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Tuesday, 26 May 1987
Page: 3311

Mr WILLIS (Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations)(3.18) —The speech we have just heard from the Opposition shadow spokesman for employment and industrial relations, the honourable member for Tangney (Mr Shack), typifies what this Opposition is about. The Opposition is extraordinarily long on rhetoric and very short on substance and logic. The fundamental problem which Opposition spokesmen have in talking in this House about industrial relations is that they start from the position of great failure when they were in government and the fact that, since this Government has been in office, there has been a dramatic improvement in the level of industrial relations.

The last thing that this Government needs is lectures from members of the Opposition on how we should run industrial relations in this country because, unlike them, we have been able to provide a greatly improved industrial relations framework and to dramatically lower the level of industrial disputation so that the amount of time lost per person employed has in fact dropped by 60 per cent in the four years of the Hawke Government compared to the amount of time loss experienced under the Fraser Government in its seven years in office. A 60 per cent reduction in the level of industrial disputation is a very substantial reduction in anyone's book. Quite clearly, that has come about because this Government actually knows something about industrial relations, is able to handle industrial relations well and is able not to fall into the hopeless mire of industrial relations as the previous Government did when it stumbled through all sorts of confrontationist approaches and pieces of legislation over which it beat its chest as it introduced them, waved them around and then applied them to no effect or improvement in the industrial relations situation in this country. That proved that, if we want good industrial relations, it helps enormously if we know something about it. This Opposition, by its performance in opposition and by its performance in government, shows quite clearly that it has no idea how to run industrial relations, what kind of environment to provide or what kind of approach to take to individual disputes or to the overall framework. That is the basic problem the Opposition has-total lack of credibility in the area of industrial relations. The converse of that is that this Government has enormous credibility because it has been able to demonstrate an enormous improvement in the level of industrial disputation-a 60 per cent reduction. It cannot be argued that that has been achieved by buying off the unions, by providing some kind of easy access to unions to get much more out of the system than before.

The reality is that the level of wage increase per annum under this Government has been well below the level of wage increase which occurred under the previous Government. Under the previous Government, the Fraser Government, the per annum rate of wage increase was 11 per cent; under this Government the per annum rate of wage increase has been 7 per cent. So there has been a very substantial reduction in the level of wage outcomes at the same time as a 60 per cent reduction has been made in the level of industrial disputation. Yet honourable members opposite have the audacity and the effrontery to seek to lecture us about how to run good industrial relations in this country. Can anyone take seriously an opposition which has that kind of effrontery? Obviously, we cannot. The speech of the honourable member for Tangney showed how hopelessly lacking in substance honourable members opposite are. All we heard from the honourable member was a multitude of cliches and flowery rhetoric about how this Government was caving in to union power and providing unions with the basis upon which they could trample over the rights of everyone else-blissfully ignoring the fact that the record of the four years we have been in government shows completely and totally that that rhetoric is not applicable to the real situation. Honourable members opposite have no credibility.

The real situation is that this Government has brought about that improvement in industrial relations because it has given industrial relations an extremely high priority. Rather than working up some ridiculous industrial relations policy in isolation, the way the present Opposition is doing this Government worked up an effective industrial relations policy before it came to office, a policy encompassed in the prices and incomes accord. Therefore, when it came to office the Government was well armed to apply a policy which would work. Of course, it was rubbished by the previous Government, the now Opposition. The reality is that the policy did work. It provided a basis for a co-operative approach from trade unions, and we have shown that co-operation rather than confrontation can result in a very substantial reduction in the level of industrial disputation.

What we have done with that improvement is to say, `Very well, we are very pleased about that', but we do not say by any means that that is the end of the line. Indeed, we are very concerned to try to overcome the various deficiencies which still exist in the system and further improve on our record. That is what the Industrial Relations Bill which I introduced on the last day of the previous sitting period and debate on which has been postponed until the next session of Parliament, is about. It is about making further improvements in the industrial relations situation. Of course, the last thing that a government which has come into office determined to greatly improve on industrial relations outcomes in this country will do is introduce a Bill which will throw all those gains to the wind and cave in to unions, allowing them to run riot all over the country in the way that the honourable member for Tangney asserted was the case. That is a nonsense proposition which has no basis in any realistic assessment of the facts.

The Industrial Relations Bill, which will be debated in this Parliament at a later date, provides a very substantial basis for improvement in the industrial relations framework because it addresses the basis framework. Most industrial disputes are not resolved by the Trade Practices Act; they are resolved by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission at the Federal level and by the State industrial commissions. The vast majority of disputes are reported to, and resolved by, those arbitral bodies. The framework that we seek to implement is designed to enable a more efficient resolution of those disputes and to redress some of the weaknesses that have developed. I do not think it is appropriate to go into a substantial outline of what is in the Bill, as that has been done already. In our view a fundamental aspect of that improvement is the need for the Arbitration Commission to have some restoration of its authority.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) -Order! I do not think the Minister can anticipate discussion on legislation.

Mr WILLIS —I am not going into any detail on the debate; I am talking in general terms. I simply make the point that there is a need for improvement in the authority of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and the Bill is designed to bring about that improvement. I will not go into any detail as to how that will be achieved. That is the fundamental way in which we believe, along with many other changes brought about by this Bill, we can make further gains in industrial relations.

In addition, we have brought about an attitudinal change, that is, a change of attitude by the parties, by the union movement as a whole. The unions are now infinitely more prepared to take a co-operative approach and to bear in mind the economic consequences of their actions. They are prepared to co-operate with the Government to achieve responsible wage outcomes in a way that was simply unknown under the previous Government. Those attitudinal changes, along with the institutional framework changes, are extremely important in ensuring better outcomes in the future than were achieved in the past. We have brought about those attitudinal changes-they are in place. The framework changes will be brought in with the passage of this Bill through the Parliament.

It is in that context that we are debating the Trade Practices Act. The Opposition asserts that this is some wonderous piece of legislation that is crucial to good industrial relations outcomes. Let me say that it has been in place for about a decade, and during those years 129 cases involving trade unions have been taken to court under sections 45d and 45e of the Trade Practices Act and 64 injunctions have been issued. That is an average of about 13 cases and six injunctions a year. Thus we see that we are talking about a very minute proportion of the disputes that occur every year being affected by this legislation. Of course, that is not to say that some of those disputes are not important; they are important, but they make up a very small proportion of the total number of disputes. That puts the issue in context.

It is a nonsense to suggest that the Trade Practices Act is the be all and end all of the industrial relations system in this country. It impacts on a very small proportion of total disputes. However, it is not just a matter of saying: `We have the Trade Practices Act and, therefore, the Government must keep it. We condemn the Government for its efforts to get rid of it'. The Government is not getting rid of the legislation. Anyone who listened to the address of the previous speaker would believe that this Government is abandoning sections 45d and 45e.

Mr Spender —It is neutering those sections, and it knows it is neutering them.

Mr WILLIS —That is not what is proposed, and the honourable member knows it. There is no change to the remedies available under sections 45d and 45e.

Mr Spender —You don't understand what you are talking about.

Mr WILLIS —I understand very well; I know much more, apparently, than the honourable member knows. The honourable member knows nothing about it. Sections 45d and 45e continue to apply, with the remedies unchanged. All that is changed is access to those remedies. Cases must go to the Arbitration Commission prior to going before the Labour Court to obtain an injunction.

Mr Spender —That's right-while you bleed to death.

Mr WILLIS —It is interesting to note the accusations by members opposite about bleeding to death and so on. Let me point out a couple of facts. First, most employers, when hit by a secondary boycott-and this is the action that is primarily affected by the Trade Practices Act-do not rush into court on the same day. They try to negotiate a resolution of that action, and they seek to do that by negotiation. Often, the case is before the Industrial Commission because it is an industrial matter. The primary dispute of which the secondary boycott is a facet, is being dealt with before the Industrial Commission in any case.

The reality is that the average time taken by employers who actually file applications for injunctions under sections 45d and 45e is about two to three weeks-that is between the application of the ban and the action being taken to court. Employers do not rush into court; they seek to resolve the dispute. Of course, without traversing the detail of the legislation, I simply say that what we are doing--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I believe, from what the Minister said, that it is intended that the matter will not be introduced this week; so I consider that the anticipation rule does not apply. The Minister may canvass the matter.

Mr WILLIS —I did not intend to go into detail. We sought to provide a process of conciliation in the Commission and, if the Commission could not conciliate the matter, to provide access to the court for seeking an injunction. Given the fact that employers almost invariably do not rush into court anyway but seek to negotiate a resolution of the matter, this legislation provides a process by which to attempt to reconcile the matter in the Commission and, in effect, it formalises what, in practical reality, happens today anyway in the vast majority of cases where employers try to resolve the dispute by negotiation. It provides also that, if the matter comes before the Commission and the Commission believes that a substantial injustice would be done to an employer if an injunction could not be obtained immediately, under this process the injunction could be obtained immediately and he could have a fast track into the court. Surely that is a sensible approach. The legislation should not clobber the daylights out of the union, but should resolve the action and get the secondary boycott removed. This legislation formalises the negotiation process and provides, in extreme cases, a fast track into court where an injunction process would seem to be the only way to resolve the matter. That is a sensible course of action.

I believe that this legislation would be seen by any reasonable person to be appropriate, but the Opposition has jumped up and down and said that it is totally unfair on the employers. I totally refute that statement. I believe that the actions that this Government has taken in relation to this aspect of the Bill, which will be debated in this House on a subsequent date, when put into practice will demonstrate quite clearly that it is an appropriate course to adopt and that any employers who are really being hurt will not be denied access to injunctions when they need it. Sections 45d and 45e of the Trade Practices Act will not be removed: they remain in the legislation. The remedies are unchanged. The comments made by the honourable member for Tangney in relation to unions being put above the law are an absolute nonsense.