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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1046


Senator CRANE (11.58 a.m.) —The Industrial Relations Legislation Amendment Bill 1994 principally deals with the reintroduction of a register of operations on the waterfront. In the view of the coalition, that is an enormous step backwards. Informed commentators have described it as going back to where we were with the waterfront in 1967—back to the bad old days—with the obvious movement back to pooling.

  We are going back to the syndrome that a job on the waterfront was a job for life, a syndrome that existed on our waterfront for years and years. In recent years we have seen very significant changes. We have moved from the pooling of industry employment to enterprise employment. The whole thrust of these amendments is to conform with yet another international convention in an attempt to tie domestic policy in this country to international conventions.

  It is quite clear that this particular convention does not apply to the situation that exists in Australia. In fact, it is concerned with the old system that previously existed in this country. It is beyond belief that the government is moving down this particular track, particularly after we spent some $430 million to get out of the previous system. It raises many questions as to why the government is going down this track. It also raises the question of what Senator Collins—who was involved in the waterfront reform process and made many claims in this Senate and elsewhere—thinks about what is going on.

  It is worth recapping what has happened. Under the waterfront reform process some 4,500 employees on the waterfront were retired. They received an average redundancy payment of slightly over $100,000, plus superannuation and other benefits. The restructuring of the waterfront has not come at insignificant cost; in fact, it has been achieved at huge cost. It is incredible to think that we would want to go back and put in place a system that would allow a return to the previous situation on the waterfront. The $430 million has been paid by all Australians through taxation.

  Let us look at the other side of the equation. Recently we have seen how, under the current government, the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. There is no doubt that those who are left on the waterfront fit fairly and squarely into the category of those who have got richer. We find that those people have had a 23 per cent increase in their take-home pay; they are sitting on salaries between $92,000 and $94,000 per annum.

  I would particularly like to refer to some aspects of the ILO convention. The convention is being used as an excuse. This convention concerns the social repercussions of new methods of cargo handling at docks. It has nothing to do with the restructuring of the enterprise agreement system which is now working in Australia. The convention deals with the situation where pooling still exists around the world. I believe that the government is using this convention to kowtow to the maritime unions. It would be interesting to know why this is happening. How much money did the maritime unions put into the last election campaign on behalf of the government? There has to be a fundamental reason for this turnaround. Senator Collins has been very involved in this.

  Waterfront reform was about making Australia internationally competitive, and we have come some way down the track. We improved during the reform period, but we still have a long way to go. In recent times we have been going backwards in our performance on the waterfront. I will quote a few figures. In Sydney, for example, crane loading rates for TEU containers dropped from 19.95 per hour to 13.8 per hour, and in Melbourne it dropped from 26.75 per hour to 18.8 per hour. That raises a question as to why Melbourne is performing so much better than Sydney.

  If we compare these figures with those of our near neighbours, New Zealand, we see that New Zealand has an average TEU movement of some 30 containers per hour. We are moving about 20 to 22 containers at our best times; New Zealand can get 10 more per hour than us. That is why I say that we still have a long way to go. When we look at the opportunity for exports from Australia compared with the volume of exports from New Zealand, Australia should be performing at least as well as or better than New Zealand.

  This bill is about the reintroduction of the register. Where does that leave us? If it succeeds it would almost certainly lead us back in time to pooling. It would lead us back to the jobs for life syndrome. It would remove the competitive element that has been introduced onto the waterfront. This would occur despite the fact that we have paid $430 million to get rid of that syndrome and move towards becoming competitive. I have already mentioned the enormous increase in wages for those who are left on the waterfront.

  It is time for the process to be allowed to develop further and put Australia first in terms of our export performance. This has been highlighted very succinctly in the last couple of days by the blowout in our current account. We see the crucial importance of getting on top of our spiralling burden of debt. Inevitably, that spiral of debt is going to lead to higher and higher interest rates. The impact on financial markets in this country over the next one, two, three, or even 10 years is going to be significant. We can do something about this by improving our performance on the waterfront, not by turning the clock back.

  An expensive strike occurred in February this year, and we have to ask whether part of the terms of settlement of that strike included an agreement to bring this legislation back. That is an important and valid question. I would like the minister to answer that question when he comes to the table. There must be better reasons than just saying that we have to conform with convention 137. There have to be reasons why the government would not have policy positions which further enhance industry employment. There have to be reasons why the government wants to go down a path that has the potential to destroy enterprise agreements.

  In recent months we have heard what the Prime Minister has said. We also heard what Mr Brereton said with regard to enterprise agreements when the Industrial Relations Reform Act went through the other place prior to Christmas. We also heard what the minister in this place had to say. There has to be some agenda that this parliament and the Australian public have not been told about with regard to this legislation. If there were no agenda, we would not have this legislation before us: it is as simple as that.

  I now turn to some of the statements that have been made by and some of the letters that have passed between various people involved in this matter. I refer to a letter, back in 1992, from Peter Evans of the Waterfront Industry Reform Authority to stevedoring employers. The first paragraph of that letter states:

The Federal Government has given in principle approval to a proposal to fund the exit of surplus labour remaining in the stevedoring industry following the implementation of enterprise agreements under the In-Principle Agreement. The proposal includes:

. the termination of the transitional arrangements under the IPA

. the exit of eligible employees sufficient to eliminate the surplus labour

. the rescission of industry based employment arrangements.

The above would complete the move to full enterprise employment under the In Principle Agreement.

Why has the government moved to change its position? Further, I have a letter from the then Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support, Senator Cook. In this letter dated 8 September 1992, I think—it is a little hard to read—the minister stated:

The Government expects the industry parties to complete the move to full enterprise employment, including the rescission of the 1977 General Agreement and other industry-based employment arrangements, before the end of the reform program in October this year.

As I said, it begs the question: in view of the statements the government made at that time, correctly, on the direction in which we need to go on the waterfront, why does it want to return to a register?

  I want to deal with article 4 of the convention and sum up the reasons why there should be no register. Firstly, the legislation reintroduces industry-wide arrangements to a sector which has already paid $420 million to remove those arrangements. Secondly, it is based on an ILO convention which, by any measure, is totally irrelevant to stevedoring in Australia in 1994. Thirdly, it is contrary to the government's requirements, as stated in those 1992 letters I quoted, that all industry-based arrangements had to be rescinded by 31 October 1992. Fourthly, it leaves the way open for the MUA to require continuation of a register beyond the sunset provisions of this bill. Fifthly, it leaves the way open for a union to demand application of other sections of article 4 of the convention. Article 4 states in part:

1. The strength of the registers shall be periodically reviewed so as to achieve levels adopted to the needs of the port.

If we have enterprise arrangements, surely it is the responsibility of the enterprises organising those arrangements, not the responsibility of the government, to create a register to lead back to pooling. The article continues:

2. Any necessary reduction in the strength of a register shall be accompanied by measures designed to prevent or minimise detrimental effects on dockworkers.

In this country we have already dealt with that to the tune of $400-odd million. Sixthly, the present debate concerning government intentions to reintroduce registers to be made by the SIC, combined with the statements by Mr Evans and Mr Deputy President Williams, constitute the ingredients of a cocktail which, if swallowed, has the potential to take the industry back to 1967, that is, re-establish registers and re-introduce port pools to take care of surplus labour. That flies absolutely and totally in the face of what has occurred over recent years. Finally, it is unnecessary, because employers in the stevedoring sector, like others in the community, maintain employee records under the Industrial Relations Act. Why should the MUA be any different?

  During the committee stage, I will be moving a number of amendments on behalf of the opposition. I will deal with the details of those amendments at that time; but the principal one is to oppose the inclusion of a register in this legislation, for the reasons I have outlined. Even though the government is going down this path, I hope the Australian Democrats—and Senator Bell is here—the Greens and Senator Harradine will recognise that this is an enormous step backwards in waterfront reform in this country. It is a step that will inhibit our capacity to further improve the waterfront. As I said, it will mean a return to the job-for-life syndrome. I do not have a problem with people having fair employment conditions. However, it would be an incredible mistake by this government if we were to move back to where we were on our waterfront. Such a move would deserve not to be carried in this Senate.