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Wednesday, 21 August 1985
Page: 102


Senator KILGARIFF(4.24) —The matter of public importance is:

The serious consequences for Australia of the Government's failure to deal adequately with the issues raised by trade union action against the Mudginberri meat works.

The purpose of the debate today is to give this problem an airing in the Senate to allow the people of Australia to know what the trouble is all about. A young couple in Arnhem Land-they are battlers and pioneers-operate a buffalo abattoir. They are working within the law with their employees, but there is a move to crush them financially. As I said, and as one can see, they are working within the announcement by Commissioner McKenzie on the Northern Territory meat processing award of 1944. That was made in April, prior to the unions picketing the abattoir. In April this year a new Northern Territory meat workers award was handed down by a Full Bench of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. It introduced the option of a payment by result system which allows for the negotiation of a piecework system between employers and employees. This system bypassed the union.

Such a system was introduced by Jay and Joy Pendarvis in their abattoir at Mudginberri, with the full agreement of their employees, on 9 May this year. On 10 May a picket was established outside the Pendarvis abattoir. It was set up by the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union. Since its establishment no Commonwealth meat inspectors have entered the abattoir to inspect meat for export. As Commonwealth meat inspectors are the only persons authorised to approve meat fit for export, the Mudginberri abattoir has been unable to fulfil its overseas contract obligations for over three months. This has brought the Pendarvis couple almost to financial ruin. It is interesting that the Northern Territory meat inspectors live at Mudginberri. Not so long ago the Federal meat inspectors also lived at Mudginberri, but they have moved to Jabiru. Now if they wish to inspect the meat they have to cross the picket line.

The Pendarvis couple, rightly believing that the picket was illegal, applied for an injunction against the pickets. An injunction was granted under the Trade Practices Act, but the pickets refused again and again to comply with the court's order. They were acting against the law of the country. In June the AMIEU was fined in the Federal Court of Australia for its disobedience of the previous court order. The union continued to ignore the courts' directives and persisted in maintaining the picket. It continued to break the law of the land. The Pendarvic concern at the prospective loss of overseas markets grew and representations were made on their behalf by the Northern Territory's Minister for Primary Production, Steve Hatton, to the Federal Minister for Primary Industry, John Kerin. Mr Hatton sought to have Mr Kerin empower Northern Territory meat inspectors to certify meat fit for export. Mr Kerin refused to do so. Why? The owners of Mudginberri abattoir face the loss of export markets worth at least $5.5m this year alone. A business employing more than 40 employees faces closure and those employees face the prospect of joining the ranks of their unemployed former colleagues of the Australian meat industry. I say `former' because when the Mudginberri employees decided that they wished to work under the present system they were kicked out of the union. So much for democracy!

The debate today is not about just an isolated industrial dispute in the Northern Territory. It is about the future of this country's industries. It is about the double standards in the current industrial relations circus and the present Federal Government's complete and abject failure to take any action to control a union which is acting completely outside the law. Senator Siddons is not in the chamber now; but, as the Senate is not sitting next week, I invite him to go to the Northern Territory and visit Mudginberri. If he does, I think he will be very surprised at what he finds out on the spot. Perhaps some of this thoughts would be tempered. If what is happening at Mudginberri is allowed to spread throughout industry, if unions are to be permitted by the Government to act outside the law and, in the process, destroy the businesses which employ their members and if that is the direction which this Government intends Australia to take, our hopes of becoming competitive in world markets and of reducing unemployment are dashed before we even start.

If ever there seemed to be a business operation which contained all the ingredients for financial success as well as employee satisfaction-I have spoken to the employees and I assure honourable senators that they wholeheartedly support the abattoir after their experience in working in other abattoirs under the tally system-it was at Mudginberri. Both parties at Mudginberri were in agreement. The employer and the employees had put their heads together and had come up with a remuneration arrangement which was highly satisfactory to all. I have visited the Mudginberri abattoir and spoken to the meatworkers. I have also been to the picket line. The workers have worked under the tally system in abattoirs, as I have said, and they are in no doubt that they are far better off under the payment by result system.

Mr Pendarvis has a market for buffalo meat and has jobs to offer his employees at a rate of payment upon which they agree. His employees wish to work. The Arbitration Commission says that the payment arrangements are legal. The union says that it is not prepared to abide by the rulings of the Commission. Meanwhile, the Government stands by and does nothing while this rebel union is on the rampage breaking the laws of the country. The Government has done nothing about the Mudginberri picket and it did nothing about the Australian Council of Trade Unions sanctioned 24-hour waterfront strike in support of the Mudginberri pickets.

The Minister for Primary Industry has refused to authorise Northern Territory meatworkers to inspect meat for export. He could do this with the stroke of a pen. His excuse is that such action could escalate the matter into a national dispute. He is looking the other way; he is doing a Pontius Pilate act, he is washing his hands. He is not prepared to support the legal operators, the Mudginberri operators. Rather, he looks the other way and disregards the actions of a union that is breaking Australian law. Mr Kerin is offering to the AMIEU the Mudginberri station as a sacrificial lamb in the hope of avoiding industrial difficulties in other meatworks around the country. What he fails to see is that the Australian meat industry in its present depressed state needs more than ever the sort of arrangement which was struck between the employer and employees at the Mudginberri station.

The National Farmers Federation has quoted figures which indicate that the cost of slaughter per beast under the payment for result system is some $34 per head, as opposed to the cost under the tally system of some $158 per head. The level of productivity under the payment for result system is also much higher than it is under the tally system. The arrangement reached between the Pendarvises and their employees was one which would have allowed the abattoir to operate viably. It would not have gone the way of other meatworks in this country, many of which have closed because of the incredible operating cost of slaughtering a beast under the tally system of $158 per head as against $34 per head under the payment for result system. However, the dispute goes further than that. Primary producers have a market. Nothing would be left for them if it cost some $158 per head to kill a beast. It is incredible that today we have this dispute at Mudginberri. It is killing the industry and a young couple who are pioneers and at the same time hundreds of meat workers are without jobs. I can assure honourable senators that the situation will get worse due to the simple fact that abattoirs in the country are now becoming more and more uneconomic under the tally system.

It is difficult to believe that the Federal Government, and for that matter the unions, cannot see the merit in the system which was operating at Mudginberri. It is difficult to believe that they cannot see the potential for employers and employees to come together to negotiate their wage or salary arrangements to their mutual satisfaction and within the award set down by the Arbitration Commission-within the laws of the land. It is even more difficult to believe that the Federal Government prefers to establish a practice of allowing unions to ignore the decisions of the Arbitration Commission and the Federal Court but that, it seems, is the case. That is why we are giving this problem an airing in the Senate today.

There is no question that both the employer and the employees are morally and legally entitled to proceed with the agreement which they have reached but they are being thwarted by the union. The union is using strong arm tactics and has the obvious support-this has been seen-of the ACTU which, obviously, is out to crush the young couple, the Pendarvises, in Arnhem Land. As I have said, we have had no constructive action from Mr Kerin despite the fact that he stated unequivocally on the Four Corners program that the activities of the AMIEU in this dispute are illegal.

Mr Kerin's refusal to confront the issue is in line with the weak, servile and negligent approach which has been taken by many of his colleagues. Many Ministers in the Federal Government are involved in this issue in various ways. For instance, the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, Mr Willis, has recently indicated that he wishes to see the matter referred back to the Arbitration Commission. He is attempting to pass the responsibility for the dispute to the Commission and so absolve the Government of its responsibilities. The responsibility lies in the hands of the Government. The Minister for Trade, Mr Dawkins, seems to have no regard for the fact that the Pendarvises and Australia stand to lose a lucrative overseas market.

The contribution of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) to the dispute has been even less. The only time he has been involved in any way in this dispute was when a private and confidential letter stating the terms of settlement proposed to him by Mudginberri on 12 August turned up in the union ranks, with the AMIEU. I am not suggesting that the Prime Minister would have leaked this confidential document but it did go to his office. I wonder why and how such a confidential document turned up in the hands of the union which is the cause of all the problems. It is a most peculiar situation.

As I have said, all Ministers are avoiding the issue because they know that they simply cannot handle the union movement. This Government has made a lot of its accord and its ability to manage economic policy because of its special relationship with the trade union movement. That special relationship is good only as long as the trade unions want it to be. Comes the showdown and the Government buckles or merely refuses to tackle the issue. This is exactly the situation which applies today in regard to the Mudginberri dispute.

The dispute at Mudginberri has indeed been very revealing. It has put the lie to the Government's claims of being able to deal with the unions on the basis of consensus. It puts the lie to the Government's claim of being able to deal with the unions at all. The Government's failure to deal with the issues raised by the Mudginberri dispute is like its problems with the ACTU over tax reform. It is only the beginning of its problems with the unions and that will mark the beginning of the end of the Labor Government. Let us have a little sanity regarding this dispute. We all realise-I have said this before-that unionism is a good thing. It has brought many things for the workers of Australia but it is being abused now by the AMIEU.