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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1525

Senator ALSTON —My question is addressed to the Minister for Finance. Is it a fact that official figures released yesterday show that full time adult ordinary time earnings for men working in the private sector rose by 12.1 per cent in the 15 months between August 1985 and November 1986, compared with public sector wage increases of 7.7 per cent? Is it also a fact that in the same period women's wages rose by 11.7 per cent in the private sector and 8 per cent in the public sector? Does the size of the gap suggest a certain blowout in the Budget forecast for 1986-87, which is largely the result of a private sector wages drift? In light of these figures which suggest wage increases far in excess of productivity gains, and the threats by significant left wing unions attending tomorrow's national trade union conference to reject the new two-tiered wages system together with in terrorem stoppages in the metals and building industries, can the Government explain how it expects its permissive wages policy, a policy of drift, to make the economy more competitive?

Senator WALSH —I welcome this concern on the part of the Opposition about wages growth and the effects of excessive wages growth on macroeconomic outcomes. I therefore expect, before the day is out, that the Leader of the Opposition, along with Senator Alston, will denounce the doctors union of the Australian Capital Territory-the greedy doctors union-for its attempt to get a $425 a week pay increase for a part time job. The members of the doctors union in this Territory spend about one-quarter of their time treating Medicare patients in public hospitals, and they are paid an average of $22,000 a year for that.

Senator Archer —What has this got to do with the question?

Senator WALSH —Well, honourable senators opposite are concerned about wages growth. The doctors union has been offered an increase of 21 per cent for these services that it performs, but it is demanding an increase of 85 per cent which, per doctor on average, works out at a pay increase of $425 a week for a part time job in which those doctors spend about one-quarter of their working time.

This Government has been quite consistent. Mr Willis denounced the claim of the Plumbers and Gasfitters Employees Union of Australia some time ago for an increase of $70-odd a week and the Government is vigorously opposing the other building unions which are attempting to secure, outside national wage case decisions, a $52 a week wage increase. Both of these pale into insignificance beside the outrageous attempt by this greedy doctors union in the Australian Capital Territory to get a $425 a week pay increase for a part time job.

I note the selective indignation and concern of the Opposition, which is very concerned about what the Government regards as excessive wage claims. We share that concern with the Opposition. We regard the claim by the building workers as an excessive claim, and it is being opposed vigorously by the Government for that reason. However, we wish that the Opposition would come on board with us in opposing the Australian Capital Territory branch of the doctors union in its attempt to get a $425 a week wage increase for a part time job, in the full knowledge, and indeed backed by the explicit statement of Dr McNicol, that the intention is to have that outcome, should the doctors secure it, spread throughout the country. In other words this is a try on by the Australian Capital Territory branch of the doctors union on behalf of all the other members of the greedy doctors union in Australia. This is the test case. If this greedy Australian Capital Territory branch of the doctors union were to get away with this outrageous claim, we have it on the word of Dr McNicol that the intention is that it flows on throughout Australia. What moral authority would anybody who allowed that to happen and who sanctioned it have to condemn the plumbers union or the building workers who are trying to get $50 and $70 a week wage increases for a full time job, as against the doctors union's greedy and outrageous claim for a $425 a week wage increase for a part time job?

As to the actual statistics that were quoted by Senator Alston, I think they are probably right, but they need to be treated with a number of qualifications. It is not unusual for such statistics to be subsequently revised. The time period in question encompasses a period when there was a significant cashing out of fringe benefits, which does not increase wages cost but does increase the recorded wages paid. As an aside I think it should be noted that, in spite of that apparent significant cashing out of fringe benefits, the fringe benefit tax revenue collected as such is likely to exceed the Budget forecast. This means that the incidence of fringe benefits and the haemorrhaging it was inflicting upon the income tax base were substantially greater than had been anticipated, and therefore the cost of repealing the fringe benefits tax, which the National Party of Australia and the Liberal Party are committed to do, would be much greater than the earlier estimates have suggested. Finally, those statistics quoted make no allowances for compositional changes in the work force.

Senator ALSTON —I ask a supplementary question. I ask the Minister whether that is a plea of guilty to a certain Budget blowout and whether, in the event that the Leader of the Opposition in this chamber is prepared to reiterate our disapproval of the doctors ambit claim, the Minister will equally deplore the behaviour of the metals unions and the building unions in the context of tomorrow's national union conference.

Senator WALSH —The Government is opposed to the action that is being taken by those unions. The Government's policy is to support the decision made by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in the national wage case about one month ago. Mr Willis, a number of other people and I have explicitly denounced he claims by the plumbers and gasfitters and the building workers unions because we believe they threaten the national interest.

As to the reference to a Budget blowout, it means no such thing. It means that this Government has adopted the practice-it is the practice of the Commonwealth bureaucracy in my experience, if it is left alone-of adopting conservative valuations of policy changes, by which I mean adopting a conservative estimate of the increased revenue which would flow from a changed taxation policy and, likewise, conservative estimates of the expenditure savings which accrue to a changed policy on the outlays side.

It has been the practice of this Government to accept the conservative estimates of the bureaucracy about things like that. As we know, it has not been the custom of previous Liberal Party Treasurers to accept those conservative estimates. If previous Liberal Party Treasurers have seen a need to cook the books for an election Budget, they have had no hesitation in doing so, as a result of which outlays in every year when John Howard was Treasurer were in excess of the Budget estimates. This Government does not present shonky figures in the way that previous Liberal Party Treasurers have been wont to do. We present the honest but usually, I believe, conservative estimates made by public servants, particularly as a consequence of policy changes.

Finally, to return to the wages question, I repeat the invitation, particularly to Senator Alston and his Leader, to denounce the doctors union for its greedy, outrageous attempt to get a $425 a week pay increase for a part time job and to show the commensurate degree of indignation in response to that outrageous claim that they show in response to claims by other unions for $50 and $70 a week pay increases for full time jobs.