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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2229

Senator KNOWLES(3.57) —Today's matter of urgency before the Senate states:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need to maintain the effectiveness of the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act as a readily available remedy for abuses of trade union power.

Unfortunately, we have just heard Senator Haines talking-about what, I am not too sure, but certainly not about secondary boycotts that prevent the continuation of good relations between some employers and employees. We are talking not about those companies with good relations between employers and employees, but about the third parties, the secondary boycotts, picketing, bans and other industrial action by employees of one company to pressure a third party or target company. For example, they prevent that target company from obtaining goods from its suppliers, or from delivering goods to other companies. We are not talking about the matters to which Senator Haines referred.

The debate is really about the Government's proposal to create one law for trade unions and another for the remainder of the community. Trade unions already have a privileged place in the community, and this Government wishes further to enhance that privilege by removing them from the responsibility of common law. The secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act, sections 45d and 45e, were inserted into that Act by John Howard when he was Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs in 1977. They provided for speedy injunctive relief for businesses, large and small, that have militant unions threatening to send them into the bankruptcy courts. The Mudginberri dispute was the classic example of union thuggery. It was eventually thwarted by the company's ability to take action through the courts-and, more importantly, win. What the Government wants is to remove that right and extend the process of conciliation by a new labour court, while the unions bleed their employers to death.

Common law actions and proceedings in the Federal Court under sections 45d and 45e are the only effective recourse employers and ordinary Australians have against unjustified actions-and this Labor Government wants to take it away. It is clear that the Government has caved in yet again to the Prime Minister's mates and the union movement so that they can get back to their full-blooded union thuggery and the holding of Australians to ransom which was prevalent during the years Mr Hawke was the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Australians in all walks of life are sick and tired of being held to ransom by strong militant unions which are happy to bash the last breath out of employers by excessive demands that are then transferred to consumers in the form of the removal of services in the first instance, and higher prices in the second.

As a Liberal, I repudiate the despicable philosophy expressed in the Hancock report which declared that unions were `centres of power' and that it was wrong to assume that every `subject' was equally dominated by the state and its arms of enforcement. In other words, unions are too strong to be made to obey the law and nothing should be done about it. The Hancock report did not even mention section 45d-as if any serious examination of our industrial system could fail to do so-but its thrust is to weaken its use. That is certainly also the intention of this Labor Government.

The Liberal Party strongly upholds these vital sections of the Trade Practices Act because they work to bring order and justice to our industrial system. The reasons why this Government wants to nullify sections 45d and 45e is that they are working far too well for its liking. They have brought the weight of proper civil law to bear against union thuggery-and about time. I stress also the notable successes of section 45d, which has been used to protect small rather than large business. Civil law remedies for the first time have given small business a weapon against irresponsible union power. Penalties such as the $1.76m fine brought against the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union over the Mudginberri dispute back in 1985 are the types of penalties that are understood by unions. Such penalties are expected by Australians who want the enforcement of law and order.

A survey in 1985 showed that fines were the most popular option-this was supported by 47 per cent of Australians-and that 34 per cent favoured the abolition of the offending unions. In contrast, only 28 per cent of Australians believed that strikes were a proper industrial weapon and only 14 per cent supported work bans. This Government of consensus abandons and disregards public opinion immediately the Prime Minister's mates in the Australian Council of Trade Unions blow the whistle. The success of section 45d in protecting smaller enterprises is not only to be measured by spectacular cases like Mudginberri. Last June, Mr Justice Smithers of the Federal Court of Australia, in declaring illegal an agreement between the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union and Borthwick, Thomas and Sons (Australasia) Ltd against a small livestock firm noted:

Compliance with orders made under section 45d has been quite marked.

That says it all. Unions have learned that this aspect of civil law has teeth and it had better be obeyed. This is what industrial justice is all about and what the Australian Labor Party wants to dismantle. The Business Council of Australia and the Confederation of Australian Industry, in reacting to the Hancock report, opposed the idea of a separate labour court which would interpose between recourse to civil law. Let us put an end to the tired old myth that unions represent the weak against the strong and the poor against the rich. Australians know better. They know that unions are not fulfilling that role at all.

Eighty-three per cent of Australians are now opposed to compulsory unionism. Seventy-eight per cent say that unions have too much power-a figure that has risen from 49 per cent in 1971. According to a Sun-Herald poll last September, 75 per cent of union members say that they had benefited a little or not at all from union membership. Forty per cent said that they had not benefited at all. The Liberal Party will free our industrial relations system of much of its legalism as we will encourage employers and employees in small businesses to reach their own agreements without the threat of secondary boycotts. We will at the same time reverse the trend of the Hawke Government and the weak-kneed attitudes of the Hancock report by upholding the rule of law that is even being made to work today because of our legislation of 1977. It was significant that the supposedly right wing moderate Australian Labor Party Government of New South Wales recently proposed to legislate that recourse to civil action by employers be subject to approval of the State Arbitration Commission. It has pulled back for a while because it realises the weight of public opinion that exists in this respect. However, we should be warned of its clear intentions, along with those of this Labor Government.

This Government cannot even argue that it has brought real industrial peace through its subservience to the unions. We heard Senator Cooney say a little while ago that industrial problems had decreased since this Government has been in office. The facts are that in 1985-86 the number of lost working days increased by 10.7 per cent on the number for the previous year and by 13 per cent on the number for 1983-84. I remind my good friend Senator Cooney that they are years when this Government was in office. So we have seen the number of lost working days increase. This should be set beside a 60 per cent reduction between 1981 and 1985 in the number of industrial disputes in Canada and the United States, nations where employers and unions use and respect the civil courts and are not hampered by any specialist, in-house labour court.

This is not the first time that this Government has tried to get rid of bans on secondary boycotts. It tried to do so in 1984 with the Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Bill. Now it is about to try again. Enough is enough. The civil law courts and the Liberal reform of section 45d give Australians some protection which unions, this Government and the industrial relations club would like to take away from them. The secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act must be maintained and unions, therefore, kept and treated within the law. Our policy on industrial relations is quite clear. A summary of our policy is prosperity through productivity, more jobs, industrial harmony, work place flexibility and reduced union power. No-one out there in the real world believes that to be unfair. The Government is saying that it is unfair, that we cannot reduce union power. What rot! We can reduce union power and we will reduce it.

Back in the easy days before the First World War, Justice Higgins upheld the arbitration system as a device that would subdue prussianism in industrial matters. Ask the small business community, ask its workers and ask the public whether it has worked. The simple fact, ignored by this Government and the Hancock Committee, is that an absence of firm, legal constraints on union behaviour is a guarantee of continued prussianism which today we would call plain thuggery. That is what we have been seeing in the last few years.

What does subdue thuggery is section 45d and the civil courts. For this reason, the Liberal Party will fight for this right of employers to be upheld. For this reason clearly the ALP wants to abolish it. The people of Australia are the people who decide. I think the people of Australia have seen quite enough union thuggery going on in regard to secondary boycotts. They do not want to return to a position where companies do not have the right of recourse to civil courts. That right must be maintained. It is not up to this Government to take away the rights of companies such as Mudginberri, as we saw in 1985 and even with the plumbers and gasfitters, to take on whatever they want to take on, as they have in the past. We maintain that reduced union power and, as I have said before, prosperity through productivity, more jobs, industrial harmony and work place flexibility are the important aspects of a good industrial relations policy which will bring harmony to the work place, not disunity.