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Wednesday, 21 August 1985
Page: 89


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.07) —The only point that I wish to clarify in this matter of public importance is that we are not dealing here with a problem of trade union action against an employer, we are dealing with the problem of a trade union which is taking action against employer and employee alike. We have a situation in which trade unions which are not directly concerned with the affairs of a business enterprise are seeking to prevent, for their separate purposes, that enterprise from carrying on its business. We regard this matter as having a broad significance. In the Budget context one might make the point that the Government has budgeted $7m for marketing assistance for the meat industry this year and, at the same time, it is actively permitting-and it would appear conniving with-a union to act against a company which has export contracts valued at about $5m and which has been prevented from carrying on its business of exporting meat to the European Economic Community. Nothing could be a better illustration of the Government's failure to get down to basics and to treat some of the symptoms of the problems that we have.

I do not think that anyone in Australia is under any illusions about the significance of the trade union movement in the affairs of this Government. I suppose last night's Budget was as good an example as any of the central role which the trade union movement plays in the Government's freedom of action. In the Budget speech last night we had an affirmation of the need for Australia to stay competitive. We had an affirmation of the fact that if we are to do that we cannot afford to allow production costs to rise above those of our competitors and that we would be throwing away any prospects of sustaining the growth rate required to get unemployment down if we did not have discounting of the next wage rise to take into account the effects of devaluation.

It is quite clear from the Budget Speech and from public comment since that the ability of this Government to meet that vital principle, to cope with that very major problem that we face as a nation of ensuring that we improve our competitive position, and the ability of the Government to do anything, are very much in the control of the trade union movement. In the last 12 hours we have seen attention focused not so much on the Treasurer (Mr Keating) but on Mr Crean and it was Mr Crean's response to the Budget which told us all where power lies in this important issue. Watching Mr Crean and the Treasurer on television last night we saw much shadow boxing. In the end it was quite clear and indeed it was said that whether or not there would be any arrangement between the Government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions was a matter for private negotiation, and then the Government would go to the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Even then we have the threat of a breakout. We have the threat of non-trade union compliance and it is quite clear that the trade union movement has a veto power over much of what this Government does.

I do not think recent events give much ground for optimism in believing that the trade union movement is going to behave in a co-operative way with this Government. After all, look at the tax summit; the Government was apparently determined on the need for reform, the Leader of the Government (Senator Button) and the Treasurer made brave statements about their determination for reform, and we saw that reform vetoed by the trade union movement. What we now see is the prospect of tax changes, which are those tax changes which are either permitted or required by the trade union movement, taxes on capital gains and a tax on fringe benefits which will be paid by employers and not by employees.

Why then should we be considering Mudginberri when these large issues are about? Mudginberri, after all, is a small commercial operation which operates in the Kakadu National Park. It affects a relatively small number of employees. It affects a relatively small amount of our exports-perhaps $5m. Why is it that Mudginberri has become the focus of so much public attention and so much attention in this place? It is because the dispute is one which is vital to the people who are concerned with it. It affects the continued viability of that enterprise, the continued employment of people in it and the continued business existence of those who run it. Even more attention is focused on it because it is vital that the principles in the dispute be satisfactorily dealt with. Further, I think it is important because it is a very good example of why Australia is not competitive in so many areas.

I am glad that the Leader of the Government is present for this debate because he has expressed many opinions on the importance of Australia being competitive in the industrial area. I also believe the dispute demonstrates the resistance to change to some of the more absurd labour practices which exist in Australia and which damage employer and employee alike. The dispute is important because it shows yet again that trade unions are too often prepared to flout the law and to regard themselves as above the law and beyond the reach of it.

The facts in this dispute are essentially simple. The position has been complicated by the actions of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, by the Government and by the Government's employees. Let me turn to the basic facts. I suppose one of the most important facts is that there is no dispute in this matter between the employer and the employees. In the abattoir the employer and employees are at one that they wish to operate within the award laid down by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. That award gives the employer and employees a choice. They may operate under the tally system, which is common in many meatworks in Australia, a system under which there is a fixed number of beasts for a kill, a fixed rate of pay for that kill and then some additional rate if any more beasts are killed. Alternatively, the award permits the parties to enter into an agreement whereby the work force is paid by results-paid at a rate of so much per beast. That is a matter of free choice, and the Mudginberri abattoir has chosen to pay for results.

The exercise of that choice has had a rather benign effect in terms of the interests of both the employer and the employees. The result of adopting that system is that output has increased, the wages of the employees are higher and the returns for the employer are higher. Put simply, the operation is more efficient. Therefore, by definition it is more competitive and it is more profitable. It is the sort of operation that is likely to flourish, as against the many meatworks around Australia which in the recent past have closed because of their inability to find markets or to compete.

We have a quite simple situation. Under an existing award the employer and the employees have chosen to work on a basis of being paid for output. It would seem that is a simple matter and a matter for which there would be general approval. Instead of the general approval that might have been expected, what we have had is an interference by the trade union movement, initially by the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, which objects to the abattoir being conducted on that basis. It has chosen to picket the abattoir. It has done that in what has been described in a quite benign way. It does not seem to be a massive picket, but it has been massive in its effect on the meatworks because other trade unionists, in particular the meat inspectors, have chosen not to cross the pickets and that of course has stymied the abattoir and has removed it from the export market.

At a time when Australia is hungry and needing exports, at a time when there seems to be general agreement that we have a problem with our balance of trade and balance of payments, an export contract is being interfered with because trade unionists will not inspect the meat and certify it in a way that would permit its export. The Government has effectively done nothing in response to that. On the other hand, the employer has done something. Utilising laws that were passed by the previous Fraser Government, it has sought and obtained from the Federal Court of Australia damages for the interference by the trade unions with its business. I understand those damages have now been paid because of the efforts that were made to sequester the property of the trade union. The employer has exercised legal rights that are currently available to it and that in turn has given rise to further trade union action-strikes on the waterfront, support for the strikers by the ACTU, and again no action by this Government to effectively assist those who are trying to operate within the law.

The key points about this dispute are that there is no dispute between the employer and the employees. The Arbitration Commission has said that there is no industrial dispute. The courts have said that there is no dispute except in the minds of the those who seek to interfere with the lawful actions of those who are at the abattoir. It is important to note that the abattior, the employer and the employees are acting within the terms of an award. It has been established by the Arbitration Commission and the Federal Court that they are acting lawfully. They are adding to efficiency and productivity in this country and it is other elements of the trade union movement, including the ACTU, which are trying to force the abattoir to change its arrangements. Fines have been imposed under the Trade Practices Act. Those fines have been collected and yet the Government keeps trying to suggest that this is a matter which ought to be satisfied by talks, that there is apparently some need for compromise.

Why is it that people who are acting lawfully, who have been found by the courts to be acting lawfully, who are being unlawfully interfered with, are being told that they should sit down to negotiate their position? There is nothing to negotiate. There is no dispute. We have a situation where the Government is offering no protection to people who are subjected to unlawful pressure and who themselves are acting within the law.

This is not an industrial dispute. The parties have no dispute. It is outsiders who are illegally interfering and it just happens that those outsiders are trade unions. Perhaps we have a glimmer of hope on the horizon in that in the other House the Government has now introduced legislation to deregister or to assist in the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation on the basis of that union's flouting of the law. However, I say to the Senate that whilst the Builders Labourers Federation may have a more numerous record of breaches of the law to its credit, the actions of the meatworkers in this case is similarly unlawful and should not be tolerated by this Government. I call on the Government to show some consistency of approach in dealing with this matter and to show some desire to protect those Australians who are lawfully going about their business.

The Mudginberri dispute is not something which is about being anti-trade union. There is nothing in the actions of either the employer or the employees to suggest that they are against trade union involvement. I mentioned earlier that they are acting within an award. The workers at the abattoir are no longer members of the union because the union chose to throw them out. What I would like to remind the Senate is that there are many positives in the arrangements that Mudginberri has entered into. The effect on the employees is benign. It enables the employees, by dint of their better performance, to earn more. The arrangement is not anti-union. Indeed, I understand the terms of settlement put forward by the employer and by his solicitors includes the desire for the workers to be entitled to rejoin the union. It is not against the system of conciliation and arbitration because all that has happened at the meat works has occurred under the aegis of that system. Therefore, what we have is a system where what is happening is good for the abattoir, for its profitability and output, good for the employees who can get more and good for Australia because it enables us to be more competitive in a difficult market.

What could have been done by the Government to avoid this dispute and to enable these people to go about their business lawfully and to maintain the export contracts they had obtained? I put to the Senate that the most important thing that could have been done by this Government-what it has failed to do-is to make it clear that in its view the law should be upheld. These parties have gone to the courts, sought their remedies and at great expense managed to keep their legal position clear. However, there has been no word of encouragement from this Government for their position as against the position of those trade unions that are flouting the law. As recently as yesterday in Question Time in the other place Mr Willis made it quite clear he was not prepared to make any commitment even to leave in place the law which has protected the interests of the abattoir and the employees in this recent case.

Mr Kerin, the Minister for Primary Industry, could have done something to remedy the situation whereby this export contract has been destroyed by the failure of officials of his Department to do their work. Mr Kerin will say, of course, that these men were left for some period without pay, stood down for a few hours and not paid for a number of weeks. No effective action was taken to get them back to work. Mr Kerin does not seem to want to do anything because he believes that if he does anything effective it might exacerbate the dispute. The simple solution that was open to Mr Kerin was to authorise the Northern Territory meat inspectors to act as inspectors for the Commonwealth. There was no legal barrier to that being done. It could have been done immediately to permit the export of this meat. Mr Kerin has failed to do this. Mr Kerin goes around the bush establishing his personal bona fides with the farming communities, much and all as they may dislike the Hawke Government. I believe that on this occasion Mr Kerin has signally failed to do his duty and has failed to take action which he could take to support a beleaguered section of the industry for which he is responsible.

Minister Willis could have supported the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, which has said that this is not a matter of industrial dispute and that this is an illegal picket which should be removed. We have seen nothing from Mr Willis which would support the position of the Mudginberri abattoir. Mr Dawkins might have been concerned about the trade lost to Australia. Of course, we have heard nothing from Mr Dawkins. Mr Cohen, who might on other occasions have been concerned about the illegality of the picket which is camped against the law at a national park, has not seen fit to require any action to be taken either.

Most of all, I suggest, we should lay fault at the feet of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). We have heard a lot about the Prime Minister's skills and a lot about his special relationship with the trade union movement. Mr Deputy President, I suggest that the time has come for the leader of this country, the Prime Minister of this country, to make it quite clear that he expects the trade unions of Australia to respect and to obey the law. He should not be urging, as he is, that this dispute be sent back to the Arbitration Commission when in fact no dispute exists. He should not collude with the meat employees union in this matter. He should defend those in the right and do something to solve this problem which is so obvious.

This is a matter which is important to Australia. After all, I think it is admitted by the Government that the secret of our survival and our advancement is to be more productive and more competitive. That is a matter on which we hear many words in this place, I think it is widely understood within the Government that it is this sort of trade union action which is one of the contributing factors preventing us from being as competitive as we should be. We find some very brave words about this in the Budget brought down last night. The Treasurer said that because of devaluation our competitive edge has been restored and `Australia is back in business'. The Treasurer stated:

. . . in the face of slowing world economy we must increase our share of markets to pay our way as a nation.

He continued:

This means we must stay competitive.

He said:

. . . if we are to do that, we cannot afford to allow our production costs to rise above those of our competitors.

He further said that if we failed:

We would be throwing away any prospect of sustaining the growth rates required to get unemployment down.

In light of those statements and in light of the importance which this Government places on the improvement of Australia's competitive position, or at least the maintenance of it, I ask: Why has the Government stood by and permitted the trade union movement to move in a way which is destroying this enterprise's ability to compete, or indeed to operate? It is shameful. It is totally unacceptable to the Opposition. I believe it is totally unacceptable to the people of Australia and should end. The Government has a duty to act in this matter and it must act.