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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6685

Senator COOK (10:25 AM) —I want to speak on the message received from the House of Representatives in relation to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002. I am sure that my colleague Senator Sherry will be here shortly and that he will wish to speak as well. I have some remarks, however, about this bill. I particularly want to refer to its title: the `genuine bargaining' bill. This comes on a long list of government changes to legislation in which they think up a catchy title as if that title reflects the content of the bill. It is more like a slogan or a marketable image that they try to insert into legislation. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 is not about genuine bargaining at all. The title says `genuine bargaining' but the fact is that this bill is not about genuine bargaining.

The best example I can come up with to illustrate that point is from the front page of the Australian newspaper today. Over the years in this chamber since the conservatives have been in power, when Senator Nick Minchin was the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, we became used to having a dorothy dixer bowled up to the minister every now and again in question time about the state of the car industry. The minister for industry, Nick Minchin, would get up and eulogise the achievements of the Australian car industry: how its production levels were up; how we were exporting cars to the Gulf states—the rebadged Holden was everywhere in the Arab states in the Gulf; how we are now exporting the Holden Monaro to the United States, the home of the automobile industry; and how well the Australian car industry was going.

There is quite a bit in what Senator Minchin said about those productivity and quality improvements and the reduction in price of Australian cars over the years. We think that it was caused by the introduction of the Button car plan right back when we were in government and that those changes have come through because of good managerial leadership in the car companies and because of high productivity levels of workers employed in those industries. While the government has had a framework role, the actual productivity levels and quality improvements have come about because of the people in the industry, not because of the government. But that is a tangential point.

The government is fond of boasting about the achievements of the Australian car industry. Therefore it is a bit surprising that, when the genuine bargaining bill comes on this morning, we should see on the front page of the Australian the lead story with the headline `Fighting fund to tame car unions'. According to the government this industry is going gangbusters, but suddenly there is a need to have a fighting fund to tame the car unions, who have been contributors to the success of this industry. This story is a salutary example of the government's attitude to industrial relations. `Ideology overtakes everything' is the government's approach to industrial relations, and we saw that on the waterfront when the now discredited minister, Peter Reith, was the minister for industrial relations. Peter Reith was proven to be a liar by the Senate inquiry into a certain maritime incident and, by the way, did not succeed—

Senator Kemp —I rise on a point of order. The word `liar' is, as far as I am aware, not a parliamentary term to use. I suggest that Senator Cook be asked to withdraw it. Peter Reith, as all of us know, was one of the most distinguished people that we have seen in this parliament for a very long time. To have him called a liar by the likes of Senator Cook is an absolute disgrace. I urge you to ask Senator Cook to withdraw that expression.

The CHAIRMAN —Senator Kemp, there is no point of order.

Senator COOK —Thank you, Mr Chairman. I was just reporting on the finding of the `kids overboard' inquiry regarding the then Minister for Defence. However, I will not digress. We have the Cole royal commission into the building industry, we have had efforts to interfere with coalmining unions and now we have the government intruding into the car industry. Senators in this place may recall that, on 22 June this year, the weekend edition of the Australian Financial Review carried a story—buried, I think, on about page 5—on the government approaching the Productivity Commission for the purposes of linking so-called `industrial relations reform' with industry supports for the car industry. These supports relate to export achievements—that is, Commonwealth government supports for reducing tariff protection and for supporting the transitional costs of Mitsubishi in South Australia, where this car company is going through problems.

Essentially, the government is saying: `If you don't enact our industrial relations changes as we want them, then we will not support the continuing viability of this industry. We will suddenly drop tariff protection overnight. You'll be exposed to international competition. You'll be wiped out. We won't give you the export support you need, so our achievement of exporting cars to the Gulf will have a big question mark over it, and whether the Monaro ever goes to the United States in future has a big question mark over it—unless you comply with our strictures on industrial relations.'

Now we have this bill, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill. What have the government said to the Australian community about industrial relations? It was always a PR stunt; it was always government propaganda, but they said first of all, `There has to be choice.' The question here is: what choice do the car companies have if the viability of their industry is threatened unless they toe the line with the government's ideological view about the car industry? Hence we have this morning's front-page story in the Australian, which was entitled `Fighting fund to tame car unions'. The article stated:

Senior government ministers, led by Tony Abbott, are challenging automotive companies to get serious about workplace reform ...

Watch the words `workplace reform' very carefully. They sound lovely—

Senator Sherry —Reith-speak.

Senator COOK —They are Reith-speak—that is exactly right, Senator Sherry. You could not have put it more nicely. The words `workplace reform' in the mouth of this government mean the destruction of unions and the destruction of the industrial relations protection of workers' wages, working conditions, occupational health and safety conditions and right to a bargaining agent to achieve their fair share of productivity gains.

Productivity gains in the car industry have been quite spectacular. They have been brought about partly by the investment of companies in new plants and equipment which are more productive, and partly by the higher skills of the workers in the industry. Those gains should be shared fairly between those who have invested, the shareholders, and those who actually make the cars, the workers. Management are entitled to their fair cop as well. But without a union to bargain with some of the biggest companies in the world—General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Mitsubishi—individual workers have no chance up against the monoliths of industry. Therefore it is not surprising that the car industry is a unionised workplace. But, when the government talk about genuine bargaining on their terms, they mean breaking down the industrial protection of those workers.

As far as I can remember, in every poll conducted in this country which has asked, `Who is best suited to handle industrial relations?' the answer has been resoundingly, `Labor is'. That is irrespective of whether Labor's fortunes have been up or down. This is not surprising. This government talks about fair bargaining and here it is on the one hand saying—

Senator Ian Campbell —We are better on the environment, health, the economy—

Senator COOK —No. As a matter of fact you are not, but I am not going into that point. Let me go back to the Australian newspaper, which stated:

Cabinet is expected to soon approve a $2 billion assistance package for the car industry and announce a phased reduction of tariffs for the sector.

The article on front page of the Australian went on to quote Mr Abbott:

“I don't want to dictate to the industry how it runs its industrial relations. But I do expect the companies, collectively and individually, to have a workplace relations strategy in place before the Government signs off on a new package of assistance,” Mr Abbott said.

In other words, could anyone believe that the biggest companies in Australia do not have an industrial relations strategy? Of course they do, and they have had one for years. I remember when I was the Minister for Industrial Relations in this country—

Senator Ian Campbell —Those were the days!

Senator COOK —Thank you! I remember that, when I was industry minister in this country, I worked closely with the car companies in Australia, because they are the heart of our Australian manufacturing sector. We worked closely to foster cooperation in the workplace—not division, not setting worker against worker and worker against boss, but cooperation to achieve higher levels of productivity, a safer workplace and an objective of making the car industry an export industry for Australia. We achieved that objective.

We ran a number of programs in which we encouraged the units of production—workers, employers, plant and equipment—to work together to lift productivity and to share the outcome of that productivity achievement. We had a relatively harmonious car industry—one that achieved high productivity goals in the face of reducing protection through tariffs as we exposed the industry slowly, but in a way which strengthened it, to international market competition. We were quite successful. The car companies told me and told Australia how important it was to have employees working cooperatively with them in the workplace.

What are the government now doing? They are now saying—and you do not have to be Einstein to read the real meaning of Mr Abbott's words here—`This package to continue the process of making the car industry more competitive is dependent upon you accepting our industrial relations ideology.' Is this genuine bargaining? Sooner or later if these car companies succumb—and the report in the Australian today is about the car companies setting up a fighting fund to deal with unions—and there is an industrial dispute, what will Mr Abbott do? He will say, `You toe the line, because the car companies are only operating an industrial relations approach which is fair and reasonable.' It is an approach forced on them, not one they want, because the survival of the industry is dependent upon their toeing the line with Mr Abbott. There is no doubt about that at all. And they wonder why people in Australia become alienated from the government! The economy does not reward all Australians in anything like the same way.

We want to see some harmony return to the workplace. That means respecting workers as individuals. That means regarding workers not as units of production, as extensions of a machine or as statistics but as human beings who seek job satisfaction, who have skills, who want to improve those skills and who want to earn a wage packet honourably and fairly to take home to their families to support a standard of living. Unless we start appreciating people in the workplace as the biggest single input of production and the most important element in industry, the industrial sector will end up in decline and people will become alienated from the workplace process. That is the logical outcome of the Abbott industrial relations approach. The logical outcome of Labor's industrial relations approach is harmony, respect for individuals, safe workplaces and shared rewards of increased productivity.

There have been a number of industrial disputes in the car industry, mainly in the component parts sector, over the last year. It is worth while to pause for a minute and to ask ourselves what they were about. They were about this: workers wanted to have enshrined in their agreements some protection for when companies go bankrupt and the workers lose all of their benefits. When the company of Mr Howard's brother went bankrupt, the federal government bailed it out. However, we know that in other cases where companies go bankrupt the workers lose all of their entitlements: their long service leave, their annual leave entitlements, their accumulated sick leave entitlements and their superannuation go down with the company. Those disputes were about workers saying, `We want protected those rights which we have accumulated and are entitled to.'

The government has called this legislation a `genuine bargaining' bill. The title is a joke; it is meant for PR purposes. Senator Sherry will shortly tell us Labor's position on this issue. I want to conclude by saying that what this government is doing in the car industry is an outrage, and Australians should rise up and oppose it. (Time expired)