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Friday, 23 August 1985
Page: 267

Senator SIDDONS(10.30) —The Australian Democrats support the Government's move to deregister the Builders Labourers Federation. Over a long period the actions of this union have been totally irresponsible and have done great damage to the building industry. Time and again the BLF has ruthlessly pursued its own interests by any means possible with complete disregard for the effects of the resulting disruption on the rest of the community. Senator Messner instanced some of the tactics that have been applied by this union such as calling a strike in the middle of a large concrete pour, which means that jackhammers have had to be brought in the next day to chip away hundreds of tonnes of concrete. The BLF has also engaged in tactics such as Norm Gallagher's guaranteeing that if crane drivers joined the BLF he would triple their wages within 12 months. They joined and he did, by holding every building site in the country to ransom.

Initially the Government was planning to move promptly against the BLF. Now the plan is to send the matter to the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission for judgment. Should the Commission decide that the behaviour of the BLF warrants deregistration, the Government will act. I accept this course of action but with very strong reservations. I have no quarrel with bringing in the Commission to act as an umpire. Indeed, it would be a very dangerous precedent for the Government to deregister a union without bringing in an impartial body. To do otherwise would amount to the Government acting as prosecution, judge and jury. This is not something that anyone with a commitment to justice would be pleased to see. If this were done, it could well encourage conservative governments to act against unions for reasons of purely political expediency. The Liberal and National parties have a long record of making political mileage out of union bashing and we would not like to see this practice encouraged.

I have a nagging suspicion that the Government is attempting to put any action against the BLF on the backburner by sending the case to the Arbitration Commission. Since the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) first announced what action would be taken against the BLF there has been considerable disquiet within factions of the Australian Labor Party and the union movement generally. It would be a travesty of justice if the Government allowed feuding in its own ranks to prevent action being taken against this rogue union. The first step in the direction of a backdown would be an attempt to drag out proceedings in the Commission. The next step could well be the dropping of the case altogether after public interest has dissipated. I do not think it is unreasonable for the Australian Democrats to ask the Government whether it can give us any indication as to the anticipated length of the reference to the Commission in this case. Perhaps Senator Ryan would like to take notice of that question. We believe that the Government must show that it is serious about taking the BLF to task by ensuring that the Arbitration Commission proceedings take place as quickly as possible. The ground work done between 1981 and 1984 in the previous deregistration case should, wherever possible, be used by the Commission to speed up proceedings. The Government must act upon the findings of the Commission and not be swayed by good behaviour arguments of the BLF. When the chips are down the BLF can behave itself, only to revert to its old ways when the opportunity presents itself.

It is not only the Government that must maintain its backbone on this issue. Employers have a bad record in this area too and the history of deregulation of the BLF bears this out. The last deregulation case against the BLF was commenced by the Fraser Government in 1981 due largely to complaints by employers about the actions of the BLF. The case dragged on until 1983 when the Federal Government pulled out and it was finally abandoned altogether in 1984 when the employers pulled out. The reason the last case was so protracted was largely the ambivalence of the employer bodies. The employers made a big noise for action to be taken. However, when it came to actually supporting the case, giving evidence and perhaps antagonising the unions, they became weak-kneed. They wanted the Government to do their dirty work.

Senator Walters —What absolute rubbish.

Senator SIDDONS —I am afraid that the record bears this out. The dropping of the case by the Hawke Government in 1983 was largely due to the lack of support by the employers. If the employers now believe there is a strong case against the BLF they must come forward and give absolute backing to the Government.

The trade union movement is also open to charges of hypocrisy after its on again-off again support of deregistration proceedings. The BLF has acted very badly towards other unions in the past. Members have been poached, demarcation conflicts have flared and violence has been used against members of other unions. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has been highly critical at times of the BLF but it has been unwilling to take any action against it. I am afraid that the unions want it both ways. They want to reap the benefits of BLF-won conditions in terms of flow-ons and industry norms but they do not want to take action against any injury to their members by BLF tactics. The Government, to its credit, is not proposing to conduct its own kangaroo court. It is taking this matter to the umpire for a dispassionate and independent judgment. Therefore, those unions with real grievances against the BLF should also support the case and not merely adopt a knee-jerk reaction that `the Government is merely union bashing'. This is a critical matter.

I believe that the case against the BLF is overwhelming. The BLF has used its industrial strength to further its own ends at the expense of the community. Let us have a brief look at the history of this case. In 1982 the Winneke Royal Commission into the Activities of the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Labourers Federation painted a very black picture of the operations of the BLF. Bribes and secret commissions were said to be commonplace. Interest free loans were given to BLF officials. Corruption, it seems, is not limited to the better known members of the BLF.

The Loy Yang dispute was a long and costly affair for the Victorian Government and Victorian taxpayers. The provision of a new power station for the Victorian State Electricity Commission cost far more than was originally estimated and took longer than planned, in part due to the disruptive tactics of the BLF. The BLF pursued a log of claims in the Loy Yang dispute with crippling bans on the five main contractors working on the site. Things became so bad in fact that the contractors withdrew from the site and no work was carried out from April to December 1980. The dispute was not resolved until the State Government made a `hardship' payment to the labourers stood down even though it was widely accepted that the BLF had arranged for work elsewhere for those on strike. The taxpayers had to foot the bill for the strike over some years at Loy Yang which was caused by the BLF.

Not all BLF tactics have been directed towards employers. The 1983 scissor lift dispute is a prime example of BLF violence against other unionists. Scissor lifts were introduced on building sites in the early 1980s. Because they replaced scaffolding in some circumstances-and this was a BLF preserve-the BLF wanted to control them. Tradesmen objected, claiming that they were the ones who used them and therefore they should operate them as tools of their trade. The dispute which followed was exceedingly bloody and resulted in the BLF being disaffiliated from the Victorian Trades Hall Council, no less. In this case unions took action against the BLF, yet they are ambivalent about the Government doing the same thing.

The dispute over the building of the light towers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last year was just another example of BLF aggression towards other unions. The Arbitration Commission awarded that work to the Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia. The BLF claimed that it should do the work and imposed pickets which caused considerable disruption and expense. May's V. C. Transport Pty Ltd, the company which moved the steel sections from the fabrication plant to the site, eventually went broke due to BLF bans.

The union has constantly flouted wage guidelines and gone for pay increases outside the normal channels. Endless pledges of good behaviour have been broken as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Last year, following a period of industrial unrest in the building industry, the industry's code of conduct agreement was restored and peace prevailed for a very short time. This agreement has been broken 100 times by the BLF since it was introduced. From all the evidence which is readily available it seems obvious to me that the case against the BLF is irrefutable.

I urge that proceedings in the Arbitration Commission be carried on as quickly as possible. It is also vital that the responsibility for carrying on the case is not left solely to the Government. All interested parties must stand up and be counted. This Bill, as Senator Messner said, clearly gives the Government the opportunity to act, not to act or to act in part. I am afraid that the monkey is very squarely on the shoulders of the Government at this point. The responsibility, once this legislation is passed, will be entirely the Government's. Other members of the other interested parties in the community should stand up and support the Government but in the final analysis it is the Government that has to take the initiative. We hope it does.