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Monday, 28 October 1996
Page: 5878

Mr SOMLYAY —My question is addressed to the Minister for Industrial Relations. Is the minister aware of reactions to the announcement yesterday of the agreement between the government and the Australian Democrats on the coalition's IR package?

Mr REITH —I thank the member for Fairfax for his question and for his interest in the subject matter as well. There has been a very positive reaction to the agreement which was announced yesterday. The principal employer organisation, the ACCI, has issued a statement welcoming the changes. We have had support from the National Farmers Federation welcoming the changes. The Farmers Federation said that it believes that the reforms in the workplace relations bill will make a significant contribution to improved performance in a number of key sectors, including meat processing and the waterfront, and will ultimately generate increased employment.

There have been a large number of editorials on the subject, by and large favourable—not in every case, but by and large reasonably favourable. The Financial Review says:

Overall, however, Mr Reith is right when he says the Government has retained the integrity, the direction and the thrust of the bill. And the fact that this much has been achieved is to be applauded . . .

We also had in the editorial of the Daily Telegraph the comment that the government:

. . . has secured a major advance in the government's program to reshape the economy.

The coalition pledge to reform the industrial relations landscape and, in particular, the unworkable unfair dismissal laws that have contributed to a paralysis in small business, is a policy the nation has waited too long to see enacted.

We have had semi-supportive comments even from Robert Fitzgerald of ACOSS. We appreciate the support that has been voiced in the last 24 hours on these changes.

What is interesting, I suppose from the point of view of historical curiosity more than anything else, is the reaction that we have had from the labour movement in the last few days. It is a bit hard on some occasions to work out which is the organ grinder and which is the monkey. It seems that the ACTU's stance on the government's package has been an evolving one. Members might remember that before the election on 2 March the prospect was of world war 3—

Mr Costello —Bill Kelty.

Mr REITH —Bill Kelty declared war, and then we had a minor skirmish of a riotous nature outside Parliament House. Then I was down in the old Parliament House—I suppose we are lucky they did not tear down the doors of that building too—a week ago with Mr Kelty. I heard him say that he had been around for a long time and he had seen these ministers all come and go, each with their little packages. In other words, this was just another package, basically irrelevant to the union movement and therefore something to be put aside. That line was repeated by Jennie George, when she claimed that the amendments agreed with the Democrats had neutered the bill. She basically took the credit for it, which was pretty incredible.

So the union position is half-smart, semi-sophisticated—forget the system, ignore the law and remember only this: there will always be a union. Doubtless those union delegates in Melbourne today, who would be preening themselves on the 45 per cent group travel discount they got from Ansett to come across from Perth, will take this message back to their headquarters.

What has also been interesting is the other part of the duo. It seems that the position of the political arm of the labour movement has been evolving as well. Nowhere has the evolution of the ALP's position, slowly adapting itself to the position of permanent opposition, been more interesting than in the case of industrial relations. The shadow minister's initial response to the media was to announce that there was a major problem with the agreement but that he would get back to them after he had worked out what it was. I was not surprised at this because the shadow minister announced that it was a tawdry little agreement. The interesting thing is that he declared it at 2.30, before the agreement had even been released. I know we all had trouble with daylight saving yesterday, but to be literally hours off the pace is even more than your usual effort. We wait with bated breath to see what the shadow minister might have to say.

The interesting thing, seriously, is that the evolution of the political wing of the Labor Party since 2 March is not to hang on to the policy position they had on 2 March but to regress back through the 1990s, back through the 1980s, back into the 1970s. I will give the House one example to finish. The Labor Party in government, recognising the problem we might have with junior wage rates, proposed and implemented an extension of the exemption. Yet when they are in opposition the good sense of their earlier move is now beyond them. They are oppositionist for the sake of being in opposition.