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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18793

Mr KATTER (8:48 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003. Sometimes as an Independent it is difficult to get on top of a division in some of these industrial matters as quickly as one would like, and I regret that I was not on top of some of the industrial legislation of the last few weeks of the parliamentary sitting.

Having said that, whilst I most certainly have a picture of Bjelke-Petersen and Black Jack McEwen on my wall, I also have a picture of Red Ted Theodore, who I think was probably the founder of the Labor movement in Australia as we know it today. Some people have expressed curiosity as to why his picture is on my wall, but one of the truly great things that Theodore did in this country was to deliver to every Australian the statutory right to collectively bargain. There were laws in Queensland, and I cannot speak for the other states, before the election of the Theodore-McCormack government in 1915—it was actually Ryan, but I do not think Ryan had much say in the running of the government. To quote a famous Queensland historian, it was the `hard men of the AWU' who were the real government of Queensland that was elected in 1915, and that was Theodore and McCormack, who were both miners from Chillagoe, which is in the northern part of the area that I have the honour of representing in this place.

Theodore's born-again position, if you like, in terms of the union movement occurred when, for the second time in his life, he was ordered down a mine where a number of people had died following the collapse of timbering in that mine. It happened for the first time in Western Australia when he was only 16 years of age and he called a strike. Then, after his great walk across Australia to Far North Queensland, he arrived in the fields of Chillagoe and was again ordered down a mine shaft. He had a violent argument with the foreman before being sent down. The mine collapsed and a number of miners were seriously injured, including Theodore, who wore the scars of that collapse upon his back until the day he died. He got out of that mine and swore that things would change, that things would be different. Two of his fellow workers died in accidents at that time.

These people formed the Amalgamated Workers Association—it was a union—and they joined up with the canecutters and the shearers. Even though there was a union called the AWU in New South Wales, it did not really amount to very much. But this was a very formidable organisation in Queensland—an extremely formidable organisation—and they formed a political wing, which they called the ALP, and they swept into power in 1915. They were still there in 1957, except for a brief two-year period during the war. The people of North Queensland were so enormously grateful for what had been achieved by those great and heroic men that, for something like 30 years, only three members of parliament were elected from North Queensland—and then for only one term—that were non-Labor. It was a sea of ALP members and a sea of support for the Labor Party.

The laws in Queensland before the arrival of this wonderful government—I would describe it that way—were such that if you absconded from your place of work during a stoppage that was a crime. You could be put in jail for it. These people did not have much money, and if they could not leave their place of work they had no money coming in, so it was almost impossible to have a legal strike. Many of these people had to go to jail to win the conditions that we enjoy today. A very significant proportion of people who worked as miners for any protracted period—I saw one book that said it was as many as 25 to 30 per cent—contracted miners phthisis, and most people who contracted that terrible disease died from it. I already canvassed the unsafe working conditions that existed in those days. Many of those working conditions were a mockery.

Geoffrey Blainey is a great historian. If you want to know about Australia, prior to white man coming to this country and after, you should become well read in Geoffrey Blainey's books, including Triumph of the Nomads and Mines in the Spinifex. In The Rush That Never Ended, one of his more central books, Geoffrey Blainey said that Australians had no ability to rise except through collective action. That was very true, except for those lucky enough to have been here in the early days of the New South Wales Corps. In Queensland it was very hard to stay alive in the bush. We know from a famous Henry Lawson poem that it was not a very happy scene in inland Australia.

Mr McArthur —Give us a few lines now, Bob.

Mr KATTER —I would like to, but I had better not. `The sheep-infested West' is one phrase from that Henry Lawson poem. We see today a retreat from what was achieved. In my electorate, rugby league is collapsing because of 12-hour shifts. I see a large number of suicides and people becoming hopelessly alcoholic as a result of the Child Support Agency. Part of that is brought on because these men are working 12-hour shifts or are subject to fly-in mining, where they go for very protracted periods without seeing their families at all.

When fly-in mining was introduced, we had the biggest increase in mining deaths that had occurred since the war. The member at the dispatch box this evening, the member for McEwen, was chairman of the committee that decided to investigate fly-in mining. One of the aspects of that investigation, of course, was the large number of deaths that were occurring at the time and which had to be attributable to the fly-in mining regime. Among the more spectacular deaths were those in the ghost aeroplane that flew on with everybody dead inside it in Western Australia.

We have had enormous achievements. In my home town these days of Charters Towers, a town that produced the first Labor head of government in the world—the first Labor government was formed in Queensland, albeit only for seven days, and the premier came from Charters Towers—if you go into the old Civic Club, which was the roost of the rich ruling class, you will see a very big picture of 60 or 70 mine managers in Charters Towers. They are dressed in their three-piece suits, their fob watches and their bowler hats. Even at a glance, they are unassailably the ruling class. I asked the current manager of the Civic Club to get a photograph of the current mine managers. When we took the photograph, they were all in khaki work clothes. They looked no different than any of their workers.

Those two photos, which sit side by side in that very historic town, indicate the terrific achievements of this nation in moving from a class society in which there was very much an oppressed class to a levelling out. I believe there needed to be some retreat. I certainly belonged to a government that stood up to the unions with respect to the electricity dispute in Queensland. I would be the first to say that there were great excesses in the sixties and seventies. But the pendulum has swung far too far the other way now, and I see conditions all over the electorate I represent that would never have been accepted 10 or 12 years ago. It is very sad for supporters of the Labor Party in my electorate when they consider that a lot of this undermining came from the Keating government, not the current government. It is rather ironic that the current minister may be trying to put in excessive laws against the workers, but the person who achieved those laws was, in fact, none other than Mr Keating. I know there are many people on the Labor side of the House who blush with embarrassment about what happened during that period. It most certainly was not their wish that these things occur.

The days lost through industrial action are probably the lowest now that they have been in any period since the Second World War. I have not checked on those figures, but from at a glance at the MESI bulletin that appears to be the case. So there is no background case for more, excessive punishment of trade union officials. It worries me that they are very scared to act these days. They are very scared to take the strong action that sometimes trade union leaders need to take. If the worker has not got money in his pocket, I can assure you we will have a very bad situation in Australia, because there will be no consumer spending. We most certainly do not want to retreat to the dark old days that I outlined earlier in this speech.

There is a new phenomenon of almost unlimited debt in Australia. Australians are not saving, and home affordability is at its lowest level. A lot of this is coming from debt. As one very senior and prominent trade union official said, in Australia today our problem is not stopping people from going out on strike. The difficulty lies in getting anyone to have a stoppage these days, because of the terror of the debt regime. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.