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Wednesday, 21 August 1985
Page: 92


Senator COOK(3.25) —The most extraordinary thing about this debate is that it is occurring at all. This is the first full business sitting day of the Senate since our return yesterday. Of course, we all know that yesterday was a day of formal opening and the presentation of the Budget. We have returned to business today after a three-month break. One would have thought that the Opposition during that three months of not having to attend the Senate would have sifted the major political issues of significance to decide what were the matters of moment for this country. It is not as if we are now sitting at the fag end of a long session and the Opposition is trying to put on the Notice Paper matters of public importance to fill out the last weeks of a long session.

This is supposed to be a vigorous, fresh and confident Opposition addressing the No. 1 issue of the nation. Straight after the bringing down of the Budget yesterday we find that to the Opposition, in its view at least, the No. 1 issue is a dispute involving almost two dozen people in the Kakadu National Park on an abattoir at a place called Mudginberri. If that is the best that the Opposition can do, if that is the most significant issue that it can bring against this Government immediately following the Budget and a long recess, this Government has nothing at all to fear from the Opposition because it is bankrupt; it has nothing at all to bring forward. Clearly, in terms of the economy and in terms of other aspects of political action, Australia is in good hands. I think it is important to note that the day after the Budget the Opposition cannot make even one criticism of the Budget. The Opposition had that option. However, it has chosen the subject of Mudginberri and it is this matter that ought to be debated.

Perhaps it is worth mentioning also that this matter was debated yesterday in the House of Representatives. I am informed that yesterday also it was debated, peculiarly, in the Parliament of Western Australia, which had its first business day sitting yesterday as well. One could quickly gain the impression that what is being attempted is an orchestrated move across the nation to whip up a small dispute into something more significant than it really is, to generate acrimony once again by trotting out the tired and, one would hope, discredited efforts of the Liberal Party and the Opposition to divide Australians. By dividing Australians the Opposition believes somehow it will conquer us as a government. However, the orchestrated nature of this debate and the orchestrated push being mounted here should also be noted.

I said that immediately after the Budget no matter of real importance arising from the Budget has been raised. I think it is important to say that the most ticklish part of the Budget announcement in terms of industrial relations-if that is the field the Opposition wants to pursue-is the strong and courageous stand being taken by the Government to achieve a discounting of the consumer price index to account for the devaluation of the Australian dollar. That is a tough and important stand. The working out of that proposition is probably the most important thing happening in the world of industrial relations today in terms of the general economy. The Opposition has not chosen to raise that matter.

The Opposition has not picked on the Budget in any way. One would imagine that the Opposition might have attacked us because the deficit was too large. The Opposition has not chosen to do that. It has not chosen to attack us over discounting for devaluation. It has not chosen to argue that our package for rural Australia is not good enough. Nor has it chosen to argue that the massive boost given to social welfare recipients in the Budget was still too little, or, because the National Party is part of the coalition, too much. Knowing the Opposition, neither has it launched an attack at all on our youth policy in regard to employment opportunities and greater tertiary openings and opportunities for the young people of Australia. They are the issues being debated in Australia today. None of those issues were chosen by the Opposition as the subject of a discussion of a matter of public importance. No doubt the Opposition will say that it will raise those matters in due course in a week's time.

It is significant that not one aspect of our Budget has come under any scrutiny in the first opportunity that the Opposition has had to do so. The Opposition has chosen to focus attention on the subject of industrial relations. That is an area the Government is quite happy to debate and argue. Not only is the Government's performance by far and away better than the efforts of the coalition Government, but industrial relations is an area of activity at which, as the people recognise, the present Government is more proficient. The people of this country are gratefull for the present Government's achievements in lowering the number of industrial disputes.

When the present Government came to office it never accepted that the present law and legal framework applying to industrial relations were perfect.As the Oppositions knows, and will have the opportunity to debate in the autumn session next year, we embarked upon a full inquiry of the law processes of industrial relations. I refer to the Hancock Committee of Review on the Australian Industrial Relations Law and Systems, which has now reported comprehensively. There has been a significant public debate about the contents of that report and the Government has announced its intention to proceed to legislation in the autumn session. It will do so after exhaustive consultation with unions and employers, a technique perfected by this Government, and it will conduct those consultations on a section by section basis of the Act. It is not a global consultation, but a detailed and close-up consultation. Our approach to industrial relations has been calm and orderly, and in concert with the main actors in the field work, to overcome years of Liberal neglect and Liberal abuse of industrial relations which led to the politicisation of that important sector of human endeavour. Our achievement has been to depoliticise the issue of industrial relations so that it can be best dealt with on its merits, and dealt with objectively and in a framework of co-operation, a framework on which we have been able successfully to build and to harness the co-operation of both employers and unions.


Senator Crichton-Browne —Tell us about the next wage case.


Senator COOK —If the Opposition wants to hear about the next wage case, it will be most embarrassed, because the case will be a stunning success for the economy-quite different from what the former coalition Government did when it was in power. But let me not divert from the main point. The main strategy of the Opposition in this debate has been focused on five major areas. These five areas are, unfortunately, the tired and worn-out rhetoric of the Fraser years. Nonetheless, they have been resurrected and represented in an effort to show that, by mere repetition, they will somehow become true.

The first point made by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Chaney, in raising this matter of public importance was to argue the need for law and order and the need to accept sanctions in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The second point was to assert, baldly and ridiculously, that this Government is dominated by unions, and that the failure of the Government-which is not true-to condemn the actions of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union or to order the Meat Inspectors Association across the picket line is somehow proof of this Government toadying to the trade unions. The third point is to argue that there needs to be greater flexibility in the industrial relations system. The fourth point is that unions are somehow oppressive of the community, and finally there has been an argument that this is part of a flimsy attempt to justify section 45D of the Trade Practices Act and to bring in sanctions in the industrial field which properly belong elsewhere. That is the rhetoric of the Opposition. It is the rhetoric of the Fraser years, and it was voted out in 1983 by the people of Australia who rejected it for its falsity and the debilitating and divisive nature of what it brings to the Australian general framework.

Let me take a couple of the assertions before I turn to the general issues in this dispute. Any effort to make this Government appear to be somehow dominated by unions, on this day of all days, would be a most hollow assertion. It is on this day that the Government is in debate with the trade union movement over the discounting of the CPI. In order to hold the accord together the Government is negotiating that through, so that there can be a submission put to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission by this Government and accepted by the union movement to enable the economy as a whole to be enhanced and jobs to be created. We could have backed away from that issue and, if the Opposition's assertion is true, we may have done so-but we have not. We have chosen to address that issue, and I believe that the Government in the Budget Speech courageously put its position. Also on this day the Government has before the House of Representatives a Bill to deregister the Builders Labourers Federation. If the Opposition's assertion were true, of course we would not be taking that course. The Opposition cannot justify its assertion because the present Government has recognised the constructive role of the trade union movement and has sought to enhance by due recognition of proper claims and procedures bringing the trade union movement into the economy in such a way that it can play a constructive, respected and responsible role. That means that we support the constructive, respected and responsible things the trade unions do and oppose those that are improper. That has been the record of this Government and any assertion to the contrary is ridiculous. I believe that the people of Australia understand that.

Let me turn to this Government's general performance, because in the few minutes I have been speaking I have concentrated on the general framework. If what I was saying were not true, industrial disputes would have been out of control in the last two and a half years Labor has been in power. The facts are that the industrial disputes level in this country is at record lows. It remains the lowest for over a decade and a half. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data available from April 1985 reveal that during April the number of working days lost due to industrial disputes was almost half the level of the previous month. This was the lowest April figure for 17 years. During the 12 months to April the number of working days lost was 4.8 per cent lower than for the same period a year ago. This was also the lowest level for this 12 month period for 16 years. That is the record. One can abuse the record by applying rhetoric to distort the image, but the reality is that that is the achievement of this Government.

What we have sought to do has been rewarded by results which the people of Australia can understand and see. One can see by comparing polling in 1983 that industrial relations problems ranked at a level of No. 5 or No. 7 as the most important issue to excite the minds of electors. That issue now ranks at around No. 27 with only about half of one per cent of the community concerned about that topic. That half of one per cent must be the ideological rump of the Liberal Party. It is not only a reality that we have achieved a much calmer, moderate and reasonable industrial relations environment, but through the Government being courageous, honest and prepared to address the issues, the people of Australia think that that is the case too.

With those remarks, I think it is about time I turned to the content of this dispute. One of the assertions by the Opposition is that the Government has not been prepared properly to condemn or reprove the actions of various organisations where that has been necessary. I do not know what papers, articles or references the Opposition relies on for that assertion, because Opposition members have produced no evidence that that is true. However, one need only consult Hansard and various Press releases from the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) to see that the Government has not condoned the actions of the AMIEU and has required the union to lift the picket and to make application to the Commission to vary its award. That has been the Government's position. We have been critical of the AMIEU for not accepting the terms of the award, after it gave a commitment to do so. We have made it clear that we cannot condone that action or the criticisms of Commissioner McKenzie. That has been the Government's position. The assertion is to the contrary. The reality is that the Government has done everything possible to resolve the dispute through the normal industrial processes as we have always sought to do, but it has been frustrated by other parties-that is the real tale of this dispute-which have been interested only in using the dispute for their own political objectives. While trying to resolve the dispute, the Government has been conscious that any action which widens the dispute could have massive adverse consequences for the major national industry. The proposal put by Senator Chaney a few moments ago in this debate as to what the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, would have done would have had precisely that reaction. It would be a reaction which, if precipitated by this Government, would rightly have been condemned by the community. In my view, the responses that we have made to the Mudginberri dispute are proper. To put them into context, I would say that the initial dispute that arose in 1984 saw a six-point agreement between the parties before the Commission as the basis for the Commission creating an award in the Northern Territory. The AMIEU breached that agreement by not accepting the terms of the award and its actions cannot be condoned-we have said that and have made that clear.

This dispute is primarily one, however, for the parties directly involved and it has been the interference of outside parties that has caused the escalation of this dispute. We as a government have made every effort in a sensible manner to resolve it. We recognise our responsibility to provide meat inspection services. The Department of Primary Industry has directed meat inspectors on three occasions to cross the picket line. We have sought an order from the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission directing meat inspectors to perform normal duties at Mudginberri. This was refused by the Commission. Salaries and allowances for meat inspectors who refused duties were stopped from 30 May to 24 June when the abattoir switched to domestic production and no longer required Commonwealth inspectors.

We sought Australian Council of Trade Union involvement at an early stage. We had meetings with representatives of the ACTU, the AMIEU and the Meat Inspectors Association. Minister Kerin has also met the National Farmers Federation and the Cattle Council of Australia. Government representatives have met individually with all the parties to explore a basis for resolving the dispute. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has offered to chair meetings between the unions and employers. The thrust of the Government's efforts has been to achieve an acceptable solution, not engaging in what the Opposition would want us to engage in-grandstanding, which could only worsen the dispute. The Government has sought a settlement in the national interest and a consideration of the issues involved, that is, the tally and union coverage, in a sane atmosphere.

By contrast, the other parties have offered nothing constructive in resolving the dispute and have shown little concern for the overall interests of the industry. The National Farmers Federation sees this dispute as a convenient weapon in its campaign in the first instance, as it sees it, to destroy that ethereal monster that it has created called union power and secondly, but more importantly, this being the point of the dispute, to destroy the tally system and spread a contract system throughout the industry despite the fact that all major awards throughout the country provide for a tally system. The National Farmers Federation has already spread its deregulation efforts to New South Wales where it has served a log of claims on the Meat industry Employees Union seeking to double tally numbers. It has taken extensive legal action, refusing to participate in discussions, and, by persuading the other parties from participating in talks, has ensured that this issue is prolonged. Its refusal to participate in talks because matters were before the court was ludicrous. Its 15 point confidential list of claims is absurd and is in no way designed as a basis for settlement of this dispute.

We believe, too, that there is significant evidence to justify the belief that the Federation has sought to prolong the dispute by providing funding in the case of the owner of this meatworks to finance those legal actions and to encourage legal actions under section 45D of the Trade Practices Act which have been used to extend the dispute. The Melbourne Age of 16 August described the actions of the National Farmers Federation as follows:

At the moment the NFF is fighting to the last drop of someone else's blood. It might not be so brave when its blood, and that of hundreds of individual employers, is on the floor.

It is a courageous position of the NFF which, after all, is only tangentially concerned with this dispute. I am informed that the facts are that in the Northern Territory a significant number of abattoirs have gone broke by applying the formula that the NFF wants to be applied at the Mudginberri abattoir, whereas those which have stuck with the tally system have not gone broke and are still profitable enterprises.

This issue is now being turned into a political football. Once again the Liberal Party is seizing upon industrial relations to try to make some political kudos for itself. The Opposition's anti-union campaign was obvious when Mr Sinclair, Mr Shack, Mr Everingham and, of course, Senator Kilgariff visited the abattoir earlier this year. Nothing that the Opposition has said has offered anything but escalation of the dispute and the possibility of not being able to resolve the matter. In the face of all those circumstances, it seems to me that on post-Budget day we should as a nation be debating in this Senate, the only chamber being broadcast to the community of Australia, the matters of great moment of the economy.

This dispute is in progress. It has not exhausted all the provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. That is not an Act of our creation but of the creation of honourable senators opposite when they were in government. The provisions of that Act have not yet been exhausted and the Government is taking every step to see that they are being properly exhausted. Honourable senators opposite cannot argue a matter of public importance in the Senate when the provisions of the Act have not been properly seen through and all the mechanisms for dispute settlement have not been properly acted upon. This Government will see that this takes place and, given its record in industrial relations and its record of being able properly to deal with these things objectively away from the political spotlight, will bring this dispute, like so many others, to a speedy and, I believe, effective resolution.

However, neither can honourable senators opposite complain about the effect on trade, which is a matter of major and significant concern to this Government, without looking at the whole issue and not just at one section of it. We have to concern ourselves with the trade argument by also looking at the role of the National Farmers Federation in taking a politically expedient opportunity to try to win a system of contract labour in the Northern Territory that does not apply generally. It is the Federation's right-one respects its right-to choose to do that if it wishes, but it should do it through the channels of the Commission and not run a campaign by boycotting abattoirs that do not apply the contract system. It should do it properly. If it did it properly there would not be dislocation of our trade performance. If there is to be any condemnation it should be directed to all parties that have not acted properly. The Government, of course, has acted properly.