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Wednesday, 27 November 1985
Page: 2371

Senator McKIERNAN(4.10) —This afternoon, while we have not finished considering the Appropriation Bills and we have not debated the taxation legislation-nor have we debated a whole lot of other important pieces of legislation, such as child care, veterans' affairs and so on-we are tied up for two hours in a preposterous and absurd debate on a matter of public importance submitted by Senator Messner on behalf of the Liberal Party of Australia. The matter of public importance reads:

The trade union domination of the government, particularly on the superannuation issue, to the detriment of the Australian community.

It is an absurd and preposterous assertion. It shows yet again how out of touch is the Opposition with the Australian community and the trade union movement. It shows again quite clearly how out of touch is the Opposition, particularly with the trade union movement-that is, if it ever was in touch, and that certainly has not been the case in recent years. The Opposition has not learned anything from its three years in opposition and it is unlikely that it is learning anything at the moment. Perhaps there are some bright lights on the horizon. Perhaps what we are witnessing and partaking in now is some indication that the Opposition might be getting its act together and might be providing this very efficient Government, under the Prime Ministership of Bob Hawke, with some opposition. After all, it has taken only two days for this matter of public importance, which was debated as a matter of public importance in the House of Representatives on Monday, to reach this chamber.

The debate has been led by the big gun in the form of Senator Messner. It is unfortunate that Senator Messner got his notes mixed up on his way into the chamber and gave us an alternative election speech on behalf of the South Australian Opposition leader, Mr Olsen, because that was the essence of what Senator Messner had to say. It is an absurd and preposterous suggestion, as Senator Robert Ray has gone to some lengths to explain, to say that the trade union movement is dominating this Government. He gave some examples of individual unions which are worth repeating-the Federated Confectioners Association of Australia, the Food Preservers Union of Australia and the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Labourers Federation. I can follow that up with many other instances of national unions and State branches of unions not being particularly happy with the performance of the Government in some areas.

Senator Teague —Just name one.

Senator McKIERNAN —In response to Senator Teague's interjection, I am a proud member of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union. That union has an enormous number of people working in towns, and in places where there are no towns, who from time to time are agitated by the performance of the Government and the union in entering into the prices and incomes accord, which they assert is holding down their wages. There are some statistics which can prove that wages have been held back over the term of the Hawke Government. If it were true that the union movement was acting as a homogeneous unit-acting as one-and dominating the Government, I would suggest to this chamber and the people of Australia that there never would have been any form of agreement whatsoever about discounting for the devaluation of the Australian dollar. The trade union movement, if it were in the position of dominance over the Government, never would have conceded to that particular thing. Furthermore, it never would have agreed over the past 2 1/2 years or so to accept wage increases that were compatible only with rises in the consumer price index. I suggest to the Opposition, as Senator Siddons has done, that perhaps we might have a repeat of the metal trades campaign in 1981, when the metals unions led Australia to gain increases of $25 per week, followed six months later by $14 per week, which also included a reduction in working hours from 40 to 38 per week.

History records what happened when government and the trade union movement were not in kilter. Some of us can look back with pride, and some with not so much pride, at what happened in the life of the Whitlam Government. Senator Parer mentioned the wages explosion that took place at that time. We had the law of the jungle. Those unions which were strong went out and got wage rises by whatever methods were available to them. Unfortunately, those which did not have the industrial strength on the job to do anything had to fall back and wait some years to catch up. A great deal of suffering occurred to those lower paid workers who did not have the industrial muscle or strength at that time.

If the trade union movement dominated the Government, we would have now firm control over prices of those consumer items that working people have to purchase week in and week out to maintain themselves in some degree of moderate living standards. Many products have no form of control over them whatsoever. The prices and incomes accord contains a clause which states that the Prices Surveillance Authority will have some power to control prices, but there have been criticisms from sections of the trade union movement and from its centralised body that the Prices Surveillance Authority is but a toothless tiger that will not deliver very much.

We are to spend two hours debating this very negative proposition which really has turned out, having listened to Senator Messner, to be an alternative Opposition speech for the election in South Australia in a week and a half. The matter of public importance smacks very much of the Liberal Party's policy of privatisation and deregulation, with which the Opposition in general seems to be pretty happy at the moment. It is a policy that undoubtedly will be changed, or there will be moves to change it on 8 December after the South Australian Opposition has been defeated. Senator Robert Ray is offering odds of two to one on the outcome of the South Australian election, although I think that the odds will increase rapidly as the polls come in and show that the Bannon Government is retaining its position and improving it.

The matter of public importance is nothing more than an attack on the trade union movement. It is not really about superannuation, although Senator Parer gave some attention to it and I will return shortly to his contribution. It is an attack on rational, reasoned industrial relations which this country is now witnessing under the prices and incomes accord, which was negotiated very early in the life of the first Hawke Government. We now see accord mark 2 in place, which includes a reference to an overall superannuation scheme in which, hopefully, all workers in Australia will have the opportunity to participate. The point must be reinforced that only about 50 per cent of the work force of this country now has access to or can join any form of superannuation scheme, irrespective of who runs it-the trade unions, employers, governments or private companies. Only about 50 per cent of the work force has the right to join a superannuation scheme.

Senator Parer —What about free choice?

Senator McKIERNAN —I will deal with free choice; do not worry about that. What we are putting forward in this proposal is that we open up the superannuation schemes, on the basis of equity, to the rest of the work force, who are forgotten by the Opposition, because in the main they are middle and lower income earners. They are not representatives of big business; they are ordinary working men and women who have been deprived of what should be a right. The Liberal Party, in leading this debate this afternoon, has shown yet again that it represents the privileged sector of the community; not those small middle income and lower paid workers.

The accord mark 1 is proving to be an historic agreement-an agreement about social equity. The agreement is that after 1 July next year the Government will support arguments before the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to allow a national superannuation scheme, or an umbrella scheme, to exist which will be open to all workers. That will be financed in part by 2 per cent of a suggested 5 per cent gain in productivity that we have had over recent years. Of course, this grates with members of the Opposition because they have had and still have-unfortunately, they have not learned anything in opposition-a view that any increases in wages and conditions for working people should be stopped at all cost. Some Opposition senators-thankfully not all of them-would have people in this country working and existing like some of our brothers and sisters in South East Asia and other parts of the world, who work for a bowl of rice merely to keep them alive to become part of the productive process the next day. If honourable senators opposite had their way with the privatisation and deregulation argument they would move to cut wages, as we saw in Western Australia. I will not fall for the trap, or try the patience of the Acting Deputy President, of making a pre-election speech on the forthcoming Western Australian election. We have a competent and capable leader who can do that and who will not need all that much help from us. It could happen. We saw it in Western Australia, where a very great campaign was organised to cut youth wages as the first step in the deregulation of the labour movement. There has also been quite a deal of agitation about penalty rates on weekends and so on, campaigns which, thankfully, at this stage have been stopped and negated.

The current superannuation agreement is about social equity. We must put on the record that the economy has grown by 5 per cent in the last two years. Growth in productivity also has been about 5 per cent in the last two years. Senator Robert Ray gave us the figures on the growth in profits. They were backed up by Democrat Senator Siddons. The work force has also grown by 5 per cent. Workers are entitled to a share in that productivity growth. That share will be financed in part by 2 per cent of the 5 per cent productivity increase. It will take the form of superannuation. The superannuation agreement is a rational, reasonable and responsible agreement which will be recorded in history as such.

The other benefit to the nation from the superannuation agreement relates to the fact that superannuation schemes are here, have been here and have been spreading over recent years. They existed when the Opposition was in government. The Opposition did very little about them, except to encourage the massive tax rorts that existed under the superannuation schemes, tax rorts that hopefully this Government has put an end to, bringing about some redistribution of the national income. The superannuation agreement can and will benefit the economy very significantly once it is fully instituted. The significant benefits will be in the form of savings which, instead of being fed directly into the consumer's pay, will be in the form of savings. Those savings will then be able to be invested, which will, hopefully, lead to further growth in the economy.

We have an aging population. By virtue of the superannuation scheme those people will be less dependent on the social security system. They will have a degree of independence which will be good for them. I have one minute in which to talk about the freedom of choice. Very little freedom of choice exists in industry. I refer to my own experience. As a worker on the work place floor, on a number of occasions not only was I forced to work eight hours a day; I was asked to put in overtime to the extent of working 24 hours in one day. There was very little freedom of choice. The choice I had was that I could either work there or not work there. I conclude by commending the officials of the ACTU and the very good Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, Mr Ralph Willis, for reaching agreement on this matter.