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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2798

Mr ROCHER(1.49) —Mr Deputy Speaker, this week we have seen in industrial relations a development which will have serious implications for the Government's wages and fiscal policies and strategies. I refer, of course, to the reported agreement between certain builders and building unions, in the first instance from Victoria but latterly with the support of some industry employer organisations, to approach the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission seeking approval for the inclusion in awards affecting some 200,000 employees in the industry of certain increases totalling $52 a week. The deal so far has been concluded with the active participation, and at the behest, of the Victorian Government's Minister for Industrial Affairs, who prepared the heads of agreement which are to be the basis of the approach, agreed upon by the parties, to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. There is every reason to suspect that the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis), or his Department, or both, were consulted on the heads of agreement fostered by his Victorian counterpart before those heads were first considered by all or most of the employers named as being parties to it.

Despite a claim in the statement of intent which accompanies the draft heads of agreement that `The agreement is intended to be consistent with the wage fixing principles of the relevant tribunals', part of the total claim is plainly inconsistent with Commonwealth or any other wage fixing principles. The Western Australian Minister for Labour certainly seems to think so. He has felt the need to write to the parties to the agreement-to ask them to explain how the deal might fall under the productivity guidelines laid down by both the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the Western Australian tribunal. It should be said that while there is room to quibble, $32 per week of the claim could very well be acceptable under the so-called guidelines. However, it is the $20 per week component which brings the total to $52 that is spurious to the point of being dishonestly misrepresented by the parties to the agreement and the Victorian Minister alike. That $20 per week component is at best-euphemistically-said to be a `severance pay allowance'. Already in building trades awards there are loadings equivalent to eight days pay for a `follow the job' allowance. That is a severance pay allowance but it seems that, as we have seen happen in the past, it is ever necessary to dig up a new term in order to have something more in there and get past the guidelines. It is no more and no less than a contrivance to get around the much vaunted guidelines that have been laid down by wage setting tribunals and endorsed and touted by this Government as being inviolate.

As such, this particular exercise smacks of one that was conducted by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations a couple of years ago. Then he contrived, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions and others, to subvert his own wage fixing principles by converting the illicit building industry recovery procedures allowance or BIRPA, into a 3 per cent productivity increase in the form of a further superannuation payment. Not surprisingly, the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate that there has been negative productivity growth in the building industry. So much for the BIRPA cum productivity cum superannuation shambles which was the brainchild of the Minister and is now flowing on into industry generally and will be in place by 1 July of next year. The Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, in the best traditions of the quintessential industrial advocate that he is-in common with the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), I might say-has colluded with others to foster a claim which is completely outside his Government's oft repeated, so-called, wage fixing guidelines. It is about time the Minister normally responsible for the Government's wage guidelines accepted his responsibility and shook off the industrial advocate mentality which so often sees him promoting claims rather than opposing them in the interests of responsible government. In this latest charade, neither the Minister nor the Government has stated an intention to argue in the Commission against what is patently a device, a contrivance, to subvert again the Government's own stated policy on wage claims. In fairness, it should be acknowledged that the Treasurer (Mr Keating) was reported last week to have issued a warning against building industry employers making sweetheart deals in this connection. He said:

The Government will act to maintain the integrity of the wage fixing system and to prevent phoney settlements.

If the building unions and employers propose an agreement which appears to breach the principles, the Government will intervene to oppose such a deal.

Good for the Treasurer who, after all, is charged with the responsibility of fiscal and budgetary management and should understand the consequences of a wage flow-out, engendered by contrivances of this sort, into other industry awards. Let there be no mistake. Despite the fine words of the Treasurer, the $20 severance pay claim is now part of a sweetheart agreement. It is a phoney settlement which breaches so-called wage fixing principles. Given the negative productivity growth in the building industry which I mentioned earlier, and the continuing abominable work practices which obtain there, a good argument could also be made out that the deal breaches, as well, the guidelines for second-tier increases.

Leaving that aside, as it turns out it seems that the Treasurer has at least for the time being been rolled by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations on the severance pay issue. That must be the case, because the Government will not intervene in the Commission or anywhere else. It intends once again to shift all responsibility on to the Commission, and wash its hands of the matter in what is becoming, its time-honoured practice. The Minister and the Government are silent about any intention to intervene, despite the fine words of the Treasurer. They do not even seem to understand-or if they do understand, they are silent-what motivates the building contractors in this matter. If they did, if the Minister was aware of the economic blackmail that wholesale union bans on building sites in fact represent-they would also know how the Government might influence compliance with its tattered and so-called wage fixing principles.

Sweetheart deals in the building industry are rife and they have been for years. If the Government wanted to put a brake on them, it could start in its own backyard by deleting rise and fall clauses in all new building contracts let by the Commonwealth. Wage increases which are included in awards presently entitle building contractors to reimbursement for clients and building owners. Quite simply, Madam Speaker, if rise and fall-sometimes called escalation-clauses were not included in conditions of contract, pace-setting sweetheart deals in the building industry would become largely a thing of the past. There would still be deals, of course, because building owners will always make commercial decisions after weighing up the cost of meeting union claims against the cost of financing an extended construction period. But any attempt to incorporate the deals of a few into awards which much be observed by all, as now happens, would be resolutely resisted by those same contractors, if only for financial reasons. The Government has shown that in this case, once again, it does not have the stomach for opposing its masters in the unions. In particular, it will not, under any circumstances, buck its supremos in the ACTU, who have also given official blessing to this.

This severance pay contrivance is being inflicted on an industry which already is reduced to a maximum of 249 working days a year. That includes 13 rostered days off; it includes all those public holidays which are observed elsewhere in the country, plus a couple thrown in; but it does not include the practice adopted by the building unions of taking homers and insisting on being paid for that time off while on strike-another work practice which should be adjusted under the second-tier arrangement demanded by the Government.