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Wednesday, 10 May 1989
Page: 2206


Senator PARER(5.19) —Generally, while we support the thrust of the Wheat Marketing Bill 1989, the Wheat Industry Fund Levy Bill 1989, the Wheat Industry Fund Levy Collection Bill 1989, the Wheat (Termination of Tax) (No. 1) Bill 1989, the Wheat (Termination of Tax) (No. 2) Bill 1989, the Wheat (Termination Permit Tax) Bill 1989 and the Wheat Tax (Permit) Collection Amendment Bill 1989, the legislation is subject to the amendments which will be moved in the committee stage by the coalition parties. At one time I was Chairman of a group called the Australian Coal Exporters Association. I want to make it clear that this was not a marketing authority as such but a grouping of industry to exchange ideas about the marketing of commodities overseas. More importantly, its objective was to stave off government intervention on world markets which would have been devastating to the growth of that particular industry. In some quarters there is an entrenched belief that marketing authorities either maintain or ratchet up prices. If one has a monopoly and there are no substitutes then this is undoubtedly correct.

I know, however, of no commodity which enjoys that luxury on the world scene. The closest to that we have seen in recent times has been the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC. The speed with which an oil reliant world switched to alternative forms of energy, whether they were coal or uranium, was a reflection of how markets can and do adjust to monopoly pricing. The International Tin Council inflated tin prices, which had an adverse effect on Australia's marginal producers in the early 1980s. That is another clear example of how the market situation cannot really be manipulated. The simple fact is that the market determines our prices: when there is an oversupply, the price goes down and when there is an undersupply, the price goes up. Certainly, subsidies distort market prices. A recent example of that was the sale of United States wheat to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I might also say that there are few world markets that are not subject to varying degrees of what is called corruption. I heard the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) talk the other day about intervening again in the energy market in Europe. What he did not recognise is that when commodities are sold into a market and there are subsidies in that particular market, they are competing on that market with other countries; they are not competing in the subsidised market.

This legislation, however, deals with the deregulation of the domestic market, which represents about 10 per cent of the total production of wheat required for human consumption. There is, as honourable senators know, already a permit system in existence which enables feed wheat to be supplied direct from grower to buyer. What I want to address, however, is why the Government chose wheat when there are so many other areas that could have and should have been tackled first. The question I have to ask is: what are the real motives. After six years, all that this Government has delivered is the highest taxation of any government in history, an intolerable inflation rate, something like seven times that of Japan, intolerable interest rates which are devastating the business community and family home buyers and a continuing and alarming current account deficit and net foreign debt of approximately $95 billion which puts us as the third highest in the world behind Brazil and Mexico.

On the micro-economic front, financial markets were deregulated by this Government but again I ask the motive. It was not because of any perceived economic advantage but because the Labor Party Caucus was reminded of the inherent hatred of the Labor Party for the Australian banks. In the main, rather than use economic levers that the Treasurer (Mr Keating) boasts about, he and the Government have used one blunt instrument, monetary policy. Jack up interest rates and hope that the banks get the blame in an attempt to reduce the consumption of imported goods rather than improve our export and import replacement capacity. The whole economic management of the Government over the past six years, notwithstanding the improved terms of trade, has been a disastrous failure. Becoming aware of that, the Government decided that it should put up some sort of front and engage in micro-economic reform. Being the political animals they are, it was not hard for Mr Kerin, who I might say appears to be genuine, to convince his Party that it should zero in on a constituency which never has and never will accept the Labor Party. When the Minister wrapped up the debate in the other place he made some interesting comments. Some quotable quotes are:

The positions put forward really demonstrate why we are crippling ourselves as a commodity exporting nation.

And:

. . . it is sensible to look at Australia's overall interest, producers, consumers, exporters and service providers.

And:

Because we deregulate one part of the system to the advantage of an industry, it does not mean we have to deregulate the world.

As I read Hansard, the latter comment by the Minister related to what he called `high cant on Labor deregulation'. What extraordinary hypocrisy by this Government and this Minister. If we are to get out of the present mess we must become more competitive and be seen by the rest of the world as a reliable supplier. We will never achieve those objectives until our outmoded, totally regulated, industrial relations system is deregulated. We must change the system which fosters featherbedding, reduction in productivity and industrial disputation, all of which have contributed to the reduction and, in some cases, destruction of our wealth creation capacity.

These comments are no reflection on the capacity of individual Australians to work and compete with anyone else in the world. What prevents them from doing so are some trade union leaders-not all-who, either out of stupidity of because of power grabbing, are not interested in the well-being of their own members and thus the future of this country. They are the people who are destroying the standard of living of Australians and they are the people who call the shots on this Government. The Minister must have had his brain switched off when he stated during the second reading speech, that:

This Government has other parts of the whole system-shipping and coastal trade and the wharves-on the agenda.

These things do not really affect all that much the wheat industry as a bulk commodity. It is a wonder that the Minister was not struck by lightning. Like every other export industry in this country, the wheat industry must run the gauntlet of waterfront rorts, inefficiency and unreliability in getting the product to the market.

Gross overmanning at grain loading facilities is one of the more glaring rorts that cost the Australian grain growing industry dearly. Most bulk commodities loaded at Australian terminals do not use any stevedoring labour at all. Waterside workers have been completely removed from the bulk handling of iron ore, bauxite, alumina, mineral concentrates, sugar and coal. The same should apply to bulk grain. Research undertaken by the National Farmers Federation found that, with modern grain loading facilities and self trimming vessels, only one person, a supervisor, was required to be on board during grain loading operations. This research is supported by the fact that a number of grain ships in the port of Brisbane have been loaded and passed as being seaworthy without a watersider in sight.

In my own home State, six men are usually paid to be on board a vessel when loading grain in the port of Brisbane. Typically, there are four waterside workers, including a first aid man and a timekeeper, as well as a foreman and supervisor. I visited the grain wharf and there is no need for any of them. A modern grain loader is so constructed that the loader-operator sits over the top of the hold and can see into every part of the hold. While I was there, I saw two Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) people just looking into the hold. That was their job. There was no other job for them to do.

In the port of Gladstone, overmanning is even worse, with seven men on board with a modern grain loader. The situation is slightly better at the port of Mackay where the Industrial Relations Commission recently ruled that a manning level of three-and not the six men demanded-was sufficient for grain loading. Yet, not 50 metres from the new Mackay grain loader is the world's largest sugar terminal without a WWF member in sight.

It is interesting that, in making its recommendations in its final report that the WWF relinquish its coverage of bulk loading operations, the Inter-State Commission noted that the presence of waterside workers on board ships loading grain is an historical leftover from the days when wharfies loaded bags of grain. They actually carried the bags and put them on the ships. Those days are gone. That is last century stuff. This historical leftover costs grain growers approximately $30 million a year. Yet in his second reading speech, the Minister had the hide to say that what happens on the wharves does not really affect the wheat industry.

A recent insight was gained into the attitude of the waterside workers to overmanning. In October 1987 certain loading operations in Townsville were exempted by the Department of Transport from using a lookout man. The union objected and the matter went to arbitration. The Arbitration Commission, in ruling that the lookout man was not needed for safe loading, noted that in Gladstone loading had been conducted for some considerable time without a lookout. The comment of a Mr John Coombs, then federal organiser of the WWF, is recorded in the February issue of the Maritime Worker, and it is worth quoting:

Unwittingly we showed we could perform the loading without a lookout and this proved difficult to reverse. It was pretty hard to tell the Commission it couldn't be done when it had been done. This should be a lesson to us all, and in the future, branches should carefully consider the possible consequences of departing from existing safety practices.

Of course, it was not a safety practice at all. Even Senator McKiernan will agree with this. The price of this overmanning pales into insignificance when we compare it with the demurrage charges the grain industry faces when ships are delayed as a result of restrictive work ordering practices. The Waterside Workers Federation requires labour to be ordered well in advance-frequently, 20 to 24 hours in advance-which means that stevedoring labour costs are often incurred without actual loading taking place.

There are a number of reasons why vessels may not be ready for loading: weather, health, a letter of credit problem, tidal delays or, in the case of grain ships, the failure to pass survey, which means that the Department of Primary Industries and Energy believes that the vessel is not clean enough. Ordering waterside labour is a costly exercise for all stevedoring companies. They can wait until the ship has passed survey before ordering labour and risk incurring demurrage. I remind honourable senators that this would cost a minimum of $15,000 a day-the costs for larger vessels are higher. Or they can order labour before the vessel has passed survey and risk extra costs being incurred by labour being ordered and not used if the ship fails the Department's inspection. All this for waterside labour which the Inter-State Commission observes has no useful function in grain loading, anyway; it should not even be there.

The wheat industry in Queensland has also been plagued by labour shortages on the waterfront. I should point out that these are not genuine labour shortages as much as shortfalls in meeting the grossly inflated manning levels of stevedoring labour required in Australian ports. Nevertheless, the problem caused to Queensland exporters, including grain growers, has been real enough. These include longer queueing times for ships in port, greater freight rates and demurrage costs. The labour shortages are caused by restrictive work practices unique to the port of Brisbane-the one-and-seven roster. The port of Brisbane suffered major shortages last year as a result of the restrictive one-in-seven roster which applies only in that port and in no other capital city port in Australia.

Under this system employees work for seven weeks and are rostered off for one week. The theory behind the one-and-seven roster is that wharfies work an extra hour each shift which accrues towards their rostered week off, after seven weeks' work. This theory does not really work. The extra hour's work on top of a seven-hour shift entitles wharfies to a 20-minute coffee break and reduces the extra hour to 40 minutes. It is time spent but not worked, as I mentioned earlier in regard to the method of loading grain ships. The rostered week off-Senator Stone will be interested to know-not only is taken on full pay but also includes a 25 per cent loading for overtime which the wharfies did not incur because they were not working. It is calculated that this restrictive roster takes 50 men out of Brisbane's 420 strong work force each day--


Senator Stone —And who's paying for all this?


Senator PARER —The payment comes back to the wheat grower one way or another. Brisbane ports suffered shortages of labour on 270 days out of 363 during 1988, according to an information paper prepared by the Australian Chamber of Shipping in February this year. If a port needs extra workers during peak periods on the waterfront they must be flown in from other ports around Australia--


Senator Stone —First class?


Senator PARER —That is right; first class accommodation. Last year it cost about $1m to transfer waterside workers to the port of Brisbane. That is simply the cost of air fares and accommodation. It does not include wages. It cost $200 a day on average in air fares, accommodation and travelling allowances before the wharfies even went to work. This work restriction reached farcical proportions during Expo. As everyone would know, accommodation in the city was tight. During Expo these interstate wharf labourers had to be accommodated as far away as Toowoomba. They were paid four hours travelling time to and from the port of Brisbane--


Senator McKiernan —Mr Acting Deputy President, I take a point of order. The Senate this afternoon is discussing legislation to do with the marketing of wheat. I can understand Senator Parer and other members of the Opposition not wanting to discuss it because of the rifts it has caused between the parties, evidence of which we have seen in recent days. My point of order is that the honourable senator should address the issues in the legislation. There are ample opportunities, of which the honourable senator is well aware, for him to continue the union bashing line he has been proceeding along for quite a period.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Peter Baume) —Order! The Chair works from the title of the Bill. There is no point of order.


Senator PARER —Obviously, Senator McKiernan did not like that example of extraordinary inefficiency and archaic work practices which this Government will not address. It will address the area of minor importance because it is not in its constituency, but it will not address the major issue which is bringing this country to its knees. In the seven-month period from 1 August 1988 to 1 March this year it cost one stevedoring company in the port of Brisbane over half a million dollars to transfer wharfies from other ports. The stevedores are not permitted to employ casual labour within the same city in peak time. They have to be flown in from as far away as Melbourne.

The coalition is supporting the thrust of this legislation, as was briefly touched on by Senator Stone, on the condition that substantial progress is made in deregulation of the waterfront. In this area it is high noon for the Hawke Government. Just a few days ago I raised this question with Senator Button. He gave me the nonsensical reply that my question was rhetorical. I asked him whether, in view of the remarks made by members of the Waterside Workers Union, such as Mr Tas Bull, the Government would accept the Inter-State Commission's report. He assured me that some time this month, maybe within a few days either side of the pre-determined date, the Government would come out with an agenda of reform--


Senator Stone —We'll see.


Senator PARER —We will. The Government can no longer use the Inter-State Commission's inquiry as an excuse to postpone taking action to clean up the rorts and inefficiencies on the waterfront. All the Government's talk about being serious about micro-economic reform must now be replaced with serious action. The Inter-State Commission's final report has placed the onus fairly and squarely on the Government, stating:

It is abundantly clear that the waterfront will not reform, itself . . . there must be a big push from government.

True to form, the WWF is putting the preservation of its union power base ahead of the good of the country. As I mentioned earlier, Mr Tas Bull has rejected outright-and he is supported by Mr Ian Court of the Australian Council of Trade Unions--


Senator Stone —And supported by Bill Kelty.


Senator PARER —And Bill Kelty. They are rejecting the Commission's recommendations. We will soon see whether the Labor Party has the political nerve to make its union constituency give up its nice little earner in the ports or whether it will cave in once again. Probably Mr Kerin is genuine but, as I mentioned earlier, he had no trouble in getting through his own Caucus legislation deregulating the domestic wheat market, the thrust of which I personally support. However, there are much bigger issues which this Government has not addressed. The challenge for this Government is that if it does not address these issues its credibility will suffer. More importantly, unless we do something about the incredibly high and continuing current account deficit, increase our exports and improve our import replacement productivity, this country will continue to head down the decline of a banana republic and may well overtake Brazil and Mexico with the level of our debt.