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Wednesday, 7 June 1989
Page: 3554

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(3.08) —These statements were introduced into the House of Representatives last week and have already been the subject of considerable public discussion. They are statements about areas of reform which the Opposition regards as matters of very great urgency. We heard Senator Button in Question Time, just a few minutes ago, berating the Opposition because it regards matters such as this as matters of urgency. It seems to have escaped Senator Button and members of this Government that Australia is sliding ever deeper into a morass of debt, that the Australian people are feeling the effects of this through the extraordinary interest rates that they are paying and that there is vast dissatisfaction about the future which is now promised for this country under the policies which have been followed by this Government.

There is a drastic need for reform in areas such as the waterfront and coastal shipping and in the operations of government enterprises. I think one could sum up these statements by the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) as saying that once again the Government is doing too little too late. What we have is an urgent need for reform. What we have from this Government is the lowest common denominator approach. It has gone just as far as the slowest member of the troop is prepared to move. As a result Australia will continue its slide into ever deeper debt and the sorts of matters which are of direct impact on the lives of Australians-interest rates in particular-will continue to be unbearable.

The simple reality of our economy was exposed by the Treasurer (Mr Keating). He said after the last round of debate in April that the problem for Australia was that we were consuming more than we produced. The fact is that these areas are areas where production is impeded and where we simply fail to achieve the production that is possible in Australia. They are areas of gross waste. They are areas of gross inefficiency. As a result they are areas which weigh heavily on our current economic failings. We had again during Question Time Senator Cook in one of his prepared statements talking with very considerable pride about micro-economic reform and its impact upon the mining industry. It is worth noting the response of representatives of the mining industry to the so-called reforms which we are dealing with today. Mr Lauchlan McIntosh, when asked to comment on the so-called reforms to coastal shipping and stevedoring in an interview just last week, said:

Well, we will just languish off and become more and more, a third rate country. We can't afford to do that. We've got great resources here, we've got some good people. We should have the technology and be able to build the ships, make them here and be able to use them on our coast. If we don't, other people will be processing our raw materials and adding value to them, rather than ourselves.

In that interview Mr McIntosh made the point that Australian resources are shipped overseas for treatment and have value added to them, to provide the wealth that this country requires, because it is far cheaper to ship them overseas than to ship them around our coast. That is a simple illustration of why this country is not creating the wealth that it could create and why our economic problems continue. The fact that this matter is regarded as urgent by the Opposition is indicated by the 12 Opposition speakers who have sought to take part in the debate. I think that the Government has allowed the balance of this afternoon for that debate. To facilitate as many senators as possible to speak, the time taken by most speakers will be shortened and I will not address the Senate for very long.

We are dealing with one of the fundamental defects in the Australian economy-one of those areas where we continue to strangle ourselves, where we continue to impede the production of wealth and, therefore, where we continue to impede our economic recovery. It is a very sorry record of failure when the representative of one of our leading industries refers to us as a third rate country. It is not a matter of the Opposition, in some narrow political way, attacking these issues and not having alternative plans. At the time of the April statement we tabled in the House of Representatives detailed proposals for reform in a number of areas, including those of coastal shipping and the waterfront.

It is not just a matter of engaging in partisan politics to condemn the Government's failure to come to grips with these matters. Commentator after commentator-users of these services-have all condemned the Government's proposals as totally inadequate. The Sydney Morning Herald, which over the years has been pretty even-handed in its treatment of the Government's economic policies, and indeed has often been full of praise for them, stated in a leading article following the release of the statements that Mr Willis's plan to reform coastal shipping `amounts to a huge bribe for minimal change'. The article went on to say:

Mr Willis's plan for the reform of waterfront seems hardly more encouraging. . . . Again there is to be a huge bribe for changes still to be negotiated.

So we have this too little too late approach-the lowest common denominator approach-and Australia suffers as a result. When one looks at what could have been done with coastal shipping, the difference between what is being done and the necessary changes becomes clear. The Opposition put forward a series of changes which would have introduced genuine pressure and competition in that vital area of Australian transport-an area which the Inter-State Commission (ISC) has identified as involving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of waste.

We find in the statement that trans-Tasman sea lanes-the scandal of the costly shipping between Australia and New Zealand, which is so inimical to our trade there-are not dealt with in any effective way. We find that the Government leaves Australian ships with a monopoly on the coastal shipping trade. There is no suggestion of the removal of cabotage which is the one guarantee that we would have of a genuinely competitive shipping service around our coast. The idea of enterprise employment has not been dealt with effectively. Instead, we find, again, that a system of pooled employment remains in force. That is, again, a formula for continued inefficiency. We find that the Navigation Act, with its strong emphasis on non-competition, has been left in place. In other words, there is no fundamental reform of our coastal shipping. What the Government has done has been to get together with the parties-those who have a direct vested interest in the operation of the system-and it has accepted the rate of change which is permitted by the slowest of the players. Quite simply, the Government has let this country down in this vital area.

The Government's approach to the waterfront is equally hopeless. The Government in this case asked the Inter-State Commission to give it a report which would deal with the area of conspicuous waste. The Inter-State Commission offered changes which it believed could save in excess of $600m per year-a $600m addition to our national wealth with a reduction of those unnecessary costs. It made the point that what it was putting forward was required to be done in a complete way. It made the point that a package of interrelated proposals needed to be undertaken. We as an opposition, who had a more radical plan for reform, offered our cooperation to the Government. In a statement which I put on behalf of the Opposition we made it clear that, notwithstanding the fact that we thought more needed to be done than the Inter-State Commission had proposed, we were prepared to go along with the Commission's proposals provided they were implemented in full by the Government. We said that we would facilitate the passage of legislation and that we would support the appropriation of the very considerable taxpayers' funds which would be required if the Inter-State Commission report is adopted.

The Government has gladly picked up the suggestion that further taxpayers' funds should be applied to this industry, on this the thirteenth occasion that it has been investigated and where changes have been recommended. The Government intends to put hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' funds into redundancy arrangements and so on, but the Government has squibbed on the vital issues of ensuring that there is genuine competitiveness and employment at the enterprise level, instead of pooled employment, and that some of the more ludicrous union coverage arrangements are dealt with in an effective and efficient manner.

Senator Button —Didn't someone describe this as empty posturing on your part?

Senator CHANEY —The Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce asks whether this has been described as empty posturing. Let me say that many of those who are affected by this have made it very clear that they regard the Government as engaging in empty posturing with respect to the reform of both coastal shipping and--

Senator Button —It was a charge directed at you.

Senator CHANEY —Let me remind the Minister, who is at the table, of the view of those who are affected by these so-called reforms. For example, the National Farmers Federation--

Senator Button —It is all very well to state the problem. How about the solutions to the problem?

Senator CHANEY —Again, the Minister at the table, who has shown himself congenitally unable to deal with any problem seriously when he is on the defensive, and who yesterday had to go back against his own words and beliefs on matters such as the deregulation guidelines, seeks to interrupt this debate because he knows that this is a third rate attempt by this third rate Government to deal with a genuine problem of which he, as a Minister, is fully aware. When the reports were released the National Farmers Federation said:

The Government appears to be unwilling or afraid to impose reform on the waterfront and maritime unions. It has been frozen into inactivity.

In my press release, when I offered the Opposition's support to this paralysed Government, I did not say that it was frozen into inactivity; I said that it was a paralysed government. That has been proven true by subsequent statements. The National Farmers Federation made it quite clear that the reforms announced by the Government are totally inadequate. It made it quite clear that with respect to New Zealand the reforms have not been undertaken. In the same way, the Australian Mining Industry Council, through its Executive Director, Lauchlan McIntosh, has made it clear that adequate reforms have not been undertaken and the problems have not been solved. A group which is directly concerned, the Australian Shipping User Group-a group that was put together under the auspices of the Federal Government-has strongly endorsed the direction for waterfront reform proposed by the ISC and has welcomed the Opposition's stance on this matter. I quote from what that group wrote to us:

I welcome your recent offer of bipartisan support to the Government if it implements a genuine program of waterfront reform based on the Inter-State Commission's recommendations.

Like you, ASUG recognises that no one likes every element of the ISC's plan, if considered in isolation . . .

It went on:

. . . we believe any watering down on the substantive components of the package could place in jeopardy the entire program for waterfront reform.

Look at the program that was put forward by the Inter-State Commission. The key part of the program was that it would guarantee a movement to a genuinely competitive situation. There was to be an in-principle agreement between the parties which would cover all of the essential elements of the agreement. We find that the Government is committed only to those elements of the plan which involved the expenditure of taxpayers' funds and the placing of new burdens and obligations on employers. It is totally unable to produce a commitment to those parts of the plan which involved the assumption of obligations by the trade union movement and, in particular, by the Waterside Workers Federation. The Minister at the table, Senator Button, knows that it is a simple fact that if a container is loaded in a depot which is controlled by the Waterside Workers Federation, a very substantial cost premium is paid for that privilege.

Senator Button —I agree with that.

Senator CHANEY —The Minister says that he agrees. I give that as an example of the sort of difficulty which the Government has not come to grips with. We find that instead of having an agreement which commits us to change in those vital areas-the provision of permanent stand-down in waterfront awards, for example-there is nothing but a promise that the matter will receive some sort of future consideration. Where we need to have changes in respect of union coverage of depots, we get nothing but a promise from the Government to give that further consideration. There is a need to arrange for the withdrawal of the Waterside Workers Federation from loading bulk ships, but there is no commitment on the part of the Government. The simple fact is that the Government has simply squibbed on all of those things which present difficulties for it with its own constituency.

This is not a package of reform measures. This is simply the latest saga in a series of changes on the waterfront which have always produced too little too late and which have not produced a continuing competitive environment which facilitates continuing change. This series of responses on the part of the Government is a matter of very great disappointment to the Opposition. We believe that Australia has been sold short. It represents a substantial contribution by this Government to the on-going difficulties of the Australian economy.