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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 2052

Mr WILLIS (Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service Industrial Matters)(6. 18) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill deals with an important aspect of the Government's industrial relations platform in relation to Australian Government employees. It seeks the repeal of the Commonwealth Employees (Employment Provisions) Act 1977. The CE ( EP) Act was introduced in haste by the Fraser Government in 1977 but was not brought into operation until 1979 as a response to a dispute between Telecom Australia and the Australian Telecommunications Employees Association. Basically , the Act provides, subject to ministerial direction, for the direct suspension or dismissal of Commonwealth employees engaged in industrial action, or the direct standing down of Commonwealth employees affected by the industrial action , without reference by the employing authority to any industrial tribunal.

The direct powers conferred on Commonwealth employing authorities by the CE (EP ) Act are not only provocative but unnecessary. It has always been open to these bodies to apply to the Public Service Arbitrator under the Public Service Arbitration Act 1920 or to the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission under the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 for the right to suspend or stand down employees engaging in, or affected by, industrial action. The Government believes this approach to be the best way for Commonwealth employing authorities to be empowered to stand down staff in dispute situations. An application to an industrial tribunal provides an opportunity for the views of all parlties to be considered and is a far more acceptable process than the unilateral exercise by management of the CE (EP) Act provisions, which provide no right of appeal nor avenue of redress other than under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act, which effectively only allows a review on matters of law and not on the merits of the decision.

The Government does not consider it appropriate that as an employer it should have statutory powers of the type found in the CE (EP) Act which are not available to employers in the private sector. The Government's belief is that in industrial disputes employers who wish to have the power to suspend or stand down employees engaging in or affected by industrial action should not object to making out a case before an independent tribunal. In this respect, honourable members might note what the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labour Organisation had to say about the CE (EP) Act in its 187th report of November 1978. That Committee criticised the fact that the legislation could be invoked at the Government's discretion without the exhaustion of dispute settlement procedures, and expressed concern that there was no effective review of action taken against the employees. The Committee also stated that it was not convinced that legislation imposing punitive sanctions on public employees on account of their involvement in various forms of industrial action was either necessary or desirable.

The Act has been used on nine occasions and on each occasion there was widespread opposition from Australian Government employees. Clearly the existence of legislation of this type acts against improved employer and employee relationships. In this respect I might indicate to the House that there is still a large number of actions before the Federal Court under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act brought by Commonwealth employees challenging the validity of their suspensions under the CE (EP) Act during the department staffing dispute of the Department of Social Security in 1981. These actions were based on claims of denial of natural justice. Negotiations between the Public Service Board and the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association are still continuing on these actions. The rights of the individuals concerned will not be affected by the repeal of the CE (EP) Act. The National Labour Consultative Council has been consulted about the repeal of the CE (EP) Act and does not oppose that action. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ruddock) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 6.22 to 8 p.m.