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ACTU and Opposition argue over industrial relations policies and the inflation problems of the Fraser Government

ELLEN FANNING: Bob Hawke and Paul Keating aren't the only ones with a taste for arguing political history at the moment. A debate on Australia's future between Bill Kelty and John Howard in Sydney last night, quickly became an argument about the recent and not-so recent policies of both the unions and the Coalition. Now, although their disagreements over industrial relations were predictably marked, the debate became almost bitter on an unexpected topic: the inflation problems of the Fraser Government.

Michael Carey was there for A.M.

BILL KELTY: John, you know we've had this debate year after year, ever since I've known you. Five elections and we've won them all; six elections will bring it on.

MIKE CAREY: The topic up for discussion at last night's Metal Trades Industry Association was 'What would make Australia great?', and it should be noted that both Mr Howard and Mr Kelty agreed that whatever its problems, the country already is great. It should be noted because apart from us not being the arse end of anywhere, there wasn't much else that they did agree on.

Firstly, and most obviously, there was the industrial relations system with Mr Kelty linking Australia's social values with the award system.

BILL KELTY: Whilst we've had some quarrels with it, some arguments with it, we think it's a fundamentally decent show. We believe that the Industrial Relations Commission should be maintained, that the award system should be maintained and collective bargaining should be a right. We believe that more authority should be given to the workplace, but we don't believe that it should be at the expense of destroying the award system. We don't think it should be at the expense of destroying collective bargaining, and we don't think it should be at the expense of destroying the Industrial Relations Commission.

MIKE CAREY: John Howard denied he was seeking to destroy anything, except limits on choice.

JOHN HOWARD: And where people, for example, to this day are denied access to voluntary redundancies in bodies like Telecom and Australia Post unless they are members of unions, and people being told 'Yes, you can have access to the voluntary redundancy, provided you pay 10 years back union dues'. Now, I don't regard that as decent - to use an expression you use very frequently. They're the sort of things we object to.

MIKE CAREY: But there was more than recent history at stake. With Mr Kelty taking a particular swipe at his opponent's one-time tenure as Malcolm Fraser's Treasurer, saying he'd laughed off warnings of unemployment skyrocketing.

BILL KELTY: You left us, John, with a rate of inflation that it took us a hell of a long time to get down and a great number of concessions to get down. It left us with a legacy of inflation of over 11 per cent, and it left us with unemployment of over 10 per cent, which we had to make sacrifices to get it down.

MIKE CAREY: Mr Howard's response:

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, inflation, I know what the figures were in March 1983. It was a lousy time politically to have an election, I can tell you that.

MIKE CAREY: And although he welcomed the present levels of low inflation, he argued that the recession's role was hardly to be celebrated.

JOHN HOWARD: And in the words of that very gifted journalist, Peter Smark, Australia's low inflation, post the recession, is proof of the proposition that dead men are rarely troubled by high blood pressure.