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Thursday, 1 June 2000
Page: 16840

Mr BEVIS (12:49 PM) —I want to return to a point I raised earlier, which was the attitude exemplified in this Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2000 and how it reflects the government's view. I started to make some reference to the Hunter Valley No. 1 dispute that has now been under way for about three years. The fact is that the full bench of the commission have said that they do not have any authority to deal with that matter, because this government's legislation will not allow it to—a major dispute with a significant economic impact on the state and the nation, and causing hardship to many people, but the commission is unable to do a thing about it. It has been to the courts, which is where all these things now go.

Mr BEVIS —Well, that did not happen by accident; and, in fact, the minister has bragged about the fact that the commission's inability to deal with that dispute is because of his intervention. There are a few members of the H.R. Nicholls Society still on the government benches, and the member for Corangamite identifies himself. At an H.R Nicholls Society function in 1998 that the minister attended, he spoke about that dispute and the fact that the commission and the courts had not been able to intervene. He said in his address to the society:

That did not happen by accident. That happened because of the nature and tenets of the Workplace Relations Act.

That is, when he is with his mad right-wing mates he brags about the fact that his law has stopped the commission and the courts from settling disputes. You will not hear it from him here in parliament. You will not hear it from him when he does his doorstop with the journalists. But when he is with his lunatic right-wing mates he is more than happy to brag about that. And that is exactly what he did.

Other members on our side have referred to the five-month lockout at ACI at Box Hill. There has been a seven-month lockout at the G. and K. O'Connor Pakenham meatworks. Joy Manufacturing in New South Wales had a three-month lockout. There has not been a single word of criticism from this minister or this government about any of those. There is no-one in this country who believes that Minister Reith could contain himself for 24 hours if any union anywhere in Australia were to say, `We're going to have a three-month strike.' Does anyone really believe the minister would not be out there instantly attacking them? And yet we have case after case after case of employers locking workers out for three months, five months, seven months—with not a word of criticism about it and no legislation here to deal with it—because the system is fundamentally biased. It is deliberately biased, and when he is with his right-wing lunatic mates the minister actually embraces it and brags about the fact that it is.

Contrast that with the situation we saw earlier this year in Victoria in the construction industry. Unlike the Hunter Valley where you have a big company, a big multinational, with very deep pockets—they can go to war with the union in a country for years, if they want to—the construction industry in Victoria has many different employers, some rich, some not so rich, some with an ideology that might agree with the minister, plenty not. In that situation they had a two-month industrial dispute initiated by the union, and throughout that entire two months there was nothing but abuse from this government, this minister and members of the government even in this debate. We need to understand the way this government views it. In its view the commission and the courts should immediately stop a union if it is involved in a campaign for four or five weeks, but a company can lock its workers out for four or five months and that is okay—no-one should be allowed to interfere. There is no balance, and Labor intends to restore that balance. We have moved these amendments to give an indication of how that can be done.

But it is not just those of us in the Labor Party and the trade union movement that have this difficulty; the former Premier, and good friend of the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Jeff Kennett got very upset with the minister when the minister tried to put his nose into the Federation Square argument. The federal government was putting out $50 million for that. Peter Reith did not like the agreement that was entered into so the government here threatened the Victorian government that it was going to pull out the $50 million funding. Jeff Kennett said:

I don't think it's right for Mr Reith or the federal government to be holding a gun at Victoria's head.

Even its mates in the Liberal Party are fed up with the way this government is involved in its biased and divisive industrial relations campaigns. Let me explode a myth in the few seconds remaining. Industrial disputes: lots has been said about them. Under this government's laws the number of long-term industrial disputes has risen. Disputes between 10 and 20 days have risen by 11 per cent during the period of this government. Disputes of more than 20 days have risen by a whopping 131 per cent. The fact is that disputes occurring now are longer, entrenched and more disruptive—precisely the sorts of divisive disputes we want to avoid, precisely the sorts of disputes that under Labor's law would be dealt with by the commission, but cannot be under this government's. (Extension of time granted.)

The courts now are having these industrial relations matters forced upon them because the commission has no authority, so the parties in a dispute look for ways out—and of course there is no shortage of lawyers who, for a fee, will tell them they can find a way out for them in the courts. So industrial relations disputes, arguments in a workplace, now are routinely fought out in the courts of the land. That is an insane system. It is one that no-one I have met in industrial relations likes, but it is absolutely the product of this government and its legislation. We now have the justices themselves saying, `Enough is enough. This is not what our courts were set up to do.' The Leader of the Opposition quoted one of those justices. I just want to expand on that. Justice Nathan commented earlier this year on the disputes that now are coming before him. He referred to the industrial parties and the fights as being `redolent of the Grecians and the Spartans'. He could see the old Athenians and the Spartans doing mortal combat—as they did, if memory serves me correctly, for a couple of centuries—and he can see those battles being played out in his courts on a daily basis. He went on to say the courts have become the new industrial battleground as this government's act invoked `ritualised mayhem in which only the innocent are slaughtered'. What a disgraceful position for a government to preside over and defend. The government defend that position by calling black white and by trying to con the public. The problem they have got now, though, is there are so many workers out there who live the lie, who live the problems. They know that when this minister gets up and says that everything is okay and they have got greater freedom, greater stability and greater flexibility, it is untrue.

If this government were fair dinkum about worrying about productivity, they would give up on their obsession to introduce laws that always are designed to reduce the rights of workers. This is a classic example, as has been mentioned. This particular bill actually tells the umpire that it has got to listen to the employer. In black and white it says, `You have to pay particular regard to what the employer says.' So they are already telling the umpire who is going to win every time there is an argument. But if they were fair dinkum about worrying about productivity and how we can improve it, they would take some notice of what some of their other more enlightened ministers have had to say. In March this year, the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Michael Wooldridge, gave an excellent example of the sort of cost our nation confronts because of this government's legislation and its unwillingness to seriously look at balancing work and life demands. The minister for health told this parliament on 14 March:

... there are as many days lost through depressive illness in a fortnight in Australia as there are through industrial disputes in any 12-month period.

That is an amazing admission—that in two weeks we lose more out of our work force because of depressive illness—and that is only depressive illness; we are not talking about all the other health and occupational safety issues here. Just that one illness, depressive illness, costs our nation more in two weeks than every strike we have in a year. What is this government doing about that? Nothing. What this government do is introduce more ideologically driven laws to attack unions and workers, because they think there is some cheap political mileage to be had out of it, instead of addressing the underlying problem. The responsible thing for this government to do is to put back in place a decent, balanced industrial relations system with a strong umpire. We have given them a few pointers here in these amendments as to how they might do that. They need to do that. They need to stop playing cheap politics and do something about what all Australians want: higher living standards, greater security of employment and better opportunity for their children. Do something about productivity. If they were fair dinkum about that they would take the advice of the health minister and do something about the health and occupational problems that confront workers, because Australia has many much more time lost through that than through industrial action.

We will oppose this bill. We have put forward some amendments that we think are markers in the sand on how this legislation could be made fairer, that is, the 1996 act. The bill before us deserves no support. We will oppose the bill. We divided on the second reading, and we will divide on the third reading. It is a bad piece of law, one of the most biased this government has introduced. I hope that the Senate is wise enough to see through the government's ploy on this, not fall for the three-card trick and accept a couple of amendments, and defeat it there as well.

Question put:

That the amendments (Mr Bevis's) be agreed to.