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Thursday, 13 February 2003
Page: 11818

Mr HATTON (12:49 PM) —The member for Herbert has just spoken for 10 minutes or so regarding the government's approach to this. As our shadow minister indicated, we are up here looking at the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002 [No. 2] yet again. It was knocked over in the Senate last year. The government chose not to take up any Labor Party or Democrat amendments. In fact, the Labor Party disagreed with the Democrat amendments that Senator Murray put up. The core argument that Senator Murray was trying to put forward was that there are some unions in Australia which have secret ballot provisions as the normal course of the way in which they conduct their business and that those unions, of their own volition, have determined that that is the best way for them to go. That is not a universal practice, so what Senator Murray suggested was that, if his amendments had been accepted, that would have effectively taken the core of the government's approach out of the bill—as he said, `gut the bill'—and in its place would have been the set of arrangements where the facility for having a secret ballot would be available to all Australian unions and they could choose whether or not to take up that facility.

One of the reasons that the Labor Party disagreed with Senator Murray's amendments is that it is basically the system that is available before us now. In his argument in this place today, the shadow minister for workplace relations argued, quite rightly, that, if you look at the current situation and at sections 135 and 136 of the Workplace Relations Act, that is provided for. There can be a direction from the Industrial Relations Commission that a secret ballot be undertaken before protected action takes place, and that is provided for in the current act.

The core of what this bill is about, as I indicated when we last spoke about this in June 2002, is the taking away of flexibility from the Industrial Relations Commission, the unions and the employers who are involved in the employment process. This will mean taking away their flexibility and imposing a rigid and inflexible determination that, before any protected action can take place, you must have a secret ballot. The reason that we think this is a really silly thing to do is that, if you cast your mind back through a 100 years or more of industrial history in Australia, you will find that wherever you had inflexible regimes in industrial relations there was an encrustation of difficulties both for employers and employees. Where people have attempted to use the courts to batter down the unions or to direct employers in certain ways, you get significant problems with working out disputes. All disputes, no matter how grave, no matter how difficult, no matter how uncertain they might be and no matter how long they may be in time, have to be settled in the end.

To argue that you can virtually take no action at all, because before you took action you had to have a secret ballot, and that you should take out any flexibility whatsoever—and to have a presumption that unionists in any activity in any industry must always be in a position where they do not want to take any strike action at all—is a big call. But that is what this bill effectively does. It says that in the government's opinion and the minister's opinion there is one group of people in Australia—those people who are in unions and their union officials—who cannot be trusted with anything. That is a pretty narrow approach to industrial relations or workplace relations. It is a pretty narrow approach, because in the whole history of this Commonwealth, in examples of what the majority situation is, the majority of workplaces, the majority of unions, the majority of employers over time and throughout the length and breadth of the Commonwealth have been able to work effectively together. They have been able to sort out the disagreements between workers and employers. They have been able to sit down at the bargaining table—whether it is under the enterprise bargaining aegis or previously under the entirely central system of the Industrial Relations Commission—and they have been able, through either conciliation or arbitration, to sort their problems out.

There will never be unanimity between all employers, all employees, all unions and all employer organisations as to how industrial relations should operate in this country. But, for the key practitioners—those in the metals industry, for instance; we know there have been strong and active unions throughout the history of that industry in Australia—and for the companies that have been involved in employing people, we know that the practicalities are that the strengths of the business, its productivity, its ability to continue to push out products and to be competitive on the world market are not conditioned by whether or not there are secret ballots. They are conditioned by the attitude of the employers to their employees; they are conditioned by the attitude that those people who choose to be unionists take to their officials and to their work. The reality is that striking is not a common practice in Australia's industrial relations history. There have been wildcat strikes in the past; there have been concerted campaigns on a range of issues predominantly, throughout most of the history of the Commonwealth, directly related to workers' pay and their general conditions of service.

In Australia, we have seen a fundamental, direct attack on the conditions of workers since 1996. That fundamental attack has been launched by this coalition government, which is anti-union and proud of it. The opposition have always supported the Australian union movement. We have not supported wildcat strikes; we have not supported stupid actions in the industrial relations area. We have underlined the fact that Australians have a right to organise themselves into unions, because there is an inequality between employees and employers. By their very nature, those people who have to work for a crust day in and day out have very little in the way of savings; those who have to look after their families, their education and their health do not have much in the way of savings.

If you look at the historical disputes, employees were wary of going on strike unless there were fundamental and key reasons behind it in the broad. We know of the stupid strikes, the wildcat strikes, the silly strikes and the strikes where groups of officials may have decided to run a campaign for a particular time. We know that a number of those have hurt union members and union employees, but they are very much in the utter minority. The vast bulk of our experience is with cooperative relations between employers and employees, despite the ongoing tussle for better conditions of service.

There is a point of view, and it is linked to the way that the government approaches this matter, that that kind of observation about Australia's industrial relations history is fundamentally false; that there really is a conspiracy of silence in the industrial relations area; that employers, by and large, are too dead scared to speak the truth; that the truth, as far as they see it, is that employers are always being hammered over the edge of the table and have to give away too much, that the unions are putting too much pressure on them and that they have to give in to the unions otherwise they will not be able to run their businesses—it is like the old revolver at the head; and that therefore the only way to protect these employers is to adopt an absolute prescription that you must have secret ballots before protected action. All the flexibility in the AIRC, that view would argue, is really there to protect this fundamental conspiracy that people want to cover up; and that it is almost always in the interests of the employers to cover it up, because they are so frightened.

You can argue about the Cole commission and about a series of other commissions. We know where there has been malpractice, we know where there has been a series of difficulties from one state to the other, and we know that in all those instances inappropriate practices need to be stamped out—practices not just by individual unionists or officials but by employers as well. We know not only from our experience but also from experience in the United States that, if you walk an inflexible path where an iron-fisted government is determined to support an iron-fisted employer or groups of employers against normal working people, you can end up with the situation that occurred in the Ford plants in Michigan in the 1920s: real violence on the streets, people's rights being ripped away, working people being put to one side and a gang of other people being brought in, and real war between capital and labour.

The initial breakthroughs that Henry Ford made in better working conditions in his factories compared with the small shops that had been operating in probably the first 15 years of his operation were completely shattered by the approach that he took in conjunction with those American governments that supported him, the Hoover administration in particular. There are plenty of practical examples in the past: that is, by underlining inflexibility, incorporating it into your approach and really seeing the issue in utterly ideological terms from the right or the left, you can be so obsessive about your approach to industrial relations that you have a system that simply cannot work at all and is unsustainable.

The original better pay, better jobs legislation—the composite bill that was put up—was knocked down in the Senate. We have had a fragmentation or fracturing of that bill into the 12 constituent parts that the minister has tried to sneak through this place, saying, `If you don't accept this bit, maybe you will take that bit.' We know that there is already a course for a double dissolution based on the first of those bills being knocked over twice last year. This is another. It is identical to the previous bill and it will be knocked over because nothing has changed. The bill seeks to be entirely unfair and inflexible. It seeks to drive a greater wedge between Australian employers and employees and to deny Australian workers the most fundamental minimum protections and award conditions. It is Reithism advanced by the new minister. There has been a segue from Reith to Abbott—how can you tell the difference?—from one minister to another.

The fundamental driving force here, though, is ideological obsession. It is at the very core of the Liberal Party—I do not know about the Nats; they are always a bit different in some of these things but they are trailing along—and it is a core obsession of the Prime Minister. If you look at his entire history in this place since 1974, on a whiteboard or blackboard you can tick off one after the other the things which he could not get up as an industrial relations advocate, in terms of policy, through the Fraser Liberal government. Those days were almost halcyon days, given the flexibility and breadth of view of that government. It was not our view at the time, certainly, but the comparison, not only of time but also of space and actuality, with this tight, controlled, confined and inflexible government, is enormously compelling.

When he was Treasurer, what the Prime Minister tried to do in imposing a GST he could not get through a Fraser cabinet. Almost all the changes to the financial system that had been put forward were denied to him as Treasurer—he could not sell them. From 1996, one after the other we have ticked off obsessions of the Prime Minister, the member for Bennelong. He has got up the GST—a 1960s tax of socialist governments in France, but he was won over to it as a simple way of taking more money out of people's pockets. He still wants to sell the rest of Telstra and he will pursue the achievement of that obsession as far and as hard as he can.

This bill, one of about 12 now, goes to the Prime Minister's other core approach. His dad may have run a service station in Earlwood. He may have gone to Canterbury Boys High School, which was in a relatively working-class area at the time. There was not much industrial relations going on in the service station, even though there was a bit of driveway service at that time, but in his experience and his approach he has concentrated on seeing two critical things: one, the subordination of employees in the workplace; and, two, the stripping away of the gains that they had made through not just industrial action but the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission over almost 100 years—the commission came into being in 1904; we are almost up there for the century. The Prime Minister would like to see the Industrial Relations Commission effectively entirely gutted by the time we get to 2004.

This obsessiveness goes to a core view. It is part of the 19th century approach which I have mentioned before and will mention here again. The relationship between employer and employee in the model in the mind of the Prime Minister and members of his party—not all, but the core advocates of this heavy industrial relations approach—is basic master-servant stuff. This is the idea that, in a hierarchical society, those who have control of capital should be protected and encouraged because they are the real job creators. Also there is the idea that the power of people to organise, to unionise and to seek some capacity beyond their individual capacity through organised labour, to sit down at a table and say, `We have agreed amongst ourselves as workers that this is a problem; we need an increase in salary or better working conditions,' and the successes of that approach, which had been manifest in increased productivity throughout the 20th century—we have seen it in the 21st as well—should be shattered and broken.

Going back to industrial Britain in the 1870s is really not an industrial relations model for the late 20th or early 21st centuries, and neither is the period from the 1860s to the 1990s in Reconstruction America a model for modern industrial relations. The world has changed. We now live in a mixed economy in advanced industrial democracies where the core voting power is with the majority of the people. That was not the case in 1870. It was not the case when the master-servant act was put into effect in Britain as an extension of their previous relations in the agricultural area.

This bill has a long lineage, not only through this minister and the previous one but also through the Prime Minister in terms of a core and fundamental approach to things. The other key, if you look at all the arguments that have been put forward by the Prime Minister previously in this regard, is that the other big problem in Australia has been that wages were too high for workers, we were unproductive because of that and they really need to be pulled back into order. The obsessions of the Prime Minister—and he is the driving force in this, because he has been the entirely consistent thread that brought us to these attempted changes, that brought us to the industrial relations confrontation that we had on the waterfront—go to an increasingly inflexible approach that would deny Australian workers a simple right to decide for themselves whether they were going to have a secret ballot and to decide, under the aegis of the Industrial Relations Commission, what the appropriate behaviour to take is, given the particular circumstances of the dispute. (Time expired)