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Friday, 3 December 1976
Page: 3235


Mr WILLIS (Gellibrand) -The Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Street) accused the Opposition of losing touch with reality. I suggest that his own statement, that the irresponsible action of a few trade union officials was preventing economic recovery in this country, shows how much out of touch with reality this Government has become. The fact is that, despite the Minister's protestations, in the period it has been in office this Government has engaged in a campaign of denigration and vilification of at least part of the trade union movement. In fact, when the Government talks about only a few people being involved, usually it is accusing the trade union movement of action which encompasses many more than just a few people. The Newport project dispute, to which I will come later, is a good example of that.

Firstly, let me say that even before this Government came to power its members ran a campaign of vilification against trade union officials. They concentrated on a few unions, such as the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, and said that the leaders were unrepresentative of their unions because they were elected by a very small proportion of the membership. The sheer cynicism of the action of Government members in that regard has been shown by what has happened this year. The Government, having provided for compulsory secret postal ballots for the election of union officials, found that that legislation had endangered the tenure of office of some ultra right wing officials. The Government then passed legislation to allow union officials to be elected by an amazingly small proportion of their union membership. For instance, approximately 0.02 per cent of the membership now can elect the officials of unions which decide to adopt the collegiate system. The sheer cynicism of the Government's action in this regard has been amply displayed.

Members of the Government Parties have blamed the union movement for various problems existing today. The Minister has mentioned some of them in this debate. For instance, in regard to the economy there is no doubt that the Government has tried to use the union movement as a whipping boy for its failure to get the economy going. We heard that claim from the Minister who preceded me. In regard to wage indexation, the Government, having broken its promise to support wage indexation, has attacked the trade union movement for not accepting a form of wage indexation which would mean drastic cuts in the real wage levels of workers. To expect the trade union movement to support drastic cuts in the real level of wages is absolutely absurd, particularly given the Government's initial promise. Yet, that is the line that the Government has pursued.

The same can be said with respect to strikes. The Government has tried to pretend that strikes have been so high that this has been a problem in regard to economic recovery in this country. The fact is that, with the exception of the various strikes on the Medibank issue, with which I will deal in a moment, the number of strikes in Australia this year has been extraordinarily low. In the first 7 months of this year, excluding Medibank strikes, the number of working days lost has been 56 per cent less than the number of working days lost last year. So, Medibank strikes excepted, there has been a much lower level of strike activity. The Government cannot blame that level of strike action for the problems that it has in regard to the economy.

It is true that strikes have been held on the Medibank issue. On one day, some 2 million working days were lost. Overall, the number of working days lost this year is slightly in excess of what it was in the period up to August last year. Nevertheless, the fact remains that only 4 per cent of all strikes have been politically motivated or motivated by sociological reasons such as environmental issues. The number of working days lost this year is only fractionally higher than the number lost last year. Let us put this into context and compare it with losses being caused to the economy through unemployment. If the Government were able to put another 100 000 people back to work it would have achieved 14 million extra working days in the course of the first 7 months of this year. As against that there have been 1.2 million working days lost through strikes apart from the Medibank strike. If we include the Medibank strike the figure is just over 3 million. That puts the losses to the economy into context. Losses to the economy from strikes are minor when compared with losses through unemployment.

Then the Government has blamed the unions for the destruction of particular industries, particularly the ship building industry. In its denigration it ignored the union's actions in relation to the shipbuilding industry and it continually ignored the basic problems which that industry is having internationally, such as the problems of low prices from the Japanese which are causing tremendous difficulties in the shipbuilding industry in Western Europe. It also ignores the paucity of new investment in the industry in this country and the fact that the industry is operating on a one off or two off basis all the time without specialisation. These factors are very important in relation to productivity but they get practically no mention from Ministers who discuss the shipbuilding industry in this country. Their whole emphasis is on eliminating strikes. In fact over the past year or so the unions have gone a long way towards eliminating strikes and stoppages in the shipbuilding industry. Demarcation disputes have virtually disappeared. Again the Government is using the unions as an excuse for problems that it has in that industry.

Denigrating union motives in other disputes such as the Newport power station dispute has also been popular with this Government. In fact the actions of the unions in placing bans on Newport have not resulted from the actions of a few. They have been the result of the action of a majority of delegates to the Trades Hall Council in Melbourne, not some small unrepresentative group of militants but a majority of the unionsjust a majority admittedly, but a majority. The Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) and the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations have said that the motivation of the unions is political. Patently that is untrue. The unions' motivation in this dispute has been utterly altruistic. Their motivation principally has been one of the environment but there are also other issues, as the honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Innes) mentioned, such as town planning and resources.

If we look at the environmental issues just briefly we can see why the unions are so concerned. There is a great amount of evidence about now regarding the poisonous level of the atmosphere in Melbourne. If we look at the history of the granting of the licence for the power station in Newport we can see that in fact the Government pressured the Environmental Protection Authority and the Appeals Board in a way which enabled the Newport power station to be given the okay. The fact is that after the first decision by the Environmental Protection Authority the State Electricity Commission appealed it. Because the limits set were too tight conservation bodies appealed it as well. When the matter went to the Environmental Protection Authority Appeal Board the Board increased the allowable limits for ozone in the atmosphere so that the power station could get a licence. To give the House an idea of the enormous increase, it provided a standard of 1 3 parts per 100 million for ozone in the atmosphere compared with 6 parts per 100 million laid down by the World Health Organisation and 8 parts per 100 million laid down by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. So there is no doubt that the Appeal Board lifted the standard to provide a licence for the power station because it was pressured very hard by the Victorian Government. Through those cases the State Electricity Commission said that it would build the station whatever happened at the inquiry.

Whilst those inquiries were going on the Victorian Government let contracts worth $100m relating to Newport despite the fact that it did not have environmental approval. Then it said that if the unions did not let the project go ahead $100m would be wasted. It is the fault of that government because it took quite precipitate action in letting those contracts before it had environmental approval.

The fact is that the Newport power station dispute is only representative of what is a developing trend in this country and the rest of the western capitalist world- that unions are increasingly concerned not only with straight industrial issues such as wages and conditions of employment but workers, through their unions, are becoming increasingly concerned about what they do with their labour. They want to be involved in management decision making and they are challenging managerial prerogatives. That is one very substantial development in worker participation. It is not just happening in this country but is happening right across the western capitalist world.

This raises the issue of whether we believe that workers should have the right, either individually or collectively, to withhold their labour from projects which they believe are contrary to the best interests of society. This Australian Government denies them that right, as indeed do all the conservative governments in this country. The Victorian Government denies it to the point where it has introduced and passed legislation which virtually amounts to civil conscription. It has said that workers who will not work on vital State projects, as it declares them, can be fined; that people who oppose such projects can be fined. This is a form of civil conscription. It is opposed strongly by the Labor movement, the Australian Labor Party and the Opposition in this Parliament. It goes totally against the evolving role of unions and extends beyond their conventional industrial issues. The answer to all this is to extend the role of unions to allow them to be involved in the planning process. No one wants this confrontation at the end after a decision has been made and investment has been made. The project then has to be blocked by union decision. It is better if workers are involved in the planning process at the very outset. That is proper worker participation in management and governments eventually will have to abide by it

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The honourable member's time has expired.







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