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Monday, 17 June 2002
Page: 3502


Mr TANNER (9:17 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002 is based on a longstanding conservative fantasy, a fantasy that suggests that ordinary workers are mere robots—they have no brain, have no individual characteristics and are manipulated and ordered about by unions and by union officials. It is a longstanding view in conservative quarters that, when workers go on strike, the individual workers who collectively make up the group that has made the decision to go on strike do not really know what they are doing and do not have a genuine commitment to the action that is being taken but are being manipulated or deluded by nasty, evil trade unions. Built on this assumption is a longstanding commitment to impose a variety of kinds of secret ballot legislation upon the trade union movement in order to ensure that strikes that the conservatives believe would not have happened without a secret ballot do not occur. The premise upon which this legislation is built is fundamentally flawed: the assumption that workers have no independent choice, that they have no power to exercise that choice within their trade unions and that they are meekly and mildly led by the nose to take action which is against their interests. I have been a union official, as you have, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams.


Mr Entsch —And me!


Mr TANNER —It is good to see that there are others here as well who can say the same. I can speak from my experience, and I am sure it is the same in your experience, Mr Deputy Speaker, that workers facing the prospect of going on strike do not treat that issue lightly. They certainly do not allow anybody to tell them what to do, instruct them to do something that goes against what they want to do and force them to take an action which is contrary to their interests.

The legislation before the parliament ignores the real dynamics of industrial relations. It ignores the realities of what drives workers and why disputes occur and why some workers in some circumstances go on strike. I have been involved in decisions by groups of workers to go on strike made by both show of hands and secret ballot. I and my union certainly had a very clear policy that, wherever there was the slightest hint that anybody who would be involved in that decision wanted a secret ballot, a secret ballot would be held as a matter of course, on the spot. It was sometimes, I will admit, in rather messy circumstances, but nonetheless a genuinely democratic secret ballot was held whenever anybody felt that that was appropriate. But that did not happen very often. In virtually all of the circumstances that I dealt with, workers were quite happy for a decision to be made by a show of hands, and in most of those circumstances there were people voting on either side of the proposition. Those who were voting against going on strike were quite happy for their view to be known and quite happy for the decision to be taken on a show of hands.

This bill is a slightly watered-down version of previous legislation that has been put forward by the Howard government, but it still imposes a ridiculously cumbersome and bureaucratic regime which is designed to hobble the capacity of unions and their members to take industrial action in pursuit of legitimate claims for better terms and conditions. The provisions of the bill require that any union or employees proposing to take industrial action have to apply to the Industrial Relations Commission for a secret ballot after a bargaining period has commenced. The application has to contain the questions to be put in the ballot, including the nature of the proposed action to be taken. The Industrial Relations Commission must, if practicable, determine the application within two working days, and the parties can make submissions to it about that. It must not allow the application unless it is satisfied that the applicant has been, and is, genuinely trying to reach agreement with the employer, and the Industrial Relations Commission has the discretion to refuse the ballot on certain other grounds.

In other words, the workers cannot even necessarily get to first base without satisfying the Industrial Relations Commission that there is even a legitimate possibility that they may be entitled to take industrial action and therefore have a secret ballot as to whether or not such action should be allowed to occur. For industrial action to be protected and to be legitimate under the act, 40 per cent of the eligible voters have to vote and a majority of the valid votes cast have to be in favour of the action. The action has to be taken within 30 days of the declaration of the ballot results. The applicants—the workers, the union—are liable to pay the cost of the ballot but, if they notify the Industrial Registrar of the cost, the registrar may determine that the cost was reasonably and genuinely incurred and the Commonwealth may, in all its generosity, pay up to 80 per cent of the cost. In other words, not only is a ballot being imposed upon the workers and a union where there may be no desire for it on the part of either; it is also going to be accompanied by, in some cases, very significant cost.

This legislation is really about radically altering the bargaining position between workers and the unions on one side and employers on the other. It is all about strengthening the bargaining position of employers. It is all about further neutering the power of industrial action as a last resort to be used by workers and their unions as a legitimate bargaining tool to achieve better wages and conditions. No alternatives are proposed for employers. No employers are to be required to hold ballots of their shareholders before a lockout or before they decide to sue their own workers, as occurred very recently in the dispute in Victoria. There is no countervailing obligation on the part of those employers to ballot their rank and file, their shareholders, but an obligation is being imposed on workers that they have to have a formal secret ballot to make a decision.

We may well ask why it is necessary for such legislation to be brought to the parliament at a time when, as the government often points out, industrial disputes in this country are at record low levels. The answer is pretty straightforward: this is an ideological attempt to further weaken the bargaining power of workers and trade unions and to further strengthen the dominance of employers in the workplace so that the ability of unions and workers to make use of industrial action as a legitimate bargaining weapon is further counteracted.

We have occasional high profile disputes. We have had some recently in the car industry and with BHP, and they of course reflect an industrial relations system that this government put in place. They reflect decentralised bargaining. They reflect a wage fixing system that is all about workplace or shopfloor bargaining. The pattern of establishing this system was laid by the former Labor government, but it has been very substantially furthered by the current government. The government does not want to face up to the logical consequence of this decentralised system, which is that there will be industrial disputes in particular companies that flow from having workplace based decision making—and that is precisely what has been occurring in the car industry in recent times.

Employers make the decision to pursue just-in-time approaches to manufacturing for entirely legitimate economic reasons but in doing so take upon themselves certain risks—in particular, risks that the supply chain will in some way be disrupted by a variety of possible factors, one of which is industrial action. Employers cannot have it both ways; the Howard government cannot have it both ways. If the government want a market driven system—if they want a system in which the individual parties determine outcomes and the government stay out, which is the rhetoric that we hear from the minister, the Prime Minister and the former minister, Mr Reith—then they have to live with the outcomes of that system. They cannot have it both ways.

This bill and the others that are associated with it are all about the government trying to cripple the strength of unions and trying to undermine the power of union members and workers to bargain on an equal level with their employers. No matter what rhetoric we get hit with about union bosses and holding Australia to ransom and bullies and all of the posturing bluster we get from the minister for workplace relations, it is very simple in reality: this legislation is an attempt to tilt the scales in favour of employers even further and more to the disadvantage of ordinary workers.

The sort of stuff that came from the member for Canning about the Chartists I find quite risible. As somebody who studied the Chartist movement for some time in the past when I was a student, I find it highly amusing that somebody of his political ilk would be citing them as some sort of base for his position. His political forebears opposed the Chartist movement and they outlawed the trade movement in Britain. They sent the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia as well as many Chartists. The member for Canning now seeks to capture their legacy in some sort of entirely dubious attempt to give credibility to his position. Of course, what he fails to point out is that the Chartists were agitating for the secret ballot to elect parliamentarians in ordinary elections that occur from time to time on a predictable basis, not when there are 15 of them or 20 of them or 30 of them caught in a situation, potentially at short notice, where they feel the need to take industrial action—for example, because of a health and safety threat that has emerged where they feel the employer is not dealing adequately with the threat. The notion that you should idly sit by and accept an ongoing risk to your own health and safety while the Australian Electoral Commission or the Australian Industrial Relations Commission conducts a formal postal ballot is simply ludicrous.

This is all about bargaining power. Unions exist in our society to correct the severe imbalance in bargaining power between workers and employers and to ensure that workers, particularly those who have lower skills and less bargaining power in a pure open market, can collectively bargain to achieve a reasonable standard of living and a reasonable return for their efforts from the production process.

The Liberal philosophy is based on that of John Stuart Mill; in fact some of the more progressive ones belong to an outfit called the John Stuart Mill Society. That philosophy is essentially that all individuals are entitled to contract for employment as individuals and to enter into contracts with employers on that basis, and that any intervention in that is unjustified. They see the employment contract as essentially the same as all other contracts—it is no different from a contract to buy a bag of jellybeans or to buy a theatre ticket or whatever—whereas the Labor Party see the employment relationship as fundamental to our society and quite different from all other contracts. Our philosophy derives from R.H. Tawney, another great philosopher from the past—or historian in this case of our British tradition—who very pertinently pointed out in that great one-liner: freedom for the pike is death for the minnow. That is ultimately what trade unionism is about, and that is ultimately what labour market regulation is about. There is an inherent imbalance of power in most employment circumstances. There is an inherent imbalance in bargaining capacity, and that is what having a regulatory system and having trade unions is all about: to correct that imbalance to ensure that people do not get exploited and that they get a reasonable return for their labour in spite of the fact that in an open market, if they did not starve, they would live in destitution.

The labour input into the production process is not just that. The human input into the production process is also the means by which the rewards of the production process are distributed through the wages system. So as well as being the primary input into production, it is also the means by which the output—the benefit—is delivered. Finally, and in some respects most importantly, it is the means by which the vast majority of people get their identity, their sense of value and their sense of contribution to society.

From a Liberal perspective, the human input into the production process—the employment contract—is one-dimensional. It is an input into production, like a machine or a piece of land, and that is it. The Liberals do not acknowledge the broader social dimension that is involved in the phenomenon of labour, nor do they acknowledge the need to have special regulation in this relationship to ensure that there is fairness and equity so that people are able to have a reasonable standard of living.

The great irony of this bill is that it comes from a government that preaches deregulation in industrial relations. Yet what we have is a highly prescriptive, highly interventionist approach being imposed upon essentially unwilling people. What we have is the government micromanaging the relationship between trade unions and their members and intervening very prescriptively to say that, if there is a decision to be made with respect to prospective industrial action, that decision has to be made in a highly bureaucratic, highly time consuming and, in some cases, highly expensive way—you are not allowed to make that decision in your own way by a decision at the workplace at a meeting, which historically has been the primary way that such decisions have been made.

Not only does the government say, through its legislation, `You are only allowed to take industrial action at certain times'; it also says, `We, the government, are going to prescribe how you can make that decision and we are going to impose an incredibly cumbersome and bureaucratic process of decision making upon you just to make it as hard as possible for you to come up with that kind of decision.' In other words, from the government and from employers we have the free market when it suits them. When it suits their interests they are all in favour of the free market, but when the free market could lead to a bit of disruption or to unions and workers actually taking industrial action or exerting some sort of power in the overall negotiating position, then they are in favour of regulation—highly prescriptive, highly interventionist, highly cumbersome regulation at that.

They are not that far away from the position that prevailed shortly before the period that the member for Canning was talking about—namely, the Combination Acts in Britain from 1799 to 1824, which effectively outlawed trade unionism and made collective bargaining in Britain effectively illegal. That is where this government is heading. Bit by bit it is seeking to prevent workers from bargaining collectively through unions and pursuing their interests as workers to achieve better outcomes and better wages and conditions. That is ultimately where they are heading.

It is ironic that the broader context in which this approach is pursued has been about more jobs. We have heard for some years that deregulated labour markets deliver better employment outcomes. For quite some time the United States was cited as the perfect example of this and the European Union was the contrast. Australia was seen as an excessively regulated labour market and the United States was held up essentially as the model for how we should regulate industrial relations. Now that the United States is experiencing unemployment figures above five per cent and as those figures continue to increase, getting to a point where they will not be a great deal below Australia—and they are in fact significantly higher than a number of European Union countries—some of the propagandists who put this point of view have gone decidedly quiet in recent times.

They have managed to ignore the fact that something in the vicinity of one per cent of the American work force is in jail; therefore, there is an artificial reduction in what would otherwise be an augmentation of the unemployment figures. They ignore the impact of currency valuations and, particularly in the case of Europe, of overvalued currencies, which tend to create higher unemployment. They ignore the fact that overregulated product markets in Europe have also tended to exacerbate unemployment by restricting work opportunities and by diverting investment into unproductive and ultimately job-destroying kinds of activities, particularly through vehicles such as the common agricultural policy.

Jobs are created by demand. Employers employ people because they have work for them to do which they cannot have done by their existing work force. Supply issues are relevant. Questions of costs of employment and circumstances of employment are relevant to the employment relationship and to the creation of jobs, but the fundamental driver of employment in this country and in others with a market-driven society is demand. That is why large companies are downsizing. That is why big companies—even those companies doing very well, like the banks—are reducing the number of workers they have. Why? Because they can get by without them.

When the Commonwealth Bank makes a record profit it does not immediately go out and say, `Beauty, we can now employ a whole lot more workers.' It is quite the reverse, because its employment decisions are based on the work it needs to do in order to deliver its services to its customers, not on the fact that it has enough money to employ a given number of people. Always, ultimately, the employment decisions in this country will be based primarily on demand—on the work needing to be done on the employer's product being purchased by consumers. Cost and supply factors are relevant to that but the dominant consideration will always be demand factors.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002 is part of a broader intellectual theory that the government adheres to, which is based on the notion that deregulated labour markets are free, fair and deliver best outcomes. In truth, they are none of those things because they deliver unfair outcomes that suit a minority of workers who do very well, as well as employers and the better off. They damage the interests of a very large number of workers, particularly the lower paid and people who have less bargaining power. They do not produce better employment outcomes.

This legislation is highly interventionist and prescriptive, contrary to the deregulatory rhetoric that broadly enshrouds the government's typical position on industrial relations. Its propaganda about employment outcomes is now disintegrating because of changes in the United States. We are left with its simple agenda of bullying and of mendacity in all its ugliness and starkness. As Peter Reith said when he was the minister, `Never forget that we are on the side of private capital. Never forget that we are against workers and that we are on the side of employers.' That is the real agenda of this government and that is what you are seeing in this legislation. It is not designed to produce greater democracy or freedom; it is there to make life harder for workers and harder for unions. (Time expired)