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Speech by the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Hon Bob McMullan

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Speech by the

Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations Hon Bob McMullan

at the

The Lawson Institute


Perth, 10 August 1996

I thank the Lawson Institute for providing me with the

opportunity to address this most important forum.

It is opportune that I be given the chance to present some ideas

about where we should be going in industrial relations in the

longer term. As you would know much of my time at present is

devoted to the necessary, but essentially short-term, task of

opposing the Government’s Workplace Relations Bill. I

welcome the opportunity to make a rather more positive

contribution to the debate - to discuss a better vision for our

future, and to contrast it with the bleak vision for working men

and women which the Workplace Relations Bill presents.

I want today to outline the three phases in the evolution of the

development of new industrial relations policy for a future Labor


The first phase is dominated by response to the Government's

legislative agenda as reflected in the Workplace Relations Bill

and the prospects for future legislation as reflected in the

Productivity Commission Report.

The second phase is a listening phase. Listening to workers, to

workplace delegates, to the governing bodies of the major

unions, to the ACTU; listening to employer organisations and to

employers generally; and consulting with independent

commentators, academics and others.

During this time we will be developing a consultative

framework for our immediate purposes while in Opposition, a

framework which should also serve as the basis for the

relationship between the party and the trade union movement for

a future Labor Government.

This listening phase, this consultative phase will be an important

part of the process of building on the successes of our last 13

years and learning from our mistakes. It will be important in the

necessary task of keeping our feet firmly on the ground. It will

also be important for the development of policy and in ensuring

that the initiatives we propose reflect the interests and

aspirations of ordinary working people struggling to make a

living and raise a family.

The third phase will be the new policy phase and I am happy to

outline some of the general directions of that new policy and

some specific issues which will require attention within it.

Of course much of the detail of new policy will depend upon the

outcome of the consideration of the Workplace Relations Bill by

the Senate and the response of the Government to that outcome..

The final form of the Workplace Relations Act will obviously

have an influence on the policy which we develop in Opposition

and bring to Government. Put simply, the question will be how

much of the egg has been scrambled, and how much of it we are

able to unscramble. Much of the detail of our policy

development will also depend on the outcome of the listening

and consultation phases which are under way at the moment.

Equally obviously, the three phases I outlined earlier are not

entirely distinct. Consultation and the development of new

policy are reflected in our response to Workplace Relations Bill

and we are thinking about and developing the outlines of new

policy right through the listening and consultation process.

However, sequentially, the first dominant influence has been the

question of our overall response to the legislation. You all know

the situation too well for me to have to discuss our response in

detail, but let me indicate the principles which are serving as the

basis of our parliamentary response to the legislation.

While we recognise that international pressures make it

inevitable that workplaces will continue to change, we are

determined to pursue the unique Australian experiment of

developing the necessary flexibility while retaining our

traditional Australian commitment to fairness. Our commitment

is to seek to ensure that ordinary men and women in their

offices, factories, construction sites and other workplaces around

the country as they endure the pressure of continuing change

receive adequate return for their effort and a fair share of the

benefits which flow from the process of change.

This leads us to confront the Bill and its attack on the three

pillars of traditional Australian industrial relations policy which

have defended and enhanced the living standards of workers

over the years.

The Bill attacks the role of the Industrial Relations Commission

in setting standards, in reviewing workplace agreements and in

arbitrating major disputes.

Secondly, the Bill weakens the importance of the awards system,

not just for setting bare minimum standards but as the basis for

secure and relevant standards of working conditions which

govern many workplaces and set the basis for enterprise

bargaining in others.

Thirdly, the Bill undermines the right of employees to organise

at their workplace and to make that organisation effective

without the threat of crippling sanctions.

The Bill attacks these three pillars and as a consequence it will

inevitably lead to declining living standards for workers overall.

Not necessarily for every worker in every workplace. Some of

the best organised might be able to take advantage of the

changes in this legislation, or succeed in spite of them, but for

workers overall, it will inevitably lead to a decline in wages and



This brings me to the issue of the directions of our new policy.

The distinguishing characteristics of our policies in contrast to

those of the present Government will be:

- our commitment to balancing the requirement for fairness

with the need for efficiency;

- our commitment to consultation rather than confrontation;

- our commitment to j ob security and j ob creation;

- our commitment to security of wages and conditions; and

- our commitment to managing the continuing change that

globalisation will impose upon Australia with fairness

and flexibility.

We will seek to achieve these commitments by focusing again

on the three pillars of traditional Australian industrial relations

policy. This certainly does not mean we will simply return the

system to its March 1996 form. Rather, we will take into

account the changed circumstances of the country - economic,

and social as well as industrial - and adapt the three pillars to

those circumstances.

I want to take this opportunity to discuss in more detail an issue

which is coming to the forefront in all our consultations; an

issue which will certainly be one of continuing importance in the

future of Australian industrial relations. I refer to the issue of

working hours.

The statistics show that there is a significant trend occurring in

relation to working hours; namely, Australians in full-time

employment are tending to work longer hours per week, and in

an increasing number of cases, in the form of unpaid overtime.

ABS statistics show that in June 1996 full-time employees

worked on average 42.7 hours each week. They also show that

in August 1995 some 36% of employees worked overtime on a

regular basis, up from 33% in August 1993. Moreover, of those

employees who worked overtime some 35% did so on an unpaid


In an era in which there are high levels of unemployment and

high levels of underemployment this is an issue which must be

addressed. By underemployment I of course refer to those

employees who are in part-time jobs but would prefer to work

more hours. The ABS statistics here show us that in June 1996

just under 25% of employees who worked part-time would have

preferred to work more hours. Indeed, almost half of these had

actually looked for full-time work in the previous month but had

been unable to find it.


Based on these statistics and the observable trends, it is easy to

mount a case that there is increasing inequity in the distribution

of work and work opportunities in Australia. In short, it is

fundamentally unfair that many Australians are seeking work or

more work at a time when an increasing number of Australians

with a job are working longer hours.

For the future, and especially for a future Labor Government,

this is an issue which will require attention.

It is an issue which is likely to become even more pressing as

the identifiable trends which have occurred under the Western

Australian Government's industrial relations reforms are

repeated under the Federal Government's Workplace Relations

Bill. The June 1996 Summary of Statistics by the Western

Australian Commissioner of Workplace Agreements show that

50.5% of employees who have moved onto a Workplace

Agreement now work longer hours than those contained in the

applicable award.

This confirmed the conclusions of a report prepared in February

1996 for the Western Australian Trades and Labor Council by

the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and

Training. Their study of 25 workplace agreements in Western

Australia showed that in a large number of these, especially in

the retail, hospitality and cleaning industries, the working week

was lengthened, for example from 38 hours per week to 40 and

in some cases 42 hours per week.

The very short message is that the emphasis of the Workplace

Relations Bill on workplace bargaining is likely to exacerbate

the existing trend towards increasing hours of work for those in

work. The adverse consequences for the unemployed and

underemployed are all too obvious.

The question then is how this problem may be addressed by a

future Labor Government. It is interesting to note that the

ACTU in its "living wage" claim has flagged the review of

working hours as part of the third stage of the claim. I have also

read with interest that in response to rising unemployment in

Germany the German metal workers union, IG Metal, recently

promoted the redistribution of available work as an industrial


This is an issue which the next Labor Government will need to

address. The nature of the broad commitments I have outlined

above suggest that a Labor Government would be uniquely well

placed to do so.

It is a complex issue whose resolution depends upon:

- a commitment to consultation

- a recognition of the need to balance flexibility with


- a concern for social as well as economic consequences of


- a recognition of the importance of maintaining security

while embracing change.

The fair distribution of work could well be the equity issue of

the twenty first century. Together with the related issues of

security of work and of working conditions in the face of

change, it will be a key challenge for progressive governments

into the twenty first century.

It is a challenge we must show we can meet if we wish to be

elected. It is a challenge we must meet if we are elected.