeable basis. It really does demonstrate the ideological view that the Liberal government has brought to the entire industrial relations issue. Compulsory unionism does not and has never existed.

Preference for unionists is nothing of the sort and even in its heyday did not provide, with the possible exception of one or two types of employment, anything approaching an absolute requirement. In fact, there are plenty of examples where matters were taken to industrial commissions for determination on those clauses when they were enforceable in awards only to be turfed out because, as the minister would well know, the concept of preference was one that applied only where all else was equal. It was not difficult for employers to subvert the actual intent and desire of those preference clauses by obfuscating a whole range of other qualities which they may have sought in prospective employees.

The whole thing about preference for unionists has been built up as a major smokescreen by successive conservative advocates. The minister is simply the latest in that line of conservative advocates doing his darnedest to tell people why workers on low wages do not deserve an increase and why preference for unionism is somehow compulsory unionism, widespread and evil. It was nothing of the sort and it is hollow rhetoric.

It has always amazed me that, on the one hand, the advocates—the minister has fallen into this trap as well—for the minister's cause will argue the evils of preference for unionists and compulsory unionism as being the dreaded impost of union bosses who wield an almighty power over their membership, the work force and the economy. In the next breath—in fact, he did it a few minutes ago in the same speech—he then points out that the number of people in unions represents about 24 to 25 per cent of the population and, therefore, they are pretty insignificant and dying. On the one hand, this is a powerful and dangerous group of people wielding enormous authority and in the next moment they are a group of people who are anachronistic and have no place and no power in Australia today. You cannot have it both ways.

The minister went one better in the debate on this bill when he actually urged the opposition to accept the advice of those same people. In one breath he castigates these people as being dangerous, all-powerful, manipulative union bosses who forced people into the union and stopped decent Australians from getting jobs. He then turns around and says to the shadow minister, `You should go and talk to Tim Pallas.'

Mr Reith —When they agree with me, I always say that.

Mr BEVIS —Now we understand the criteria. As the minister points out, when those dreaded union bosses agree with him, it is clearly wise counsel and their views should be adhered to by the Labor Party, but on any other occasion, they are evil, manipulative, powerful union left-wing bosses.

Mr Reith interjecting

Mr BEVIS —It demonstrates that, as a former solicitor, this man will do and say anything to suit the purpose of the argument before him. I guess that generates a few dollars when you are a solicitor but in public life, people actually expect some greater integrity than that. They are willing to pay for a voice in a court, but when you are actually a minister of the Crown, they might expect some degree of integrity and continuity of principle. You have demonstrated that you do not have either. You have demonstrated that again today.

Make up your mind: either these people are nasty, manipulative folk who we should certainly not be taking heed of and who have great power and who do all these terrible things with preference for unionists or they are a minority little group who are out there on the fringe, make up 25 per cent of the population, have had their day and are anachronistic. Decide which one you want, but if you want to use both of them, do not use both of them in the same debate. Do not use both in the same paragraph. (Time expired)