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Wednesday, 3 November 1976
Page: 2291

Mr BURR (Wilmot) - I have sat quietly and listened with great interest to the honourable member for Gellibrand (Mr Willis). It was a matter of some amazement to me that at no time during the honourable member's speech did he appear to place any importance on the needs and wishes of the rank and file in the trade union movement. All he talked about was how power could be manipulated by a few top officials within trade unions, how the balance of power could be swung from Left or Right. The honourable gentleman apparently does not attach any importance to what the ordinary working person in Australia wants and how his interests should best be represented by the trade union movement. I think that that point should be fundamental in this debate. We have had a period in Australia for some years where interest groups from one side or other of the political spectrum have used the trade union movement as nothing more than a power base from which they could peddle their political interests. It is high time that the trade union movement, honourable members opposite, and the Party they represent forgot about political ambition and started to think about the people of Australia and what the ordinary working people of Australia really want and the life style they want.

Mr Bourchier - Good speech.

Mr Keith Johnson (BURKE, VICTORIA) - Is he finished?

Mr BURR - Your turn will come, do not be impatient. In considering this Bill, we need to refer back, as the honourable member for Gellibrand said, to the amendments brought in under the Labor Administration. Those amendments allowed for the direct election of union officials by all of the rank and file members of a trade union. In theory, it sounds fine that the rank and file elect their federal secretary and their federal president and so on. But we need to give consideration to the rank and file members from the smaller, less populous States.

If we think about the implications of the amendment brought in under the previous Administration, we will realise that we could well have a situation where a union membership was dominated by the larger States of New South Wales and Victoria and, because of the sheer weight of numbers, they could dominate the federal office bearers of a union without any consideration being given to the smaller States, to the members in those smaller States, or to the peculiar circumstances under which they might work in those States. Those smaller States would have no recourse whatever in either removing the federal office bearers or having any influence over the federal executive of a union. Obviously such a system is totally unworkable. In determining a climate in which trade unions should operate, in my opinion it is of paramount importance that we consider the needs of the trade unionist, the rank and file chap who works on the shop floor. We have to consider how his interests can best be represented and how the interests of workers in the various States can be properly represented. I do not believe that in this consideration any thought should be given at all to the power base of those people who have no better ambition in mind than to use trade unions for political purposes or simply to manipulate for power.

The proposition that the Minister has put forward in this Bill is to allow a structure that will give adequate representation to the wishes of the rank and file unionist and that will also give adequate representation to the various States, in particular the smaller States. By having a onetier collegiate system of the type referred to by the honourable member for Gellibrand, State representatives would be elected by the rank and file people in those States and the representatives from those States would have the right and authority to elect their senior federal office bearers. In my opinion that would ensure that the smaller States, and in particular my State of Tasmania, would be given right and proper consideration.

I find myself in some agreement with some of the comments made by the honourable member for Gellibrand. The honourable member referred to the actions of extremist groups within the political structure of Australia. In my opinion one of the most unfortunate things that has happened within the trade union movement and within the political structures of Australia is that extremist groups of both the Left and the Right have used whatever facilities have been available to them for nothing better than exerting power. I think it is high time, in looking at the political structures and the trade union structures of Australia, that we gave thought not to the extremists and activists but to the ordinary people. The ordinary trade unionist is not the least bit concerned with the political manoeuvrings of his trade union leader. Nor is he concerned with the extremist views that his trade union leader might hold either of the Left or of the Right. He is concerned only with going to work, earning a living and having a decent standard of living for his wife and family. He is concerned to hold his job. He is concerned that his family and children will have the same job opportunities that he has been able to enjoy.

We have seen a period in which the extreme Left of the trade union movement and the political structure has been able to win positions of influence within certain trade unions. Through their various structures these people have taken control of the Executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, albeit their numbers are extremely small. They now wield an influence that bears no relationship at all to their numerical strength. As I see it, the unfortunate result of extremist actions of one side of the political spectrum is that inevitably these actions will influence the extremists of the other side to take reciprocal action. This is exactly what is happening now. The extremists of the Left- those associated with the Communist Party- have used the electoral system of the various trade unions to win positions of influence within those leaderships. This has now caused extremists of the right wing and in particular those who are associated with the National Civic Council, as was pointed out by the honourable member for Gellibrand, to try to use the electoral system of the trade union movement to win control of certain trade unions for the extreme right wing.

I believe- and I believe this view is also held by the average worker- that unionists do not want a part of either the extreme Left or the extreme Right. They want moderate trade union leaders who have at heart the genuine interests of the worker and not the wielding of political power. In framing legislation of this type the Minister and the Government need to give consideration not to the political power mongering of trade union leaders but to the needs of the rank and file worker. I believe this can best be served where the workers, both individually and collectively are able to influence and in fact dictate to the union leadership rather than having the union leadership dictate to them. They need to be able to do this in a structure of democracy without fear of intimidation. I believe that this Bill, as framed by the Minister, does provide that framework within which the rank and file worker can exercise his democratic vote, where he can control his union and where the small States and workers from the small States are given an adequate representation without being dominated by the bulk of membership from the larger States.

The Bill needs to be coupled with a greater awareness on the part of the rank and file unionist of the need to exercise not just theoretical control but physical control of his trade union. We need to do much more to influence a greater number of people to be actively involved in the activities of their unions. As the honourable member for Gellibrand pointed out in his speech, only 2000 union members out of a total membership of roughly 185 000 of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union voted at the last federal election for office bearers of that union. We cannot expect that democracy will reign in the trade union movement until we can encourage a greater number of people to participate in the activities of their trade union. I support this Bill. I believe that the proposals that the Minister has encompassed in it will play a great part in restoring democracy in the trade union movement of Australia.

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