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Friday, 19 October 1984
Page: 2059


Senator HILL(11.36) —The previous speaker, Senator Cook, said that the Opposition is here only to oppose. That is not correct. The Opposition is here to put a constructive and better alternative. In relation to the subject of industrial relations and wages policy, that is what the Opposition has done and that is what it is putting to the Australian people in this forthcoming election. It is an interesting contrast with that of the Government because, as Senator Cook said, the Government does not have to explain. That appears to be typical of a certain superiority complex that this Government has developed in recent times. We have found that the Government feels it does not have to explain to the Australian people what it intends in relation to taxation if it is returned to government. It does not have to explain what it intends in relation to Aboriginal land rights if it is returned. Today we are told that it does not have to explain what it intends in relation to industrial relations. In fact, its process appears to be similar in industrial relations and taxation. That process is one of passing the responsibility over to another group. We find in the second reading speech of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) on this matter, the speech that really has invited this somewhat broad -ranging debate, his reference to the committee that has been set up to review Australia's industrial relations law and systems, and the National Labour Consultative Council. That is this Government's approach. It prefers to pass over its responsibility of government to an independent committee and will act in due course in accordance with what that committee then recommends.

As I have indicated, our approach is different. It is a new approach and an exciting approach. We have attempted to take the best of the existing system and to improve upon it. The best of the existing system is the protection that is offered against abuse. That protection will be retained after the next election, when we come to government, in the form of centrally determined minimum award wages. From then on we offer substantial change, a change that will be applauded both from a macro-economic point of view and also by individual employers and employees.

The full wage indexation approach of this Government has entrenched the inability of Australian industry to compete internationally. It is true that the rate of inflation in this country is lower than when this Government came to power, but it is still higher than most, if not all, of our trading competitors and it largely reflects the entrenched wage system of this country through full indexation as well as ever increasing taxation and costs. That is an unreal environment and is the principal reason why Australian business has been unable to compete effectively on the international market. It is necessary for Australia to come back to the real world. If costs increase, Australian workers cannot expect wages to increase automatically. It is a naive, blissful, dreamtime approach but in the real world it simply will not work and we will not be able to compete efficiently on that basis.

At the micro-economic level this policy has meant that workers have been forced out of employment and into unemployment because individual businesses have been unable to meet the wages they have been obliged to pay by the centralised wage fixing system. Full indexation means that in a number of cases, wages have risen above the capacity of an individual business to pay. Naturally enough, that results in the destruction of that business and unemployment.

Yesterday in this chamber we had a significant debate on the still totally unsatisfactorily high level of unemployment in this country, particularly the unemployment of young people. An element of responsibility for that must lie in the entrenched wage system with which this Government is again apparently going to the Australian people. The Government must break down that entrenchment. The system must become more flexible. We must retain the protection of minimum award wages but, from then on, the system must become more flexible. How can we do that?

At the centralised level we look at establishing the level of minimum wages and we say that it is time, in doing so, that proper consideration was given to the state of the national economy to pay such minimum wages. The system we advocate will mean that small businesses will not be forced into paying a higher level of wages when it is not in the interests of the national economy for the centralised conciliation and arbitration commission to award such a major increase. That flexibility does not exist if we adopt this Government's approach of simply having full indexation.

From that level of minimum, centrally determined wages I briefly mention a number of the changes that we would implement to provide the flexibility to which I have referred. The first of those changes is that all over-award wages would be negotiated on a work place by work place basis. They would not be determined centrally out of the control and knowledge of individual industries. The importance of this is that it will return responsibility to those directly concerned by the decision. The concept of giving people a greater personal responsibility for their affairs and looking to them to have a greater commitment to make this system work-a concept which this Government cannot understand-is what we are advocating. We believe it has an element of reality. It would mean that the capacity to pay would be taken into account in over-award negotiation on a work place by work place basis. Changing market considerations would be taken into account; and all the matters relevant to particular industries and businesses, but which cannot adequately be taken into account on an individual basis if we simply limit our system to a centralised one-off wage fixing system.

The second set of provisions that we would effectively implement are proper enforcement provisions within the Act. I think the Commission is being discredited by the fact that the community and those in industrial relations practices see the system as becoming out of balance. Awards and obligations will be enforced against employers and employer organisations but they cannot be effectively enforced against employees and employee organisations. To return credit to the system-it is important that the system have proper public recognition and respect-requires new, effective enforcement provisions. We will, therefore, provide that the new tribunal which we will set up will enforce its own awards by awarding damages for breaches of the award or breaches of the contract of employment. We will write a contract of employment into every award which gives employers an avenue for effective enforcement regardless of their lack of bargaining power. If we take, say, a small business situation, we know at the moment, that it is impossible in practice for the employer to take any action to enforce effectively the other side of the work place bargain to meet his commitments. That will change under the next coalition government. It will be a fairer, more realistic and more responsive system.

The third change I mention is our undertaking to protect voluntary unionism and to protect against coercion and victimisation. I think it is worth repeating that today. The fourth matter I mention is our concern regarding junior wage rates. This was a major subject of debate yesterday. Honourable senators on this side of the chamber are deeply concerned that young people are not being employed because the centralised system has created wage rates for untrained and unskilled junior employees that industry and small business in particular are simply not able to pay. We would undertake to set up a public inquiry to investigate the whole subject of the setting of junior wage rates. An associated group of people we would similarly wish to protect in this system are independent contractors and the difficulties they are experiencing as this Government is continually attempting to force them into the centralised wage fixing system. We respect the position of the independent contractors, particularly owner-drivers and builder contractors. We respect their independence and when next in government, we will preserve it.

The fifth point I mention is our undertaking to simplify the Act. If we go into the community and into businesses we find that these people simply do not understand the industrial relations system of this country. The Act has become enormously complex. The whole procedure is complex. It is out of their hands. They do not understand it and, therefore, they do not feel an involvement in or a responsibility to it. We have undertaken to simplify the Act. As I have indicated, we will be simplifying the system by returning so much responsibility to the work place and to individual employers and employees.

The last change I mention, which will come after the change of government in early December, is our different attitude to penalty rates and on-costs. We know the detrimental effects that penalty rates are having in many instances on business efficiency in this country. We will regard penalty rates as part of the over-award agreement to be negotiated on a work place by work place basis. Under our system it will not be entrenched into awards by a centralised tribunal which does not appreciate the particular exigencies of individual businesses.

I put those changes to the Senate today and to those who might be listening to this debate as refreshing changes introducing a simpler system. It is a system that is more responsive to the realities of the commercial world. It recognises market conditions and the importance of reflecting the capacity of individual businesses to pay. It puts responsibility back where it belongs; that is, in the hands of those directly affected by the wage fixing mechanism. Nevertheless, it continues to offer basic protection from abuse which our Conciliation and Arbitration Act and our system have been designed to do and have done over the years. It is a constructive alternative that I believe will appeal particularly to small business. I urge small business and all those in the community who have a real interest in this subject to get hold of our full policy and read its detail. I think that it will indicate to them a direction that has a great deal of appeal to which they will positively respond in the future.