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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3638


Mr N.A. Brown(3.03) —If ever some specific case were needed to show that our present industrial relations system is in urgent need of reform, it must surely be in the case in which a decision was handed down by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission yesterday. Yesterday the Arbitration Commission rejected a claim made by the National Farmers Federation and others that farmers should be exempted from the last national wage increase of 2.3 per cent. Here was a chance for the Arbitration Commission to show that the present system of wage fixing in this country has within it the flexibility that we are always being told that it has and the flexibility that is needed to give some relief to industries and to employers who simply cannot afford to pay wage increases handed down by the Commission. Here also was a chance for the system to show that it was not just some blind monolith that piles wage increases on to industries and employers, regardless of whether they can afford to pay or whether it destroys industries and employment in those industries.

In addition to all of that, here also was a chance for the system to show that all the rhetoric of the Government in the last six months was true-all of that rhetoric that there is enough flexibility in our wage fixing system for it to be able to distinguish between industries and employers that can afford to pay and industries and employers that cannot afford to pay. That was the rhetoric that we have heard from this Government, particularly from the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in the last six months. They have continually told us that this is a flexible wage fixing system which can accommodate the particular needs of individual industries and individual employers.

If there were a chance to have that statement tested, it must surely have been in the case brought before the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission by the National Farmers Federation. What we have seen as a result of that decision is not that the system has enough flexibility within it, but that all that rhetoric was utterly false. Farmers, as a result of that decision, will now be forced to pay a wage increase which they clearly cannot afford to pay because farmers who are on average incomes of $3,800 a year simply cannot afford to pay a 2.3 per cent increase, or indeed anything else. If farmers cannot prove before the Arbitration Commissioner their incapacity to pay, we say that nobody can prove incapacity to pay under the present system. If they cannot prove incapacity to pay, as they clearly cannot under the present rules of the game, the system has failed them just as the system has failed this country.

The decision of the Arbitration Commission yesterday must surely be the final nail in the coffin of this rigid, inflexible industrial relations and wage fixing system. One has only to look at the decision that was handed down yesterday to see exactly how true that is. The Arbitration Commission, in publishing its decision-it went at some length into the evidence on the economic standing of the primary industries-came to two conclusions: The first conclusion was that of course the primary industries of this country are in great financial and economic difficulties, but the second conclusion it came to was that the position varied from commodity to commodity and indeed from one sector of the industry to another sector.

In the light of those two conclusions reached by the Commission, what was the outcome of the case? It was simply that there was no realistic alternative available other than to make everyone pay. That is the way the present system is operating, because the result in that case yesterday is the result that we get so often from this system; namely, even if there are parts of the industry that cannot afford to pay, even if there are parts of the industry that are on their economic knees, nevertheless the blind monolith has to carry the day and the same wage increase must apply across the entire industry. We say that is a formula for economic disaster and for continuing increases in unemployment.

Having said that, we have to conclude that if ever any evidence were needed of the urgent need for change in our system it must surely now be completely beyond argument that that evidence is there. The system, we say, stands condemned for not being able to accommodate an industry such as the primary industries that are on their knees and need some relief. The Government as a result stands condemned for peddling the cant and hypocrisy that it has peddled now for over six months since the Opposition put out its industrial relations policy and called for urgent change.

The Government stands condemned in this case for another reason, and it is the worst reason of all. The National Farmers Federation, presenting its case for incapacity to pay and to show why primary industries could not afford another layer of wage costs imposed upon them, sent its submission to the Government and said, `This is our hour of need. We need the Government's help to intervene in these proceedings and speak on our side'. What did the Federation get from the Federal Government, from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations and from the Department of Primary Industry? It got complete silence. This Government refused to stand up for farmers in this case, it refused to intervene in the Arbitration Commission and it refused to go along to the Commission and say: `Let us try to get some flexible decision out of this system'. There must be no doubt about it: In this case, as in so many others, the Government has failed primary producers and has failed to do those things which are so essential if our industrial relations system, as it presently is, is to have any hope of surviving and producing the economic outcome that is needed so much.

When one looks at the Government's behaviour in this case one finds that it is typical-it is so typical that it should act in the same way as it has time and time again in the wages and industrial relations area. Since it came to office, the Government has adopted a wages policy over the whole of its term of office that has given us an appalling outcome in wages and has contributed to our disastrous inflation rate and our economic decay. As a result of decisions it has made over the past two weeks about the current national wage case, the Government has given in to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, so we will now have more of the same.

Let us look in a little more detail at the Government's performance since it came to office. Since that time the Government has committed itself to two basic principles in industrial relations. First, it has committed itself to pursue and to allow the unions to pursue full wage indexation. Secondly, while it has done that it has set its face against any sensible and rational reform of our industrial relations system. By following those two principles, as it has in industrial relations, the Government has given us nominal wage increases which are in fact in excess of those of our trading partners, thus making it even more difficult for us to trade profitably overseas and making it more difficult for us as a country to prevent the slide into further unemployment. Earlier this month we saw the results of the stewardship of the Government in this area because we found that in the year to August average weekly earnings in Australia rose by 7.6 per cent, well in excess of the rise experienced by our trading partners. Japan produced an outcome of 0.9 per cent, the United States 2 per cent, Canada 3 per cent, West Germany 4 per cent and Australia 7.6 per cent. We say this to the Government about its operation of the present system: `Let us hear no more of this nonsense that the present system, and the way the Government has used it, have produced wage restraint'. The opposite is the truth. We say that it is time for change and we say that the Opposition's industrial relations policy sets out that fabric and framework for reform and change in industrial relations which is so necessary in Australia. We say that the Opposition parties are clearly, on the evidence, the only parties to commit themselves to a flexible system and that that is fundamental to our whole approach. We say a number of things about reforms in industrial relations, and I wish to mention four or five of them this afternoon.

First of all, we say that there must be flexibility in the system such that will allow for variations from firm to firm and that there must be some scope built into the system to reward the productive in our community. That is what is missing from Australia's present wage fixing system and that is what we will put into it. Secondly, we say that, having got that flexibility, we must carry it through into the work place and allow employers and employees to negotiate their own terms and conditions of employment, including at least part of the wage. If the system stands in the way of employees making sensible agreements on their hours of work and conditions of employment, and if the system stands in the way of employees being paid payments because they are more productive than others, then change the system. Let us not have any more of this universal nonsense that we saw yesterday from the Arbitration Commission, when we were told that the same wage increases must apply across the board to everyone, whether they need it, whether they deserve it and whether they want it.

Let me illustrate this by a recent case that came to our notice of a small printing business where the employer and his employees negotiated a 40-hour week, believe it or not. However, the employees were able to have Friday afternoon off. The firm became productive and profitable and had some hope of competing against the printers of Hong Kong and other Asian countries where so much of Australia's printing is done today. What happened when that sensible agreement was made between employer and employees? The Arbitration Commissioners and their inspectors descended on that establishment and they put a stop to that sensible agreement. We say that working men and women, for the first time in their lives, should have a direct say in what their pay and conditions of employment should be. That is the second thing that we can do. Thirdly, we should give working men and women a direct stake in the success of their firm, a direct stake in the rewards of their labour and their productivity. We have said in our policy that we will change the taxation laws to make it easier for employers to set up share ownership schemes for their employees and profit sharing schemes also. If we do this and if we encourage that reform, we will be doing more than we could do by any other single measure to give the workers in this country an incentive to produce, an incentive to produce more and an incentive to succeed. The Government wipes this off as the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations did when we announced the proposal by simply saying: `Ah, it is another scheme for executives to line their pockets at the taxpayers' expense'. How ironic that the Australian Labor Party and the unions, who claim to represent working men and women, stand in the way of their getting a stake in success, a share of the action and the results of their own hard work.

Fourthly, we will introduce voluntary unionism. It is time that this country stood up to the industrial juggernauts who push people around and force free people to join their unions whether they want to or not. Members of the Labor Party give the time honoured Labor Party reply. They say: `Oh, there is no compulsory unionism in Australia at all'. We say: `Try to get a job on the wharves, in the metal industry or in transport without being a member of the compulsory trade union and see how far you get'. We have tried almost everything else in this country in this field and it has not worked very well. Why do we not give people a bit of freedom for a change and give them a chance to make their own decisions on whether they will join a trade union? We will see what the result is.

What must be done in this field is very clear. We have a system which is not giving Australia of its best; it is not encouraging working men and women to give of their best; it is holding this country back and it is one of the major reasons for our present inflation and our present economic decay. That is clear beyond any doubt. We need a new system with flexibility-a system that will give encouragement to working men and women to give of their best. Finally, it should be beyond any doubt that the Labor Party is not going to introduce that sort of reform and only the coalition parties can.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.