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Wednesday, 17 April 1985
Page: 1147


Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(3.33) —I am not surprised at Senator Chaney's highly rhetorical speech which drew great rah-rahs from the Opposition because it was a rah-rah speech. I do not think it was a very thoughtful or intelligent speech. Let me begin by saying that I have no hesitation in dissociating myself from the attitude of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in respect of particular companies and the Government has had no hesitation in doing that. If I omitted to answer that part of the question which was put to me by Senator Boswell it was simply because the question was couched in so much rhetorical gobbledegook that I could not possibly deal with every part of it as it was put to me. I have listened with a great deal of interest to Senator Chaney's speech. There was a most revealing passage in it. He said: 'Why does not Senator Button have the courage that Mr Wran had in dealing with the railway dispute in New South Wales?'


Senator Chaney —In at least expressing his views on it.


Senator BUTTON —This is what the honourable senator said; he cannot change it now. Why does not Senator Button have the courage which Mr Wran had? What did Senator Chaney say that Mr Wran said? What did Mr Wran say? He said: 'Strikes are a weapon and a bloody weapon of the past'. That is beaut! That makes everybody on the other side of the chamber feel warm. They can go around saying: 'Strikes are a bloody weapon of the past'. I have no hesitation in saying that if it will help honourable senators opposite feel good. I do not mind being quoted as saying that; I agree with it. But the point is this: Did Mr Wran's remark do anything to solve the New South Wales rail dispute? The answer is that it did not, and that is precisely what the whole of Senator Chaney's speech amounts to. It was full of sound and fury and it signified nothing in terms of attitudes to industrial relations. If the people of Australia ever have the misfortune again to have this scruffy lot elected to government, that is the problem which the country would face. There is enormous excitement on the Opposition benches because we have had industrial unrest in Australia this year. Honourable senators opposite were deathly quiet for two years about industrial unrest.


Senator Peter Rae —No. Last July I pointed out how July was the worst for nearly three years.


Senator BUTTON —The honourable senator probably pointed out all sorts of things, but they did not make much impact on anybody. The fact that there was industrial disputation in the Commonwealth sphere in January and February caused tremendous excitement in the Opposition ranks. Of course the Queensland dispute, which I will come to in a minute, has engendered a bit of excitement again because an industrial dispute gives the conservative Opposition in Australia some relief from the growing horror of having nothing to think about. That was what Senator Chaney's speech was about.

The Government rejects the basis of this matter of public importance. It is fundamental to any discussion of this issue to recognise the fact that it is essentially a Queensland dispute which results from the attitudes of the Queensland Government. The Premier has said it. He says: 'I have been waiting for this opportunity'.


Senator Chaney —Why is the ACTU blockading Queensland?


Senator BUTTON —As I apprehend it, the ACTU is blockading Queensland because of one simple fact. It sought discussions with the Premier of Queensland about the dispute and it was refused the right to have those discussions. If one cannot discuss an issue it leads to much more difficult environments. There is no doubt about that; it is a reality. It is true in industrial relations, just as it is true in international relations, that if these issues are not resolved by discussion they will be resolved in other ways. It is time some of the deep thinkers on the other side started to give some attention to those questions.

Clearly, the Queensland Government is not interested in solving this dispute. The Premier has said so. It is being indulged in for purely political motives in Queensland. This Government has not for one moment condoned the industrial action taken by trade unions over this matter. We have said so. The Government has told this to the ACTU. The Government has made offers to the Queensland Premier to discuss with him what may be done jointly by both governments, but he has rejected those offers. This Government has sought to have the ACTU involved in discussion with the Government of Queensland. Those offers have been rejected by the Premier of Queensland. I again make it clear that the Government does not support the ACTU action but the Government understands the situation that has brought it about. What the Opposition does not understand-it never understood it when it was in government-is that one gets these problems when one conducts industrial relations in a confrontationist way.


Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —Like Mr Wran?


Senator BUTTON —No. The honourable senator is again mistaking the words. Mr Wran's use of the word 'bloody' is what warmed Senator Chaney. The honourable senator thinks that that sort of confrontation brings results, but in the end the strike was settled by negotiation, not confrontation. The point I make is that the confrontationist attitude will not solve these things. This is what happened under the Fraser Government and this Opposition has learnt nothing. It will appeal to any constituency where it feels there might be a few votes without in any way offering any position of substance on this issue.


Senator Chaney —Tell the Aboriginals that. Tell it to the environmentalists and nuclear disarmers.


Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney has never recovered in his posture from his years as a school prefect. He brings to this debate all the skills and solutions he acquired as a school prefect. Obviously he is very upset by the comments I am making. I ask him to calm down and think about some of the issues. The Opposition is excited about the old bogy of union power. I heard Senator Chaney get very excited on the Schildberger program only a week or so ago. He said: 'It is not just Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen; it is Margaret Thatcher in Britain. These are the models we are seeking to follow'. That is the essence of what he was saying on that program. He was saying: 'Look at the way Margaret Thatcher dealt with the coal-miners'. He translates his teenage enthusiasm for that sort of thing into what purports to be an industrial relations policy in this country.

The Opposition has come out in this dispute in total support of the Queensland Government. There has not been one word of criticism from the Opposition of the Queensland Government-not a word of criticism about the legislation introduced in the Queensland Parliament or what the International Labor Organisation has had to say on that legislation. We are signatories to the ILO; we were under the previous Government and remain so. The Opposition has no concern with solving the dispute or offering any credible alternative to the utterly discredited confrontation tactics of the Queensland Government. This Government has used its best endeavours, in a situation where it has no substantial power to take action, to try to see an end to this dispute.


Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —What about section 92 of the Constitution?


Senator BUTTON —If the honourable senator thinks section 92 of the Constitution is important, perhaps her colleague Senator Chaney should have said something about it in the debate. But the informal legal view is that section 92 has nothing to do with this matter. There is no action based on section 92 which would succeed. Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle is going in for warm rhetoric again in asking: 'What about section 92?' What about all sorts of things? The Government is trying to deal with a difficult situation. This Government has offered talks with the Queensland Government and the ACTU. We have supported Federal Award coverage for the unions involved, but the Queensland Government will not even talk about these issues and the Opposition apparently supports that.


Senator Walters —What about section 45D? Is that legal?


Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney had a lot to say about illegality. When he came to his examples of alleged illegality, he referred to the trade practices legislation. What else is illegal about the action which has been taken to date other than a possible breach of the trade practices legislation? Let me deal with section 45D of the trade practices legislation. The former Government put it in that legislation. Not once did the Minister of the day use section 80 of that legislation in industrial disputes. The former coalition Government had the worst record of industrial disputes in this country for years. Not once under that Government was the trade practices legislation used. However, the Opposition now seeks to prescribe that remedy to the present Government. When Opposition members were in government they did not use it ever. The Trade Practices Commission will not use it because it does not regard it as appropriate to use trade practices legislation in industrial relations matters. The Opposition is now prescribing for this Government remedies which when it was in government it was not prepared to take. This is what all the stuff about illegality amounts to. It is a nice school prefect word for Senator Chaney to use in this debate. Under the present Government there has been an unprecedented improvement in the industrial relations climate. The Opposition offers nothing more than the same discredited formula. Let me give some examples. In the last 12 months 1.3 million days were lost in Australia as a result of industrial stoppages. That compares with 4.5 million days lost in 1983.


Senator Chaney —And 6.4 million when Mr Hawke was President of the ACTU-six million man days under Hawke.


Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney wants to go back to 1974 and ignores the seven years of the Fraser Government.


Senator Chaney —You are going back.


Senator BUTTON —Let me make it clear that I am going back to 1982. Look at the way the Fraser Government, which still has some refugee Ministers gathered here on the Opposition bench of the Senate, handled the metal trades dispute in 1981-82. In that year Malcolm Fraser blew through to the royal wedding in the midst of the biggest industrial dispute this country had had for years. He totally abandoned the wages policy which his Government purported to have at that time. The result was a record level of industrial disputation. There was a total collapse of the so-called wages policy at the time. The failings of the then Government are manifest in many other areas. One has only to look at wages, about which the Opposition asks questions and talks at length. In 1981-82, the last full year of the Fraser Government, average weekly earnings rose by 14.5 per cent. In 1982-83 they rose by 8.5 per cent. In 1981-82 total nominal hourly labour costs rose by 16.4 per cent. In 1983-84 they rose by 4.5 per cent, almost a quarter of the earlier figure.

This Government, through the prices and incomes accord, has secured unprecedented stability and harmony in the wages and industrial relations area. There has been an enormous reduction in the level of industrial disputation-the lowest level for 17 years. We have not done this as a government through the sort of crass confrontationist blundering about which Senator Chaney has spoken today-that is what he and the Queensland Government are on about. We have done it by means of a quite different approach, a realistic approach. I am talking about results. It is the results that are important, not the windy rhetoric of Ministers. This whole area, which is of critical importance to this country, has produced those results. It has brought about the best industrial relations record for 17 years. It has resulted in a wage increase rate which is one third of the wage increase rate suffered by the former coalition Government in 1981-82.


Senator Chaney —The Fraser wage pause did that.


Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney can talk about the Fraser wage pause, but those are the figures. No doubt that wage pause was thought about in the barber's chair and introduced at very short notice. It is a matter of great concern that the Opposition does not get off the opportunistic bandwagon; it should stop getting so excited about this issue. It is a Queensland issue essentially. Ultimately it will be a matter for the Queensland Government to try to solve. I see no merit in dancing about at the prospect of squeezing a bit of political advantage from a very important issue for the State of Queensland. The Opposition thinks that it has an opportunity to score a few points against unions-it is back to the old stuff-and it does not amount to anything like an industrial relations policy. The Opposition should say whether it intends to introduce similar legislation to that brought in by the Queensland Government. Would the Opposition do that? I think Senator Chaney might do that because after all he said on the Schildberger program that he had models, of whom Margaret Thatcher was one. This whole matter of public importance relates to the attitude of the Queensland Government supported by its fellow travellers here in Canberra, Her Majesty's loyal Opposition.

I will just say a few words about the Queensland Government. I make the point that it is quite clear that if we look at the history of the dispute there are about four points on which conciliation and an approach of consultation and discussion could have resolved this issue. Each time the Queensland Government rejected them. Points recommended by the Premier's own arbitration commission were rejected. He rejected offers of discussion. He has said so. He makes it quite clear that he has been waiting for this opportunity. Obviously the Premier thinks that a good stunt such as this is the best way to divert the attention of Queenslanders from the fact they are sliding down the hit parade according to a range of economic indicators.


Senator Bjelke-Petersen —Don't believe everything Peter Walsh says.


Senator BUTTON —I do not believe everything Senator Peter Walsh says. For example, I think he was extremely kind to Senator Bjelke- Petersen in answering a question the other day. I thought: He is bending over backwards to be kind to Senator Bjelke-Petersen; I do not believe all that he says. Today Senator Walsh gave figures on employment, job vacancies, bankruptcies, new motor vehicle registrations, home building approvals, the value of other building approvals, private investment and industrial disputes. In every one of those important areas-important to the people of Queensland-Senator Bjelke-Petersen's State lags behind the rest of the Commonwealth. It embarrasses the rest of the Commonwealth particularly in the area of industrial disputes. For the information of Senator Bjelke-Petersen, Queensland's record of industrial disputes is 83 per cent higher than for the rest of the Commonwealth. Something the honourable senator might think about is whether the confrontationist approach which her good Premier and husband has embarked on is producing results.

The point about the industrial relations system is that it should produce results so that the people of Australia might benefit in economic terms, in the economic growth, and in terms of the capacity to ensure a regular working life for people. It should do all those things. The real question is what Queensland is doing to achieve results; not what it is doing in terms of rhetoric, noise and so on. The Queensland Government has manifestly failed to achieve results. It is because of this that these stunts have been embarked on by the Queensland Government in this highly confrontationist manner.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —(Senator Jones)-Order! Before I call Senator Jack Evans I ask honourable senators on my left, particularly Senator Chaney, at least to try to keep their interjections down a little during the course of the speech.