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Monday, 23 September 2002
Page: 4671

Senator BARNETT (8:01 PM) —I rise to speak on both the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 and the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002. At the start, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Senator Andrew Murray, my colleague on the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee.

Senator McGauran —He is a Rhodes scholar.

Senator BARNETT —He is, and he has made a valuable contribution to that committee. No doubt, some of his contribution will be noted by the government, in particular his comments regarding the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002.

Firstly, I want to address my comments to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002, and then I will address my comments to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002. This is the government's third attempt to address these long-held concerns that we have had about the threats caused to jobs by pattern bargaining campaigns, primarily by the unions.

Senator McGauran —It is intimidation.

Senator BARNETT —Intimidation is part of what the government is trying to address in this legislation.

The bill amends the Workplace Relations Act in three main areas: firstly, to give guidance to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission when it is considering whether a party is not genuinely trying to reach agreement with other negotiating parties, particularly in cases of so-called pattern bargaining; secondly, to empower the commission to make orders preventing the initiation of a new bargaining period or attaching conditions to any such bargaining period where a bargaining period has been withdrawn; and thirdly, to empower the commission to order cooling-off periods in respect of protected industrial action to facilitate resolution of the issues in dispute. The government believes that the Workplace Relations Act should explicitly provide for a cooling-off period by amending the current provisions for the suspension of bargaining periods. Explicit provision for cooling-off periods will allow the opportunity for parties to resolve issues directly or with the assistance of voluntary conciliation and/or mediation and will have particular value in cases of protracted action or where a stalemate has arisen.

The main parts of the bill are designed to force the unions to try to reach genuine agreement with an employer before they can strike, particularly in cases of pattern bargaining, as I have said, and to help the AIRC to order cooling-off periods where there is a protracted dispute. In the report of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee, of which I was a member, we made it clear that the bill is designed to reinforce the emphasis on enterprise bargaining in the act. We noted that since the 1990s there has been general support for a move towards decentralised enterprise level bargaining, and that shift has happened at both a state and federal level and has been endorsed by all political parties in the past. In its submission, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations wrote:

Whilst differing approaches were advocated, the need to make enterprise agreement-making part of the system was endorsed by both major political parties, all major employer associations, the ACTU and the majority of individual unions. The widespread acceptance of this need for change reflected the fact that in the more competitive and open international economy that emerged in the 1980s, the capacity for Australia to maximise its economic growth, employment opportunities and living standards required a more flexible labour market.

That is what we are looking at here—a more flexible labour market.

So those 1996 workplace relations reforms broadened the range of agreements available, including agreements for both union and non-union collective agreement making at the enterprise level as well as individual Australian workplace agreements. I note warmly that the Democrats supported that legislation in 1996, and Senator Murray indicated that it resulted in a rise in real wages and a fall in disputations. Isn't that the sort of outcome that we are looking for in this parliament and in this country? That is what we are trying to do and that is the intent behind this legislation. They are very good outcomes to achieve and we are determined as a government to achieve those outcomes. We will not be swayed by distractions from the opposition parties or elsewhere—in particular, from the union movement.

There are more than 41,000 collective agreements formalised in the federal system, and over 1.3 million employees covered by the federal wage agreements. The government has expressed concern that the gains associated with enterprise bargaining are being placed at risk as a result of attempts by some elements within the union movement to return to industry level bargaining through a process known as pattern bargaining. Pattern bargaining is the process whereby a negotiating party attempts to negotiate across a range of workplaces but does not genuinely bargain at the enterprise level.

I am not going to go through and cite all the different examples we have had with the AMWU and Mr Doug Cameron, because my colleague Senator John Tierney has done that very well earlier in this debate. He has outlined the examples where this is happening throughout Australia, including examples of the loss of productivity and the downward pressure on real wages as a result of that unfortunate behaviour. In the committee that I was involved with, the majority argued that those reports provide further support for the bills in order to protect and preserve the benefits of enterprise bargaining, including higher productivity and improved wages and conditions, because that is a result that we are all seeking. I hope that this parliament and this Senate do in fact support that outcome.

A major difference between the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 and its predecessors is that, in this bill, the emphasis is on the conduct of the negotiating parties in the workplace. The commission will retain its discretion to suspend or terminate the bargaining period where it concludes that the negotiating party is engaging in non-genuine bargaining. What could be more simple and fair than that? Why would members of parliament wish to oppose such a proposal? The bill draws on a commission ruling in October 2000 in which Justice Munro set down some clear and practical rules for differentiating between legitimate common claims that unions are entitled to pursue and unlawful industrial action in pursuit of industry outcomes. The bill preserves the right of unions to make common claims across an industry, but requires those claims to be genuinely negotiated at the enterprise level. The bill also provides the commission with the power to order a cooling-off period in the case of a protracted dispute.

It is quite clear what we are trying to achieve in this bill. I would hope that those objectives, of increasing real wages and having fewer disputations as a result, can be supported by the entire Senate. Unlike the situation with the 2000 bill, the commission would have the discretion to order a cooling-off period. What is wrong with that? That is a very sensible proposal. Finally, the bill would also prevent unions from withdrawing from a bargaining period and then commencing a new bargaining period in pursuit of the same claims as a tactic to escape the jurisdiction of the commission.

It is intended to address the misuse of bargaining periods that occurred during Campaign 2000, an industry-wide campaign conducted by elements of the manufacturing unions. Our committee had a lot of very cogent and persuasive evidence against those campaigns, particularly from the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They provided the background to Campaign 2000 and Campaign 2003 and the inappropriate action of the AMWU and Mr Doug Cameron and Mr Craig Johnston, who have made it clear that their intent is to use pattern bargaining to end enterprise bargaining within the manufacturing industry. In fact, that was reported in the Australian Financial Review on 17 June 2000.

It is interesting, isn't it? The ALP cannot deny that when they were last in government they actually limited the right to strike. Strikes were intended as a means of last resort to reinforce a genuine claim for wages and working conditions. It is disappointing that in recent times they have gone against that previously held view. In the past six years, I note, based on research undertaken, that the AMWU has donated over $3 million to the ALP. What an incredibly large amount of money! What is the AMWU's response to that? Of course they want something in return. This is where we get to the union movement taking complete control of the ALP and the ALP machinery—the organisation itself. That is a sad indictment of those representatives in this Senate.

I come now to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002. I would like to make a few comments about this and some of the views that I have researched of members of the Labor Party and what they say about secret ballots and the role of the union movement in this country. Let me start by saying that this bill is designed to protect jobs by ensuring democracy. That is what it is all about: democracy and having a secret ballot. Who could be opposed to that? I came into this parliament after having been an advocate for small business for a long time and, when I became a member of this committee and got involved with it, I became very concerned. I thought, `Why would people want to oppose a secret ballot for such action?' Senator Murray in his comments has noted that the union movements themselves have secret ballots for delegates to certain positions, yet they are not supporting secret ballots in this legislation. The bill requires a secret ballot to be held prior to the taking or organising of protected industrial action. The commission must oversee the ballot process. That sounds fair and reasonable. The introduction of secret ballots as a precondition for protected industrial action is designed to ensure that employees who will be affected by protected industrial action are fully consulted in the decision and that the decision is based on a democratic process. Why would you want to oppose this?

In outlining the value of the secret ballot process, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations quotes Professor Niland. He says:

Concerns are frequently expressed regarding the need for secret ballots, before industrial action is taken to ensure that members can exercise a democratic right.

That is what we are talking about: democracy. He goes on:

The view is often expressed that the silent and timid majority are outvoted by the industrially militant where open or no votes are taken before industrial action.

I had some interjections earlier tonight that we are talking about intimidation here by those in the union movement. We are trying to protect the views of the silent majority so that they are entitled to put their points of view. Secret ballots are designed to support, encourage, help and protect the workers' rights. Those who would be most affected by going on strike will have an unfettered say about whether they want to do so. Again, what is wrong with that? The problem is that unions have put jobs second; they have put unions first. They have put the unions in front of Australian jobs and Australian workers. They are shunning democracy, because the unions have got a total stranglehold over the ALP and its internal processes. They are denying a fair say to ALP members and giving an unfair say to the unions. Let us just have a look at some quotes from some of the ALP representatives in this parliament. Robert McClelland—obviously, he had a previous career as a union advocate and that may have clouded his judgment—was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 November 2001 as saying:

I made a lot of money appearing in trade union election inquiries. It's easy to challenge a ballot .... it would open our industrial relations system to this sort of attack. It would neuter the ability of unions to engage in collective bargaining ... because unions can no longer seek an arbitration of their claims ...

What a great quote! Thank you very much to Robert McClelland. The Labour movement in Britain has actually had the courage to implement secret ballots, so why would they be opposing it here in Australia? In the UK, Tony Blair had the courage to stand up to the unions, and he introduced one vote, one value within his own party. He introduced democratic principles in the workplace. He told the Trade Union Congress back on 9 September 1997:

Better to let a ballot decide the issue rather than an industrial dispute which is the present law ...

We are not going to go back to the days of industrial warfare, strikes without ballots, mass and flying pickets and secondary action. You do not want it, and I will not let it happen.

The opposition leader, Simon Crean, does not appear to be interested in standing up to the unions. Let us compare Mr Blair's courage in standing up to the unions, which previously controlled his party, to that of the Leader of the Opposition. On 25 November 2001, Simon Crean confidently predicted in the Australian Financial Review:

The influence of the trade unions necessarily has to wane.

Two days later, he attended a closed door meeting at the ACTU headquarters, and I wonder what happened behind those closed doors! My word, if only we were flies on the wall, then we could really see the ins and outs of exactly what happened at the ACTU headquarters. Sharan Burrow could tell all. After that meeting, Simon Crean emerged to declare:

I'm not Tony Blair, and I won't forget where I come from ... I'm not interested in the Third Way.

Simon Crean says this because influence in the Labor Party is bought and controlled by union money. As I have said, $3 million from the AMWU has been donated to the ALP in the past six years. That is a lot of money. Australian workers would be shocked to hear that sort of information. And there is more. Simon Crean should consider Tony Blair's advice given in a speech on 9 September 1997:

Modernise your political structures as we have done in the Labour Party. The country actually knows that influence with this Government and with me is not determined by anything other than the persuasiveness of your argument. That is the right way and it is the truth. The old ways of the Labour Party were the resolutionists, the committee rooms, the fixing and the small groups trying to run the show. That has no future.

Goodness me! Surely that is good medicine, a good lesson and good advice to the Labor Party of today. What does Mr Crean come up with? He says:

... I believe we need to change from 60:40 to 50:50 because we have got to deal with the perception issue of that.

Perception issue? Is that all that he is wanting to deal with? What about the Australian workers and the Australian people who need jobs? Neville Wran said on 26 May 2002:

Fifty-fifty, sixty-forty ... it doesn't matter a tinker's cuss.

That is a symbolic thing. Who is the boss in the Labor Party? Neville Wran was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 May 2002 as saying:

No perhaps, no maybes, they—

the unions—

are untouchable. As far as some people are concerned, and I am one of them, no trade unions, no Labor Party.

Goodness me! You cannot get a situation any more black and white than that. But it seems to me that Mark Latham has the facts right. On the Sunday Sunrise program on 25 November 2001, Mark Latham said:

... we have to face the reality that union coverage in the workforce has fallen to just 25 per cent.

But unions still have 60 per cent of the delegates at our conferences, so it's pretty clear that 60 doesn't go into 25, 60 doesn't go into 25, and there will have to be some adjustment, so we'll be making those adjustments.

You can see that this is a real concern, particularly in Tasmania, where we really are a small business state. We have over 50 per cent of the private sector work force now in the small business sector. They are delivering the goods for Tasmania. Over 96 per cent of all businesses in Tasmania are small businesses. We as a government are trying to lower interest rates, lower taxes, cut back the red tape and free up the industrial relations system. That is what these bills are all about, and I hope that the Senate supports them. We have 23,000 small businesses in Tasmania, employing 36 per cent of all employees. (Time expired)