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Tuesday, 6 August 1946

Mr HOLT (Fawkner) .- This is the clause which provides for the establishment. of a coal industry tribunal, and of local industrial tribunals. Therefore, it is one of the most important parts of the bill. In this measure, I observe some significant departures from the regulations previously in force. Mr. Justice Davidson examined this aspect of the industry very carefully, and I refer honorable members to pages 28 to 31 of the summary pf his report. Mr. Justice Davidson discussed the operation of the tribunals themselves, and then dealt with the failure of. governments, particularly of this Government, to support the decisions of the tribunal. The clause provides for the establishment of a coal industry tribunal, which is to consist of a person who is, or has been, a practising barrister or solicitor of the Supreme Court of the State for a period of not less than five years. That is significant, because the Commonwealth Government has recognized, apparently, that it made a grave error when it allowed the chairmanship of the coal tribunal to get out of the hands of persons legally qualified. These tribunals' were appointed by regulation in February, 1941. At that time, the Government of which I was a member subscribed to three principles which it proposed to 'apply in the settlement -of industrial disputes. The first was that there should be available an expert, competent and impartial body to deal with disputes as they arose; the second was that there should be no interference by the Government with decisions given; and the .third, was that the Government would back up with its full authority the decisions of tribunals once they were given. In accordance with those principles we created the central reference board and the local reference boards. There was some criticism at that time of our action in establishing separate tribunals for the coal industry, and I believe that there was substance in that criticism. We have tended to' over-emphasize the separateness of the coal industry, and to isolate it from the rest of the community. That is partly due to the prominence which the industry has assumed in political discussion, and to the importance of maintaining the production of coal. Whatever the rights or wrongs may have been, we did respond to the request that there should be available in the various districts tribunals which could deal promptly and impartially with disputes that might arise on the spot, and which might not be conveniently brought before the Arbitration Court. At the same time, we were aware of the danger- of departing from the principle of control by the court. We. knew, also, that determinations in the coal industry might affect other industries where similar conditions prevailed. Therefore, we were careful to retain as chairman of the coal reference board a judge of the Arbitration Court. We then placed in control of the local reference boards men with some practical experience in the industry. Two were actually officers or former officers of the miners' federation, and another, Mr. Connell, was at the time a foreman, or supervisor in one of the mines, and, accordingly, a man of practical experience. Mr. Justice Davidson criticized the appointment of persons directly connected with the industry. I do not agree with that criticism. I incline to the view expressed by the Prime Minister (Mr. Chifley) that direct knowledge of and participation in a particular industry should not automatically disqualify a man, or render him incapable of performing a quasi judicial function in the post to which he- is appointed. The Prime Minister mentioned Judge Drake-Brockman, who carried out his functions successfully and inspired confidence in those .who came' under his official jurisdiction. That tribute to the work of Judge Drake-Brockman was confirmed by the coal-miners themselves when they stipulated that he should preside over the Central Reference Board. We had v the machinery established - the link with the Arbitration Court through the chairmanship of the judge, the' direct experience of the men forming the district reference board, and the ready access of miner and owner to the local board. In the scheme which we laid down we were careful to ensure that the operations of the local boards should be confined to local and domestic matters. We provided that where a matter was deemed to extend beyond the particular area, a decision on which might have had repercussions in other areas or on other1 industries, the matter should be dealt with by the Central Reference Board. I mention those facts because the Labour Government which succeeded us departed from the principles that we established in a way which, I believe, caused many of the subsequent difficulties in the industry. The power of the Central Reference Board was restricted, and the scope of the local boards was extended. The regulations which we drafted were put into operation in February, 1941. In December, 1941, the Curtin Government, by an amendment of the regulations, introduced for the first time the practice of the Minister intervening in these industrial matters. We know what subsequent havoc was caused by that practice. Those who . were parties to a dispute, on finding they, could not get the decision that they wanted from the local tribunal or the Central Reference Board, went to the Minister in the hope of getting it from him. Later, in 1943., there was a more serious development which so weakened the authority of the Coal Tribunal thatthe Government has had to revert to the arrangement set out in this clause. The chairmanship of the Central Reference Board was taken out of the hands of the Arbitration Court judge and placed in the hands of an authority who had no professional training or experience. The subsequent history of the central coal authority made inevitable the reversion to the chairmanship ' of a more qualified man, .as is proposed in this clause. 1 mention these facts because Mr. Justice Davidson has been critical of the way in which these boards have operated. I believe- they were never given a fair test

On the principles which we laid down in the original regulation. The' first step in the ' weakening of the boards by the introduction of the Minister into the scheme, and later the disastrous step of taking the chairmanship out of the hands of a qualified judicial authority, considerably weakened the operation of the boards. Mr. Justice Davidson commented that a dangerous drift from the principles of compulsory industrial conciliation and arbitration which the Australian people have supported for many years, developed during the war towards a departure from the basic requirement of disinterested, independent and highly qualified referees, and limiting the right of appeal from minor tribunals. In our regulations we gave the right of appeal from minor tribunals, but the Labour Government eliminated that right of appeal and a great deal of confusion developed as the result. Mr. Justice Davidson then pointed out that the ministerial duties performed by tribunals in making and interpreting awards are more important and farreaching than the purely judicial duties of imposing and enforcing penalties under the acts, in view of the heavy bur- ' dens, financial and otherwise, such awards and interpretations may cast upon the industry and upon consumers. He advanced the case in favour of having a judicial authority able to supervise the conduct of these boards and to give the kind of determinations one would expect from a judicial officer on matters that came before him. He pin-pointed what we believe to be the most serious weakness of all when he said -

The principal defect in the Arbitration system lies not within itself but in the failure of the Governments to support the decisions of the Tribunals and to enforce the penalties against strikes and lock-outs.

Later he elaborated that statement and I regard his words as of such importance as to justify their inclusion in Hansard. He said -

Reliance upon the sanctity of agreements and upon the efficacy of the law can only exist when it is beyond doubt that the law will be allowed to take an unimpeded course to safeguard the rights of all parties. Reasons have been stated at length in earlier chapters of this Report to support the conclusion that a long-term agreement between associations of colliery proprietors and the unions would be a futility with the present industrial relationship on the coal-fields and it has been made equally clear the flouting of awards .and orders of -legal tribunals is an every day occurrence with strikes and stoppages of production as a concomitant. This state of affairs can never be rectified whilst unions can rush to Federal and State Ministers with every grievance of disappointed litigants. Confidence would be quickly restored if the Government would decisively affirm, without qualification, and support unreservedly the rulings of their Courts.

I believe that sums up without any further argument on my part the principles which should be adopted in this matter. It concerns the policy which we as a Government applied. In no instance did we override the decisions of . the tribunals. "We established them and backed them up with" all the authority we could, and supported their decisions. I believe that- if the present Government reverts to the practice of having a qualified judicial officer in control it will do much to eliminate the present defects.

The CHAIRMAN (Mr. Riordan).The honorable member's time has expired.

Mr HOLT - As no other honorable gentleman has risen I shall take my second period now. "Whilst I commend the return to the practice of having a judge as chairman of the central authority I regret that the Government has not taken the logical further step of making the appointee a judge of the Arbitration Court. It is important to have uniformity in questions, of industrial principle. Those who have experience of industrial disputes know there is no more potent cause of friction than the feeling in ' one industry that some other industry had been granted a concession which should have equal application to both. That is why it becomes imperative that there should be liaison between different members of the Arbitration Court, so that in dealing with matters that come before them individually they may ensure that the greatest uniformity is maintained through all sections of industry. I believe it is a mistake to dissociate a judge who is to preside over the central authority from the Arbitration Court itself. Here again we isolate the miner and the mine-owner,, and we engender in their . minds a belief that they are working in an industry which is apart from the industrial life of the Commonwealth. We accentuate the tendency to which Mr. Justice Davidson has referred as a neurotic complex on the coal-fields, a feeling that coal-miners are a tribe apart from the rest of the community. I hope that the Government will carry the reverse process one stage further, and insist that the judge who is appointed as chairman of the central coal authority shall also be a member of the Arbitration Court.

Clause agreed to.

Clauses 39 to 41 agreed to.

Clause 42- (5.) The Tribunal shall not exercise, with respect to any matter which it determines is a local matter, any of the powers specified in this section, unless the dispute or -matter is likely, in the view of the Tribunal, to lead to industrial unrest in other localities, but is to refer that local matter to the appropriate Local Coal Authority for settlement.

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