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Monday, 29 May 1989
Page: 2904

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade)(3.41) —While I am indebted to Senator Chaney for his passing compliment in the course of his speech about my approach to micro-economic reform, which is not calculated to assist me in my next pre-selection, I have to say nonetheless that so far as wasting the time of the Senate goes, in this very same week that a major statement is to come down from the Government addressing all the issues that are the subject matter of this motion, this effort of Senator Chaney's today is in a class of its own. The reform of the waterfront is, and manifestly has been, a major priority in the Hawke Government's micro-economic agenda. We acknowledge it to be a matter of urgency. We do not need any motion of this kind to put it to us in those terms. I will be happy to detail a little later the kind of effort this Government has already undertaken up until now in pursuit of such reform. Later in the week I will be very happy to make a much more detailed statement on behalf of the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Willis) as to how we are addressing the issue right now.

There is only one reason why waterfront reform has become so necessary-we acknowledge it to be such-that is, that the conservative parties, both during the Fraser years and in their preceding decades in government, allowed gross deficiencies to develop in the shipping industries and on the waterfront. Many of the present underlying problems on the waterfront, which we do acknowledge exist, stretch back to the introduction of containerisation in the late 1960s. This was a time when the coalition was in power but it failed to address in any systematic or coherent way the issues that were brought about by such a fundamental change. The Fraser Government's approach to these problems was simply to duck for cover by handing the industry over to the employers and the unions to fix. Fraser abolished the Australian Stevedoring Industry Authority in 1977 and handed over most of its functions to the Association of Employers of Waterfront Labour, the AEWL, which now controls employment arrangements in conjunction with the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF). The then Government did not begin to attempt to put any strategy in place to ensure that improvements were achieved. Its record of micro-economic reform on the waterfront, as elsewhere, was a great big fat zero. That is the basis on which Senator Chaney and his colleagues come and preach the nostrums that we have been hearing today. They have never had any positive ideas about how to address these issues, only destructive ones. I will come in a moment to what the current batch of ideas amount to, as spelt out in the Future Directions documents.

To the extent that one is able to gauge the credentials of the Opposition parties when it comes to a difficult and tricky measure of micro-economic reform in which vested interests are obviously playing a considerable role, one has only to look at the appalling performance in the context of wheat deregulation in recent weeks to see what heart, what stomach, there is on the Opposition side to address these admittedly extremely difficult and hard issues with a long history of entrenched inefficiency and mismanagement behind them. One looks for more than hollow, empty grandstanding rhetoric of the kind we heard today from Senator Chaney and of the kind which is no doubt going to become endemic under the Opposition led by Andrew Peacock. That is the only kind of approach to political problem solving that is understood by this Opposition.

The Future Directions document which Mr Peacock has said will be retained as the Opposition's policy manifesto says that the problems we are experiencing on the waterfront, as elsewhere, have been brought about by `restrictive trade practices which have vested unions with excessive power'. The solution proposed by the coalition in that document is the implementation of essential services legislation. If that is the kind of legislative cooperation that Senator Chaney is offering us today, if that is the hand of friendship he stretches across the chamber, not only in the context of buying out through appropriations to pay for some redundancy, if he is handing us the offer of legislation of that kind, which he has gone on record and has not stepped away from--

Senator Chaney —I am offering you that program.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Senator Chaney may be offering us that, but he also has behind that velvet glove-it is essentially a velvet gloved program, for all the abuse he has hurled on Mr Willis, Mr Morris and those of us who appreciate the need for a cooperative and cautious approach to this attitude--

Senator Chaney —To your knowledge justified-what I had to say about Willis.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I do not concede that for a moment. What I am saying is that to the extent that there is a softer approach embodied in the Industries Assistance Commission report, to the extent that it does involve some attempt through appropriate financial support to the industry to secure redundancies that might not otherwise be obtainable, then that softer approach is the one the Government has already said in principle it adopts and will be seeking to implement. But it is not that kind of approach which has traditionally lain behind the Opposition's approach to these issues. Whatever Senator Chaney may be saying today-I am interested to have him spell out his stepping away from the Future Directions documents-it is obvious, notwithstanding Mr Peacock's re-statement of the value and centrality of that document to the Opposition's thinking, that there is going to be a steady stepping away from it. If this is the first sign we have seen of it today, so much the better for the future of this country. If we are to take seriously the kind of underlying approach to these policy issues that is writ large in that document, then one must believe that a return to the mailed fist of essential services legislation is very much a centrepiece of what the Opposition has in mind in dealing with this and related issues-that is to say, the politics of confrontation. If we apply the politics of confrontation to the environment that we are all too well aware exists in many of these difficult areas, not least the waterfront and shipping services, what we are talking about is a recipe for massive further damaging disruption. It is that consensual approach, the approach that tries to establish long term sustainable reform through negotiated consensus, the approach that is absolutely central to the thinking and style in government of my colleagues Ralph Willis and Peter Morris, that will ensure genuine longstanding reform in this as in other areas, not the kind of heavy-handed government prescription which is, and certainly has been in the past, central to the Opposition's approach to these issues.

It is a very sad tale, a repeat of apathy and neglect, that the Opposition can offer by way of credentials in dealing with this sort of issue. In all that is ever said by the Opposition on this or any other micro-reform issue, the first question that must be asked in order to test the credibility of the claims and the prescriptions that are being made is: what did the Opposition do when it had the chance over nearly 30 years in government to do something about these industries when problems were showing up? What did it do? Where are the runs on the board? There are no runs on the board, and it is a matter of extreme gall and effrontery that we should be preached to in this fashion by an Opposition that is so conspicuously lacking in any effective performance. The chutzpah in this respect is rivalled only by the futility of seeking to debate this question at a time when my colleague Mr Willis is due later this week to deliver a major statement on reform of coastal shipping and the waterfront. Even Senator Chaney would realise that I am not in a position-I am not about to and do not want to-to pre-empt that statement here today, except to say that what is announced will be the result of exhaustive study and exhaustive discussion between all the parties. It has been an exhaustive process, and I will spell out in a few moments what it involves. I repeat that we have demonstrated across a broad range of micro-economic issues that the way to long term, sustainable reform is through that sort of process of exhaustive study and discussion rather than heavy-handed confrontation of the kind that has become endemic over the years in the Opposition's style when it has been in government and what we can certainly expect from the Future Directions document to be the basic prescription for the future.

Senator Chaney —Are you committed to this report? What are you saying?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am saying no more than I have said already. I am not about to pre-empt the statement. The Government, through Mr Willis, has expressed a general commitment to the basic themes, the basic directions, the basic flavour, shape and direction of that document. The detailed response to that report and to this issue will be on the table later this week and I do not seek to pre-empt it.

One of the underlying themes of Senator Chaney's speech, and indeed every other contribution by the Opposition on this question, has been the alleged willingness of the Government to run away from an effective commitment to micro-economic reform. I think that it is about time that the position was yet again stated clearly, specifically, un- equivocally and accurately for the record. This Government has already been one of the great achievers in micro-economic reform, structural adjustment and everything that goes with it.

Let me list for the record what the dimensions of that reform have been, because waterfront and shipping as well will form very much a part of this list by the time that the Minister's statement is made at the end of this week. Let me begin with the most fundamental area, which is tariff reform. We have had motor vehicle tariff reform involving the removal of tariff quotas on motor vehicles and the reduction of tariffs from 57 1/2 per cent to 35 per cent by January 1992. We have had textiles, clothing and footwear protection reform, with quotas being phased out by 1995, to leave then tariff-only protection. We have had general tariff reform. Quite apart from the two industries I have just mentioned and a small number of rates that would otherwise have become anomalous, all tariffs above 15 per cent are being reduced to 15 per cent, and those tariffs between 10 per cent and 15 per cent are being reduced to 10 per cent, all over four years to July 1992. The overall effect is a 30 per cent tariff reduction. The general revenue duty of 2 per cent was abolished at a cost of $240m, again grasping a nettle which had been conspicuously rejected over and over again by preceding governments when they had the opportunity to deal with this and all those other matters.

In May 1988 a systematic set of agricultural reforms was announced. Assistance to sugar, dried vine fruit, tobacco and citrus industries was converted to tariff and subject to the same reductions as applied to manufacturing industry. Generally domestic administered price arrangements have been liberalised, and there has been removal of the fertiliser subsidy. They were all hard, tough decisions to take, but those decisions have been taken, as decisions in respect of the waterfront in relation to shipping will be taken, with the best interests of this nation in mind.

In the area of aviation we have had the termination of the two-airline agreement announced, allowing greater competition and lower air fares to take effect in October 1990. We have had liberalisation of international passenger charter policy announced at the same time, and liberalisation of air freight in a variety of specific ways which will be the subject of further announcements shortly. We have had other transport reforms, with improvement in performance in the rail freight network, including grain handling. This has been addressed by our recent announcement that we will have the stomach to introduce, whatever the reaction may finally prove to be in from the Opposition, measures to override restrictive State grain transport regulations, particularly those establishing rail monopolies.

In the area of oil and gas marketing, we have had enormously significant deregulation of the crude oil industry effective from 1 January 1988. Refiners and crude oil producers have had the capacity to negotiate freely the quantities and prices of crude oil they buy and sell. There has been the termination of the administered natural gas pricing formula, allowing at the same time a more flexible approach to price setting and relegating export controls to a strictly reserve power. Again, that has been micro-reform of a fundamentally significant kind. There has been ample opportunity going back for decades for the Opposition to do something about it, but there was never anything more than the kind of hollow, empty rhetoric such as we have heard today.

The telecommunications micro-reform package that I announced in May 1988 allows effective competition in the provision of customer premises equipment in relation to value added services and other telecommunications services, such as phone maintenance and so on, through regulatory changes, and also through the establishment to take effect from July this year of Austel as an independent body to subsume Telecom's regulatory functions, thus allowing effective competition in that area as well. All of this has been accompanied by an information industries plan, announced by the Government in 1987, to encourage multinational computer companies to increase their research and development and manufacturing operations in Australia.

In addition to all that, there has been reform generally of government business enterprises. Over 40 longstanding controls have been removed from nearly all the enterprises, not just in the transport, aviation and communications sectors but across the board, including their right to enter into contracts without ministerial approval, exemption from processes under the Public Works Committee Act, the ability to invest surplus moneys and enter into loan contracts, rights to hire and fire chief executives, the removal of many Public Service staffing and administrative practices, and the right to establish their own superannuation schemes. Those are either in place or have been announced. They are fundamental changes of a kind which previous governments comprising Liberal-National Party Ministers have never had the heart or the stomach to introduce, although they had ample reservoirs of the kind of rhetoric we have heard today.

The whole question of industry regulation was the subject of a major announcement in December 1988 introducing a request and response procedure for review of existing regulations and providing for industry driven regulatory reform. I shall not stop to mention, in addition to all of that, the tax reform measures, the reduction in company rates-again talked about for years, but matters which those opposite never did anything about when they had the chance to do so. There has been the rationalisation of a range of distorting tax reductions, and finally the liberalisation and deregulation of the entire financial system-just to cap off a record which on any view, by any account, by any criteria, is stunning. It is a reform which was long overdue to be implemented by a government because of the course of neglect over decades by those opposite when they had ample chance to do something about the position.

The course of waterfront reform has been protracted; it has been difficult and drawn out. It goes back to July 1984 when we sponsored the shore based shipping costs seminar. It extended from there to September 1984 when the industry task force on shore based shipping costs was established under the chairmanship of Mr Ian Webber. In response to those reports a further group of major studies and initiatives were put together, involving finally in December 1986 the formulation of an across-the-board waterfront strategy involving four separate dimensions. I refer to the Stevedoring Industry Review Committee examining employment related issues in the stevedoring sector; the Industry Committee reviewing impediments arising from commercial practices, inadequate documentation and communication systems; the importer-exporter panel representing the client industries on the waterfront; and the marine and ports group and the railway group of the Australian Transport Advisory Council progressing initiatives to address rail and port authority issues in consultation or with the involvement of the State and Territory governments. They are four hugely important, interrelated dimensions demonstrating by their very nature the complexity of the task.

While all that was happening the Inter-State Commission was tasked to prepare its report bringing those various threads together. That process has been going on for some time now, until the publication in April this year of the Inter-State Commission's final report. The recommendations of the Inter-State Commission, as Senator Chaney said, and as I cheerfully acknowledged, are aimed at addressing all aspects of the waterfront industry with a focus on fundamental structural change in the stevedoring sector. Those recommendations involve a major shift from current industry-wide employment arrangements to enterprise based employment. They involve in the container depot sector the elimination of a number of existing industrial constraints on international container depot operations. They do involve in the port authorities, a review by State and Territory governments of the allocation of port functions with a proposal that many commercial functions be divested and performed by differently structured authorities. These recommendations also involve the view that the Trade Practices Commission should develop greater expertise and generally take a more active role in this area.

All of these recommendations are important. They do have a prima facie attractiveness about them and that has been acknowledged as such by the Government. But, as far as possible, we have been seeking to get consensus and negotiated solutions to the problems in this area because we know from hard-won experience that the kicking heads approach, the legislative override approach, the insensitive approach, is not the one that produces sustainable long term reform, and it is sustainable long term reform that is needed on the waterfront. While the unions and the stevedoring employers have indicated reservations, as Senator Chaney has said and as I acknowledge, about certain aspects of the report, it is the case that both groups have confirmed their acceptance of the need for waterfront reform and their general acceptance of the shape and direction of the proposals that are contained in the ISC report. The Hawke Government acknowledges a responsibility to take the lead to address the need for greater efficiency on the waterfront. The will for change exists, and the results of this combined effort and the way forward will be made clear in the Government's very detailed statement, later this week.