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Wednesday, 31 October 1956

Mr CREAN (Melbourne Ports) .- As indicated by my colleagues, the honorable member for Bendigo (Mr. Clarey) and the honorable member for Blaxland (Mr. E. James Harrison), the Opposition opposes the measures now under consideration. We feel that they are hastily brought down at the end of the sessional period, that they contain many provisions which we have not been given adequate opportunity to examine and that they are the forerunner of the kind of thing that seems to be envisaged by the Government in calling a conference of Premiers to consider what is known as the stabilization of wages. That is not to stabilize wages at a high and just level as has, to some degree, been attained under some State awards, but to stabilize them at the low level of the pegged federal basic wage, lt seems that these measures contain the possibility that people, who are at present employed on such Commonwealth projects as the St. Mary's undertaking and who, apparently, work under New South Wales awards, will automatically lose income immediately if they are transferred to Commonwealth awards, as they can be in terms of the provisions of this legislation.

As my colleague, the honorable member for Bendigo, indicated, clause 14 of the bill, which amends the Conciliation and Arbitration Act, contains a very wide power. Proposed section 88b reads, in part -

The Minister may, by notice published in the " Gazette ", declare a work or undertaking which is to be, or is being, carried out or undertaken by or for the Commonwealth or an authority of ihe Commonwealth to be a Commonwealth protect for the purposes of this Division.

The theoretical reason given by the Government is that to-day governments undertake ventures which are different from the strict administrative functions of government. We have long been accustomed to what is known as the Public Service generally, or the civil service, as it is sometimes called, in its purely administrative aspects. Even in that function the Public Service has grown to considerable dimensions, and it seems very difficult for it not to grow when one considers the activities that are undertaken by governments in these modern times. Apart from that, there are other activities which may be more of an industrial kind than a facet of public administration.

It seems that in this legislation the Government is attempting to segregate the administrative side of government from the industrial side. Certain examples, such as the aluminium project, have been cited. The point that characterizes them, as distinct from other governmental activities, is that the projects may be of a limited duration and that employees tend to be of a temporary rather than of a permanent kind in their association with the Government. They may to-day be employed in a State government undertaking which is not within the province of the Commonwealth. Tomorrow they may be employed on building work for a private employer. Their term of employment with the Commonwealth as such is not of a permanent kind and this legislation is apparently designed to remove them from the scope of the Public Service

Arbitrator. Another kind of employee is one whose employment is of a more permanent nature, such as airways employees. The argument used in relation to them is that employees in undertakings with which they compete do not come within the scope of the Public Service Arbitrator and it would be better if they were brought under the control of the ordinary arbitration machine.

The main part of the second-reading speech of the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) was a kind of historical description of the growth of the Public Service arbitration machinery. It also contained a little excursus into the types of activities undertaken by the Government in 1956 that were not so undertaken earlier. Whilst that is the reason given by the Minister for amending the act, it seems that the Government has also taken some trouble to amend some of the conditions applied to the traditional type of government employee.

Many of the staff organizations of the various Public Service bodies are worried about the terms of the Public Service Arbitration Bill (No. 2) that is now under consideration. One provision that has caused a considerable amount of discussion amongst those bodies is clause 9. particularly that part which specifically mentions a number of acts and then gives a further general power.

As I said earlier, the traditional public servant is perfectly satisfied with the framework of arbitration as it affects him. He is governed by conditions which are laid down in acts of Parliament. The Public Service Act, which is an act of this Parliament and which can be amended from time to time, prescribed certain conditions of employment for him. But the Public Service Arbitrator, who may adjudicate on matters concerning those people, is given a power which on the face of it appears to be rather odd. He is given power, as it were, to vary a Commonwealth statute. He can make decisions which are inconsistent with the existing law. On the face of it, that may appear to be an odd power for a Parliament to give to any one. The Parliament passes a law and then says, in effect, " The Public Service Arbitrator may vary the terms of this law if he thinks they should be varied ". According to the Minister, if that were not so, all matters affecting public servants would be subject to acts of Parliament. If it were desired to vary their conditions in any way, it would be necessary to seek amendment of the relevant act of Parliament, which would leave no independence of action to the Public Service Arbitrator. He says that that is the reason behind this provision, which has existed for a considerable period of time.

Clause 9 of the Public Service Arbitration Bill to some extent varies the position that has existed in this connexion. I understand that representatives of the Public Service associations have had discussions with the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) and other Government members, and also with certain members of the Opposition, and that they have been given assurances along certain lines by the Minister. I understand that they would like the right honorable gentleman to say, on the floor of the House, that there is no intention to take action which, they feel, could be taken under clause 9. I know that the Parliamentary Draftsman was given a very tall order by the Government when he was asked to have all this legislation drafted so that it could be printed and placed before the Parliament before the end of the current sessional period. I submit that such haste with important legislation is bad, because it does not afford the supporters of the Government full opportunity to see what is involved in the legislation, and still less does it afford an opportunity to members of the Opposition, who have not the benefit of the expert advice that is available to the Government, to discuss with outside bodies the implications of the legislation.

Th( Public Service Arbitration Bill now before the House is a complicated measure, and I think that lay members of the Parliament may be excused if they experience difficulty in understanding the terminology that has been used by the Parliamentary Draftsman. Not all of its provisions are expressed in basic English, although I appreciate that it is possible to get into difficulty by trying to simplify complicated matters and reduce them to easily understandable terms. Nevertheless, 1 suggest that honorable members who have no "legal training should be given an opportunity to discuss the legislation with those whom it will affect, and to ask, "What, in your opinion, does this provision mean, and how do you think it affects the conditions of your employment? " Clause 9 clearly calls for such an opportunity for discussion of its implications, and I hope that, at the committee stage, the Minister will reply to the point that I have raised and indicate thai there is no ground for the fears that have been expressed.

I invite the attention of the House to clause 9, proposed new sub-section (2.) of section 22, which reads as follows: -

The Arbitrator may, where he thinks it proper to do so, make a determination that, in his opinion, is not, or may not be, in accord with a law of the Commonwealth relating to conditions of employment of employees in the Public Service, not being -

(a)   the Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act 1930-1954, the Commonwealth Employees' Furlough Act 1943- 1953 or the Superannuation Act 1922- 1956; or . . . lt seems that the representatives of the public servants cannot see any great danger in that provision. The three acts referred to are comparatively innocuous. However, paragraph (b) of this omnibus sub-section gives rise for concern. It refers to - any other prescribed Act or the prescribed provisions of any other Act.

I understand that that provision could apply to approximately 42 separate acts of Parliament. I do not suggest that it would apply to all of them, but it could do so. The representatives of the Public Service associations are asking - and I suggest they are entitled to an answer from the Minister - questions on these lines: If there are specific provisions that require to be placed in this reserve category, why not state what they are? Why not try to eliminate from the 42 acts that may be affected the ones that the Government thinks require amendment? Alternatively, if nothing definite is in mind, why not leave the matter where it is and introduce legislation in the Parliament when the occasion arises? Why seek a general power arising from the three acts that have been referred to - the Commonwealth Employees' Compensation Act, the Commonwealth Employees' Furlough Act, and the Superanuation Act? If power to amend those acts is needed, why seek general power in relation to other acts which do not seem to come into the picture?

The representatives of the Public Service maintain that, in theory, the whole of the Public Service could be placed outside the scope of arbitration by the terms of clause 9 of the bill. They say, " Arbitration could be swept away by a stroke of the executive pen ". That, perhaps, may appear to be going to extremes, but it does seem that if the Public Service were brought within the range of clause 9 the whole of the rights which public servants enjoy by virtue of the fact that their determinations are made by the Public Service Arbitrator could be swept away because the Arbitrator would be left without arbitral powers. I do not think that that is the intention of the Government. It may even be that, properly read, clause 9 does not imply such a development. Nevertheless, there is a considerable body of opinion that that interpretation could be read into the clause.

Again, I put it to the Government that the Opposition has not had sufficient opportunity to scrutinize the measure as it should be scrutinized. I understand that my colleague, the honorable member for Melbourne (Mr. Calwell), referred the matter to a person in authority, and that some doubt was expressed about the meaning of the clause on the ground that it could be interpreted in a certain way in extreme circumstances. If that is so, I think that the Government should make a statement on the matter. I understand from the Minister that he has given certain assurances in writing, but as I have said, the whole Public Service body would like an explanation to be made on the floor of the chamber, either at the second-reading stage or at the committee stage. It seems that the original intention of the legislation was to try to segregate the proposed new kind of government activity in the industrial sphere from the traditional administrative functions, which would remain within the jurisdiction of the Public Service Arbitrator, and that the new field of activity should be covered by the more general scope of industrial arbitration. Whether or not that is a desirable thing, I do not propose to argue. My colleague, the honorable member for Blaxland (Mr. E. James Harrison), has submitted that the present system has functioned successfully and that there does not seem to be good reason to change it. He is certainly more skilled and versed in these matters than I am. I am simply saying that if that was the intention of the Government, this omnibus power seems to afford the opportunity to exercise greater control over the purely administrative side of government undertakings. In this connexion, again, some public servants believe that the Government may be trying to apply a policy which the Australian Labour party believes it is trying to apply to the whole field of industry, that policy involving the stabilization of wages not at a just level, with allowances for cost of living adjustments which would, in any case, merely bring wages to the point at which they ought to be, but at a lower level than that. The Government may attempt to apply the same policy to some of its own employees by taking them out of the flexible jurisdiction of the Public Service Arbitrator, and placing them under the jurisdiction of the commission, which may, when making awards, take into account the capacity of industry to pay.

I conclude with those remarks, hoping that at a later stage in the debate the Minister will give the assurance on this point that is being sought by representatives of the various public service organizations, both individually and through their high council, because they feel that this legislation may threaten many of the improvements in wages and conditions that they have attained only after long years of fighting for them.

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