Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Friday, 19 October 1984
Page: 2061

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry and Commerce)(11.50) —I thank honourable senators for their contribution to this debate. It has been a very wide-ranging contribution. I remind the Senate that we are debating the Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Bill 1984 and the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee Amendment Bill 1984. The first I suppose is best described as a machinery Bill to deal with certain relatively minor issues in terms of industrial relations principles relating to the provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act-casual vacancies in union elections and things of that kind. The Government has not pretended that it is anything more than that. It is a necessary machinery Bill to give effect to both undertakings by the Government and deliberations of the National Labour Consultative Committee.

The other Bill before the Senate relates to the stevedoring industry and is really a piece of legislation designed to give a practical and continuing effect to a policy which was arrived at by the previous Government in 1966 to handle the question of rationalisation of the stevedoring industry, faced as it was with increased mechanisation and, at that time, many inefficiencies. As honourable senators have pointed out that industry now is considerably reduced in terms of manpower but it is more efficient in terms of productivity per employee and the Government has a necessary commitment, in terms of continuity of the stevedoring industry, to provide that level of assistance in respect of further redundancies.

All sorts of issues have been raised here. Wages policy has been raised by Senator Hill in particular, but also by others. Senator Jack Evans referred particularly to the industrial democracy issue. Senator Hill has taken the opportunity to advance what I understand to be Opposition policy in respect of the conciliation and arbitration system in Australia, and a whole range of issues relating to wage fixation and terms and conditions of employment. I just want to make one point about what has been said. When we came to office we inherited a very bad industrial relations situation. The criterion of Liberal Party of Australia philosophy over many years in terms of industrial relations has never been one of examining the detailed difficulties and exigencies of day to day problems between employers and employees-many practical problems, some of them real and some of them unreal. The Liberal Party has never been very concerned about that. The criterion for judging the success of an industrial relations system has been: Does it work in terms of lowering or increasing the level of industrial unrest in a country with the consequent disruptions which occur for industry and employers generally? There is much to be said for that criterion. It is not an exclusive criterion of the success of an industrial relations system. Some of the issues Senator Jack Evans raised are also very relevant to the question of the success or otherwise of an industrial relations system. If one adopts the criterion 'does it work?', I point again to the experience of the Fraser Government, the residue of which is still here today in terms of its principal spokesman and to the record of this Government in respect of that criterion in terms of industrial disputation in the country. I have already answered questions on this issue and there has been some debate on it in the Senate. I just make the point that the industrial disputes statistics released following the July figures of the Australian Statistician, released on 9 October, indicate a broad pattern over the previous 12 months and so on. But the most important factor which emerges from those decisions is that the annual figures for working days lost remain the lowest recorded, in the year to July 1984, for any 12-month period since 1967-68.

Senator Scott, if I may not unkindly say, waffled on about the unfortunate consequences-and I quite agree with him-of industrial disputation in terms of its effects on Australian export industries and, indeed, in terms of Australian industries manufacturing or producing for the domestic market. That is undoubtedly true, but most of what he was saying, with respect, would have been much more apposite if he had said it three or four years ago, and of course he used to say it then too, than it is apposite today. I think Senator Scott always speaks with great integrity on these issues but he was not entirely charitable in his remarks today. I do not necessarily expect him to be, but I am sure he would acknowledge that the performance in relation to these matters has been incredible under the policies of this Government.

As I said, wages policy has been discussed. We would say that the main contributing factor to those improved figures on industrial disputation has of course been the prices and incomes accord, but also the range of consultative mechanisms which go with the prices and incomes accord. That is the way in which this Government has, in every area of both industrial relations and industry policy, set up mechanisms which have involved people in discussing differences and in trying to resolve difficulties by discussion rather than by disputation of the sort which we have been used to in the past in this country. I repeat: According to one criterion, a very important one, we assess the success of industrial relations mechanisms by whether they work or not. In terms of this Government's performance, they have worked. In terms of the previous Government' s performance, they did not work. In fact, particularly in the last two or three years of Liberal-National Party Government in this country, the record was absolutely abysmal and disastrous in economic terms.

Senator Hill advanced a number of propositions from the coalition's policies on industrial relations matters. I have never heard such a collection of grab-bag ideas, designed to be all things to all men, better expressed than they were by Senator Hill in his contribution to this debate. I do not think that people are as gullible as all that. I think people realise that the issues are difficult. Senator Hill was basically addressing a sort of Marxist concept of alienation of employers and employees from the system which exists in this country. It reminded me very much of the views of a political party in France which people who are not as old as I am will not remember. It was called the Poujadist Party and it was a peasant party. I have nothing against peasants but when members of the Opposition display the intellectual qualities of medieval peasants then one has some cause for concern. Medieval peasants were very capable of simplifying issues in a populist way to an absurd point, but then of course they were living in mediaeval times and we are not. That was the sort of intellectual content which seemed to underline the comments made by Senator Hill.

There are a couple of other matters that I would like to comment on which particularly arise from Senator Jack Evans's speech. They first of all concern the question of the Industrial Democracy Bill which former Senator Siddons introduced into this place a few years ago and which was supported by the Opposition of the time. I put to Senator Jack Evans that it may be easy to say: 'The Siddons view of the world is the correct one. We will implement that straight away and then everything will be all right'. I think the Siddons Bill had something to commend it. It was a thoughtful contribution to the debate, but the issues, of course, are far more complex. I remind Senator Jack Evans that the Government has proceeded down the road of promoting industrial democracy in this country. Some very important questions of attitudinal change are to be dealt with if industrial democracy is to work and not just be a shell, as it were, with people being told that it must work within this framework.

The Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) recently held, as I am sure Senator Evans would know, a fairly widely publicised industrial democracy seminar in Melbourne. The Government is also having a Green Paper prepared on the issue and that will be used as a basis for discussion not only with the trade unions and employer groups but also in the community at large. I am sure that some of the ideas put forward in the course of that discussion-they were implicit in the Siddons Bill-will re-emerge in the context of public debate about the issue.

The Government, where it can directly act in respect of the Commonwealth Public Service, has taken steps to implement an industrial democracy plan and has established a consultative committee to look at processes in relation to that. From the National Labour Consultative Committee, which I think has been an important body in making progress on all these issues, have come guidelines for discussion and information across a wide sector of industry. So we have not abandoned those issues. We are working towards improving the whole framework of decision-making in industry and participation in decision-making and information sharing, more particularly, which is, in a sense, at the essence of industrial democracy concepts.

Senator Evans also made some comments about owner drivers which I ought to address. The Government is very appreciative of the Australian Democrats' consistent view on this issue. Of course, the issue is wider than the owner drivers issue, much wider than the issue which Senator Evans has particularly addressed. There is a whole range of sub-contractors in various industries-self- employed persons in the building industry-where the same sorts of basic problems exist. The Government is having discussions with the Australian Council of Trade Unions and national employers on these general issues of independent contractors . I also remind Senator Evans that the issue is very complex because of the nature of the federal system in this country. Both Federal and State jurisdictions are involved in looking at these questions. I make the point that we have not run away from them; we are looking at them. If the honourable senator wishes to charge the Government with slowness there is nothing I can do about that; but the important point is that we are taking into account a wide range of factors in relation to those matters.

Senator Scott made some slightly belligerent comments about the stevedoring industry legislation. The proposed amendment to the second reading of that legislation states:

At end of motion, add, 'but the Senate deplores the failure of the Government to ensure an efficient stevedoring industry and a reliable trading relationship with other countries'.

Dealing with the trading relationship question, in the 18 months this Government has been in office it has made enormous strides in terms of trading relationships, particularly with those countries in the Pacific Basin rim where our trading future lies and in respect of which too little has been done in the past to develop relationships with those countries. Insofar as the reference in the amendment is to chastise the Government for its failure to ensure an efficient stevedoring industry, it is, I think, a bit of electoral argy-bargy. Senator Scott referred to the stevedoring industry package introduced by Mr Street, the then Liberal Minister for Industrial Relations. The essence of that package was to provide for assistance from the Government in restructuring that industry, faced as it was, and still is, by increased mechanisation and the consequences of that in terms of efficiency and productivity.

Another important element of the stevedoring industry package was the question of deregulation, that is, the removal of intrusive government regulation and the leaving of the issues very much to private sector activity between the employers of waterside labour and the stevedoring industry unions. Under that package the Government was to act as a catalyst and an aid in the restructuring process and to help particularly with the question of financing industrial redundancy payments. The whole thing was seen as a transitory scheme but, of course, it still persists. Enormous costs are associated with the former Government's regulations. It terms of all the things Senator Scott mentioned-mechanisation and so on-it is, as I have said, very much in the private hands of the industry, the stevedores, ship owners and employers of waterside labour.

It seems implicit in the not very well thought out amendment, if I may be unkind, that the Government should play an increased role. I cannot always divine Liberal Party ideology on these matters. But as I understand it, from some spokesmen at least, the view is that it is best to leave these things to the private sector and the market to straighten out. That is what the Street package essentially did, and the Government does not criticise it for that. The only role to be played by government was, as I have said, one of facilitating the transition and the restructuring of the industry.

The amendment seems to suggest that somehow the Government should play a different role in this area, that it should somehow intervene and that it is the Government's obligation to ensure an efficient stevedoring industry by intervention. That is the only conclusion one can draw. The amendment seems to contain the seeds of ideological distress in terms of Liberal Party thinking on these issues, but that is its problem rather than mine. I think the best the Government can do is, as the mechanisms for consultation are provided by this Government, to consult and pressure the industry in some way by persuasion towards greater efficiency. This is being done through bodies such as the National Stevedoring Industry Consultative Council under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Westerman. That is not a government body in the sense that it has any capacity to say: 'You will do this' or 'you will do that'. It is a body which is composed of representatives of all the parties involved and it is designed, as I have said, to facilitate rather than instruct.

I make only one other point about the amendment, which refers to ensuring an efficient stevedoring industry. There has been an improved rate of cargo handled per waterside worker over a number of years. The figures show that between 1978, when 5,352 tonnes per man per year were handled on the waterfront, and 1982, when the figure had increased to 8,106 tonnes per man per year, there has been an enormous improvement. The 1983 figures that I have are available for only the first half of the year's cargo movements and on an annualised basis that figure is 7,984 tonnes per man year. There has been a steady improvement in productivity on the waterfront since 1978 and that is to be welcomed by everybody. Senator Scott has come here at a time when other things are on the minds of Opposition senators to move this ideologically confused amendment that does not relate to the facts, and this leads the Government to conclude that the amendment should not be supported.

These two pieces of legislation are essentially machinery in one case, and a provision of continuity in respect of prior obligations of governments of any political persuasion in the other. This debate has been used to canvass the wide range of issues which are not appropriately dealt with in this context. Looking at the Senate Notice Paper I am sure that there will be other opportunities to canvass some of the issues which were mentioned today and of course the issue of wages policy will be dealt with in a wider political context in the next few weeks. I commend the Bills to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time, and passed through its remaining stages without amendment or debate.