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Tuesday, 8 May 1973
Page: 1805


Order! We will proceed with the debate.

Mr EDWARDS - I am delighted that the Minister has now returned to the chamber. For his information, I have just cited his remarks made at Surfers Paradise, with the tang of the salt air around him, to the effect that it is fundamental to better industrial relations that agreements be honoured. He went on to say that he could see no reason why parties acting in good faith would object to agreements becoming legally enforceable. Earlier in his remarks he referred with approval to the fact that the ALP Federal Executive's Policy Committee on Industrial Relations had decided to recommend that the Federal Conference of the Party - adopt a policy for establishing machinery for the encouragement, registration and observance of industrial agreements made in lieu of awards, or providing for over-award payments or benefits, with agreed penalties recoverable only at the suit of the employer or union in civil proceedings.

How is that now to be possible with the provisions in this Bill relating to putting officials and unions above the law in respect of torts? Perhaps the Minister has had a change of mind in that regard.

How are these agreements to be made to be honoured? I read elsewhere in this interesting document the answer to that question. I repeat the Minister's statement:

It is fundamental to a successful system of collective bargaining that voluntary agreements, freely negotiated, be honoured by the parties thereto.

I hope that the Minister can work out a system to ensure that this happens. The most frequent complaint I receive from my constituents who are businessmen or who are running businesses is that when they negotiate with the unions, they reach an agreement today and it is broken tomorrow. So how are we to ensure that these agreements are to be honoured which, as the Minister says, is fundamental to the further development which he foresees for this sector. Here we have the answer in the following passage from the ALP platform:

It is fundamental . . . that voluntary agreement, freely negotiated, be honoured by the parties thereto. The ACTU has never repudiated an agreement, and has always ensured the observance of agreements made under its auspices and has publicly stated its intention to adhere to such a policy. Given the kind of industrial law reform proposed by Labor-

I am aware of some of the longer-term proposals implicit in this Bill which will bear on this issue - the existing machinery of the ACTU and the various Labor Councils (with variations if necessary) would be adequate to ensure observance of all agreements made under the auspices of the ACTU and/or the respective Labor Councils concerned.

Perhaps a solution lies along those lines, but I doubt it. If the Minister were to tell that to the people of ICI, who recently were coping with a severe strike, probably they would say that he should go and tell it to the birds. The Bill proposes to encourage the development of voluntary negotiation with a consequent downgrading of the established machinery of the arbitration tribunals. During the Minister's absence from the chamber I pointed out that it involves a downgrading of the significance of the national wage case. We of the Opposition maintain that if there is to be a province of law and order, the law can be meaningful only if it is enforceable and it can be enforceable only if it contains sanctions.

I do not necessarily advocate the sanctions in their existing form. I concede that a key problem of the present sanctions is that they cannot be said to have expressed any clear policy or principle, in particular as to which strikes should merit and which should not merit the imposition of penalties. I think it is reasonable to suggest that had that sort of provision been made the system may well have worked better and would not have fallen into the difficulties it has encountered in the last couple of years. There can be little doubt that the question of whether strikes should be prohibited in an industry is up to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the practice generally has been to treat all strikes as equally serious. That is not appropriate. It is true that the concern of the Commonwealth Industrial Court has been simply to determine whether an award has been breached and not to judge the industrial merits of cases. It is true that the final decision to press for penalties is up to individual employers acting in accord with their own best interests. The public interest at that point has not necessarily been given sufficient weight.

The Government has not been involved, by and large, until the time has come to collect the fines. That situation has been unsatisfactory in many ways, not least of all to the Government. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of the Opposition that where the public interest is truly and seriously threatened the penalty against strikes should be retained somewhat in its present form. In other cases, a method of bringing to bear the force of the law to ensure that agreements entered into shall be observed during their currency is necessary. As the Minister has said, this is fundamental to an effective operation of the system. That method should be and can be devised. This Bill, which throws all such matters to the four winds, is totally unacceptable.

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