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Thursday, 7 November 1985
Page: 1747


Senator SIDDONS(3.41) —I rise to speak in this debate with great reluctance and I intend to speak only briefly. This is the third matter of public importance that has been debated this week. Each time the debate has taken place two valuable hours of the Senate's time has been taken up in debates which by no stretch of the imagination could be considered matters of urgency or matters of public importance, as was envisaged when this technique was introduced into the Senate. A very long list of urgent legislation is before us and thus far it has not been addressed to any degree at all in the whole of the current session. We have over 60 Bills still to debate. I estimate that we have about 60 hours of debating time left; that is, one hour per Bill. That is an impossible task. What are these Bills? We have a tax reform Bill to debate. We have the Appropriation Bills to pass through the Senate. We have a Commonwealth banking Bill to consider, a trade practices Bill, and a companies and securities Bill. We have a Bill of Rights to deal with, which by any standards should be debated for at least 12 hours. We are stopped from addressing this important legislation. We are fiddling while Rome burns. One cannot help but ask the question: What is the Opposition about? Is it trying to filibuster the Senate so that it can have a de facto blocking of Supply? Is it prepared to address the urgent legislation or is it not? At this rate, the Government will not get a chance to get its urgent legislation through the Senate. If that happens we can blame only ourselves for the consequences.

By no stretch of the imagination can one say that a debate on the prices and incomes accord is a matter of public importance. The accord is in place. It was renegotiated by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) only three weeks ago. We had a debate in the Senate three weeks ago on that renegotiated accord. I spoke in that debate. I said that the Government had done a very good job in renegotiating the 2 per cent discount for the consumer price index and that it was amazing that the unions were prepared to go along with that. The Treasurer succeeded in that negotiation; the accord was in place for another two years. Yet today we are debating the accord as a matter of national importance. This is a device that is destroying the Senate's ability to look at urgent legislation and to give it the attention it deserves. It is not as though the Opposition has given any constructive alternatives to the accord. It has tried to draw red herrings along the lines that the accord is responsible for the devaluation of the Australian dollar. That is a very long bow indeed, I should have thought. The real problem with the Australian dollar is the international currency markets and the international currency speculators. I would suggest that it has very little to do with wage fixing in this country.


Senator Michael Baume —Come on!


Senator SIDDONS —What is the alternative? Back in 1981, when the present Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) was Treasurer, the then Government persuaded the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to abandon centralised wage fixing. It said that the Government and business had lost faith in that system of wage fixing.


Senator Button —That's the alternative.


Senator SIDDONS —That was the alternative in 1981. What happened when the alternative was put in place? The metal trades union, which was very powerful and was adept at all kinds of guerrilla tactics, was able to create such industrial chaos that it finally forced that Metal Trades Industry Association of Australia to negotiate with it directly, resulting in a 9.1 per cent increase in wages. That was a 9.1 per cent increase in one piece of negotiation. Of course, all other industries quickly followed suit and there was a wages explosion.


Senator Michael Baume —Because it was too much of a centralised system and it flowed on.


Senator SIDDONS —The whole thrust of the situation in 1981 was that they had lost faith in centralised wage fixing; they wanted decentralised wage fixing. The Opposition is calling for more and more decentralisation of wage fixing.


Senator Button —That's the alternative over there and that would send the dollar down to 10c.


Senator SIDDONS —At least we have a system in place now which is predictable. I will not defend the accord as the only approach to wage fixing, but at least in the present industrial climate it is the only practical approach we have. The Opposition has failed to put forward any workable alternative-any alternative that is within the realm of practical politics. The Opposition gives us the rhetoric that decentralisation of wage fixing would be a good idea. I do not know whether the Opposition has looked at what has occurred recently in the United Kingdom. The Thatcher Government has been moving for more and more decentralisation of wage fixing. There has been enormous bitterness and union confrontation, and wages in the United Kingdom, in spite of horrendous levels of unemployment, have risen at a rate greater than the consumer price index. At least in Australia the Government was successful in negotiating a 2 per cent discount in the CPI. That, I would have thought, is something that deserves congratulations.

I do not intend to take up any further time of the Senate. I hope that our concerns about getting on with the legislative program are heeded and that the few hours of debate remaining in this calendar year-I estimate that 60 hours will be available for debating Government legislation-will be addressed to urgent matters. Let us get the Budget through the Parliament. Let us look at tax reform and decide what will happen there. Let us face up to some of the more critical problems that face the economy. The accord is in place; it is working; it has stabilised wages in this country in a predictable way, something that was noticeably absent in 1981 when the present Opposition introduced its alternative. Let us get on with the problems facing the country and let us stop wasting the Senate's time.