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Tuesday, 8 May 1973
Page: 1782

Mr VINER - This policy decision was a calculated turning away from the arbitration system at the top end of wages, leaving the Commission to fix a minimum wage and unions free to bargain in the market place for anything above that. Thus it was intended that there be no regulation at the top end of wages. Yet the Treasurer (Mr Crean) as recently as 13th April, in an address to the Companies Directors Association of Australia said this:

The Government believes wages are already regulated through arbitration.

That statement shows a complete failure to understand trade union policy and an apparent failure to appreciate the economic significance of his Government's own legislation.

Mr Whittorn - And he is the Treasurer.

Mr VINER - Yes, he is the Treasurer. The effects of this Bill, if it becomes law, are of the greatest social and economic significance to Australia. They cannot be lightly ignored because Australia today is on the threshold of the greatest public debate on inflation that it has seen in recent times. Inevitably this debate will lead this Government to a confrontation with the unions because, whatever else an incomes policy might be, it necessarily involves control over wages. For 65 years, history shows the Arbitration Commission and the State industrial tribunals have been a stabilising influence on the economy, for in the process of preventing and settling disputes the Commission, by arbitration, shaped a wages policy for the nation, fought over but accepted broadly by unions and employers alike. That is basically what industrial arbitration is about - the fixing of wages and basic conditions of employment like annual leave, standard hours of work, concepts like the basic wage, margins, work value, comparative wage justice and conciliation, all principles turned to by unions, employers and arbitrators. But all these will count for nought in the new bargaining atmosphere which this Bill is intended to create.

Through all the years of pioneering, war, depression and post-war reconstruction the arbitration system in Australia largely kept in step with the economy - the one reflecting the other - and thereby established acceptable patterns of economic adjustment of incomes. The Commission looked upon itself as performing - it was performing too - a wage-fixing function. It was precisely that function which made Australian arbitration unique and, in many quarters of the world, the envy of other Western industrialised nations. Whilst wages were fixed in that way by both Commonwealth and State industrial tribunals there was an inbuilt national wages stability and consequent price and economic stability. I do not try to over-simplify the most inexact of sciences - that is, economics - as my colleague the honourable member for Berowra (Mr Edwards) confidently acknowledges, but there is an undoubted thread starting with arbitra tion and running through our economic history.

This legislation is nothing more than an expression of ACTU wages policy coupled with some peripheral matters. It had its genesis in the absorption struggles of the trade union movement in 1967-68 over the 1967 metal trades work value inquiry. That was a struggle to maintain a wages policy based on the over-award rate. The trade union movement then won a complete victory over the Commission which sought absorption and the employers who also sought it and who tried to use the penal powers to uphold it. As a result of that victory the over-award area of wage fixation has become the greatest distorting factor upon the Australian arbitration system.

If this Bill succeeds it will fundamentally shift wage fixation from arbitration to the market. Only the minimum wage will be left for arbitration, for there will then be no need to speak about over-award payments in context of negotiated agreements. This legislation will mark a fundamental change in Australian social and economic policy. The centre point of that change, as it has been so euphemistically expressed by Mr Hawke himself, is the concentration of union energy away from arbitration and into bargaining. The complete immunity of unions from strike action, either within the arbitration system or within the civil courts, marks the completion of the change. But nothing is more certain than that as the arbitration system through its wages policy largely kept in step with movements in the economy, the breakdown of arbitration means that Australia is presently in the throes of working out new patterns of economic adjustment of incomes. It is not without significance that at a time when a prices policy is in its infancy in Australia - the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and the Minister for Labour reluctantly concede that the Government may have to turn to an incomes policy to defeat inflation created by the Government - arbitration and the Commission are being rendered impotent as a force in regulating wages. The action of the Government by this Bill will inevitably mean a convulsion in the Australian economy and in the relations between employers and employees before this country finds itself having to embark upon a full blooded prices-incomes policy. Within the life of this Parliament the Government will have its own confrontation with the trade union movement because it will be obliged to introduce a prices and incomes policy to contain inflation of its own creation. Of necessity the policy will need to control wages, and of further necessity will require some control over the right of trade unions to strike. Like Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle before them, the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and the Minister for Labour (Mr Clyde Cameron) will soon find their own place in strife.

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