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Wednesday, 18 March 1987
Page: 891


Senator ROBERT RAY(3.25) —I must agree on one point today. This is a very urgent matter. It must have taken the Liberal Party of Australia and its coalition partners a long while to find one issue on which they could agree. It does not surprise us on this side of the chamber that that one issue is union bashing. They could not bring up any other issue today and have the united support of those opposite.

Australia has had a tradition of substantial union membership in the work force, always running at well above 50 per cent. The latest figures indicate that 57 per cent of the Australian work force belongs to trade unions. As we have a mixed economy, it is not surprising that many workers find that the only way that they can survive is through the protection of a trade union. One has only to look at the examples of many countries overseas. Where there is a weak trade union movement, many of the employees in those countries are totally exploited and treated as economic slaves. I often wonder whether that is the type of society that the Liberals would like to see introduced into this country. If they had their way, they would destroy the trade union movement in this country totally and utterly.

There are some very fundamentally good reasons why we as democrats in the true sense of the word should encourage the trade union movement. It has had a great history of protecting workers' wage levels. In this country we have been able to establish the standard of living of our citizens through the trade union movement. It has had a great record at establishing humane working hours. We can all recall when the eight-hour day came in-not that it was in our lifetime, but from the reading of history-and the conservatives opposed it. They then opposed a 44-hour week and a 40-hour week, and now they oppose the 35-hour week. It does not matter what the objective circumstances are at the time, the conservatives, such as those who sit opposite, always oppose such changes.

Trade unions have also had a great history of protecting working conditions of employees in this country. In areas such as safety on the job, it has been the trade unions that have spearheaded that movement. The trade unions have had a great welfare role in the past. Where in the past governments have not provided sufficient welfare services, unions have supplemented them. Finally, of late, unions have had a very proud history in bringing superannuation to their members.

To protect the interests of their members, unions have to use a variety of methods. Of course, the ultimate sanction in those methods is the strike weapon-a weapon always opposed by those opposite. I cannot recall one member of the National Party of Australia or one Liberal who has ever supported one strike in this country, whatever the reason for the strike.


Senator McKiernan —What about the doctors?


Senator ROBERT RAY —I meant `by a bona fide trade union', for the honourable senator who said: `What about the doctors?'. Members of the Opposition have never once supported a strike by a bona fide trade union.

It is true that no one likes the degree of confrontation that sometimes exists in this country between employers and employees and between employers and unions. I argue very strongly that since the accession of this Government in 1983 we have seen a new era in industrial relations. Through the prices and incomes accord, we have far more co-operation between employers and employees. We have had the lowest number of working hours lost per working day and per year of any time in the past 20 years. I am very proud of that record. There is greater co-operation between trade unions and employers on such things as industry reconstruction. We have only to look at the recent negotiations that occurred in the textile, clothing and footwear industry to see that the unions, government and employers could work together to reach a result for the benefit of this country.

The Australian Labor Party's policy in this area of union membership has always been crystal clear. Preference for unionists is in our policy and we are proud of that policy. I quote from clause 19, page 169 of our national platform:

The encouragement of membership of registered organisations through the provision of preference to unionists.

This is not something new or secret. We went to the electorate on this issue time and again. In 1983 and 1984 preference to unionists was a clear part of our policy. We have also noted that there is a provision for conscientious objection to trade unions. Some people take up that provision in the conscientious objection clause and opt out of a union by paying a sum of money to their favourite charity or to a charity nominated by the union. That is a common practice in certain areas. But we have very little sympathy for those who take all the benefits derived through the efforts of trade unions but who put nothing back in.

The urgency motion today really reflects the fact that the Liberals just hate trade unions. I have pointed out before that I cannot recall one Liberal or National Party politician ever once supporting a strike or industrial action in this country. They are constantly trying to reduce the effectiveness of the trade union movement through draconian legislation. When legislation was first introduced into the national Parliament in 1903-04 to create the Conciliation and Arbitration Act the conservatives opposed it, and so paved the way for the first ever Labor government. History also indicates that in 1929, when the Bruce-Page Government tried to alter our industrial relations system, that again paved the way for the Scullin Government. That draconian anti-union legislation carried during the Fraser years soon saw that Government removed from office in this country.

I realise that Liberals like to think that there are votes in union bashing. If anything, the historic record I have just gone through proves directly the opposite. It used to be very fashionable once to go out and bash the communists. That is not so fashionable these days because there are hardly any. There are about 32 different communist parties and they are so defenceless they are hardly worth bashing. The electorate no longer believes that sort of rhetoric, so the Liberals drop back to the old chestnut of trying to bash trade unions. I can remember the Liberal Party supporting a trade union only once, but it was not an Australian trade union; it was a Polish trade union called Solidarity. It did not support Solidarity because it was a trade union; it supported Solidarity because it was a tool against communism whereas we on this side of the House saw Solidarity as a great hope for Poland. We saw it as a great trade union of 10 million members. The bashing of unions by the Liberals and Jaruzelski is of about the same ilk. The Liberals would go down well in Poland in trying to destroy Solidarity. General Jaruzelski could probably come to Australia and learn a few tricks from those opposite.

I have some suspicion about this particular motion. The Liberals, in theory, constantly talk about compulsion. Where was Senator Parer in the 1960s and early 1970s? What was his attitude to compulsory conscription in this country? Did he hide under a log or did he voice his views? Or is he suffering from the great Liberal disease of amnesia and has forgotten his past actions? Those opposite often want us to be consistent, but why is he not consistent about compulsion? Obviously Senator Parer does not like what he probably terms the stand-over merchants in the union movement. He is an expert on that. He and the rest of the Liberals in Queensland have been stood over by the best stand-over merchants in Australia's history-the National Party in Queensland. It has stood over them and told them what to do, and they have been too weak to fight. Maybe Senator Parer should go along and join the Australian Workers Union or some other great union and learn how to stand up for himself and how to fight instead of wimpishly copping it in the back of the neck year in and year out as happens in Queensland. I am a bit disappointed to see that Senator Parer has aligned himself with the white shoe brigade of Queensland, the uglies of the New South Wales Liberal Party or the born-again New Right of the Western Australian Liberal Party. That disappoints me. The Liberals should learn that if they want to defeat the Nationals and have some public integrity, they will not do it by being more hairy-chested than the other conservatives of this country but by standing up for some humane principles or the working people of this country instead of constantly denigrating them by their union bashing.

The best examples in this country of compulsion do not exist in the trade union movement, they exist in his home State where unless one is a toady of the Queensland Government one does not get tenders or contracts; unless one is a toady of the Government one does not get soft loans at low interest rates; and unless one is a toady of the Government in Queensland one gets absolutely nothing. If Senator Parer is looking at the question of compulsion, he should look to his home State. I often wonder whether he comes down to this chamber with any pride at having to represent a State such as Queensland. I think in his heart of hearts he would admit that the worst aspects of compulsion exist in his home State where individuals are not even given the freedom to vote with equal weight, where if one happens to live in a country area one's vote is worth three times more than a person's vote in other areas.

If Senator Parer is concerned for the future of this country, he should jump off the anti-union bandwagon and fight the real fight where it has to be fought. If he wants to be able to rise in this chamber with some sort of pride and say that he stands for consistent principles and against stand-over merchants, he should take them on in his own State first of all and defeat them there. He should not just pick on the people who need to band together to defend their conditions of work. When employees are dealing with multinational companies it is extremely difficult for them to defend their rights. In the labour movement we have learnt the hard way that unless we get together, we will get exploited and pushed through the floor every time. Unless we are willing to stand up for our rights, we will get drubbed. History has proved that time and again. I have never known an employer to walk up to a union and say that he was going to give a pay rise, unless some sort of negotiation took place or pressure was applied. I have very little time for those people in our society who are willing to take all the benefits but put absolutely nothing back into the system.

As always, today we have heard this enormous dichotomy between the theory in the Liberal Party and the practice. It is always in favour of the `freedom' of non-compulsion, but when it is in government it compels people to join the Army and to go overseas and risk their lives for a war they may not believe in. Time and again history has indicated in this chamber the difference between Liberal theory and Liberal practice. Time and again we have had to expose those differences in this chamber.

I again make clear the Labor Party's attitude to union membership. Preference for trade union members is in our policy and we go to every election on it. We would never support the deletion of the conscientious objection clause. Much is made of the fact-and Senator Parer alluded to it today-that there is a connection between the Australian Labor Party and trade unions. That is a real statement of genius. We were founded by the trade unions, and we do not hide that fact. He alleged that we are controlled by the trade unions. I put it to Senator Parer that it has been a long and established working practice going back to 1890 that the Labor Party and the trade unions have worked in partnership in politics. We do not have to hide that fact. We can come into this chamber and acknowledge that our Party influences our views, because we are not vanguardists; we represent the views of the Party and the Labor electors. We do not claim to be the total free spirit that the Liberals claim to be.

The Liberals come in here and say that everything they do is an act of conscience. Many times before we have had to point to some of the ironies of that. Just the other day we saw that independent members of the National Party in Queensland, especially those with cold feet, had to have them warmed before they came down here. Those people are more subject to direction from outside this chamber than Labor Party members have ever been. I have never had to have the Premier of Victoria or someone else pull me in and tell me how I was going to vote up here. That has never occurred and it will never occur. I have never had to do that. Never have I been directed to vote in a particular way by someone outside the Labor Party Caucus in Canberra.

When the conservatives have to vote in the National Party room, they get the Premier and Sir Robert Sparkes to call the boys in-I think that is the term used, with all due respect to you, Madam Acting Deputy President-they light up the blowtorch and they put it to the soles of the members' feet. Someone who for weeks has been saying that the coalition has to continue gets pulled in and suddenly he thinks: `Oops, my preselection is at stake, I am very sorry, I am now going to support the Premier of Queensland'. He then gets down here and wavers again. Then he goes back to Queensland and gets reprogrammed. Senator Parer says in this chamber that we are subject to trade union direction. That would be infinitesimal compared with the way in which his colleagues and friends in the National Party in Queensland are directed. I know how close he is to the National Party and how its future condition is in his heart. I know how concerned he is to see the National Party's vote increase in Queensland. His colleagues are subject to outside control and other controls that we are not subject to. So it is no good his coming into this chamber and saying that we favour compulsory unionism because unions tell us to do so. I have made our position quite clear. We are in favour of preference to unionists.

I conclude by saying that the only thing urgent about the motion is that Opposition members trolled through the sewer of coalition policies wondering what they can bring up today to get everyone on the Opposition side to vote for, and they chose union bashing. I suppose we will be seeing a lot more of these motions because the Opposition cannot agree on anything else.