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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 374

Senator CHANEY —I refer the Leader of the Government in the Senate, both in that capacity and as Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, to yesterday's landmark decision by the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board in awarding damages against a company which, under threat of strike action, dismissed a worker who refused to join a union. Does the Minister agree with me that this is a significant blow against the closed shop tradition which dominates so many Australian workplaces and that it should be welcomed, certainly by all those who believe in genuine freedom of association? Does the Minister also agree, however, that the decision could leave employers in a catch-22 situation, squeezed between their legal obligation to the individual employee and the threat of industrial blackmail by powerful unions? What action can or will the Government take, and what changes will it make to help employees, already hard hit be record interest rates and an inflation rate out of line with our trading partners, who might face such a dilemma?

Senator BUTTON —I notice that Senator Chaney is joining his colleague Mr Andrew Hay in apparently getting great comfort out of this decision. That does not surprise me.

Senator Chaney —Are you suggesting that you disapprove of it?

Senator BUTTON —I am about to come to that, Senator, if you will allow me time. First, let me say in regard to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board legislation that the circumstances are somewhat distinct from the circumstances which I think Senator Chaney might have suggested in his question. It is not designed to cover lawful industrial agreements. That legislation could not be invoked when unions and employers have come to some arrangement or agreement about union membership. It invokes State legislation and is unlikely to have any national ramifications. This Government would encourage people to join and actively participate in the affairs and management of unions. I am sure that is a bipartisan policy because that was frequently said when those opposite were in government, and I do not think there is any dispute about it. But we recognise that a balance needs to be struck between individual freedom and the public interest in a healthy industrial trade union movement and in maintenance of good industrial relations.

Insofar as the Federal Government has responsibility in these matters, it is reflected in the provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. That Act and regulations under it provide it that federally registered trade unions have to be voluntary associations. Preference to unionists can be awarded only by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and then only subject to certain criteria. The Act further provides for conscientious objections to membership of trade unions. In the context of the Victorian legislation, and in particular having regard to some unfortunate incidents which they have had in Victoria over the last few years, one in particular, I think that the decision of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board is an important one, but I do not think it has relevance to Commonwealth Government legislation. I do not think that any external verities can be drawn from this decision about the attitude one should take to trade union membership generally.