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Senate committee to inquire into implications of New Zealand shearers working in Australia; ACT politician refuses overseas trip due to pressure of work

JENNY HUTCHISON: Throughout the year, concern has been expressed about the movement across the Tasman of Australian and New Zealand shearers, and there have been allegations about shearers being so desperate for work that they are willing to accept under-award wages and conditions. So the Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, Bryant Burns, proposed his committee inquire into the employment of visitors to Australia in the shearing industry, looking at not only industrial relations, taxation and immigration matters, but also the social and economic implications for rural communities. Opposition Senators unsuccessfully labelled this a waste of Senate resources which could be seen as a Kiwi-bashing exercise. But support from the Australian Democrats ensured Upper House backing for the inquiry, the aims of which are explained by Senator Burns.

BRYANT BURNS: Now there have been allegations and there continue to be allegations made that Australian workers in the shearing industry are severely disadvantaged by itinerant workers from New Zealand who are able to take advantage of trans-Tasman travel arrangements, and under-cut existing working and award conditions. The result, they say, is that many locally based shearers who depend on local shearing and contracts as their main source of income, are now without work at a time when work opportunities in many industries, are shrinking. This has caused a great deal of disruption and bad blood in many rural communities, even to the point of causing fights and brawls between Australian and New Zealand workers.

There is some evidence of widespread disregard for award conditions by graziers and shearing contractors who have little or no regard for local workers and who appear to have deliberately set on a path of breaking down hard-won conditions and wages of Australian shearers. On the other hand, graziers in the community are saying that very unreasonable terms are contained in the award - they wish to have weekend shearing - and a number of other measures which they believe are proper and reasonable, so we have this controversy between the two groups. And that should be addressed and the truth should be made public. Both Australia and New Zealand economies have undergone substantial changes, and New Zealand's new industrial relations laws and new consumption tax laws are the two key examples which now provide a very different climate than that which existed when the trans-Tasman travel arrangements and Closer Economic Relations were signed. And it is necessary for us to consider these important treaties again in the light of how they affect job opportunities and conditions in Australian industries.

Claims have been made that small businesses are failing in the bush because these workers quickly move on or return to New Zealand, taking much needed income out of the district. Mr President, the terms of reference were very carefully crafted in terms of providing a focus, but at the same time, giving an opportunity for those people who would give evidence to the committee, those people who show an interest, would have an opportunity to put forward a point of view upon which the committee would make a recommendation to the Parliament. I must say that it is not at all, in any way, an exercise in Kiwi-bashing which people might believe is the case. Everyone in the industry, and again I say to those people who are interested, will have an opportunity to come before the committee and give their point of view, whereupon an objective view will then be expressed by the committee.

I would suggest that there are people who believe that there will be a result which will show one side or the other in this argument up in a particularly good or bad light. They may very well get a shock, but I know from personal discussions with people from the AWU, that they are prepared to accept the findings of the committee of spots, bumps and all, and I would ask those people in the rural community, in the wool-growing industry, to accept it in the same spirit. I would ask those people in the Opposition to consider the remarks that I have made and that I certainly want to see a result which will be beneficial generally to the Australian community.

JENNY HUTCHISON: People like to Canberra bash, but it is not always deserved. Local politicians are showing a degree of responsibility rare amongst MPs - they are refusing to go on overseas junkets. Jim Trail reports.

JIM TRAIL: Ah, the Bahamas - palm trees, steel drums, panama hats and long cool drinks, an idyllic setting for the meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, just the thing after a long Canberra winter, a chance to soak up some sun while talking shop, would surely be too much for most politicians to pass up, but not it would seem, for the Speaker of the ACT Legislative Assembly, Roberta McRae.

ROBERTA McRAE: It was a very big temptation, I can assure you, because this time of the year, especially with the rain, it would have been lovely to be somewhere else, but when I added it all up, there were just too many things here that were responsibilities that were mine, and so I felt it was more important to stay here than to go.

JIM TRAIL: Some of your colleagues have been trying to change your mind though, haven't they?

ROBERTA McRAE: Oh yes. I mean, it is all adding up to where we fit in with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and whether we should be playing a more active role, and you know, partly too, I think they were wanting to show that they had a woman as a Speaker and this was my big opportunity to be seen and to be part of that group. But even with all of that, I thought what was happening here prevented my going.

JIM TRAIL: Perhaps some of your colleagues who have been encouraging you to go are worried that maybe you are setting a dangerous precedent by staying at home.

ROBERTA McRAE: It is always the worry, isn't it, because the type of work that we undertake and the day-to-day intensity of the political process, particularly in the ACT where we live here and work here, you know, where our electorate is the same place as our work-place. It does make it very attractive to sort of go right away for a little while. So I think if we cut them out completely people would begin to worry, yes.

JIM TRAIL: Will the ACT Legislative Assembly be represented over there, at all?

ROBERTA McRAE: Not at this conference, but they do have others. This is their big annual conference and it was set in the Bahamas because it is quincentennial celebration of Columbus's visit, so it was in part to sort of celebrate that and be part of that international celebration of his discoveries. So that was the reason for holding it there and that was why it would have been very exciting to be there, as well, but there are other conferences usually at a smaller rate during the year. There was one earlier in New Guinea; there is one coming up I think in Tasmania, so there are other places where I could meet people and be part of the Association.

JIM TRAIL: How valuable do you think the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is?

ROBERTA McRAE: Well, from my limited experience with it, I have met some of the participants at the Clerks' Conference that I went to earlier in the year. I think that there is a lot in it, particularly for newcomers like me, to see how different parliaments have settled in, to talk about the same problems that everybody faces but in such entirely different circumstances. I mean, the Cook Islands and the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and the other countries that participate, all have quite different problems and so it is very interesting to come back to saying, 'Well, we are all parliaments but how do we tackle those problems?' To that extent, I think it is very important and they have as much to give us as you know, the more established parliaments have to give them.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The Speaker of the ACT Legislative Assembly, Roberta McRae, talking to Jim Trail. A team of five federal MPs led by the Senate President, will however be going to the Bahamas, as will any number of State MPs. And for those politicians who are missing out on such overseas delights, at least there is the football - wonder how many just had to be in Sydney or Melbourne.

Next week - how useful are estimates committees?