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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1125


Mr BRAITHWAITE(1.26) —There is a continuing and massive problem existing within our major exporting industry, the coal industry of Australia. In fact, if the major decisions of the 1960s and 1970s to develop our coal resources had not been made even the present level of Australia's balance of trade and current account deficits would by now not be sustainable. It would be a matter of Argentina, here comes Australia. In 1985-86 the value of coal exported was $5,253m or 15.6 per cent of our total exports. One has just to imagine adding that figure to our present trade and current account deficit. It would surely have been a disaster for Australia.

Under the Hawke Labor Government the dollar has been allowed a free but questionable float. From a level of US94.29c in February 1984, a year after Labor was elected to government, the dollar went to a low of US59.8c in July 1986. The devaluation has not meant extra revenue for coal exporters. All it has done is allow the international market to squeeze the Australian coal producer's price. That price, in Australian value terms, is still what it was in 1984. In fact there has been a decrease in real value terms. The devaluation has been of little advantage. The same squeeze has been applied to coal's mineral counterpart, iron ore from the Pilbara in Western Australia. Recently a request was made that the overseas price of that ore be reduced by $5 a tonne. Added to this have been the massive government charges such as fringe benefits tax and increased interest rates-directly attributable to the Hawke Labor Government's policy directions and designed to stop the free float of the dollar. That is why earlier I described the free float as questionable.

In addition, the Government and its Ministers have had the gall to stand aside and witness the rape of Australia's most important export industry by its unions. Mines at Fernbrook and Grose Valley in New South Wales have been forced to close already this year, because of these extra costs and union pressures. In fact, we have just witnessed the spectacle of this Labor Government buying off the trade union movement to the tune of $85,000 for a European visit complete with perks, as a trade-off for the unions' agreement to a change in the Accord for discounting and the two-tier system. If this is not corruption, what is? Another part of the trade-off has been for Government Ministers to step aside and not criticise the massive $60 per week wage increase of June 1986 by the Coal Industry Tribunal after the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) washed his hands of the matter. What did he wash his hands for-industrial peace? All this at a time when the accord called for indexation and even the discounting of indexation for devaluation consequences. An increase of $60 per week has been given but where has been the industrial peace?

I wish to outline now the unions' record of honouring those agreements and promises. There have been 180 disputes in the coal industry between June 1986 and early February 1987-despite the firm undertaking that there would be none. The cost of these disputes, which ended in strike action, has been estimated as 2.6m tonnes of production or approximately $130m in export earnings. That is what I mean by referring to the industrial rape of this country's economy. All of this is left unchallenged by the Government. One has to ask, is this just pure bloody-mindedness, economic vandalism or, in fact, a long range plan for the nationalisation of the coal industry. The Miners Union and its present day Australian counterpart, the Colliery Employees' Union, have never been able to come to grips with the conditions of the twentieth century. The union officials are mediaeval in their philosophy, believing that coal production is only a domestic industry, and refusing to come to terms with its export potential and the challenges for greater production required to trade into overseas markets. In fact, one of the leaders of the CEU once said, `We will never trade dollars for productivity'. If ever someone had his head in the sand, it would certainly be that person who suggested that industry dollars would not be traded for productivity.

I wish to give an example of the push to nationalisation. Recently the Queensland branch of the union was pressed to bring its members into line with those of New South Wales and reduce weekly hours from 48 to 42. Allegedly this move was to preserve jobs for members, but its result would have been to reduce productivity and, incidentally, viability, as unit costs would necessarily have been increased. The Combined Coal Miners Union's national liaison committee recommended the enforcement of a maximum 42 hour week and, in the same breath, reaffirmed its position of calling for immediate national stoppages should retrenchments and mine closures become imminent as a result. What better example could there be of voodoo economics than the kind practised by those officials in their recommendations? But let there be no mistake. The decisions were made so as to force `export control', preferably transferring decisions on marketing from the coal producers themselves to a national coal authority. Such an authority would give the Miners Federation control over production, marketing, pricing and investment decisions-the ultimate in the nationalisation of the coal industry. In Queensland, straw polls were taken regarding having limited shifts in order to reduce work to a 42 hour week. I am advised that the declared results were inconsistent with the `hands up' vote taken, but the QCE officials took the decision to strike for 48 hours, again breaking the June 1986 agreement. Members of the union petitioned to have a proper poll taken as the original vote was of only one-third of members. The petition was denied and the strike proceeded. The rank and file of the union was ignored, although 80 per cent of the members petitioned that a revote be taken. It is interesting that exemptions from the 42 hours rule were extended to mine deputies and examiners. One might ask why. It just so happens that union executive salaries are directly linked to these mining industry classifications. The executive was prepared to protect its personal salaries and conditions, while letting the rank and file make the sacrifices. So much for the principles sought and the double standards that prevailed.

The coal industry is made up of the old and the new-Queensland and New South Wales, open cut and underground, but the union equation is, or was until the dispute I just mentioned occurred, consistent-Queensland union members, though producing the bulk of export tonnages, being dictated to by the greater number of members in New South Wales. The coal industry works from a private enterprise philosophy on investment, development, production and marketing. Buyers require certain grades of coking or steaming coal and various blends at times require a multitude of sellers. The industry is, particularly in regard to open cut mining one of the most efficient producers in the world and capable of greater productivity. As government charges and controls have intruded, the industry has had to become more cost efficient under the former, and more cautious under the latter. The real economic, government-imposed burdens that the industry has to deal with include coal export duties estimated at $60m for 1986-87, a fringe benefit tax that is estimated by the industry, particularly the iron ore miners, to cost another $2 per hour per person, a devalued dollar that increases the overseas borrowing of capital as well as the interest thereon and outdated work practices. The industry could not cope with restraints imposed by a national coal authority, or the re-imposition of export controls. Those valuable export dollars, and the efficiency of the coal industry, would be sacrificed to the whims of union executives. The Government, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Resources and Energy. (Senator Gareth Evans), the Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins) and the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations have an obligation to veto categorically the suggestion that there be a national coal authority, and to make the union executive live up to its agreement and promises. It is important that coal industry leaders know where they stand now so they can cope with the future. They cannot make decisions not knowing whether they will have Government support in making those decisions. The pious platitudes of the Government, the Minister and the unions do nothing to encourage the industry in its decision-making. The coal industry has for two decades had to face criticism concerning multinational ownership, the repatriation of capital borrowings and the export of profit. Much of this has come from the unions themselves and the left wing of the Labor Party. However, coal development has made the risk worth while and, although some of the investment increases our foreign debt, what Australians must realise is that the problem of foreign indebtedness is right now three times the problem that it was when the Hawke Labor Government came to power in 1983. I repeat, its size is three times greater now and the Government has made a major contribution to the problem by increasing its own proportion of the foreign debt eightfold within the same period. So the problem did not arise two decades ago. I say quite categorically, as did the Executive Director of the Australian Coal Association, Dr Barry Ritchie, as reported in Tuesday's Sydney Morning Herald, that the coal industry, born again and made efficient those decades ago, contributes over $5,200m to redressing that foreign debt.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.