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ACTU wants abolition of secondary boycott provision in Trade Practices Act

PAUL MURPHY: The Shadow Minister, John Howard, is promising to fill every town hall in the country in a campaign to defeat a reform package put up by the Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Cook. Senator Cook hasn't yet outlined his package, but the ACTU Congress made it clear, this week, that the union movement wants legislation that would abolish the contentious secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act, providing immunity from common law action by employers. John Howard is spearheading a business campaign designed to put an end to legislation which he claims would put unions above the law. Well, John Howard is in our Sydney studio now, and to talk to him, our chief political correspondent, Maxine McKew.

MAXINE McKEW: Mr Howard, the ACTU, this week, stopped short of demanding explicit right to strike legislation. Why then, are you going all out to campaign against a reform package that is still not yet clear?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think I can discern from the hints and the so forth that's going on at the present time what is going to be in that reform package and if, of course, the Government turns out not to go ahead with it, then that will be all the better. But in 1987, they trotted out something that would have abolished common law actions against unions, would have taken the teeth out of 45D, and would have established a labour court which would effectively have given the unions a privileged position above the ordinary laws of this country. There was a strong campaign then by the business community and by the Opposition and the Government backed off. It's pretty clear they're contemplating bringing that back, and I'm getting in first. If the Bill turns out to be a fizzer or a non-event, well that's all the better. If, as I suspect, it isn't, then the campaign will be waged, and I make it quite clear, now, that we'll give it all the resources at our disposal.

MAXINE McKEW: Well, you're getting in first, but don't think your campaign really is doomed to fail, because the Democrats say they will back the Government when it comes to revising legal sanctions, say, against strike activity?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, the Democrats have a history of flexibility, I suppose one could say, along the way, with things like this, and I will have a talk to Senator Sowada, who's the new Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, and I would hope to put to her the argument that it is unacceptable that one section of the Australian community have a privileged, elite position, above and beyond the ordinary law, which is what this so-called reform package is all about. And I would expect the Democrats to take note of a strong united business campaign against the legislation, and I'm certain that there will be strong, united, uniform opposition from business organisations, large and small, against anything that gives the trade union movement a privileged position and gives it an elite protection that's not available to anybody else.

MAXINE McKEW: But if, on the other hand, the Democrats' present resolve holds and this legislation is passed in some form or other, would you, future in a Coalition government, repeal such legislation?

JOHN HOWARD: Absolutely.

MAXINE McKEW: And you'd be confident that you would have a mandate to do that? You don't think this would be buying into a great deal of social divisiveness?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't think I could be clearer, could I? I mean, a mandate is all about saying, after you've been elected, that people knew what they were voting for. I don't think there's any doubt in the world that in voting for us at the next election, you're voting for a clear, defined, alternative, radical industrial relations agenda. I couldn't think of a more immaculate, emphatic mandate on any issue.

MAXINE McKEW: Mr Howard, Senator Cook has made the point that Australia has to honour its obligations under international labour organisation conventions, and the ILO recently reported that Australian law was in breach of a convention on freedom of association. Do you disregard such international conventions?

JOHN HOWARD: No, what I say about that is two things. Firstly, that it is for the Australian people, and the Australian people alone, to decide what are the appropriate laws to apply within the borders of Australia and if, in fact, there is an inconsistency between the laws of Australia now, as determined by the Australian people and some convention of the ILO, well, perhaps, it's our association with that convention that needs revision and not the laws of Australia. The second point I'd make is that when I saw the Director General of the ILO, last week, in Canberra, I told him everything that I'm saying now. I told him of the views of the Liberal Party on this matter. Interestingly enough, in response, he said that he didn't really believe that if the present laws were maintained, or if any changes to them were repealed by a future Liberal Government, that that would be, to use his word, `create a crisis' in relations between Australia and the ILO. As far as I'm concerned, Senator Cook is using the missive from the ILO as a convenient smoke screen to try and justify a piece of legislation which delivers on yet another deal between his government and the union movement.

MAXINE McKEW: In fact, do you think Senator Cook may be having some doubts himself? We haven't seen the detail on this legislation.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I hope he is and, once again, that's a reason for getting into the field early and making it perfectly clear that if they do go ahead with this legislation to put unions above the law, they will have an almighty fight on their hands. And I do know from all the campaigning I've done on this issue over the years, that whilst people have no quarrel with mainstream trade unionists, and I don't, and they're not anti-union as such, they resent, bitterly, any suggestion that unions should have privileges denied to the rest of the community. And the sort of legislation I've talked about would do that, and all the posturing under the sun about ILO conventions and labour courts and so forth wouldn't alter the substance of what they're about.

MAXINE McKEW: Yes. Mr Howard, the language you use, `an almighty fight on one's hands' - in a more general sense, do you think that, given the conservatism of the electorate, are you beginning to have some doubts though, about the ability of the Coalition to sell what will be a very ambitious program of change?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that the Australian people want equality before the law. I mean, I couldn't think of a better classic Liberal issue than equality before the law. I mean, what I'm arguing for is that we should all be equal before the law. I would think, you know, there's a resonant sound to every Australian in the proposition that everybody should be equal before the law, and what they are on about with this is making us unequal before the law. I am the, you know, exponent of a classic Liberal proposition with that. I don't think the Australian public will find any difficulty in embracing it.

MAXINE McKEW: All right. Mr Howard, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much indeed.

PAUL MURPHY: John Howard was talking to Maxine McKew.