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Monday, 25 March 1985
Page: 708

Senator MESSNER(3.28) —We have just had a pathetic performance from the previous speaker, Senator Jones, who has brought on this matter of public importance. The degree of pathos that ought to be felt by all members in the Senate is represented by the behaviour of his colleagues who are now leaving the chamber. They are absolutely disgusted with that performance. Not one front bench member of the Australian Labor Party is prepared to come in here-I am sorry, Senator Grimes is sitting in the corner.

Senator Collard —Only one.

Senator MESSNER —Only one, the Minister on duty. For such an important issue as this I would have expected every front bencher from the Labor Party to stand up here today. In fact, every Labor speaker on the list is from the back benches. Not even one speaker from the left wing of the Labor Party is listed. There is none from that faction, which I believe should identify very clearly with the feelings of the Electrical Trades Union in that State, which I understand has a left wing leadership.

The absurd little matter of public importance which has been brought forward today is so pathetic as to be beside all point of argument. Senator Jones really is a very nice chap and, generally speaking, he can make out a far better case than the one he made out today. Honourable Senators do not have to take our word for what we believe to be the case. Let us look at the editorials and opinion polls published during the dispute to find out where the real danger and the real problem lies, and whose position the community backed during the dispute. The people of Queensland backed the Premier and his Government all the way. Let us look at what the dispute was about. It was a simple matter of efficiency and equity. The South East Queensland Electricity Board wanted to hire some workers on contract. It wanted to do so to increase the efficiency and flexibility of the work force. It was designed to produce power more efficiently so as to assist the consumers of Queensland. It is not only proper for this State instrumentality to pursue those goals, but also its duty under its charter to do so. It is common sense. Yet the Electrical Trades Union decided to take on the Government and create the most serious industrial crisis seen in Australia for years.

Senator Jones should answer some basic questions. Was a single job at risk before this action was taken by the union? No, not one job was at risk. Were the wages and conditions of the members of the ETU at risk? No, not one. None at all was at risk. Was the South East Queensland Electricity Board seeking to diminish the benefits enjoyed by the ETU members? No, not at all. Then what on earth was the Queensland power crisis all about? It was about a government being unwilling to be stood over by a union which was hell-bent on placing the lives and livelihoods of all Queenslanders on the line. Let me quote from the Courier-Mail editorial of 8 February. It encapsulates the dangerous absurdity of the union's case. It states:

SEQEB wanted to employ contractors who are--

honourable senators should note the word 'are'--

ETU members. Where is the problem? It is the duty and responsibility of the SEQEB to provide power at the cheapest possible rate. If that means employing contractors-union members-surely SEQEB has that right.

That surely is plain, honest, downright common sense. On what possible grounds could the ETU object to the action of the Board? The contract workers would have been union members. The ETU's subsequent actions were totally indefensible. Let there be no doubt about what those actions were. The ETU put its own wilfulness above its responsibility to supply an essential service to the people of Queensland. It endangered lives and jobs and, in the end, its members were dismissed because of its actions. Senator Jones knows that full well. Let us fact the facts. The Premier of Queensland was most conciliatory in this matter when it started out. He said to the workers:

All I can suggest to the men in all seriousness is that they recognise their responsibilities and accept the direction made by the court--

the industrial relations court--

and go back to work on Monday.

What could be more reasonable than that? The dispute was handled through all the normal channels of industrial dispute settlement in Queensland. The umpire said to the ETU: 'Return to work and we will proceed with negotiations'. The Premier supported the Queensland Industrial Commission's ruling and quietly urged the union to comply with it. But did it? No, it defied the Industrial Commission's return to work ruling. The ETU ignored a clear Commission ruling. Its members refused to return to work. It acted with blatant disregard for the Commission's standing and authority and totally without thought for the people of Queensland who had to put up with the consequences of the action. I wonder what the International Labour Organisation says about such non-compliance with the umpire's decision? I could only support social irresponsibility if it upheld the view of honourable senators opposite.

In the course of Senator Jones's remarks he made some play of the ILO conventions. He read a great number of them to us. The only one I refer to however, which, I think, he mainly commented upon, was Convention No. 29, which concerns forced or compulsory labour. I notice that in clause 2 of Article 2 of that Convention, the definition of forced or compulsory labour specifically excludes, under paragraph (d), the following:

Any work or service exacted in cases of emergency, that is to say in the event of war . . . and in general any circumstance that would endanger the existence or the well-being of the whole or part of the population.

That is what the Convention says. The Queensland Government acted within that Convention. While I am certainly no legal eagle, as Senator Jones admitted he was not, I think my interpretation is a lot nearer the mark than his. Is it any wonder that after all this activity the Premier's patience started to wear a little thin? Can he be blamed for invoking a state of emergency in Queensland in the light of that? Of course not, he was only doing his duty as the Premier of the State and the leader of the people of Queensland. He took concrete action to ameliorate what was truly a crisis in the life of Queenslanders. The Premier took action only when it was clear that the Electrical Trades Union was determined not to be reasonable or responsible and was happy to let innocent citizens suffer. Again it must be stressed that the Premier took firm steps only after the ETU's repeated defiance of the Industrial Commission. In mid-February, the Commission made five recommendations to resolve the dispute. It recommended that Electrical Trades Union members return to work; that the Government withdraw dismissal notices issued to ETU members; that further dismissal notices not be issued; that action to deregister the union be withheld pending discussions on future dispute settling agreements; and that the Commission chair another conference to discuss the awarding of contracts and the future of contract labour in the South East Queensland Electricity Board. The Premier, his Government and the South East Queensland Electricity Board accepted the Commission's ruling. The ETU did not. The people of Queensland knew what was going on. They had tasted the consequences of the power union's selfishness previously. It was not the first time they had been inconvenienced by unions pursuing their own ends regardless of the welfare of others. That is why they backed the Premier. The Premier had the community on his side, a community fed up to the back teeth with union irresponsibility in Queensland. Let me quote from a letter to the editor published in the Courier-Mail during the dispute. It is from a Mr Thompson of Ashgrove. He said:

For too long the unions have been bashing the public, causing inconvenience, higher prices, loss of confidence, sabotaging the recovery of the economy, ultimately inducing higher unemployment and lower living standards. . . . the Queensland Government is to be commended for its courage in this dispute . . . the stranglehold of the union leaders should be broken and workers freed from their oppression.

Mr Thompson was not alone in his sentiments. A survey of 15,000 Queenslanders conducted during the dispute found that 60 per cent supported the Premier's stand. When Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen said that the ETU workers had 'sacked themselves', he meant more than in the technical sense of failing to return to work and thereby being subject to dismissal. He meant that the Queenslanders backed him, that they too would not tolerate such obstructionism in the delivery of the State's essential services. The wilful members of the ETU sacked themselves, according to the letter of the law and in the minds of Queenslanders.

I will make one point about that: The fact is that the emergency essential services legislation which passed the Queensland Parliament in 1979 has been in place since then. We have not heard Senator Jones complaining in this place about it before, but the people of Queensland have democratically confirmed the Government of Queensland, the Bjelke-Petersen Government, twice since then. It is further confirmed by the fact that the gallup polls at this very moment show Labor in sharp decline. Apparently, it is not even the people of Queensland who influence Senator Jones in his attitude in bringing forward such a silly motion. I notice that even people in his own Government, such as the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, Mr Willis, are not prepared to endorse Senator Jones's position here today. In fact in the Age of 14 March 1985 the Minister said that he thought there might have been a breach of three International Labour Organisation conventions. Has Senator Jones produced the opinion of the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen)? Does he have it in front of him? Can he quote from it and tell us just how the Attorney-General feels about this? I would like to hear it.

The other person who has not taken this into account is the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, who of course is currently just returning from overseas. The Canberra Times of 14 March quotes the Prime Minister at a Press conference in Canberra the previous day as saying that the legislation was not consistent with the conventions of the ILO. That was the first point he made but, when pressed to say what he would do about it, whether he would seek to employ the powers equivalent to those used in the south-west Tasmania dam case, he said: 'No fear. We would not do that'. Why? Because he is unsure of his ground. Senator Jones knows as well as I do that his case is as weak as water and does not hold any water in this place today.

I return to the facts of the dispute. When that dispute was finally resolved it was on the initiative of none other than the Premier, after 15 days of unnecessary death, the tragic fires, the disruption to ordinary life and the economy and loss in production of millions of dollars. I noted that Senator Jones in his speech in the Address-in-Reply debate the other day talked about $100 billion but I do not know where he got that figure from. No doubt it is, again, a figment of his imagination. But the crisis was solved finally through the actions of the Premier of Queensland. Although the leaders of the ETU spurned any peace offers, they ultimately responded to the Premier's offer. They could see that they had no hope, that public opinion was behind the Premier and that continuing the dispute was absolutely hopeless.

How can Senator Jones talk about breaches of the ILO conventions in relation to this dispute? How dare he suggest that the Queensland Government was not acting out of plain common sense and in the public interest? The ETU was wrong. It did not have a case. Whether contract workers are hired or not is none of its business. But throughout the entire course of the dispute the Premier acted with restraint, using the law, as it was in his hands, at the appropriate times. When necessary he had the courage to stand up for what was right and that included adherence to the Commissioner's, the umpire's, decision and the rulings of that Commission.

Now the ETU seeks to shelter behind Federal registration. I understand that he has the support of the Minister for Industrial Relations. It is one way of skipping the State and seeking a home under the Federal Government's legislation, wherein no doubt special arrangements can be made. Again it demonstrates the appeasement of the militant union on the part of the Hawke Government. The Hawke Government is the captive of the union movement and that is becoming clearer day by day. After the Public Service dispute and the Federal Government's assistance to the ETU there can be no doubt that it lacks the strength to support those who pursue the common good and the public interest against those selfishly rampaging for their own narrow ends. I can quote no better authority than the Canberra Times editorial in the course of this dispute, the last paragraph of which states:

This newspaper believes that the Queensland Government should try to hold out for its own settlement terms-eventual reinstatement with no-strike clauses-which has become the basis of the settlement. Although Sir Joh's style may be offensive at times, his is the elected government and Queenslanders should recognise what it is fighting for, democratic process and the rule of law, and back it to the limit of their endurance. So should other Australians. Tomorrow it could be the ACT, Victoria or Tasmania that is subjected to the national might of the Australian labour movement.

That says it all. Clearly this union in Queensland has been wrong. Clearly it has acted against the public interest, and the people of Queensland perceived that that is so. The people of Queensland have backed the Queensland Premier in all his actions. As I have demonstrated, the furphy that has been thrown about today by Senator Jones-that there has been some kind of breach of the ILO convention on forced labour-on my reading of it, is wrong. If that is so, Government senators stand condemned for bringing forward a frivolous proposal here today which is wasting the time of the Senate, obviously with the sole intention of building up some kind of political hysteria in order to preserve their own preselections. That is all this is about. It is not about the interests of the people of Queensland or of the people of Australia. It is about looking after the preselection of some Labor Party back bench members from Queensland. Senator Jones stands condemned for bringing forward such an absurd proposal here today.