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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2234

Senator COOK(4.11) —We have just heard an ideological barrage from the Opposition. While we are commenting on the report of the Committee of Review of the Australian Industrial Relations Law and Systems, perhaps I should say one thing about what is being said opposite; that is, that industrial disputation in this country is at a 17-year record low because of the policies of this Government. The latest statistic I can give honourable senators is that figures for working days lost to industrial disputes for the 12 months to February 1985 compared with those for the 12 months to February 1984 show a further reduction of 8.8 per cent. However, in the State for which the honourable senator opposite, Senator Messner, would hold a greater ideological allegiance, namely Queensland, they show an increase in industrial disputation-for February to February, before the latest unpleasantness broke out-of 184.1 per cent. In those figures is embodied the contrast between the two approaches-the approach being espoused by the Opposition, which is one of dispute, dispute, dispute, and the approach being espoused by the Government, which is one of harmony, consensus and an improving economy.

I am pleased to see that this Committee looked at all the possible alternative ways in which Australia could manage its industrial relations system and, after examining the alternatives exhaustively, the Committee, composed of veteran experts in industrial relations, came to a conclusion about modifications to the present system. It is important to say that the Committee had a charter, which was adopted by all States-Queensland and Tasmania included-and the Northern Territory, that supported the terms of reference of this inquiry. It had, it might also be said, the backing of the National Labor Consultative Council, employers, unions and governments, which all supported the terms of reference.

Nothing in the terms of reference precluded this inquiry from examining alternative methods of dealing with industrial relations outside the arbitration system. Indeed, a seminar was held by the inquirers to invite those who had the ideological predilections of the Opposition coalition to come forward and put up or shut up. What did we get? We got a vacuous series of arguments which, when tested, in practice, were proved to be wanting and not applicable to the Australian scene. We embarked upon the inquiry. We did so with an open mind and with the consent of all parties, the States included. We asked the Opposition to come forward. It made some offer, which turned out in the end to be nothing more than a puny attempt to justify the ideological conditioning it has imposed on itself and which it now seeks to impose on the rest of the country. Fortunately, however, it will not get that opportunity.

Having said all that, I turn to what is an unfortunate comment made by a number of Press reports this morning when reporting and editorialising on the findings of this Committee. It seems that there is a feeling that if things are going well, as good news does not sell newspapers, one should find something to attack, to carp at or to pick on. The man who edited the Good News newspaper went broke. We all know that. So it is not surprising that the newspapers today say things which are at the margin and which do not come to grips with what this report is on about, in order to try to create some controversy. That is unfortunate because it obstructs a proper, analytical analysis of what truly is the case. What truly is the case is that the conciliation and arbitration system is enshrined centrally in Australian industrial relations.

While we now hear the latest ideological clamourings from the Opposition, let me, as somewhat of an industrial relations cynic, hark back to a time when I, and I am sure Senator Harradine, were operators in the industrial relations field. Senator Harradine will remember that back in the early 1970s the argument for a deregulated industrial wage fixing system-the arbitration system-was being put by unions. The Australian Council of Trade Unions argued that unions should come back to book and work through the arbitration system. That argument is now being put by employers. Why was it put by unions? Why is it now being put by employers? The answer is very simply the economy. Back in the early 1970s there was full employment and the bargaining shares favoured unions. Now there is high unemployment and the bargaining shares favour employers.

The real reason behind the Opposition's latest ideological dress is that it is in a favourable bargaining position to lower the conditions of employment for Australians. That is exactly why it is now propounding its so-called ideological theory. All of the commentators have seemingly missed that, because they take their latest brief from the Adam Smith institute. They now propound this free market theory. The Chairman of this Committee was involved in the report dealing with the financial system, in which he recommended deregulation. He was Chairman of this Committee and recommends the regulation of the system. I commend the report.