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Wednesday, 31 October 1956

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) (Minister for Labour and National Service) - The honorable member for Bendigo (Mr. Clarey) is a disarming character when he gives his benign smile. I have known him well enough over the years to realize that he is really a warm-hearted and benevolent character. But sometimes, when he sits across the table from me, he takes on an air of malevolence and attributes to me sinister motives which really belie his own character and, I am certain, belie mine.

This evening he tried to drag a page out of the murky past and attribute to the Government motives in relation to this clause which could perhaps more appropriately have been attributed to some not very reputable employer of labour of several generations ago.

There is a history attached to section 54 of the principal act of which we all are very well aware. It was inserted in the act in the early 1930's in a time of depression and mass unemployment. The Parliament at that time thought it was desirable to restrict as far as possible any arrangements that would enable an unscrupulous employer to exploit the economic situation of that time. There was then a great surplus of labour, and men went about the country seeking jobs. Awards prescribed a minimum rate, and an employer could demand to know from a prospective employee whether he was or was not a member of a union. On being told that the man was not, he could employ him at a rate well below that prescribed in the relevant award.

Mr Ward - We are approaching a similar situation again.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - I am afraid the honorable member is going to be disappointed. I know that nothing would suit him better politically than for this country to fall again into a state of mass unemployment and depression. He has been praying for such a situation since 1949, but unfortunately for him it just has not developed. This Government does not intend to allow it to develop while it is in office. We are here to sustain prosperity, full employment, and a rising standard of living for the wage-earners of Australia. In including this clause in the bill we have served none of the sinister purposes which the honorable member for Bendigo assumed to exist. But I want to point out to him a practical difficulty which has arisen, and which we believe should be curable, not by any arbitrary, hasty, or capricious decision, but by an order by a member of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission if, on the facts presented to him, he thinks that the situation calls for such an order. Honorable members should not imagine that the repeal of section 54 of the act will leave employees defenceless. Up till now there has been a prohibition against the insertion in an award of a provision requiring an employee to notify an employer whether or not he is a member of a union. If this clause is agreed to, as 1 hope it will be, it will be within the power of a member of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to decide whether such a provision should be inserted in an award.

Honorable members may well ask why the Government considers it necessary to delete section 54 of the act so soon after a recent substantial amendment of the conciliation and arbitration legislation. The answer is quite simple. In most sections of industry no problem arises. In these days there is a highly organized and very effective trade union body in every section of industry which ensures that every employee is paid the award wage. Indeed, in a period of scarcity of labour such as we have experienced in recent years the situation generally has been one of payment of above award rates rather than of any attempt to pay less. But there have been cases, particularly in the pastoral industry - this was noted in New South Wales quite recently - in which employers were in difficulty not in determining whether employees were or were not covered by an award, but because there were two awards - a State award and a Federal award - relating to precisely the same occupation. In those circumstances it is reasonable that an employer should know which award imposes obligations on him and covers his employees. Nomadic employees in the pastoral industry in New South Wales are not regular employees, but seek engagement during a period of seasonal work, such as shearing time, and for that work rates have been prescribed by both Federal and State awards. There have been brought to the notice of the Department of Labour and National Service cases in which the employer has paid the appropriate federal award rate as he understood it, and the employee has worked for him quite happily at that wage, but several months later has come back and said, " I was not covered by the federal award. I wa> covered by the higher award ".

I want to' make it quite clear that this Government is not legislating to enable employers to pay less than the rates prescribed by the appropriate award in any industry, and does not approve of employees being so treated. On the contrary, we maintain a group of inspectors in the Department of Labour and National Service whose job it is to police awards and see that the appropriate wage rates are paid. But where two awards operate in relation to a particular industry we think it is only a fair thing that the employer should know, before he engages an employee, under which of the two awards the employee will be working. It does not necessarily follow that a commissioner will insert any particular provision in an award. That matter is still entirely within the discretion of the commissioner according to the facts placed before him by the parties in any particular case. I find it hard to appreciate the objection of honorable gentlemen opposite, when they know that there is retained in the measure the safeguard of the commissioner's power to decide what should, or should not be, the situation in relation to a particular industry.

We have given the commissioners wide powers in relation to other aspects of industry and to the wages and conditions of employment. It is quite consistent with everything we have done in the rest of our legislation to take fetters off the commissioner in relation to a particular case. The honorable member for Bendigo, and those who sit behind him, may, if they choose, import sinister motives into this amendment. I assure the committee that there are no such motives. All we are trying to do is to leave it within the discretion of the commissioner to decide what should be the appropriate determination in a particular case, and to make quite clear to those who employ labour, once a provision has been inserted in an award, what their legal obligations are to the employees they engage.

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