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Employment law in your workplace': speech at the IIR conference, Sydney

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Speech by the

Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Bob McMullan

at the

HR Conference - "Employment Law in your Workplace"

Sydney, 16 February 1998

I welcome the opportunity this conference presents to reflect on

the direction of industrial relations under this government, and

on possible future reforms - the necessity for a so-called 'second


It is clear to me, as I'm sure it is clear to you, that the two issues

are inextricably linked.

In the context of the nature and shape of Australia's industrial

relations system this interconnection is obvious. In order to

have a sensible debate about the future shape of our industrial

relations institutions - like the role of the Commission and the

balance between enterprise bargaining and the award system - it

is essential to reflect on and make considered judgements about

the value or otherwise of the existing system, and about the

effects the system is having on the day-to-day lives of

Australians and on their families and the wider community.

Under a decent Government, which has as its highest priority

good policy making, and the national interest, such

considerations will always be paramount.

What I want to emphasise today is that there is a second, more

insidious link, between the existing shape of the industrial

relations system and possible future reforms.

The partisan interests of the Government, rather than the

national interest of Australia.

The direction of industrial relations in Australia today is being

driven by these political considerations.

The direction of any future reforms will also be determined

primarily by an assessment of the political interests of the

Government and the Minister.

There has never been a Minister for Industrial Relations who

looked so exclusively at the political management of industrial

relations rather than concentrating on improved industrial

relations outcomes.

I only hope this doesn't come as too rude a shock to you

industrial relations practitioners who believed, or at- least hoped,

that considerations of good policy, rather than good politics,

would win the day.

For evidence in support of my contention you need go no further

than the industrial problems that are occurring on the waterfront

in Melbourne.

In the public presentation of industrial relations this remains the

most prominent issue of the day. This is so for two obvious, and

related, reasons.

First, the media have taken a view, as we all knew they would,

that stories about waterfront war make good copy. Mystery

financiers, riot shields, exotic Middle East locations all make for

a 'good yam', as they say. The only thing missing is an element

of sex - and if the press keeps digging they're bound to find even

that at some stage.

But the second reason the waterfront dispute is gaining so much

attention is that the Government sees good politics in the

dispute. We in the Opposition are in no doubt that the

Government has played some part in orchestrating the events

that are unfolding on Webb Dock. Only a political novice

would believe for a minute that Peter Reith, John Sharp and co.

blindly stumbled along in the dark as such significant

developments were taking shape under their very noses -

particularly developments they regard as fortuitous in political


Events are unfolding as the Government would wish, according

to the timetable the Government desires, and yet we are

supposed to believe that the Government hasn't discussed this

issue with any of their friends who are implementing the various


And in any event the evidence is building up against them on

that matter - as leaked Departmental documents and secret

reports by consultants demonstrate.

You don't need me to explain why the Government believes an

on-going dispute on the waterfront is good politics for them.

What is more important is that this belief is driving the

Government's approach to the issue - to the detriment of good

relations on the waterfront, to the detriment of the national

interest, and to the detriment of the many other important

industrial relations issues that are actually affecting working

men and women across Australia.

There can be no doubt that the manner in which this dispute on

the waterfront is being pursued by the Government and by their

employer allies will do long term damage to industrial relations

on the waterfront. There was no better example of this than

comments made by Peter Reith on the 7.30 Report last

Wednesday. Peter Reith was asked directly by Kerry O'Brien

whether he approved of Chris Corrigan lying to his workers.

His answer was this: "It's completely irrelevant and you know

it's absolutely irrelevant".

You would be hard pressed to find an example of a previous

Minister for Industrial Relations in this country making a more

extraordinary or irresponsible comment.

When you spend as much time as me listening and watching

Peter Reith I'm afraid this grade of comment no longer comes as

a surprise.

What did come as a surprise however, even to me, was the

overwhelming hypocrisy of Mr Keith's comments. Why?

Because the comment is completely at odds with the whole

philosophy that Peter Reith professes underlies his approach to

industrial relations. I just want to remind you of a couple of

things Peter Reith said in introducing the Workplace Relations

Bill into the House of Representatives:

"The principal object o f the Workplace Relations Act expresses

our intention to establish a framework for cooperative

workplace relations . . . our legislation puts the emphasis on

direct workplace relations, and on the mutual interest o f

employer and employee in the success and prosperity o f the

enterprise. "

How does this square with the view that an employer lying to his

workforce is irrelevant? How does this engender cooperation?

How can this lead to the informed pursuit of mutual interest?

It doesn't, and it can't.

Peter Reith has proved by his own words the triumph of politics

over policy - even over the policy he has espoused. For him it is

more important to pursue the politics of the waterfront dispute -

the politics of war with the wharfies - than it is to pursue his

own self-proclaimed policy - the policy of cooperation and

mutual interest.

There is another passage in Peter Keith's Second Reading

Speech which shows this even more starkly:

"The Bill I introduce today represents a break with a system o f

industrial relations that has been based on a view that conflict

between employer and employee is fundamental to the

relationship and that an adversarial process o f resolving

disputes is appropriate and inevitable."

The approach Peter Reith and his employer allies "are taking on

the waterfront actively seeks to create conflict between

employer and employee. And it inevitably will cause the

dispute to be resolved by an adversarial process.

For fans of Dr Who, the agenda seems to be that of the Dahleks

who knew only one strategy: 'Exterminate'.

The Peter Reith approach to industrial relations is one

characterised by conflict and adversarial process. It has reared

its ugly head in Cairns, in Dubai and in the Hunter Valley. Peter

Reith knows this sort of approach is against the national interest.

His own rhetoric has asserted as much.

And yet, when given a chance he always supports the most

militant employers, whatever their tactics.

But Peter Reith believes the politics of division are good for the

Government, and probably good for him in his on-going ann

wrestle with Peter Costello.

One of the victims of this sort of approach is good policy.

The other is the lives of working men and women across

Australia as they deal with the serious industrial relations issues

that are affecting their lives every day.

To my mind the most important industrial relations issues today

are not being fought out in the war on the waterfront or the

troubles in the coal mines. These don't actually have a direct

affect on most Australian workers as they go about their daily


The most important issues are to be found in the realities of

working life today:

- the trend to longer working hours and 12 hour shifts;

- the overwork/underwork paradox under which those who

are in work are working longer and longer hours while too

many others cannot find any, or sufficient work;

- rising stress and insecurity in the workplace;

- the growth in causal, precarious and contingent


- the plight of workers 45 and over who are retrenched; and

- the security of workers entitlements in circumstances of

corporate collapse.

These are the issues that good policy-making in industrial

relations should be addressing. These are the issues that should

be receiving an ever-increasing share of media attention.

But Peter Reith is not addressing these issues. Recent events in

Grafton and Cobar provide ample evidence of this. In each of

these places workers are owed substantial amounts of money for

redundancy payments, long service leave and holiday pay, in

circumstances where their employer is facing corporate collapse

and appears to have made no satisfactory arrangements to meet

their legal obligations.

Yet Peter Reith has not lifted a finger to assist either in the

specific circumstances of each case, or even to examine the law

to ensure that workers in future will not be deprived of their

legal entitlements in these sorts of situations.

Why won't Peter Reith act on these issues when he is so keen to

act on the wharfs and in the coal mines? Because Mr Reith

believes - and he is undoubtedly correct - that the politics of

these issues are not good for him or for the Government. And

because Mr Reith knows - and again he is clearly correct - that

the industrial relations system he has put in place certainly will

not address these ever-growing problems, and probably will

exacerbate them.

At this point I can conveniently return to the point I made at the

outset - the direction of any future industrial relations reforms

will be determined primarily by the Howard Government's

assessment of party political advantage. For Peter Reith this

means a continuing debate around issues like the waterfront and

the coal mines. This means a debate about unions, the utility of

court-backed sanctions against industrial action, and the role of

the Industrial Relations Commission in resolving industrial


For Peter Reith, his assessment of the Government's interests

and his interests in his contest with Peter Costello will dictate

the issues which become the focus of his proposed second wave.

In my view this is a tragedy for this country. Good policy

dictates that issues such as longer working hours, and rising

stress and insecurity at the workplace - the issues that are

impacting on Australian workers today - should be the

centrepiece of the next major change in industrial relations.

That's what we in the Opposition will be focusing on. That's

what any decent Government should be focusing on.

But we shouldn't hold our breath.