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Wednesday, 3 November 1976

Mr WILLIS (Gellibrand) -The Bill now before the House seeks to amend the Conciliation and Arbitration Act in respect of the method of election of officers of registered organisations; that is, trade unions and employer organisations. The Act as it now stands provides that the election of officers of an organisation shall be by direct ballot of members eligible to vote, except for part-time officers of organisations whose rules provided for their election by a one-tier collegiate system at the time that the direct voting requirement was introduced. That was in November 1973 when the Act was amended in a number of respects by the then Labor Government. It was also provided at that time, however, that organisations would have 3 years in which to bring their rules into conformity with the Act. That 3-year period ends on 13 November. Thus the Government has had to move now if it is to enable organisations to avoid having to change their rules to conform with the Act.

The change proposed by the Government is, in broad terms, to restore the collegiate system for the election of officers of organisations as an alternative to the direct vote of the total membership. In the case of full-time officers the collegiate system is limited to one tier, but for other positions a multi-tier system is permissible. The Opposition opposes these amendments. It does so because it believes that they run counter to the effective and democratic operation and control of organisations. We consider that union members should have the right to vote directly for their full-time officials, since these are the people who represent the union and guide its day to day operations. Unquestionably they are the most important people in the union hierarchy, and surely it is only fair and reasonable that every union member eligible to vote should be able to have his or her say as to who will occupy these important positions. That is the way Labor sees it, and accordingly we amended the Act in 1973 to provide for that procedure.

We were not alone in that belief in 1973. The then Opposition raised not one word of protest against our amendments. In neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate was any criticism made by the then Opposition of the change in the method of election of union officials. Indeed, the only comment made by the Liberal Party and the National Country Party came from the then spokesman on industrial relations, the present Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser), who said in his speech in the second reading debate:

The Minister is going to a very considerable length to see that union officials are properly elected- democratically elected- by their unions.

This implied acceptance by the Liberal Party and the National Country Party of the direct voting method of election of union officials was confirmed by the fact that in both Houses of the Parliament the relevant clause of the Bill was agreed to in Committee without debate. So it is beyond doubt that the parties now in government have had a very considerable change of mind since 1973.

But the mental gymnastics of the Government parties go further than that. Everyone in this House will recall that in last year's election campaign one of the issues played up most strongly by the coalition parties was-I quote from the Prime Minister's policy speech- the supposed need 'to give the Australian worker the opportunity to control his own union'. Apparently the present Prime Minister had forgotten his comment of 2 years previously as to the considerable length to which the Labor Government was going to ensure that union officials were properly and democratically elected. He was saying that militant union officials had to be stopped from dictating to their members and accordingly they must be elected by secret postal vote. He and his fellow caretaker Ministers continually deplored the fact that the president of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union was elected in a ballot of less than 2 per cent of the union membership. The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Anthony), for instance, was reported in the Melbourne Sun of 24 November last year as saying that the coalition would do what left wing and communist officials feared most; that is, they would introduce secret postal ballots for union elections. Of course, he then made the ritual mention of the election of the president of the AMWU and gave that as an example of the sort of injustice that a coalition government would stamp out.

On obtaining government the Liberal Party and the National Country Party eventually did move to provide that union elections must be by secret postal ballot. But they almost made a mess of that by introducing a Bill earlier this year which failed to define a postal ballot and this would have required little alteration of election procedures by such unions as the Amalgamated Metalworkers Union despite the fact that the election of the AMWU president was once again trotted out as justification for the action being taken. However, the Government realised its omission before it was too late and so, in a stumbling fashion, it fulfilled its election promise. Now, the Dick Scotts of this world would be put on their mettle. Every union member eligible to vote would be armed with a ballot paper. If we are to believe the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Street) and various other Government spokesmen, this action would set left wing officials of unions trembling in their boots.

Frankly, I doubt that many left wing union officials were all that concerned. Some of the unions most left wing had for years employed a system of compulsory voting by all members at union elections. However, those who were feeling a little anxious need not have worried too much. The trap which had been set to catch a sprat had caught a mackerel. Some large right wing unions were aghast at the prospect of having an election by the whole rank and file for their full time officials. So too were the employer organisations who presumably did not mind the Dick Scotts of this world having to face an election by the whole membership but were not too anxious for his employer counterparts to suffer the same experience. Accordingly, as is now common knowledge, and as the Minister admitted in his second reading speech, the Government was lobbied strongly by these powerful forces to amend the 1973 legislation to allow the retention of the collegiate system.

The lobbyists were apparently assured that something would be done to retain the collegiate system. This is demonstrated by the fact that when the industrial registrar called to his office members of those unions which had not amended their rules to meet the 1973 requirements- about the middle of this year- the Federal president of the Federated Clerks Union of Australia, Mr Maynes, asserted that he did not believe that it would be necessary to amend his rules because the Government would amend the Act to allow the retention of the collegiate system. That union still has not changed its rules and it has a great deal at stake in ensuring the continuance of the collegiate system. From what I have said up to this point I do not mean to imply that all unions affected by the 1973 legislation were overjoyed.. Quite a few expressed hostility but most of them eventually came around to acceptance and changed their rules. They include such notable left wing unions as the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union of Australia, the Australian Building and Construction Workers' Federation- it has now reregisteredand the Federated Liquor and Allied Industries Employees' Union of Australia.

Of course, other unions which are not notably left wing have also changed their rules. But some of them have not and they are not all right wing unions. For instance, the Transport Workers Union of Australia which would be regarded as a moderate union still has not changed its rules. Nonetheless, it is difficult to conclude other than that the Government has been greatly influenced in bringing down this legislation by the National Civic Council controlled unions such as the Federated Clerks Union and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association in which unions the collegiate system enables a minority group to establish control. As evidence for this contention I refer to a letter which has come into my possession. This letter is written by a Mr Noel Wilson who is an assistant research officer for the Federated Clerks Union of Australia, central and southern Queensland branch. It is addressed to Mr J. Atwell, the Federal President of the Liberal Party of Australia, and dated 25 October. Mr Wilson, a member of the Liberal Party, as I understand it, wrote:

Dear Mr Atwell

It is with some regret that I write to you personally to strongly protest what I can only describe as a ' sell-out ' by the Fraser Government to the Santamaria/National Civic Council group relative to the secret ballot legislation now before the Federal House.

On Thursday afternoon of last week the Minister, the Hon. A Street, introduced an amendment which for all time, in my opinion, negated the right of rank and file union members to elect on a national basis their Federal Officials and ensured the perpetuation in office of those officials under this system who have never faced a rank and file ballot and under the swindle concocted by the Government will never have to.

This may sound a strong statement, but as proof of my allegations I provide the following information.

As a Federal Councillor of the Federal Clerks' Union of Australia, I received in the mail today a purported amendment to our Federal Rules which is completely in line with the amendment introduced into the House by the Minister. I state it would be physically impossible to have this suggested rule amendment properly drafted, typed and despatched in the time available without prior knowledge by those responsible for such amendment of the intended action by the Minister.

To me it is crystal clear that this Government has 'done a deal' with the Santamaria/National Civic Council group and has 'sold-out' thousands of Australian unionists who saw, in the pre-election industrial promises of this Government, an opportunity to place their own acceptance or rejection on whom would be the Federal Officials of a number of Australian trade unions.

To illustrate the manner in which the National Civic Council control the Clerks' Union throughout Australia, I give you the following facts.

The Central and Southern Queensland Branch with a membership of over 23 000 elects six Federal Councillors; New South Wales with 32 000 elects six Councillors; Victoria with 23 000 elects six.

Now comes the fiddle, particularly when one relates the fact that the Branches I name hereunder are all controlled by the National Civic Council.

North Queensland (5000 members) elects three NCC Councillors; Tasmania (3000 members) elects two NCC Councillors; West Australia (11 000 members) elects four NCC Councillors; (this was recently upgraded from three to four to enable greater NCC strength at Federal Council ).

The Taxation Officers' Branch which is 'politically free' has a membership of 4500 and elects only two Councillors and South Australia with a membership of 7500 elects three non-NCC Councillors and there are four Federal Officials who never have faced a rank and file ballot for Federal Office but are self-perpetuating and vote for their own election by the utilisation of a collegiate system which many responsible unionists (and LiberalParty members) hoped had been banished for all time from the industrial scene.

To give you some examples of how this National Civic Council-dominated college denigrates democracy, I would set out the following facts:

1.   The Branch Council of my Branch in Queensland, which is the governing body of this Branch, recently by 13 votes to 1 removed a National Civic Council Federal Councillor and replaced her with a non-party person. She had been elected under the collegiate system and was removed by the collegiate system. The Federal President of the Union, Mr J. P. Maynes, who is also the National Vice President of the National Civic Council, ruled that the college could not remove her. Despite the wishes of the governing body of the Branch, she was allowed to vote and then to nominate to be a Vice President from the Branch against the wishes of the Branch. The Branch supported myself, a member of the Liberal Party, but the National Civic Council forces secured their maximum vote including the removed Councillor and including the four Officers and defeated my candidature.

2.   There are attempts by the Federal Office to take over the money and buildings owned by the Branch. Moves to achieve this were carried by twenty votes to 16. The twenty votes included the four officers and the removed delegate from the Central and Southern Queensland Branch. The remainder of the delegates (16 in number) who voted against the proposition represented about 67 per cent of the membership of the Union throughout Australia.

3.   Despite substantial attacks alleging politics in my Branch of the Union, it is the only Branch which has full time paid Officials who are members of the Liberal Party and the National Party. In each Branch controlled by the National Civic Council, which apparently has direct access to the Minister, there is no member of our Party or of the National Party in a full time paid position.

This may appear a harsh letter, but it is difficult for me as a Liberal to accept that this Government would secretly liaise with the National Civic Council when the Minister whilst in Queensland was too busy to talk to rae for any length of time. The few minutes I received from him would appear as crumbs from the rich man 's table. I wonder how many hours have been spent in discussions with Mr John Maynes and Mr Santamaria who, whilst being National Civic Council, are also, and this fact should never to forgotten, members of a labor party. I believe, Mr Atwell, that we were opposed to Labor in any of its forms, be it Democratic Labor, Socialist Labor or communist cum Labor and if I am wrong in my acceptance of this belief would you please inform me.

I trust that even at this late stage some sanity can prevail and this amendment, which I see as a complete negation of a promise we made to the people of this Nation, will be withdrawn.

With kindest regards, I remain Yours sincerely

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