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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1048

Senator BELL (12.16 p.m.) —The Industrial Relations Amendment Bill has raised some pretty powerful emotions among waterfront employers since its provisions were first made public. Those emotions are testimony to the depth of feeling between waterfront companies and workers rather than to the awfulness of the bill. On any dispassionate reading, the bill will not make the sky fall in on waterfront reform. The government claims that the thrust of the bill is to finalise the reform process to complete the transition from industry-wide to enterprise-based regulation, and many industry-specific provisions, including the general industry levy, are repealed by the bill.

  There will be a skeleton regime comprising the special levies and a pared down stevedoring industry finance committee that will continue until a loan to fund the previous redundancies is paid off. The committee and the levies will be abolished once the remaining funds are disbursed to the minister's satisfaction. The budget papers indicate that these remaining industry-based arrangements will sail off into the sunset within two years.  Despite this reasonable way of looking at things, the Australian Democrats have had quite a few representations from waterfront employers and user groups suggesting that the bill opens the door for a return to the bad old days—a phrase used already in this debate. Their biggest concern is the proposal for a new register of stevedoring employees. The bill has the rather strange effect of abolishing one register and establishing another. The register to be abolished covers waterfront employees and has been used to collect the general levy. Let us be clear that that is its purpose and its effect.

  The register to be established covers stevedoring employees and appears to have no use at all. It just exists, apropos of nothing—or nothing I can determine. When the final curtain comes down on the industry-based arrangements in the near future, apparently the new register will expire too; it will have a distressingly short and unproductive life. The government claims that the new register fulfils Australia's obligations under International Labour Organisation convention No. 137, but any reading of that convention casts some doubt on this claim.

  Under that convention, the register has a real purpose. Workers on the register are supposed to get preference in waterfront employment. Nothing in this bill links that register with an employment preference scheme. There are preference clauses in relative awards but they do not depend on the register. We would argue that the alarms of some employers have been overstated; that is possible and apparent, but does not seem to have been accepted. We believe that the register provision is merely a formality which does not actually implement the spirit of ILO Convention No. 137. I would argue that the intention of the convention is implemented indirectly by other means, anyway—for example, award preference clauses.

  The purpose of convention No. 137 was to soften the blow to waterfront workers that was caused by the move to containerisation in the 70s. At that time it recognised that massive retrenchments would result and that those workers who were affected at that time deserved special treatment during that transition period. But, at this moment, employment levels on the Australian waterfront are not about to undergo major cuts. That is a fact which the Democrats believe calls into question the continuing relevance of that particular convention to Australia. Nevertheless, I would stress that the Democrats remain strongly committed to Australia upholding its international obligations, including its obligations under ILO conventions. But just as I think all honourable senators would recognise that some domestic laws have use-by dates, so too do some international treaties and obligations. In our view, ILO convention No. 137 may well fall into that category of redundancy.

  We have had discussions with the Maritime Union of Australia about this legislation. It is concerned at the casualisation of the stevedoring work force and believes that this proposed register would help to stem that tide. It seems to us that the existing register has not stopped the move to casual labour, and the new one would not either. There are other forces at work within the industry which are moving in that direction. They are forces which are not modified or curtailed in any way by either the existing register or the proposed register. We do believe there are limits to the utility of casual labour, and that they are limits which are at work as well, independent of the existence of the register.

  In what has been referred to as `the bad old days', casual waterfront labour was little more than hired muscle. However, these days, that muscle has been provided by machines. A skilled, experienced work force is what is required. That is a work force which is not easily obtained if it is casualised to too great an extent. The maritime union also believes that the abolition of the register would leave members vulnerable to employers with bad attitudes. Whether there are employers with bad attitudes is a matter of some discussion and perhaps belongs to another forum. It might be that in some cases those fears have some foundation, but this parliament recently passed the Industrial Relations Reform Bill, a massive piece of legislation which gives substantial protection to employees. If there are bad employers, then that piece of legislation is certainly able to deal with that problem in all areas of employment, including the waterfront. We have not been presented with any compelling justification for special industry measures—measures specific to the waterfront in this area. In our view, measures will only work if both sides agree. In this case one side appears not to want to play ball.

  During debate on the bill in the House of Representatives, the minister moved an amendment exempting employers who are keeping employee records from having to submit names to the register. It just happens that employers are required to keep such records by the Industrial Relations Act, anyway. There is a very high probability that no employer would have to hand over the names of their workers for inclusion on the register. So the Senate has before it a proposal for a Clayton's register. Because I have great respect for the minister, I can only conclude that he is pulling our collective legs or that he secretly wants the Senate to put this poor, misunderstood register out of its misery: we are going to oblige him. We will be supporting the opposition's amendment for removing the requirement for the register for stevedoring employees. We believe that it would be a bad law and would cause needless alarm not only in the stevedoring industry but in those aspects of the Australian economy that are directly and indirectly affected by what happens on our waterfront.

  We will also support the amendment preventing the stevedoring industry finance committee from recommending new industry levies. This amendment simply gives effect to the government's own policy. Again, it will put beyond doubt that the industry arrangements left by this bill are limited and strictly temporary. Lest the disease spread, we will not support the coalition's other amendments. One of them removes the minister's power to appoint employer and employee representatives to the committee that I have spoken about. The other allows delegation of the committee's functions only by consensus. We believe they are unnecessarily restrictive on the committee, especially given that the functions of the committee will be significantly limited by the amendments that we have agreed to pass; in other words, we do not want to constrain this committee so that it would be entirely useless.

  The emotion that has been generated by this bill shows that the level of trust between employers and employees on the waterfront remains abysmally low. For the government to come up with a register of such comical design means that it has tied itself in knots trying to reach a compromise here. For waterfront employers and users to predict Armageddon on the basis of that register, is a major over-reaction. It goes to show that it is easier to restructure industries and to amend laws than it is to change attitudes that are steeped in decades of industrial trench warfare. The Democrats will support the second reading of this bill.