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Tuesday, 24 September 1974
Page: 1343

Senator RAE (Tasmania) - In speaking to the Bill to amend the law relating to conciliation and arbitration and especially to amalgamation of organisations, I do so in a way which is related but not absolutely limited to the proposal before us. I think we have all recognised, or at least most of us have recognised, that at the moment there are a number of problems associated with the operation of the trade union movement in Australia. Government senators have pointed to some of the problems which exist with the proliferation of unions and have suggested that their proposal for amalgamations will solve a number of those problems. Whilst totally agreeing, and I wish to emphasise this, on the importance of the essential role played by the trade union movement in the operation of the mixed economy which we enjoyed until the change of Government but which we now find is creating very considerable problems, I must say that it is about time that we as a community asked: What is the role of the trade union movement in Australia, how far does its proper role extend into the economy and into society, and are there structural changes which are desirable in relation to the unions?

I emphasise that I make all these remarks with a basic belief in the importance of the retention of that for which trade unionism stands. I wonder about the extent to which a number of problems which we face in Australia the moment in trade unionism arise from the fact that trade unions are basically occupation oriented rather than industry oriented unions. I wonder whether the sorts of considerations which are set out from page 179 onwards in chapter 12 of the report of the Donovan Commission- the royal commission on trade unions and employers associations conducted from 1965 to 1968 in the United Kingdom- such as of the two types of multi-unionism and the problems which arise in trying to make a major change in the basic structure of trade unionism as it has been operating for some time, would indicate that it would be more desirable at least to hear a great deal more public debate taking place in the country, not with a view to destroying trade unionism in any way or for the purpose of union bashing but with a view to asking: How could they fulfil the accepted role more satisfactorily without the sorts of problems which exist and which are exemplified in the approach of the Government, which is saying at the moment that this Bill is necessary to overcome those problems, and the approach of the Opposition, which says that the present provisions will assist in overcoming the problems.

I do not think anybody is denying that the problems exist, but I wonder whether either side is right in saying, on the one hand, that the existing provisions are adequate and will overcome the problems or, on the other hand, that the proposed provisions are right and will help overcome the problems. I have great reservations about whether the approach in Australia at the moment is leading towards the solution of some of these problems. I wonder whether in a country which as part of the general world trend is moving towards big government, big unions, big corporationsin other words, a country in which so many institutions are becoming bigger and bigger in terms of power, size and the impact they have on the society as a whole and on the national as well as the world economy- we are not going about it the wrong way by saying that we do not have to have regard to those developments and that if we amalgamate a few unions that is all we have to do.

The world corporation is clearly something which is with us whether we like it or not. It is something which will become more significant in its impact on every national economy. Would it not then be better for us to say that if we are to have the development towards bigger unions we should be thinking about a trend towards more industry oriented unions which will be able to play a part in balancing the power which is being continually exercised by the big corporations and by government interfering- we will not debate whether it is desirable or not- more and more in the affairs of industry and in the affairs of the economy? I wonder whether it would not be better to be looking at that aspect rather than to be saying simply that we need to facilitate amalgamations. I wonder also whether the unions could not do a lot more than they have done so far to encourage public debate and awareness and to display their own awareness of the need at least to review the role and the operation of the trade union movement in our type of society.

Senator Button - You can stop wondering. They cannot do it under this legislation.

Senator RAE - Thank you for the interjection. I doubt whether they could do it under the amending legislation. I doubt also whether there has been any indication from the Government so far of an awareness of the need for a review, from a conceptual point of view, of the role most desirably to be played by the trade union movement in a nation developing along the lines on which we have been developing, particularly whilst we have a situation in which clearly the public has, many members of the trade union movement have, and many employers have, grave reservations about the extent to which the operation of trade unions is satisfactory. Here again I do not want to engage in any way in a debate about the detail of this problem but there is public concern expressed about abuses. One alleged abuse is being investigated at the moment and there are numerous allegations of misuse of funds, the lack of accountability of some trade unions and the lack of democracy in the operation of trade unions- not in all unions but in some. They vary.

There is also the problem of elections. One reads letters to the newspapers with great frequency these days about whether there should not be secret ballots for strikes, and dealing with other such questions. I believe that the Government has shown a grave lack of leadership in not promoting thought and debate on these questions. It is time for an increasing amount of consideration to be given to a review of the role of the trade union movement in Australia. Just as the public interest is not served by large corporations or, for that matter, small corporations which ignore the rights of consumers, the interests of the environment, the interests of employees or the interests of the national economy, so too there is ample evidence that the other major section of organised power outside the Government, that is the unions, is currently failing adequately to recognise the public interest. I repeat: Just as the public interest is not served by corporations which ignore the interests of consumers, the environment, the national economy, employees and others, there is ample evidence that the trade unions, that other major section of organised power, are currently failing adequately to recognise the public interest. They have demonstrated a preparedness to act in relation to foreign affairs and environmental matters by imposing green bans and taking other action which has caused severe loss, suffering and inconvenience to the general public, has damaged the national economy and generally has not been of any particular advantage to individual members of the union concerned. Therefore I suggest that one of the matters for very deep public consideration is the extent to which that is a proper role for the trade union movement as opposed to the involvement of the democratic system of parliament in that action.

It is not good enough for Government speakers to say or to imply that apart from there being too many unions- a matter which could be overcome by the amalgamation procedure encompassed in the Bill before us- everything else in the garden is rosy. Huge numbers of members of the public and of the trade unions are unhappy, concerned and worried about the fact that there now happens to be an unbridled use of power in some instances, a misuse of power and a failure of the organisation both in its role and in its functioning. I suggest that we would be much better served as a country if more attention were being paid by the Government to these questions rather than its simply putting forward proposals to facilitate the amalgamation of organisations without anything further.

In the absence of any better proposals I propose to support the Opposition in opposing this Bill. At the same time let me say simply that I would like to see fewer unions. I would like to see developments along that line. I do not see this Bill as doing more than facilitating the continuation of what is at the moment a system subject to severe criticism; not because of what it basically stands for, not because of the role it. is intended to play as part of a balancing of power within a mixed economy, but rather because of the fact that inadequate attention has been paid by the community generally and by the larger section of those directly involved, in not standing back and conceptualising for a period of time and then seeing what system can be made to work in relation to what we want, not what we have.

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