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Tuesday, 3 April 1984
Page: 1084

Senator CHILDS —Is the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations aware of any recent strains that have been placed on the prices and incomes accord? In particular, does the Minister know of any proposals being put forward which threaten those sections of the accord which provide for a centralised system of wage fixation, the maintenance of real wages and the sharing of national productivity increases with wage and salary earners?

Senator BUTTON —I take it that Senator Childs's question is really addressed to the question of government wages policy and, indeed, other announced alternative wages policies which have been the subject of discussion in the Press quite recently. I am certainly not aware of any proposals to opt out of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. The Government has in place a firm policy, of course, in relation to the prices and incomes accord, which is based on a centralised wage fixation system.

I must say that according to the Press, after probably what has been the most tortuous and publicised period of gestation in Australian political life, certainly the most tortuous and publicised since perhaps the last royal birth or something of that kind, the Opposition has now given birth to a wages policy, or a so-called wages policy. On my reading of the essential elements of that policy , it emerges as the sickly child of doubtful parentage and, I believe, very limited life expectancy. The reason for that is that it seems to contain a number of inherent contradictions.

Senator Chaney —It sounds like your uranium policy.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney says that it sounds like the Government's uranium policy as it emerges in the platform, which admittedly is open to a variety of interpretations, as Senator Walsh has pointed out in this place on numerous occasions. The Government's policy, however, is not open to misinterpretation. The Opposition policy on wages is open to a variety of misinterpretations.

Senator Missen —You have not seen it yet.

Senator BUTTON —I take it that some people have seen it. It has been very widely reported in the Press. If the honourable senator is taking the point that one should not rely on the Press at Question Time, he would not be able to ask a question at all because it seems that he has nothing else to rely on. In this struggle, this great wrangle that has gone on, as the Australian Financial Review describes it, I am not sure which side has actually won. The result seems to be an absolute mish-mash. I believe that the Opposition has settled on a wages policy. This answer might be very useful to members of the Opposition because, as Senator Teague interjected earlier, if the policy has not yet been finalised, they might have an opportunity to brush it up in accordance with my answer. The essential points are that it allows employers and employees to negotiate agreements outside the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and it provides for national wage increases to be awarded in line with national productivity rather than prices.

Senator Chaney —I rise on a point of order, Mr President. This is the third question to which the Leader of the Government in the Senate has addressed himself. He was not able to tell the House of the Government's policy on housing or about the occupation of cheap housing by members of the Government. He was not able to tell the Senate whether he had done anything about on-costs, which is an important element of a wages policy. The first matter upon which he has been able to touch discursively upon is wages policy. I suggest that that has nothing to do with his own portfolio responsibilities. He should be called to order and made to answer the question.

The PRESIDENT —Order! The Minister is answering the question. There is no point of order involved.

Senator BUTTON —Insofar as this is not a point of order but a political point--

The PRESIDENT —Order! I am interested only in points of order.

Senator BUTTON —I simply make the point that this policy contains a number of deficiencies, and these are matters of great concern to the Government because it does not want people in the wider community to be confused by silly notions that might result in some detraction from the benefits of a policy that is set in place and working. I refer to a couple of deficiencies in the policy. Opting out, of course, is unlikely to be agreed to by the employees where that course would mean cuts in wages and conditions, as inevitably it would. If the Commission is asked to deal with that sort of question, how is it to be satisfied that no coercion was exercised in relation to those matters? One would be very concerned to know whether in particular circumstances the Commission would be asked to vary awards in relation to particular companies, which it cannot do, or whether it would be asked to vary awards in relation to an industry. Of course, various elements go to make an industry, and they might include a variety of establishments, some of which, under the criteria suggested by the Opposition, might be eligible for an award variation from which the mass of the industry may or may not benefit. A number of points of that kind are contained in the policy which was reported in the Press. If Opposition senators want to brush up on and improve the policy and extend for another month or two the nine months of wrangling which has taken place to date, it would be of great benefit to them to consider some of these issues. After all, the matter was publicly reported in the Press and it has not been resolved.

Senator Peter Rae —Why don't you tell us about something in your portfolio, like country preferences?

Senator BUTTON —Senator Rae asks, by way of interjection, why do I not tell the Senate something about my portfolio. The honourable senator has asked perhaps seven questions since we came to government. That shows what the Opposition shadow Minister for Industry and Commerce is doing. If he wants to know about my portfolio perhaps he ought to come to Question Time a little more and ask some questions about it. I am dealing with a question relating to an employment and industrial relations matter on behalf of the Minister whom I represent in this chamber. It is of considerable concern that the Opposition's policy on this matter is, as I say, a mish-mash. From the interjections which have taken place, apparently it has not yet been resolved. Until it is resolved there will be no serious debate about industrial relations and wages issues in this country. For that reason it is a very important matter.