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Wednesday, 17 April 1985
Page: 1143

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.13) —The Opposition brings forward this matter of public importance:

The failure of the Government to protect the people of Australia from abuses of trade union power.

It is, of course, not novel for the people of Australia to suffer from abuses of trade union power. I suppose there is an almost unlimited number of Australians who, when travelling or in other circumstances, have been seriously inconvenienced by trade union actions which have no regard at all for the interests of those who are affected. We are living in a quite extraordinary time. Certainly the circumstances of today represent an unusually strong example of the matter which we bring forward for discussion.

I think it is known throughout Australia that at midnight tomorrow night it is proposed that there should be a blockade of the State of Queensland. That is an initiative of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which has decided that there should be a breakdown of the communications between Queensland and the rest of Australia. We understand that that blockade has been anticipated by the Transport Workers Union in New South Wales, which believes that the proposal for a single day's blockade is not adequate. So we have the prospect of Australia being divided, of movement being prevented and of the freedom of commerce, which is supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution, being destroyed. We have a situation which would be almost incomprehensible in any other country. One cannot imagine it occurring anywhere else.

On exactly the same day we find that the newspapers are full of another ACTU initiative. We find that the ACTU is to attack 51 Australian corporations. The ACTU has singled out for attack corporations which it believes have interests in Queensland or which in some way have associated themselves with the Queensland Government or the National Party of Australia in Queensland. The ACTU has produced what is described as a hit list of companies which are to be subjected to different forms of industrial action-bans and other forms of pressure. Again there is an element of the slightly fantastic in this-that we could have this sort of action being contemplated by the ACTU-but there is no doubt that it is occurring. There is no doubt that major Australian companies such as Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, Utah Development Company, Theiss Bros. Pty Limited, Pioneer Concrete Pty Ltd and many others are being told by the trade union movement that they are to be subjected to various forms of industrial pressure, not because of anything they have done other than to carry out activities in Queensland or to have some form of association with the Government of Queensland. Those propositions ought to be regarded as fairy tale. It is most unfortunate that they are a fact of life in Australia today and in this year, 1985.

I suppose that one ought to be very surprised that this sort of thing can be going on because it is also clear that what is proposed by the ACTU and the trade union movement is illegal. It is against the law of Australia. It is the undertaking of industrial action for a non-industrial purpose. It is clearly in breach of the Trade Practices Act. It ought, therefore, to be something which could not occur because it is simply outside the pale of the law. We like to believe that in Australia we are governed by the rule of law. Of course, today, as on so many other occasions, the trade union movement is saying to Australia:'The rule of law means nothing to us; we are beyond and above the law'.

It would be serious enough if it were merely the ACTU which was saying that it will ignore the trade practices law and adopt the attitude which is described by Deborah Hope, writing in the Bulletin today, as regarding the law as one which is simply not recognised as existing. In other words, the ACTU sees itself as being open not to recognise a particular law's existence. The ACTU sees itself as being entitled to conduct guerrilla warfare against employers who may be sympathisers or in some remote way related to the Queensland scene, or who may be carrying out their activities in Queensland. That is an appalling state of affairs. The most appalling aspect of it is that it is being effectively condoned by this Government.

Yesterday in Question Time questions were put to Ministers and the issue of the illegality of what is proposed under the Trade Practices Act was raised with both the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Button, and Senator Gareth Evans. One would have expected some affirmation of principle, some affirmation of the view that the law should apply in Australia. Instead we got a clear indication from them that as far as they were concerned the application of the law was inappropriate and if the law were to be applied it had nothing at all to do with the Government, notwithstanding the Government's powers under section 80 of the Trade Practices Act, that it was a matter for the companies concerned. The sad fact of the matter is that this Government is so closely entwined with the ACTU, it is so much in bed with the ACTU and it is so dependent on the goodwill of the ACTU that this form of industrial anarchy-what has been described in the media this morning as guerrilla warfare against Australian companies-can be permitted and condoned.

That is a very serious state of affairs. I suppose one could, in an idle moment, say: What does that matter because all that is being affected are governments and companies? Of course, that is the totally false view. What are being affected are the many individual Australians who work for those companies, the many individual Australians who are dependent on them for goods and services and the many individual Australians whose everyday comfort and welfare is dependent upon the provision of government and non-government services. What we have is yet another blatant example of a total ignoring of the public interest and the law in favour of trade union power.

One might hesitate to bring this matter before the Parliament if this were an odd, extraordinary, isolated example. But the sad fact, again, is that this is all too common in Australia. It is not an isolated example of destructive and unjustified behaviour. There are far too many of them. Governments have stood back for too long and refused to come to grips, not with the normalcy of industrial relations, which Senator Button is so fond of talking about-the industrial relations which can be achieved in most enterprises around Australia, given management and union good sense-and have failed to take into account those sections of the trade union movement which are prepared to be lawless and to act in a way which is thoroughly destructive of the public interest.

Look at the record of the Builders Labourers Federation over recent years. It is a union which has been prepared to carry out the most scandalous and destructive works on building sites and which has got away with it for many years. Look at the activities of the rail unions in New South Wales quite recently. The rail unions in New South Wales blocked the export of Australian coal. Coal is Australia's major export. We face a balance of payments problem. That is part of the problem with which this Government is trying to come to grips. A small number of trade unionists were prepared to disrupt that vital export trade in pursuit of their own narrow sectional interest. The people of Australia are sick of that sort of behaviour. Look at the export of wheat from New South Wales. A combination, it would appear, of both incompetence on the part of agencies involved and union action caused the loss of the sale of about $150m worth of wheat at a time when Australian farmers are facing enormous difficulties and there is a very large crop carry-over.

Look at the situation in the Government's own back yard. Public Service unions in recent months have refused to do their duty. They have refused to accept the money which is being paid to the Government and to pay it into the Government's accounts. The Australian dollar has suffered. The economic management of this Government has been put at jeopardy by Public Service unions which have full access to arbitration proceedings. Their claims were arbitrated and they faced a decision that they did not like. They were again offered the opportunity for arbitration, but still chose to go against the law and to prevent the Government administering Australia in a proper way. The people of Australia, for very good and proper reasons, are thoroughly sick, not of trade unions conducting their lawful and proper pursuits, but of trade unions which abuse their position in the community.

Senator Button is wont to respond to this sort of claim by suggesting that this type of debate is just some form of union bashing. It shows an inability on his part to understand the fine points of industrial relations and brings to bear an unrealistic and unreal attitude to these difficult problems. I can only say to Senator Button that I wish he had the courage that was at least evidenced on a couple of occasions by Premier Wran, who made clear his view of what the BLF and the rail unions should be doing. Mr Wran stated:

The strike weapon just becomes a bloody pest when in the hands of people who take the view that they will bludgeon the community and government into submission even when there is very little right on their side.

That is at the heart of this matter which we have brought before the Senate. We are dealing with those instances of the use of the strike weapon by trade unions and other industrial matters which are not a matter of the proper use of industrial relations, but simply an exercise of trade union power, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation. I say to Senator Button that there is the clearest possible evidence that the people of Australia are thoroughly sick of that sort of behaviour by trade unions. They expect more from the Government than the washing of hands which we have witnessed in recent days. The fact is that the Government has refused to take any positive action to do something about this dispute. All it has done is to suggest further talking and we all know what that has led to in the past. It has led not to the solution of these problems but to a continuation of them month after month, year after year.

Senator Button has often put to this chamber that labour market practices are part of the ongoing problem that he faces in trying to assist Australian industry to modernise. I agree with that view that Senator Button has put forward. It is part of the problem that Australia and he face. I further agree that the great bulk of industrial relations activity in Australia can and must be conducted on the basis of both parties acting in their perceived mutual interest. When that occurs it is possible for Australia to progress and for things to advance. But the reality is that in far too many situations elements of the trade union movement-now the highest element of the trade union movement, the ACTU-have shown that they are not prepared to behave in that way, that they are prepared to engage in industrial anarchy and in the sabotaging of the Australian economy. What must be done when the power of organised labour is abused? That is the issue that must be faced up to by this Government. It is not just the issue of the whole conduct of industrial relations across the range; it is the issue of what is to be done in those circumstances when trade union power is abused, as it so often has been abused in the past.

The Queensland situation is valuable in bringing this issue into sharp focus. I believe that in the debate which occurs this afternoon it is important that we do not forget what was the basis of the dispute in Queensland. The basis of the dispute in Queensland was that the South East Queensland Electricity Board wanted to be able to employ contract labour to do certain parts of its work. It has a large employed labour force, but it wished to have some of its work done by contract labour. It wished to hire people under contract. I would have thought that that was utterly consistent with the sort of views that Senator Button expresses so often to industry-that they must be prepared to change their practices, to look afresh at and to do things in different ways. He is a great exponent of flexibility in industry. Yet we have in this case a dispute which relates simply to the desire of the trade unions to keep everything inflexible and to be done in a way which suits the interest, not of the authority or the community but of the trade union involved. I suggest that that fundamental dispute is one which the trade union had no right to bring forward. It had no right to try to dictate to the Queensland Electricity Board that it was not entitled to use contract labour in that way. I ask the Government: How is it that a trade union can be allowed to impose that condition upon its employer?

The handling of that dispute-a dispute in which I believe it is clear that the trade union movement was in the wrong-led to the withdrawal of power from the people of Queensland. Again I say to the Government: How can it justify what the trade union movement inflicted on the people of Queensland? How can it justify the damage which was done to individual people, young and old, to the householders of Brisbane and elsewhere, whose supplies of food were destroyed when their electricity was removed, whose heating and cooling were removed, who were forced to undertake the most difficult substitution exercises and who were enormously inconvenienced? I suggest that the people of Australia generally reject the entitlement of the trade union movement to impose that sort of disadvantage and that sort of damage upon hundreds of thousands of their fellow Australians. We cannot have tens of thousands of homes without power because of the exercise of some trade union pursuit of a monopoly position within a particular industry. That is an absurdity of industrial relations. If that is defended by Senator Button, I will be very surprised.

The sad fact is that the Government is not prepared to live up to its responsibilities in this matter. It has weakened its authority and its ability to deal with the sort of dispute that it now has on hand. The previous Government put into the Commonwealth industrial legislation powers which enabled it to at least require its own employees to work as directed. That power was removed by the Government. Of course, the Government quite recently had to go cap in hand to the industrial arbitration authorities and seek the same powers to be inserted into the awards. So the Government took the power out of the Act and then had to get it back temporarily in order to deal with the recent clerks strike, and has now left itself effectively denuded of powers to deal even with its own servants. The Opposition has offered to co-operate in the reinstatement of the powers which the Government needs to deal with those elements of its work force which might join in this sort of strike. Of course, that offer has been rejected by the Government.

I believe that the question has to be asked: Whom does this Government represent? Does it represent the people of Australia or does it represent the ACTU? We have an extraordinary record of double standards from this Government. It is permissible for Premier Wran to recruit doctors overseas. It is perfectly all right for Premier Wran to be allowed to recruit doctors overseas but, of course, Premier Bjelke-Petersen cannot be allowed to recruit electricity workers overseas. I ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate: Why is it permissible for a Premier to recruit overseas in one circumstance but not in another? It is quite clear that the people of Australia want an end to industrial blackmail; they want an end to the disruption of essential services; they want an end to the disruption of exports-of coal, wheat or whatever-and they want the preservation of their right to work as well as the right to strike.

I believe that there is near unanimity in the Australian community that there has been an abuse of trade union power. There is near unanimity in the Australian community that the abuses of trade union power which have occurred have got to be brought to an end. I am sure that if this Government persists in simply remaining the lapdog of the ACTU in this dispute this Government will be treated by the people of Australia with the contempt which it deserves.

A series of actions are open to this Government. For a start it is open to work on its friends in the ACTU to prevent this sort of anarchy which the ACTU is promoting against the companies which have been named. At a very minimum the Government should dissociate itself from the actions of the ACTU. Yet today Senator Button, in answer to a question from Senator Boswell, did not even dissociate himself from the proposition that it was trade union intention to put industrial pressure on companies because they had been supporters of a particular political party. I think it is very interesting that Senator Button was not even prepared clearly to dissociate himself from the extraordinary proposition that trade unions should single out companies for particular attention simply because they have supported a particular political party. The implications of that failure by Senator Button are very great and I hope that in this debate he will clarify his position on that matter.

The third line of action which is open to the Government is to legislate to strengthen the powers which it has to deal with its own services. The critically important thing in this debate is simply this: For too long we have tolerated a system which has not shown itself able to cope with the disruptions of essential services which have occurred. For too long we have put up with trade union activity which is unreasonable and beyond what the Australian people want to accept. It is not good enough for this Government to criticise what the Government of Queensland has done. What this Government needs to do is to establish how it can prevent this from occurring again in the future. If it does not do this it will be done by the States; if they do not do it, it will be done by us when we return to government and that will be soon.