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Friday, 19 October 1984
Page: 2050

Senator DURACK(10.30) — I propose to speak only to the Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Bill which is being debated cognately with a Bill to amend the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee Act, which will be dealt with by my colleague Senator Scott. The Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Bill is of a machinery kind and the Opposition will not oppose it. Its details have been set out in the second reading speech of the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis). The primary amendments seem to be to the various accounting and reporting requirements for Federally registered trade unions. These provisions will simply facilitate the reporting and registration of accounts under the existing legislation which was pioneered by the previous Fraser Government. It is an important step in the accountability of trade unions that they should under this legislation be required to file accounts. The amendments proposed in this Bill are sensible and the Opposition will support them.

There are also some amendments concerning the internal administration of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. These also are machinery matters which I hope will improve the administration of the Commission. The Opposition will support them. Other provisions in the legislation are of a drafting nature only. The Opposition is in support of all the amendments to the Conciliation and Arbitration act proposed in this Bill.

Having said that, I must make some general observations about the problems of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act because it seems that these amendments being proposed by the Government are only of a machinery kind. In fact, the Conciliation and Arbitration Act needs very major amendments indeed to deal with a great number of failings of the present arbitration system. It is excessively complex and of insufficient flexibility to cope with sudden changes in the economy or the capacity of individual employers to pay award rates. This inflexibility is accentuated by the accord that has been entered into between this Government and the trade union movement. The Government proposes to maintain and renegotiate that accord if it is re-elected.

Other problems in the present arbitration system include a multiplicity of Federal and State awards and jurisdictions, with tribunals competing with each other and being played off one against the other by unions which are intent on a leap-frogging process in regard to wages, and the institutionalisation which has occurred with comparative wage justice which leads to this leap-frogging of wages without any regard whatever for the capacity of industry or individual employers to meet these claims. It is no wonder that unemployment is at the present level in light of current wage levels. Even though some industries and some employers can pay, others cannot. Clearly we have a totally institutionalised system of unemployment in the way the system is operated by powerful trade unions.

Another major problem lies in the nature of unions in this country, based as they are on craft or trade lines rather than industry lines. There could be a more intelligent and rational form of industrial relations if unions were based on industry lines. There are, as I said, a number of very major problems with the Act, with its administration, and with the way industrial relations have been structured in this country. There is far too little encouragement of employers and employees to exercise their responsibilities to each other at their work place, leaving industrial relations to a group of professionals in the various industrial organisation of employers and employees. There is far too little encouragement of employers and employees to get together to solve the particular problems that they face in their work places and to resolve those issues by voluntary arrangements with each other, thereby overcoming the problem of institutionalised conflict which our present system seems to have reached.

The Opposition believes that legislation of this kind simply tinkers with the Act; it simply tinkers around with the Arbitration Commission, which is now out of date. There needs to be a thoroughly new approach to the process of industrial relations and the resolution of industrial disputes in this country. There is absolutely no sign that this Government understands this problem. Certainly it has established a wide-ranging review of the Act, but no one can really have any faith that this Government is prepared to make any of the major and necessary changes that are required to this Act and to the system. As I said , the accord is the very centrepiece of this Government's economic policy, not just the centrepiece of its industrial relations policy. However, the accord is a most old fashioned document which was designed to meet situations of 30 or 40 years ago. Its very nature simply institutionalises even further the major defects of the existing system which I have just identified.

The Opposition believes that there needs to be a completely new approach to industrial relations in this country. There needs to be new institutions to cope with these problems. There needs to be a new emphasis on mutual relations and independence by both employers and employees. There needs to be a new emphasis on agreements entered into between employers and employees, instead of the relationship being taken over by professionals in what have become known as the industrial relations clubs around the country. These matters are fixed up by professional people who have made a career in this sphere. What is required is a far greater emphasis on employers and employees themselves seeking to solve their respective problems together by their own negotiations directly and by agreement between themselves. This is the approach the Opposition believes is necessary. One should be seeking to encourage this new kind of approach rather than the old system which has now become so complex and inflexible. It has resulted in increasing benefits to the few, be they powerful unions or large companies, which can afford to pay. They are able to pass on the costs of the exercise as against those who cannot do so and who go to the wall. This results in greater levels of unemployment than can be either justified or necessary.

The Opposition sees the need for a completely new approach to the subject, on the lines I have indicated. We see the need for a new Act and a new tribunal. We believe in the need to maintain an arbitration Tribunal but one concerned simply with fixing floor levels below which wages and conditions will not be allowed to fall. It would fix minimum award rates and conditions but according to the capacity of the economy, the industry concerned and of the various employers to meet such conditions and awards. Conditions would be increased only after a thorough examination of the capacity of the economy. The principal criterion would be that of productivity or growth in order to provide the capacity to increase those minimum wages and conditions. The Opposition believes that such a tribunal should not have power to make recommendations or at least to arbitrate on over-award payments or agreements. Certainly the tribunal should not have power to grant preference to members of any particular union.

The Opposition feels that matters which have become accepted burdens on industry, particularly in times of economic downturn-such as annual leave loading, site allowance, new proposals for superannuation agreements, the form of penalty rates in the present system-should not be within the jurisdiction of the tribunal, which should simply determine minimum wages and conditions. Those matters should be subject to agreement. The Opposition does not suggest that it should be illegal to provide for such matters. Many of these conditions are desirable, and if the economy and the industry concerned can pay, that is fine. But the question whether the increases should be paid and institutionalised in the system as it has evolved is a matter for agreement between employer and employee. Overall legal requirements should not be imposed by awards of this kind since they impose burdens that are beyond the ability of certain industries and employers to meet. Such burdens will only result in employers going to the wall and employees losing their jobs. Other employers find it difficult to give jobs to those displaced employees because of the increased add-on costs required by such conditions.

The Opposition also believes that even where awards apply in particular work places, employers and employees by unanimous agreement may vary the terms and conditions of any award for specified periods. The parties should be able to enter into voluntary agreements, with the emphasis on the word 'voluntary'. Overall, the system must be flexible. However, the present system leads to greater inflexibility and the institutionalisation of various systems and requirements. Industry is now within a straitjacket of complexity and inflexibility and greater burdens are being put on many industries and employers than they are able to bear.

Clearly, the whole approach to industrial relations needs to be given new thought, new procedures should be introduced, and legislation enacted to cover these considerations. It is no good our tinkering around, as we do in almost every session of parliament, with the existing provisions. A new approach along the lines I have outlined-an approach which the Opposition will continue to emphasise in the coming weeks-is required. The Opposition sees no signs that the present Government is giving any new thought to these matters. The Government sticks to the old-fashioned accord, which makes the existing system more inflexible with a greater hardening of the arteries. The Opposition calls for a totally new approach where employers and employees will recognise their mutual interests and their interdependence, instead of emphasising conflicts which are encouraged and which have become institutionalised in the present industrial relations system. Certainly there is no prospect of the Government bringing no new ideas to the present system or seeking to change it. The Opposition calls on those who are concerned in these matters, which are basic to our economic recovery, to accept that the Opposition's approach to industrial relations be implemented as soon as possible.