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Government and Opposition responds to the CRA industrial dispute escalation

MONICA ATTARD: The dispute has provoked a lot of ducking and weaving in Canberra. Indeed, both the Government and the Opposition have tried to avoid committing themselves. Late this afternoon the Federal Government issued a statement urging Comalco to sit down with the ACTU and the unions to address the differences in pay within their workforce, differences that the Government has described as unconscionable. But, as Catherine Job reports, that statement is unlikely to be enough to satisfy the unions.

CATHERINE JOB: The ACTU could be forgiven today for fearing that the Government and the Opposition really aren't so far apart on this issue. Certainly today looked like a rare display of bipartisanship as both sides of politics did their level best to avoid answering questions about where they stood on industrial war that could spread across the country.

For the Government the potential embarrassment lies in having to admit that CRA is acting within the law, Labor's law, as it tries to lever the unions out of its workplaces. If it's not in accordance with the spirit and intent of Labor's industrial relations laws, then the Government must admit firstly that its laws are badly drafted and, secondly, whether or not it intends changing them. It would be a risky move so close to a Federal election to be seen to be altering the law to do favours for its union mates. Shadow Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Reith, summed up the issues as he sees them.

PETER REITH: The ACTU are complaining about individual contracts. The question for Mr Brereton is that individual contracts under his system are allowed. Does he publicly support his policy which is to allow those individual staff contracts or is he now going to walk away from that legal position? What exactly is Mr Brereton's position? Does he support these individual contracts which are allowed under his system? If he doesn't, what's he going to do about it? What exactly is his policy? Does he repudiate the previous statements from Labor that their policy is as it appears in the Federal legislation today? Is he now backing off on that statement? Does he now say that there will be Labor industrial relations policy released before the election? When will it be released before the election? Will it respond to the ACTU's claims and Mr Maitland and the CFMEU's claims?

CATHERINE JOB: Well, late this afternoon Laurie Brereton did respond, but in the most minimal possible manner, and in a way that certainly won't satisfy the unions. In a clear attempt to save face without having to answer those embarrassing questions, Mr Brereton seized upon an apparent olive branch from CRA management which acknowledged today that they were perhaps mistaken in allowing such a pay disparity within their workforce. He called on Comalco to sit down with the unions and the ACTU and correct the current differences in employees' pay at the Weipa mine. Mr Brereton also described as unconscionable the fact that workers seeking to operate within collective bargaining should be penalised by thousands of dollars a year.

But there was no mention in Mr Brereton's statement of whether CRA is acting within the laws he drafted. Nor, in Senate Question Time, did Gareth Evans, although he did tread a little closer to the fundamental question.

EXTRACT (Question Time)

GARETH EVANS: Mr President, I can only repeat, our concern would be if there was an exercise going on to actively deunionise a workforce, if there were pressure being mounted to sign away rights of collective bargaining. We are concerned that principles be maintained of collective bargaining. They've traditionally undermined our industrial relations system. We don't want to see them undermined in the future, and we don't want to see individual contracts being used to deunionise or discriminate against union members. It's a matter for judgement, obviously, whether or not those principles are in issue or are seriously at risk in this case. I'm just indicating very clearly what is the nature of our concern and the way in which we will respond to this situation as it unfolds.

CATHERINE JOB: But the Government's reluctance to say where it stands was matched by the Opposition's. Their refusal to be drawn stems from the ACTU's claim that CRA's actions epitomise the industrial landscape under a Coalition government.

JOHN HOWARD: I thought it was ... I thought we had a Federal Labor government and a State Labor government in Queensland. I thought all of this was happening under the Brereton regime. I thought it was all being done according to the Brereton book. This is happening under Labor legislation in accordance with the industrial relations principles and folklore of the Australian Labor Party.

Look, my criterion in industrial relations is the welfare of workers. When workers are made better off, I support it; when they're not, I oppose it. That's my principle and the principle that I will apply as prime minister of this country to industrial relations issues will be the welfare of workers, not the power structure of anybody in the community but the welfare of Australian workers will be my predominant consideration. And I think on this issue what is important above everything else - it's more important than CRA, it's more important than the ACTU - it is the welfare of Australian workers. And if you look for the welfare of Australian workers in this dispute and nothing else, you will get the right answer.

CATHERINE JOB: Mr Howard's Deputy, Peter Costello, was no more forthcoming.

PETER COSTELLO: Look, if there's a failure here and you want to nail somebody's legislation or nail some Minister, you'd better nail the guy that introduced the legislation, the guy that's running the system - L Brereton, ALP.

REPORTER: What is his fault in this case, though?

PETER COSTELLO: My point about CRA and the dispute is that I hope it's confined. I don't think it does anything good for Australia. But if you ask me to name the political party whose system this casts shadows on, it's got to be the one that's running it.

CATHERINE JOB: The unions won't be satisfied until they get commitments from the Government that it won't allow its laws to be used to deunionise the workplace - from CRA that it supports the crucial principle that people should get paid the same money for the same job, whether they're working under the award or on an individual contract, and from the Opposition that its promised safety net commitment to equal pay for equal work means what it says.

But most embarrassing of all for the Government today is the risk to one of their most potent electoral weapons against the Opposition, the spectre of unfettered industrial warfare under a Howard government. Having claimed for years that only they could have presided over a long period of unprecedented industrial harmony, the Government could now face the electorate during what the ACTU is promising will be the biggest industrial dispute this country has ever seen.

MONICA ATTARD: Catherine Job reporting there from Canberra.