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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6688

Senator SHERRY (10:41 AM) —I would like to congratulate Senator Cook for that contribution and for usefully drawing to the attention of the Senate the issue highlighted in the Australian this morning. A very useful report by Mr Lewis, the chief political reporter, has uncovered the secret slush fund that is being put together in the motor vehicle industry to take on and break the union movement in the car industry as well as to reduce the wages and conditions that have been collectively bargained for at the workplace level.

We are debating the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002. Senator Cook has very usefully highlighted the contradiction between a government which argues for genuine bargaining at a workplace level and a government which is secretly colluding with some employers to put together a $1 million slush fund to force the employers in the motor vehicle industry into toeing the line—there is no genuine bargaining involved—by saying to them, `We want you to have a workplace relations strategy.' We know that all of the motor vehicle industry employers have an industrial relations strategy, but the government do not like the industrial relations strategy in the motor vehicle industry and they are secretly colluding to put together this million-dollar fighting fund. The government are forcing their agenda on the motor vehicle industry because they do not like its industrial relations strategy, with Minister Abbott saying, `If you don't do what we tell you, if you don't smash the unions and reduce wages and conditions, then there'll be no more assistance for the motor vehicle industry.' I think congratulations should go to Mr Lewis and the Australian for exposing what was a secret agenda.

Of course, we know from past experience what the agenda of the Liberal government is. Minister Abbott has continued the tradition of Minister Reith. We only have to look back at the collusion in which Minister Reith was involved with employers in respect of the waterfront, smashing the union movement and reducing wages and conditions. As Senator Cook so rightly highlighted, we have a very important manufacturing industry in this country that is going gangbusters. The motor vehicle industry has done very well, in large part because of the firm foundations of cooperative reform that the Labor Party put in place going back to the Button times.

Senator SHERRY —Senator McGauran groans. What would he know about the motor vehicle industry? I challenge him to get up and contribute to this debate and to point out to us what the Liberal government has done in respect of genuine reform in the motor vehicle industry. It has done very little. We have an industry going gangbusters, but what else do we have? We have the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Abbott, setting up a secret gang to bust the unions and to reduce the wages and conditions of workers in the motor vehicle industry.

Here we have an example of a government that does not like the genuine workplace relations activities that employers have in place and it wants to interfere. This is the essential contradiction: a Liberal government, not agreeing with the genuine workplace bargaining that has been going on, is saying, `We don't like what you are doing, so we are going to interfere and impose an agenda by blackmailing the motor vehicle industry and helping to set up this million-dollar fighting fund.' I challenge the minister—I am sure he will be talking to the press today as a result of this particular exposure by Mr Lewis in the Australian—to come clean. Remember what Mr Reith did on the waterfront? It was like extracting teeth to find out what his and his office's involvement was in secret plans—which were subsequently exposed in a very substantial way—to smash the unions and reduce the wages and conditions of workers.

As was indicated in the House of Representatives, Labor will not oppose this genuine bargaining bill, because of the amendments that Labor has pushed for and which have been agreed to by the Liberal government. The bill in its original form was not acceptable to Labor. It would have taken away from workers and unions the freedom to bargain on a basis that was fair and efficient. It sought to prevent unions from organising and bargaining for decent wages and conditions for workers in an industry. The bill did not reflect in a balanced way the approach taken by Justice Munro in the metals case. Also, the original bill would have undermined the manner in which workers can exercise their legal right to take industrial action against large and powerful corporations in support of their claims. This would have left workers stripped of their most important protections against the bargaining power of the large corporations that dominate Australian and international commerce.

I add that, while Labor will not oppose the bill as amended, Labor maintains its strong support for the restoration to the commission of the power to ensure that enterprise bargaining is conducted in good faith. This is a particularly important point. We have an independent Industrial Relations Commission that can adjudicate between the parties if there is a difference of views on a particular matter being negotiated.

Again, I go back to the expose in today's Australian about the secret plan by Minister Abbott to smash the unions and to reduce the wages and conditions of workers in the motor vehicle industry. The Liberal government want to circumvent the commission when it suits them. When it suits the government, they say that the commission has to deal with a matter. But, if the government disagrees with the parties or with the independent industrial commission adjudicating between the parties, the minister, Mr Abbott, in time-honoured Liberal party tradition, seeks to set up a secret fund of $1 million and to say to the employers, under some blackmail arrangement, `If you don't take on the unions as we dictate and you don't reduce their wages and conditions, you will get no more assistance.' The government want to circumvent the Industrial Relations Commission— the independent commission—when it suits them.

Labor's good faith bargaining provisions were designed to take unnecessary heat and conflict out of bargaining. Bargaining can be a difficult and emotive process, and a party should not be allowed to get away with rude and unprofessional conduct. Labor's amendments will act to keep the bargaining process on the rails, with debate focused on the issues at hand and not diverted to petty obstructions.

The bill now provides for, firstly, the insertion of a note referring to Justice Munro's decision in the Campaign 2000 case. The note gives legislative recognition to His Honour's decision when the commission is called on to consider whether to suspend or terminate a bargaining period on the ground that the notifying party is not genuinely trying to reach an agreement. Secondly, it allows parties to apply for suspension or termination of bargaining periods affecting an employer, without having to identify the specific bargaining period involved. Thirdly, it provides an express power for the commission to prevent the initiation of a new bargaining period or to attach conditions to any new bargaining period where a bargaining period has been terminated or suspended. The bill, as amended, effectively codifies the current state of case law on genuine bargaining. This will provide the parties that operate in the federal system with some degree of certainty over what will and will not be countenanced.

The Senate is sitting; the House of Representatives—of which Mr Abbott is a member—is not sitting. It is very appropriate that Senator Alston, the minister who represents the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations in this place, should contribute to this debate. I call on Senator Alston to come into this chamber, while we are debating this genuine bargaining bill, and explain, on behalf of Minister Abbott whom he represents, what is going on with this $1 million secret fighting fund. What plans does Minister Abbott have to force the employers to take on the unions in the car industry and to reduce the wages, working conditions and superannuation provisions of workers in the motor vehicle industry? It is a very appropriate time for Minister Alston to come into the Senate chamber and, on behalf of Mr Abbott, to explain the government's position. What is going on in the car industry? What are the government planning to do? They are planning to take on the unions, in the same way as they did with the waterfront workers, and to circumvent the Industrial Relations Commission. This is a government of this country actively engaged in setting up a $1 million secret slush fund and actively engaged in pushing the employers to take on the unions in the car industry, in order to reduce the wages and working conditions of workers. It is very appropriate that Minister Alston should come into this chamber and explain just what Minister Abbott and the Liberal Party are up to.

This bill would also enable the parliament to move on to consider more pressing matters, such as protection of employee entitlements. We do not have full protection of employee entitlements in this country. I know some out in the community might believe that the Liberal government has done something in this area—but we do not have full protection of employee entitlements.

Senator Kemp —You did nothing. You had 13 years and you did nothing.

Senator SHERRY —Let me give you one example. Senator Kemp, a well-known and distinguished former minister with responsibility for superannuation, who is now handling the Arts and Sport portfolio after his terrible failures in the superannuation area, is interjecting. Senator Kemp, when he was the minister with responsibility for superannuation, did not provide an employee protection scheme. When a company goes under and there is superannuation outstanding, there is no employee protection.

Senator Kemp —You did nothing for 13 years.

Senator SHERRY —There is no employee protection. The failed minister for superannuation, Senator Kemp, continues to interject.

Senator Kemp —Where is your policy, Nick? Six years and no policy. Never has a policy taken longer to produce—unbelievable!

Senator SHERRY —What is not well known is that, under the employee protection provisions in this country, if a company goes bankrupt and there are substantial moneys outstanding in respect of superannuation— the figure often exceeds the amount for workers' redundancy pay—the workers lose the superannuation. Senator Kemp is fond of calling on us to put forward our policy. I put forward, as one of our 26 policies, that we should be protecting the superannuation entitlements of workers when a company goes under. I note that Senator Kemp is nodding his head; he should do so because he did nothing about it when he was the responsible minister. He has since been promoted to the Arts and Sport portfolio.

Senator Kemp —You have put forward no policy.

Senator SHERRY —We look forward to your policy contribution in respect of the arts and sport.

Senator Kemp —The arts community will be very pleased to read your speech.

Senator SHERRY —You were a total failure in respect of superannuation. To my knowledge, Senator Kemp, you have not made one policy announcement about the arts or sport. What a miserable failure as a minister: he would not protect workers' superannuation when a company went bankrupt; he did not lift a finger to protect workers' superannuation when a company went under.

We should consider other issues, such as paid maternity leave and the work and family balance. These are all things about which Senator Kemp is concerning himself, in the world of the arts. We all know that, Senator Kemp. Certainly, in my priority of issues, there are some more important issues that we should be getting on with, having regard to the time allocated for parliamentary debate on this bill.

Once again I challenge Senator Alston to come into this chamber and tell us what is going on in respect of the secret plans that were exposed in today's Australian by a reporter, Mr Lewis. He is a very good reporter, I might say. He is usually right on the ball. He has uncovered what is being plotted and planned by this government. I say to Minister Alston: it is part of your responsibilities to represent the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Abbott. The House of Representatives is not sitting. Come in here and explain what this Liberal government is up to with this $1 million fighting fund. Explain what you mean by `workplace relations strategy'—forcing the employers to try to break the unions and reduce the wages and conditions and superannuation of workers in the motor vehicle industry. These are conditions of which they should be rightly proud, I might say, which have been achieved largely through a cooperative effort that this government does not like or want, so it decides to impose its agenda; hence my comments. As I say, we heard the very incisive and comprehensive comments by my colleague Senator Cook, a former industrial relations and industry minister—I might say a very fine minister.

Senator Kemp —You'd be the only one.

Senator SHERRY —Senator Kemp, I knew you would bite.

Senator Kemp —Where is he now? He was so good that he is on the back bench.

Senator SHERRY —He has a much better record than you, Senator Kemp. What about your miserable record? You could not even protect workers' superannuation when you had responsibility for superannuation, so you have been promoted to the Arts and Sport portfolio.

Senator Kemp —The Labor Party thought he was so good that he is on the back bench.

Senator SHERRY —He has a much finer record than you will ever have as a minister. The accidental minister, Senator Kemp: that is what we call you. We all know how you became a minister. I conclude my remarks on the bill.