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Wednesday, 8 April 1998
Page: 2727

Mr BEAZLEY (9:51 AM) —These stevedoring bills have nothing whatsoever to do with waterfront reform. The actions of this government have nothing whatsoever to do with waterfront reform. The actions of this government are to target a particular union and seek to destroy the lawful rights of the workers to organise, the lawful rights of all Australians to be represented by people whom they choose, the lawful rights of Australians to work once they have made a choice as to how they should be represented. This is an unlawful act within the framework of the government's own legislation.

Let me go through the government's own legislation in this regard. Reflect on this: these workers have been sacked, not made redundant under the normal provisions of redundancies. Redundancies occur when a worker is surplus to requirements. There are no workers here who are surplus to requirements. Their sacking has not been based on any information provided to them that they are surplus to requirements. They have been sacked in order to be replaced by another work force. It has nothing to do with competition on the waterfront.

This government declared its attitude towards competition on the waterfront when it endorsed the actions of the Western Australian government in the port of Dampier. Just reflect on this: not many people in the eastern states understand the role and function of the port of Dampier. I, as a Western Australian, do. The port of Dampier is one of our great export ports, probably greater than most of the eastern states' capital city ports. So we are not here talking about a mere bagatelle as far as the Australian stevedoring industry is concerned. What this government has done is to endorse a monopoly—not competition. When P&O sought to be part of the arrangements at the port of Dampier, the Western Australian state government, with the complicity of this government, opposed it, and they awarded a monopoly to a man who is a substantial contributor to Liberal Party funds in Western Australia.

We know the legislation is not about competition. The legislation is endorsing a process of unlawfully sacking Australian workers for one reason and one reason only, and that is that they happen to be members of a union. If the Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business (Mr Reith) does not believe that, within the framework of his own Workplace Relations Act, his act is unlawful, let me quote from subdivision C of his act, `Unlawful termination of employment by employer'. Subsection 170CK(2), states:

. . . an employer must not terminate an employee's employment for any one or more of the following reasons—

and it goes through the reasons. The second reason states:

(b) trade union membership or participation in trade union activities outside working hours or, with the employer's consent, during working hours.

You may not be sacked if your interest in life is going to be advanced by being a member of a trade union—not redundant workers but unionists sacked in order to destroy a union for the political benefit of the Liberal Party, not for productivity on the waterfront. Furthermore, there are more unlawful elements of this particular action. I cite the employer's duty in relation to the award under which those sacked workers are now employed. I go through the employer's duty to notify under the award. It states:

Where an employer has made a definite decision to introduce major changes in production, program, organisation, structure or technology that are likely to have significant effects on employees, the employer shall notify the employees who may be affected by the proposed changes and the union or unions.

The second part of it, defining that first clause, states:

Significant effects include termination of employment.

So they have breached the award. Because there are a very large number of members of our work force who work under awards, all Australians know that awards give them protection. The processes in those awards are the processes that guarantee their security. The government will seek a double dissolution later this year on unfair dismissal, but they will not seek to alter that particular proposition in their unfair dismissal laws. So, even if they were to succeed on that, this is an unlawful act within the framework of this industrial legislation, whatever government emerges—ours or yours.

The Prime Minister (Mr Howard) said the other day in this parliament that he would support all actions which were lawful in regard to his exercises on the waterfront—yet another non-core promise, broken within one week of that promise being delivered. I will cite just one more example of the unlawful nature of this act. Subsection 170CL, `Employer to notify CES of proposed terminations in certain cases', states:

(1) This section applies if an employer decides to terminate the employment of 15 or more employees for reasons of an economic, technological, structural or similar nature, or for reasons including such reasons.

(2) As soon as practicable after so deciding and before terminating an employee's employment because of the decision, the employer must give to the Commonwealth Employment Service a written notice of the intended terminations . . .

So the government have breached the act in relation to unfair dismissals, they have breached the act in relation to the requirement to notify the CES of the fact there are 1,400 Australian workers who were in work but are no longer and they have breached the requirements of the award—the same award system which still protects very large numbers of Australians in the workplace.

It does not matter whether or not you feel any particular sympathy for members of the Maritime Union—this government has worked very hard at demonising the reputation of those who work on our waterfront—but all Australians will feel sympathy this Easter for the 1,400 families who do not know what will happen to their breadwinner as a result of the actions which are undertaken here. But these 1,400 families, the rest of the Australian work force and the Australian people know that, whatever difficulties Patrick's may have been experiencing when they went down the confrontational road, the workers always acted lawfully. In order to justify therefore a set of unlawful acts on the part of those employees, this government has entered into a conspiracy with them to seek a confrontational solution and has now entered into a conspiracy to attempt to establish an ex post facto justification for this particular unlawful act as far as Patrick's is concerned.

These sackings have never been about waterfront reform; the activities of Patrick's have never been about waterfront reform. The management of Patrick's have displayed a mendaciousness; they have displayed a conspiratorial bent. They have not dealt honestly and straightforwardly with their work force, and they have been aided and abetted in that regard by this government for months and months now.

There is a funny little telltale paragraph in the second reading speech of the Stevedoring Levy (Imposition) Bill, and I would draw members' attention to it. The minister said:

However, the new arrangements are considerably simplified and, unlike the 1977 arrangements, they will not apply to bulk cargo. The performance of seaboard bulk cargo terminals is generally accepted as already being internationally competitive.

Why is that so and what is the significance of that? They are internationally competitive because a government that believed not in confrontation with the Australian people but in working with the Australian people put in place a process of waterfront reform. If you cast your minds back to the days before the previous Labor government took office you will recollect that the principal complaints of our exporters and our farmers were all directed towards the movement of bulk cargo across Australian ports, as well they might have been because the substantial proportion of Australian exports went in bulk. The substantial proportion of activity across the Australian waterfront involves the export of bulk cargo; in fact, it is something like 65 per cent of what passes across the Australian waterfront.

What happened when we confronted this situation when we got into office? We had an overmanned waterfront—10,000 stevedores—left in place by the Fraser-Howard government of the late 1970s and early 1980s. We had a wretched practice as far as movement of two-thirds of our exports was concerned. The Labor government put in place reforms and the number working on the waterfront came down from 10,000 to just over 3,000. These were redundancies, not sackings. Furthermore, they were voluntary redundancies. They were workers surplus to requirements. They were not a work force that needed to be replaced by others, having been sacked; they were genuinely redundant workers. In that process agreements were entered into between the parties on the waterfront, which have produced, by the minister's own admission, world's best practice outcomes—all achieved through a process of negotiation. There is world's best practice on two-thirds of Australian exports. The previous government had then put in place a process, through enterprise bargaining, whereby efficiencies might be obtained.

Recollect this too: there are other parties to agreements now and to arguments with the waterfront employees. They happen to include P&O and they happen to include Sealanes, and there would be others as well. As far as they are concerned they are working within the ambit of enterprise agreements and they are achieving the efficiencies. Already, P&O is up to 24 container movements an hour and rising. What was the government's target? It was 25. That was the target set by the government in relation to these arrangements. Are these being achieved by sacking workers merely because they happen to be members of a union? No, they are not. They are being achieved by a sensible enterprise negotiation, the first round of which produced a 40 per cent improvement in efficiencies across the board on the Australia waterfront and the second round of which was to produce even greater efficiencies in an environment in which there was no confrontation.

But this is a government which relishes confrontation. This is a government which desires confrontation for various purposes. Firstly, they have a visceral hatred of organised labour. It is a centuries old hatred of organised labour. In many ways, the debate that we are having here is a debate that has been around for a hundred years as far as Australian history is concerned. There has always been a complete unwillingness by our political opponents to accept the fact that if as an individual you approach an employer and expect to bargain on an equal basis you cannot. You cannot get a requirement that gives you a sense of confidence that you have an income that can support your family. There is no equality in the bargaining process between an employer and an employee. For the last century there has been a determination amongst ordinary Australians in this country that they should not be left like a shag on a rock when it comes to industrial negotiations. There has been a knowledge among them that, if they are left like a shag on a rock in those industrial negotiations, they will be massively disadvantaged.

This government has gone too far in undermining the capacity of ordinary Australian workers to organise. But the interesting thing about this is that, having gone too far with their industrial act and having threatened the sense of security that there is in the Australian work force, they are now trying to take it a bridge further by coming in here today and endorsing an unlawful act under the frame work of their own legislation—not our legislation, their legislation.

Every Australian worker today now knows that when Howard and Reith went forth to the Australian people and said, `You have a right to choose,' they did not tell the truth. They did not mean it. They were insincere when they said that. The product of that is that, no matter what you happen to think of members of the MUA and no matter how unlovely you happen to think members of the MUA are, every Australian worker now knows that every Australian worker can be arbitrarily deprived of their livelihood.

In recent days we have had a mantram from our political opponents, which has gone like this: we have formed the greatest reforming government since World War II; we are the strongman of Asia. Talk about a small man's complex in relation to how you go out and preach your wares! I guess if you do not blow your own trumpet nobody else will blow it for you.

We know this and the Australian people know this. The actions of this government have repeatedly undermined the confidence and sense of security of the ordinary Australian. They have comatosed the Australian economy and sent us into a situation in which we confront a potential crisis in our economic relations with the region around us that will have an impact on our own economy—a potential crisis with growth rates way below what could have been achieved. That process of creating that sense of insecurity has caused Australians to pause for thought as to whether or not they will acquire houses; caused Australians to pause for thought on a range of activities; and caused Australians to no longer have confidence in their right and capacity to work and, therefore, caused them to not consume in a way that advances this economy and produces growth. They will today, from this particular act and from the actions of the government, have more cause to feel that insecurity. With growth rates half to two-thirds of what we had when the Labor Party was in office and with a GST, the privatisation of Telstra and unlawful acts in the industrial relations system dumped on top of them, Australians will experience a comatosed economy for a great deal longer than might otherwise have been the case.

We have put this legislation in its setting; let us get back to the main point of it. What we see here is a government energised to unfairness, a government energised to produce an outcome to deprive Australians of jobs. They get out there and organise this levy under government tutelage to get Australian workers off the waterfront, to get companies, or in particular Patrick's, which say they cannot operate at a profit, to assume a huge additional burden in order to pay for this levy to take workers off the waterfront and replace them by other workers—not to take workers off the waterfront and replace them by nobody because they are redundant to necessity but to take workers off the waterfront and replace them with other workers. That is a situation very different from that which applied under us.

Compare and contrast this energised activity with the quiet sloping towards Jerusalem related to the fate of the people in the Cobar mines, at Woodlawn or in the meatworks that have shut down in recent times as company law has been manipulated to deprive workers of their just claims on redundancies. Can we get an inch of movement out of the government on any of this? We cannot get one inch of movement out of this government on any of this. We get from this government a set of promises: `Well, maybe we'll come to think about it next year, next month'—sometime out there in the future. The government does not care about those workers.

But get this government to viscerally get after those whom they truly hate in the Australian political system and the energy is unbelievable. The focus may be a bit of a problem but the energy is unbelievable. You saw that failed effort of theirs to sack people up in Cairns. That belled the cat. Then you saw the untruths told in this House by the government over the state of their knowledge of that absurd Keystone Kops Dubai effort. Then we have seen the total denial by this government of any involvement in any tick-tacking in relation to unlawful acts and Patrick's—denial given the lie today. This has been a consistent pattern of conspiracy to do down ordinary Australians—a persistent pattern of misleading and duplicity by this government. This government now invites the parliament to put some sort of stamp on what they are doing with this particular act.

Let me make another point about this. From time to time this government seeks to draw a comparison between the actions of the previous government in relation to airline pilots and what they are doing here on the waterfront. The waterside workers were not acting like the pilots in the airline dispute: they did not resign; they were willing to work. You have to comprehend this: no pilots were sacked during the airline dispute—none. Not a single pilot was sacked during the airline dispute. The pilots chose to desert their employer. They chose to walk out of the airlines and leave the airlines without a work force as far as pilots were concerned. The airlines then proceeded from that point in time to recruit a new work force. There is a massive difference between that and the situation of the stevedores. None of the stevedores resigned. All of the stevedores were willing to work. All of the stevedores were willing to enter into enterprise negotiations with Patrick's to improve productivity on the waterfront. All of the stevedores were prepared to admit the need for further change on the waterfront. They have been prepared both to admit that and to arrive at agreements that achieve that for some considerable period of time—a situation totally different from the pilot situation. But that was to no avail because while the MUA was prepared to play by the rules the government was not. It was prepared to conspire with massive sackings which contravened the redundancy provisions of the act, as I have already pointed out.

But what did the shadow opposition spokesperson of the day have to say about the pilots? While they are words that were completely inapplicable to the situation with pilots, they have some resonance today. Let me draw the attention of the House to Mr Reith, speaking on 29 August 1989:

I have a pretty simple message for the Prime Minister: `Listen, mate, this is your policy. You have revved up this dispute'. I can tell the Prime Minister that he will be wearing the consequences of the damage that the dispute will cause this country. It is no good for him to come in here with his Pontius Pilate attitude and say, `I wipe my hands of the whole thing'. That will not wash. I can tell the Prime Minister that his claim that this is an example, a microcosm, of the Opposition's policy is nonsense and deserves to be exposed . . . The only thing I can say about that is that: if we were in government things would not be in the mess they are in today.

He goes on to say elsewhere in his speech:

The fact is that there will be no kudos, no political marks, for the Government from the way in which this dispute is going for the simple reason that the damage that will be caused to our economy will be so great that no-one will be thanking the Prime Minister for his personal intervention. He really is completely out of touch if he thinks that, at the end, people's gratitude for his personal intervention will somehow flow over into the ballot box at the next general election.

That was the advice of the opposition spokesperson on industrial relations.

Mr Crean —Who said that?

Mr BEAZLEY —Peter Reith. That was the advice of Peter Reith at the time to the then Australian government, a piece of advice completely inapplicable to the circumstances in which he found himself but absolutely applicable to the circumstances now in which this government finds itself. The result of this is going to be a sense of insecurity amongst Australian workers, a devastation of the family life of 1,400 Australian workers, a sense that is already out there in the community of disappointment with the Prime Minister and this government that it was unable to deliver to them the sense of security that they so craved, the sense of security that comes from a government that is out there barracking for your job, out there trying to do its level best to keep you in it and out there trying to achieve for our Australian people the sort of economic livelihood and opportunity to which we all aspire.

This government thinks that it has been very clever in the way in which it has handled this, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Australian people will see through this for what it is worth—and the one outfit that is not going to benefit from this is Patrick's. Patrick's have had stumblebum tactics from the day this dispute broke out, from the day they would not sign up to their enterprise agreement and therefore put themselves in a situation where they were still in negotiation with their work force.

It is the actions of Patrick's which have created the unlawfulness of this act. It is the actions of Patrick's which have created a situation in which the work force on the waterfront were in a position of legitimate industrial negotiation with them. It is the actions of Patrick's—with their mad desire, their absurd desire, to try to introduce into this particular dispute all sorts of novelties, shall we say, as far as the organisation of industrial relations in this country is concerned—which have produced what is, or was, regarded by all Australians as essentially un-Australian activities. The ordinary worker in Australia has choice, the ordinary worker in Australia values their freedom and the ordinary worker in Australia has an opportunity to collectively bargain and negotiate with their employer if they so choose. That has been a right that Australians have valued for the best part of this century. It is a right that they have sought and it is a right of which they have now been deprived.

In the process of the deprivation of this right and of heaping calumny on the heads of the work force on the waterfront, we have had a government enmeshed and enmired in utter hypocrisy, a government that pursues a worker's right to organise, a government that pursues the alleged rorting by social security beneficiaries, a government that pursues a supporting parent who goes and takes work as a cleaner and fails to declare that income and a government that relishes rorts when it is into them itself. We have a government which talks about rorts on the waterfront and sits here and defends a set of mechanisms whereby a 44c expenditure on shares can be turned into a $56,000 outcome which supports 12 shares being acquired at virtually nothing—about a dollar a piece—and being translated into a $2 million shareholding, a set of taxation arrangements which when put in place allow that to transfer to family members and others at virtually no tax liability at all. Why does it do it? It is one of its own.

That is the real sense of outrage. As far as this government is concerned, go and rort. That is the bellwether of this government's feeling on rorts. That is what this government believes about rorts in this country. Rorts it can take or leave, depending on who is responsible. Rorts are not a major problem, provided rorts are undertaken by your mates. But what you must not do, if you are an Australian, is to stand alongside a fellow Australian and jointly decide that you will bargain for your rights as a worker. That is what you must not do as far as this government is concerned; and, even though it conceals that sentiment in the act that it put forward, what it really thinks about its act is entailed in this endorsement today of utterly unlawful activity. It ought to stand condemned by this parliament and it ought to stand condemned by the Australian people.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ronaldson) adjourned.