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Wednesday, 21 August 2002
Page: 3417

Senator COOK (10:11 AM) —Let me underline and support the closing remarks of my colleague Senator George Campbell. It is appropriate to ask this chamber to vote down this legislation and to do so in the national interest, because this legislation, if it were carried, would set up a process that would bias industrial relations and tilt the playing field to employers against workers. It would work not only against the interests of the at least 2½ million Australians who are members of trade unions in this country but also against those of the many millions of other workers who are not members but who benefit, nonetheless, from the standards achieved by industrial negotiation conducted by unions.

The point here is that unions, by negotiating freely and fairly with employers, set benchmark remuneration and conditions of level benefits for union members. That sets the market rate, to put it in economic terms. That is the rate that non-union members obtain as a free good if they are not members paying a fee, and that is the rate that non-union members negotiate from if they are involved in direct individual bargaining to try to improve their situation and justify why in their particular case—a case I do not necessarily agree with, but nonetheless they are entitled to this view—an individual work agreement is a better deal. Once the market rate is set, that is the benchmark. To bias the playing field so that that market rate cannot be fairly set is not in the economic interests of this nation. It is certainly not in the domestic interests of individual families who have to survive on the income they receive. If the industrial relations system is palpably unfair it will inevitably break down, because if it is unfair Australians are such a robust group of people that they will not cop it. If they do not cop it we will have industrial disputation in this country, which we do not want to see. If there is industrial disputation the people who will be hurt worst are the workers who withdraw their services and lose their incomes. As a Labor person, I do not want to see families suffer in that way, but it will occur in this country if the injustices visited on them, or the lack of fairness delivered to them, means that the outrage is greater than the pain suffered to try to correct it.

Therefore, we as legislators in this place have an obligation to ensure, above everything else, that the playing field is fair—that it is not unfair—that it is seen to be fair and that people can fairly engage in negotiations on it. This bill denies that opportunity. This bill, therefore, should be rejected. The words `mean and tricky' come to mind.

Senator Jacinta Collins —You refer to Peter Reith!

Senator COOK —No, Senator Collins. That is not a quote from the ex-minister for industrial relations, Peter Reith. The words `mean and tricky' are a quote from the President of the Liberal Party of Australia, Mr Shane Stone, in a letter to the Prime Minister in March last year in which he said that the Prime Minister was perceived as being `mean and tricky' in the conduct of his office. We know that this letter exists and that this is a truthful quotation because it was published in full in the Bulletin magazine. That is, in fact, a very good description of what this bill is: it is mean and tricky.

Let us take the title of this bill. It uses what in the normal course of events would be regarded as agreeable language—a language to which ordinary Australians would take no exception. But that agreeable language covers a devious purpose. The title of this bill absolutely misrepresents what this bill is about, but ordinary Australians looking at the title would say, `What is wrong with it?' The title of this bill says `Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees'. There is no definition and no repeat of that phrase anywhere at all in this bill. That title does not say what this bill is about. This bill is about—because the bill itself defines what it is about—bargaining services and payment for bargaining services. There is a universe of difference between the two concepts.

Let me illustrate that. Where a workplace has decided to negotiate a collective agreement, where the bargaining agent is the union and where most but not all members of that workplace are members of a union, the union as the agent and on behalf of all workers in that workplace negotiates with the employer, and eventually—and, hopefully, peacefully—a deal is struck. In order for that deal to have validity and to be certified as binding, there has to be a vote in the workplace and all workers who will benefit from that deal, whether or not they are union members, vote. All of those beneficiaries, if it is an affirmative vote, pocket the advantage, whether or not they are union members. Union members, by virtue of being union members, pay a fee to their union to provide that service, but non-union members do not. The proposition here is that those that benefit should pay a service fee—that is to say, they should not be required to join the union, but if they take advantage of the service that is being rendered they should pay a small contribution towards the cost of providing that service.

The government elsewhere in its legislation refers to this as `mutual obligation'. It says to welfare beneficiaries, `You have a mutual obligation to put some contribution back into the system, if you are a beneficiary of the system.' I have no difficulty with that general concept. Sometimes it is applied unjustly, but the concept itself is not remarkable; it is a fair concept. The concept here is that beneficiaries should make a contribution to the cost of achieving the benefit. This is lawful in Australia. It is also lawful in the United States of America, which is the home of much of the ideological attitude that this government brings to industrial relations. It is also lawful in Canada, Switzerland, Israel and a range of other countries. This is not an exceptional idea.

It is so lawful in Australia that an appeal as to whether or not this should apply has been taken to the Industrial Relations Commission, and the umpire has ruled that it should apply, that it is fair. The government has an opportunity through the High Court to appeal that decision of the umpire if it disagrees with it—and, incidentally, I understand that the government has lodged an appeal. The big questions hanging over this debate are: why won't the government allow the umpire to make a fair decision based on the merit of this case and why is it reaching over the court system to tie the hands of the umpire and prevent it from making a decision? They are the big questions that hang over this case, because the door is open, the appeal is lodged and the process can proceed. The only conclusion one can fairly draw is that the government is afraid that the courts will uphold this process as legal, as it is in the United States of America, Canada and a range of other countries where this type of bargaining—the system that we have now adopted in Australia—applies.

The economic term for a group or an individual that takes an advantage without making a contribution to it—and it applies in the economy in general—is a `free-rider'. That person without making a contribution takes the ride at no cost. The behaviour that the government is wishing to enshrine in this legislation is to encourage a proliferation of free-riders. In looking at all the economic texts, we see that that is regarded as something that should not be encouraged and that in the interests of good government free-riding should be eliminated. Yet, in reverse of the economic line that this government preaches, in this particular set of circumstances encouragement of free-riding is being proposed.

One does not have to be very bright to work out why all of this is taking place. One does not have to be very bright to go to motive, because Mr Tony Abbott and Mr John Howard frequently tell us what their motive is. We are bound, given that they repeat this, to believe them when they say what their motive is. Their motive is to break down the bargaining power of unions in Australia. They are anti-unionists. I do not take exception to that; they are entitled to have that view. But they are not entitled to abuse high office by removing the rights of ordinary Australians to protect their employment interests if they choose to be members of unions—where workplaces in Australia vote through a collectively bargained arrangement, with the union as the agent, in order to break down the power of the union and bias and skew the bargaining outcomes against ordinary workers. While they are entitled to be non-unionists, they are not entitled in the national interest to abuse their elective office by implementing a regime that works against ordinary working people.

There are a number of things that can be said about this which in the government's own terms need to be considered. People listening to this broadcast may remember that back in 1996 when the government was first elected it said two things about industrial relations. The first was that we should keep third parties out of the workplace, that we should allow the people in the workplace to make the decisions that govern that workplace. That was the main platform upon which the government based its argument. This process places the government squarely in the workplace and says to the parties in the workplace, `There are things that you can do, but there are things that we will prevent you from doing.' Government has intruded into the workplace, into the partnership that occurs between workers, employers and their agents in that workplace. Based on the government's own electoral mandate—it claims that every detailed point of its complicated manifesto was voted for and endorsed, which is a concept I find somewhat odd—the first point I make is that this is against what the government promised the Australian electors.

The second justification is even more bizarre and goes back to the mean and tricky concept that the President of the Liberal Party, Shane Stone, accused the Prime Minister of in his letter that was leaked in March of last year. The justification advanced by the government for this legislation is that it is somehow consistent with the international convention Australia has signed up to on freedom of association. I know about the freedom of association legislation and the freedom of association convention, because I had the good fortune to participate in a renegotiation of it at the International Labour Organisation. The ILO is a United Nations agency representing employer groups, worker groups and government groups in a tripartite international commission to reach agreement on what the basic international rules should be for fair industrial relations. This is all governments of all types of countries—workers, employers and governments—represented fairly and equally. When a body like this speaks, it speaks with some force, some power and, dare I say, with some dignity. It has defined what freedom of association means, and it does not mean this—it does not mean this, and it has said so.

In another realm this government is faced with the conflicting situation of rejecting United Nations advice when it comes to refugees but clothing itself in the protective arguments of the United Nations when it comes to other issues of international affairs, particularly in the current debate about a war with Iraq—we know that. The ILO is an agency in which Australia has had a long and proud tradition. It was founded after the First World War. Australia was one of the very first countries to be associated with it and is a proud member. To claim that what the government has put forward is freedom of association is complete nonsense. The only body that can define freedom of association is the International Labour Organisation in which all interests are represented, and it has specifically said that this is not freedom of association. Yet most Australians do not know that. Going back to the mean and tricky approach that this government has made its theme and motif, this government uses those words to cover a mean purpose with a benign or appealing slogan.

The third point I wish to make, which in some respects is related to an earlier point I made, is keeping the government out of the workplace. This is something that the government says, but it is not what the government does. The most dramatic recent example of this is in the automotive industry. In the automotive industry there is a history of a strong union movement, a strong employer group and robust negotiations that reach agreements which by and large work for the benefit of both. Where that happens you would have thought it was in the national interest to preserve a system that actually works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and this ain't broke, so why intervene?

In the government's recent submission to the Productivity Commission, the government made these observations about the automotive industry. They said that the automotive industry do not apply the government's industrial relations policies. No, and under the act they do not have to. They are free to choose what industrial relations policies they apply in order to get the productivity and cooperation that they want from their work force. But the government object to this and say, `This industry'—if you like, the heartland of Australian manufacturing—`should apply the policies that we as a government are ideologically committed to. So if they don't come into line when we crack the whip and do as we ask we will remove from the automotive companies in Australia'—these are Toyota, General Motors Holden, Ford and Mitsubishi—`contributions we make on an industry policy basis to encourage those companies to export and other commitments we make that encourage those companies to engage in research and development and other issues to make them more competitive.'

In other words, the government are so barefaced about their ideological agenda in industrial relations that they can threaten a major employer body that is the heartland of Australian manufacturing: `Comply with our ideological agenda. Change your ways or we will bring your industry down and render it less competitive, and then you will be out of business.' This is not something that has achieved very much notoriety in recent weeks, but this is a total outrage, this is a threat to bring a manufacturing sector to its knees unless the ideological agenda of the government is adhered to. This is a very good reason why this chamber should say to the government: `Enough is enough. No more.' The principles upon which we want to see industrial relations conducted in this country involve a fair and level playing field in which working people that want to protect their rights and choose to be union members can do so with dignity and respect and can conduct their affairs honourably, and employers should be able to do the same. There should not be one set of rules for one lot and another set of rules to make victims of the other lot. (Time expired)

Debate interrupted.