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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2865


Senator CHILDS(12.57) —In this debate on matters of public interest I would like to identify two main issues which will determine the future course of Australian history. These are taxation policy and industrial relations policy. Liberals have no policy on taxation. I was interested in an article yesterday on page 3 of the Australian Financial Review by Gregory Hywood and Richard Hubbard, headed `Worried Howard brings forward date for policies'. That article said:

In a move to bolster his leadership and offset criticism about a lack of direction, the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Mr Howard, is bringing forward the announcement of a range of policies to February.

The article detailed a number of policies and included a general discussion on taxation policy. So that while the Liberals have no taxation policy, they do have a policy on industrial relations and it is this policy of the Opposition that I would like to speak about. Under this Labor Government we have seen the success of working with the trade union movement as we face what has become a world economic crisis. This crisis has forced this Government to contemplate structural changes in the economy which have never been undertaken before. The Government contemplates these changes, however, with the support of the trade union movement, to ensure that not only do we aim for economic efficiency, but also we aim for human happiness.

Our approach has been one of consensus and in taking this path we follow the path of most successful economies in western Europe, for example, West Germany, Scandinavia, Austria, to mention just a few. These countries have accepted the need for consensus and industrial democracy, tripartism and greater equality of income and opportunity. In following this model, they are the countries which provide the greatest economic stability and prosperity in terms of economic growth, low inflation, industrial harmony and social justice. West Germany, for example, has 50 per cent of corporate board positions held by workers from the shop floor in major companies and has had that for 20 to 30 years.

In Australia there has been acknowledgement of the role of trade unions for many years in the past by Liberal governments, so it is very important to understand how this new confrontationist industrial relations policy of the Liberals was formulated and what shift in philosophy it represents. Firstly, it should be said that this new policy which, according to the major architect, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Neil Brown, took eight months to prepare, has been lambasted by many critics and called legally unworkable. One report by Sydney barrister J. D. Shaw, for example, calls the policies `a curious mishmash of motherhood declarations, restatement of the status quo and a few daring innovations which reflect the views of the free marketeers in the Liberal Party'.

Amongst all of this are many proposals which, if implemented, would raise profound legal difficulties. The policy simply does not explain how the more controversial reforms are to be put into practice. The silence invites scepticism. In particular Mr Shaw is sceptical about the new-found concern by the Liberal Party for occupational health and safety. It is under this Labor Government and the operation of the accord that we have seen occupational health become a meaningful concern. We pledged action and we now have in place the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. So for the Liberals to pretend concern over this issue is simply gratuitous after their years of neglect in this area.

Similarly, there are calls for the Arbitration Commission to heed the capacity of industry to pay when making its decisions. This is all so unnecessary as the Commission has always done this. It is now the infamous opting out provision for businesses with under 50 employees that requires greater attention. That is a suggestion that small business can opt out of the system and Mr Shaw points out that there are serious legal difficulties with this opting out provision. In particular, how can provision be made in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act to enforce agreements between individual workers and individual employers? There are, however, more ethical objections about this provision which I will detail later.

I would first like briefly to touch on the other controversial aspects of the Liberal policy. The policy makes reference to the desirability of the use of common law. As Mr Shaw points out, the use of common law has always been available, but he goes on to say: `Australian employers generally do not sue trade unions for a good reason: Doing so makes an industrial problem worse'. Similarly, the Liberal policy now says that there should be no preference to unionists in awards. As Mr Shaw points out, preference to unionists has been part and parcel of our industrial history for many decades.

It is not something dreamed up by this Labor Government. It is something that has been received and supported by both conservative and Labor governments. This acceptance of the need for worker organisation has very good reasons and a sound basis for it; that is, unless there is broad agreement between the representatives of business and the representatives of workers, there may well be industrial chaos which will hurt everyone. It is the shift from this position that is the most interesting aspect of the Liberals' new industrial relations policy. Regardless of the new policy's legal unworkability and its use of meaningless cliches, it does represent a significant shift in the ideology of the Liberal Party; that is, a shift to return to full scale confrontation which is aimed at destroying the trade union movement.

The return to confrontation was apparent soon after John Howard toppled Andrew Peacock as Leader of the Opposition. In his first statement as Leader of the Opposition, John Howard said:

Deregulation of the labour market remains probably the greatest economic challenge that we have over the next five or 10 years.

Here is a man who presided over the most politically divisive and economically disastrous period in recent Australian history telling us how he would encourage further divisive and confrontationist tactics. We should not forget that John Howard had already encouraged the anti-union cause, during the Fraser regime. He did this by allowing the development of tax loopholes which specifically encouraged the development of contract labour, rather than wage and salary employment. Between 1972 and 1984 contract labour grew at the rate of 51.7 per cent, compared to a growth of only 13.6 per cent in wage and salary employment. The growth of contract labour during this time is almost directly attributable to the undermining of the tax system which allows the self-employed to evade and avoid tax in massive amounts.

The most important matter now, the most sinister plank in the industrial relations program of the Liberal Party, is the proposal I have mentioned, the opting out provisions for those companies with 50 or fewer employees. This provision has the potential to affect some 2.1 million people in Australia who work in industries of 50 or fewer employees. This is one-third of the work force. This opting out provision will mean that the 2.1 million people affected by it will have to bear the brunt of fewer benefits, variable conditions of work and individual bargaining without the support of trade unions. In fact, it will signal the return of the industrial lawlessness of the early Victorian era when there was no concern for the health and welfare of the employee. The heroes of the Opposition leadership already have cleared the way for this to happen.

I would also like to refer to people like Hugh Morgan and Charles Copeman, members along with Mr Howard of the H. R. Nicholls Society, because Copeman and Morgan pride themselves on their ruthless and brutal behaviour, the most recent example of which was the sacking of 400 employees at Peko's Besco factory in my own State of New South Wales. Those 400 employees were given half an hour's notice. Unfortunately, the view of the world of these people in the New Right is so primitive and cruel that they must be seen as the modern New Guard or a pro-fascist or neo-fascist development or revival in this country and to that extent it is most serious.

The fact that this vision is shared by the current leadership of the Opposition is a serious cause for alarm. Perhaps it is of more concern that it is all done in the name of freedom. What freedom is there for employees being unrepresented by trade unions when their bosses or employers are represented by the likes of the Australian Federation of Employers and the National Farmers Federation? Where will the workers in small industry get their information and back-up from? Why have work practices which are essentially hard-won conditions, like health and safety regulations, and which have saved many lives, become something to be derided by the Opposition and the New Right?

This issue was brought home in a recent letter in the Australian Financial Review. The letter was from Warwick Neilly, a research officer of the Building Workers Industrial Union, in response to an article by David Clark on the restrictive work practices in the building industry. Mr Neilly pointed out that the Australian building workers, vigilance over health and safety issues had saved many lives. It was this vigilance and the ensuing work practices that so upset David Clark, who urged the adoption of the American system which was much more profitable for the employers but as a consequence had an industry death rate four times that of Australia.

As Mr Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister, pointed out in last Monday's Four Corners program on the New Right, the problem with the New Right is that it is unable to see human beings as anything other than items on a corporate balance sheet. What the New Right and its fellow travellers in the Liberal Party want is not really deregulation at all. What they seek is simply re-regulation in their favour; that is, they seek a return to the feudal situation where management's right to rule is unquestioned and where management rules over a weak, non-unionised work force. These forces of the New Right have been able to fund sufficient think tanks to argue that there is academic support for their arguments. We must be very wary of any such arguments. For example, a report prepared for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Westpac Banking Corporation by Professor Blandy and Ms Judith Sloan suggests the abolition of compulsory arbitration, allowing direct employer-employee deals, et cetera.

Yet these two academics have a history of supporting confrontationist policies of the New Right. Ms Sloan is best known for her suggestion that the natural level of unemployment in Australia is over 8 per cent, saying, in effect, that those people now unemployed should be thrown on the scrapheap. For every report which urges rule of the market, there are several arguing against that rule and for a model which relies on sanity and humanity. For example, at the same time as the report of Blandy and Sloan was released, so too was another report of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia saying that deregulation will lead only to an increase in industrial disputes.

Many sensible capitalists and entrepreneurs are quite clear about the road they wish to follow because, while they may not support everything the union movement does, they do see an important role for the trade union movement. For example, only last week the Confederation of Australian Industry accused the New Right and the Opposition of escapist fantasy in proposing the abolition of a centralised industrial relations system. The CAI says that the abandonment of the current industrial relations system:

. . . poses a major threat to the future of this economy. These critics of our centralised industrial system, virtually none of whom have been involved in industrial relations, threaten employers with changes that will create conditions far worse than those that have already existed.

That is the view of the CAI, and I think it is a very sobering view for any person interested in industrial relations. It is a reminder that unfortunately the Liberal Party has lurched to the extreme Right in adopting policies that are far too extreme for the traditions of industrial relations in Australia.