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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 25862

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (1:00 PM) —Before I commence the remarks I planned to make today, I thank Senator Patterson for a very interesting contribution on overseas students. On behalf of Senator Carr, I thank her for her acknowledgment of his contribution there. However, I raise one issue of caution in the consideration of these issues, and that is what we are currently addressing with respect to our inquiry into higher education in Australia. This is an inquiry of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business and Education References Committee. Amongst many other things, we are addressing the impact of overseas students on the Australian domestic market. I am not in a position to make any comments with respect to conclusions on those issues, but I add to Senator Patterson's remarks that I think that is one of the important issues that, in a whole of government approach to this issue, we need to be mindful of as well. As I indicated, it was a very valuable and thoughtful contribution. Thank you, Senator Patterson.

Senator Patterson —That might affect preselection. Don't affect mine!

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —It might have helped mine, Senator Patterson. In my comments today I want to address a number of matters relating to the not quite so new Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. In March of this year, the federal Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Tony Abbott, gave a speech on industrial relations titled, `Reflections of a new boy'. Leaving aside the endearing public schoolboy effect, the title successfully conveys, I think, his immature understanding of industrial relations in this country. Unfortunately for us, the passing of April, May, June and July does not appear to have improved his knowledge of his portfolio area at all. This was amply demonstrated in his most recent contribution to public debate, which was titled `Why workers are saying no to unions' and published in the Age on 26 July. The reasons for union membership decline are many and complex. A thoughtful debate on the matter has been conducted over the last few years within the union movement and also amongst academia and the media. In fact, the Age's recent `Perspective' series, I thought, gave a more useful and measured contribution on the issue. This was published around the same time as the article by the minister. But not so the minister's piece.

Mr Abbott asserts three reasons for the decline in union membership since 1980. Marxist thinking on the part of unions was the first. Please! The union movement's total involvement with one side of politics was the second, and a tendency to see members as numbers rather than individuals with needs to be met was the third. That third reason I find particularly offensive from my own involvement as a union official.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Yes— not validated by the first point. In fact, the whole system seems to be somewhat inconsistent. You are right, Senator Ludwig. However, Minister Abbott's self-serving views on the decline of the union movement—for instance, the Howard government's virulent anti-union policies do not rate a mention—are not worth serious contemplation, let alone rebuttal. They are nothing more than political bile masquerading as argument. If he or anyone else is interested in reading something useful on the subject, I suggest they look at the New South Wales Labour Council's webpage where you can find the results of a nationwide poll of 1,100 people commissioned by the council but carried out by Sydney University's Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training in early July. This survey shows that the majority—52 per cent—of people agree with the proposition, `I'd rather be in a union.' This is up from 44 per cent two years ago. Although I doubt it will ever occur, I look forward to the day when the Employment Advocate actually investigates why people feel that they are blocked from joining unions—a clear trend.

Senator Mackay —Wasn't it ACCIRT research?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —And ACCIRT research as well, demonstrating this trend. But, unfortunately, it is something that our champion of freedom of association continues time and time again to ignore.

Far more disturbing than his comments on union decline is the minister's agenda for industrial relations reform which was set out by him in his `confessions of a new boy' speech. The minister delivered the speech to a meeting of the H.R. Nicholls Society— shock, horror!—and then disseminated it a little more widely in an article in the Australian Financial Review on 27 March this year. That agenda for industrial relations reform was so full of so much analytical error and distortion that I am informed that department officials took up its serious flaws privately with the minister shortly after the article was published, with the suggestion that he do the intellectually honourable thing and correct the record. He has chosen not to, so today I am happy to take up that task.

Mr Abbott's assertion No. 1 was that Australia's workplace relations system assumes that workers and bosses are incapable of managing differences, that workers are always weak and gullible, that bosses are always greedy and manipulative, that relations need to be governed by complex rules and that inevitable disagreements must be resolved by someone else. This is wrong in terms of the legislative policy of the Howard government and historically it is untrue. For example, the Howard government's 1996 workplace relations legislation included as one of its fundamental objectives ensuring that the primary responsibility for determining matters affecting the relationship between employers and employees rests with the employer and the employee at the workplace level—the minister's own legislation. As far as history is concerned, employers and employees have traditionally been able to sort out the vast majority of matters among themselves, with these often being given legal force by so-called `consent awards' without recourse to conciliation or arbitration. To take a random example: in the Commonwealth Public Service in the financial year 1969-70, some 425 adjustments were made to pay and conditions. Only 26 or six per cent involved arbitration or, in Mr Abbott's words, `having disagreements resolved by someone else'.

Mr Abbott's assertion No. 2 was that, because the system gives unions the built-in advantage of taking the first move through initiating a dispute, it is like ensuring that one side always wins the toss. This is nonsense, as is what the minister has said about establishment processes. In the federal Workplace Relations Act, certified agreements prevail over and are rapidly displacing awards. Section 170MG(1) of that act enables either an employer or other parties to terminate an agreement and section 170MI enables either party to initiate a bargaining period. There is no question of one side always winning the toss. I can only assume that the minister had spent too much time during the summer at the cricket.

Let us move to Mr Abbott's assertion No. 3, which was that workers, managers and owners should be talking to one another at the first hint of disagreement rather than to unions, employer organisations, commissioners, judges and courts. In fact, workers and managers talk to one another all of the time. It can safely be assumed that most communication at most workplaces on most disagreements is directly between managers and workers in the first instance, with unions and commissioners, et cetera, getting in on the act if the matter becomes intractable or where it might be more convenient to deal with the unions—on nationwide issues, for example—in large and geographically dispersed organisations. I and probably Senator Mackay can recall a number of employer organisations saying, `We don't like this 1996 legislation because it contains our ability to access commissioners, for instance, when disputes are intractable. Also we like to be able to deal with issues on a nationwide basis in some instances.'

Industrial commissions are virtually never spoken to at the first hint of disagreement, and they would typically send any parties away if they attempted to do so. Indeed, there are many provisions in the Howard government's Workplace Relations Act requiring the Industrial Relations Commission to do just that. For example, section 170N precludes the commission from arbitrating during a formal bargaining period.

Let me move to Mr Abbott's assertion No. 4, which was that around the country there are 4,500 industrial awards regulating everything from the temperature of water in tea urns to the number of beds on building sites to the hours allowed for trade union training. I really am starting to wonder whether Mr Abbott picked up a speech that was perhaps five years old here.

Senator Tierney —Beds on building sites?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Yes. Here the minister tries to colour and distort the overall picture with an extreme example, a debating tactic as old as it is dishonourable and also inaccurate. If he is not prepared to count up and tell us the number of awards regulating the water temperature of tea urns, at the very least he could say that such matters do not fall within allowable matters in federal awards.

Let me move to Mr Abbott's assertion No. 5, which is that the number of pages of industrial legislation—Senator Mackay will like this one—certified agreements and awards is a serious problem. In some ways, it may well be. However, he fails to own up to the fact that the Howard government's Workplace Relations Act and its associated policies have vastly increased the amount of industrial relations regulatory documentation.

Again, to take a convenient example of the Commonwealth Public Service, there are now some 100 separate individual agency certified agreements that could each be around 100 pages long in place of a single Public Service-wide agreement. Further, there are some 5,500 Australian workplace agreements that could each be 15 pages long. That is to say, in addition to some hundreds of pages of legislation and associated documentation, the policies of the Howard government have bequeathed around 100,000 pages of regulatory workplace relations documentation to the Commonwealth Public Service, a figure far in excess of anything that organisation has known in its 100-year history. It is no surprise that the Victorian government chose to move to another means.

One could go on, but enough is enough to make the point that, while the Howard government alleges policy laziness on the part of the opposition, that does not apparently make up for one of its senior ministers who is not in the least bit bashful about his own sloppy, lazy and distorted analysis of vital areas of policy for which he is responsible. Weak analysis is of course a recipe for weak policy, and it is therefore hard to be optimistic about Mr Abbott being able to bring forth much in his avowed intention to push for further incremental legislative improvement. He needs to catch up on the legislative reform his own government has done first. One can only wonder what those discerning industrial relations specialists and enthusiasts at the H.R. Nicholls Society thought of the minister's performance. Perhaps that august society does not expect much more than a goodly serving of ideological fodder for its members. If it wanted more from Mr Abbott, it did not get it. It got a cheap caricature of industrial relations in Australia, something it might have obtained from the minister's filmic namesake if he were still available.

Finally, I have to ask: how long does it take for the line still recently used by the minister—`I'm a new minister'—to lose its value as an excuse for ignorance and incompetence? Surely, the use-by date on it has passed for Minister Abbott. The minister is either incapable of getting on top of his new portfolio or uninterested, and the Australian public deserve to know which one it is. I have covered today the industrial relations side of Mr Abbott's portfolio, and I look forward to the general business debate on Thursday, when we will cover employment services and Mr Abbott's contribution there.