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Tuesday, 7 December 1993
Page: 3961

Senator McGAURAN (10.05 a.m.) —I was absolutely astounded that a man of Senator Beahan's prestige, as chairman of the well known Corporations and Securities Committee, of which I am also a member, would defend Australia's waterfront and its work practices over the years.

Senator Beahan —Tas Bull has done more to reform the waterfront than any employer has.

Senator McGAURAN —I cannot believe that he would defend our waterfront work practices, let alone claim that Tas Bull should be credited with some sort of reform on the waterfront. Tas Bull has around his neck the worst practices in Australia's union history. The only thing Tas Bull has done for the waterfront, frankly, is to retire from his position as head of the Waterside Workers Federation. He has tied up thousands and thousands of ships in this country—more, I would say, than Allan Border has made test runs. The man is to be condemned for the export dollars he has lost this country. Senator Beahan defends the man who is probably known as the Jimmy Hoffa of Australia—Mr Tas Bull.

  Equally, Senator Beahan spoke of his New Zealand experience. I attended that parliamentary delegation with Senator Beahan, and we must have been in two different countries. Frankly, the New Zealand industrial relations system, the enterprise bargaining system, is held up to be a great success, and we were told of that by employers and employees. Senator Beahan has defended Tas Bull and defended our waterfront practices, and that is indefensible. He has been telling us that the New Zealand experiment on enterprise bargaining is not a success. So, he is speaking with a political slant. He is not presenting the issue in its true light; he is not debating the issue as it ought to be debated in this forum. He has just given the government line, the government brief, and been quite misleading in so doing.

  Prior to Senator Beahan, Senator Sherry spoke for the government side. I do not think we can let pass Senator Sherry's limp defence of the Industrial Relations Reform Bill. As my colleague Senator Chapman pointed out, Senator Sherry put up a straw man by quoting the English experience. We are not here to defend England or any other nation. We are running our own industrial relations and are debating our own Industrial Relations Reform Bill. We are running our own sovereign government, regardless of what the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) would have us believe. We are not here to defend other nations or to overly examine their systems, because each system is different, nation by nation. We know that. Senator Sherry put up the straw man by saying that during the Thatcher years the United Kingdom entered the realms of genuine enterprise bargaining, or a totally de-regulated system, and yet, as Senator Sherry tell us, it still had a high unemployment rate of 10 per cent.

  Senator Sherry quoted outdated figures from The Economist but, putting that aside, he failed to explain that the United Kingdom had faced decades of bad work practices, and it is still going through a transition and making those adjustments. But, worse than that, the United Kingdom is right on the doorstep of Europe, which is facing the worst recession since the 1930s. Frankly, it is cutting far deeper than it is here in Australia. I know this country is suffering greatly with its one million unemployed, but England and the rest of Europe is worse.

  Senator Sherry failed to tell us that France has an unemployment rate of 12 to 15 per cent. Of course, he skipped over America, which has a very similar system to that in the United Kingdom and which has an unemployment rate of six per cent. We cannot compare apples and oranges. That is what Senator Sherry was trying to do. Even so, the unemployment rate in England would be far worse if it were not on the doorstep of Europe, which is facing its worst recession. We all know that England, being such a small country, is very export orientated and does not have strong commodity prices for its exports or a strong domestic market. I cannot tell honourable senators off the top of my head what the unemployment rate is in Germany, but I venture to say that it is greater than 15 per cent. So England is looking quite good to the rest of the world. Worse than that, Senator Sherry, Senator Beahan and all other government speakers—I believe Senator Burns will be getting up—

Senator Burns —You can bet on that.

Senator McGAURAN —I will stick around for that because he is always entertaining. I invite Senator Burns to address what the other speakers on his side of the House have not tackled—the government's plan, its policy, for the one million unemployed. Quite frankly, that is what we are debating today on the Industrial Relations Reform Bill. How are we going to unlock the one million unemployed Australians from that situation? The next five years look very bleak for the one million unemployed. This Industrial Relations Reform Bill is but one way, if not the most important way, of attempting to unlock the one million unemployed Australians.   We have not heard one policy. If the government is not going to accept the genuine free enterprise bargaining policy of this side of the House, what is it going to do for the one million unemployed Australians?

Senator O'Chee —Absolutely nothing.

Senator McGAURAN —Senator O'Chee tells us absolutely nothing. The government has floated the jobs levy scheme. Placing a tax on the rest of Australians is a very desperate attempt to tackle unemployment. It is absolutely no solution at all. Surely this is one opportunity to reform our industrial relations system so that employers and employees can face each other away from the unions but not away from the Industrial Relations Commission. There will be a floor in that bargaining. Employers are looking at every way to make themselves genuinely competitive and efficient. Employees are looking at every way to either get a job or to hold their job. That is the state this country is in. This Industrial Relations Reform Bill could be a major way of unlocking those one million Australians from unemployment.

  It may be that those one million unemployed Australians are not listening to us on the broadcasting network and do not understand the effect that this reform bill will have upon them. Quite frankly, it is a large bill, a complex bill, a legal bill and a very in-house bill. But we know that it can help them. We know that it will immediately help one million unemployed Australians. We know that it is one of their best chances yet to get off the dole queue. We know that it will begin to make inroads into those one million unemployed Australians. If the unemployed knew that—they are depending on us to do something—I think Senator Burns would be getting phone calls in his electorate office. But they do not read these bills. They expect us to do our job.

  Senator Burns has failed in doing his job. He is an old union man. Is he a union man who happens to care only about the employed, only about the enshrined position of the union, or does he genuinely care about the unemployed? I challenge him to stand up today, to put aside the rhetoric of this bill that he has been handed in his briefings by the government, to put aside the boring clause by clause discussion and tell us how he is going to unlock the one million unemployed. I would like to hear the views of Senator Burns.

  Senator Burns has been down on the shop floor. He should know the pain and the hurt that comes with being unemployed, let alone being long-term unemployed. There are not many Australians who are not affected by unemployment. People's next-door neighbours, family and people down the street know the despair and the hopelessness that comes with being unemployed. It is not just the young who are unemployed. We all know that unemployment is not a very good way to start life. There are also people aged 40 to 50 or over who are unemployed. They are also greatly affected in their lives. They lose their self-respect and have nothing to do. People who have probably worked very hard as 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds are also being hurt by being unemployed.

  I invite Senator Burns to cut the difference between himself and the other speakers and get straight down to the nitty-gritty. That is the challenge before him. We have all read the bill and we all know what it is about. We all know the argument of those opposite and they all know our argument. Senator Burns should get straight to it. He is an old unionist. He is not even looking up. I know he does not even have the answers. Is he trying to jot the answers down now? He has no idea at all.

  Senator Burns should make a genuine contribution to the debate on this bill—this is his only area of expertise, quite frankly, he has no other expertise, but that is all right; there is nothing wrong with bringing old unionists in—for the people whom he espouses he represents, the working-class people. He should represent them. He should give us some idea how he will unlock those one million Australians from unemployment. Or are you just going to read off your brief, you drongo? I withdraw that comment, Mr Acting Deputy President.

Senator Burns —That is disgraceful.

Senator McGAURAN —Senator Burns brought it out of me. I have withdrawn the comment. I know that he has no answers, and it frustrates me. Senator Burns should at least tell us whether he knows any unemployed. Has he cut himself off from his people that much? He should answer that.

Senator Burns —I know people who are unproductive like you.

Senator McGAURAN —I am happy to take any insult that Senator Burns wants to throw at me in this chamber or outside. I invite Senator Burns to be libellous to me outside because I promise I will not slap a writ on him. I see Senator Crowley in the chamber. I do not offer the same invitation to her. I will take just about any insult from Senator Burns now and forever if he can tell me he is still in contact with his workers, that he still cares for the unemployed and that he has some real answers to get them jobs. That is quite an invitation to Senator Burns. I am asking him to throw all sorts of insults in or outside the chamber.

  It is a very serious matter. All that really matters is the unemployment rate in this country. It cannot go on. It looks like it will go on for three to five years. We have to look for every little opportunity. Even if this were a small opportunity—but it is not—we should grab it. We should grab the smallest of opportunities to unlock those one million people from unemployment.

  I happen to think that we have a major piece of legislation before us today. We should turn our attention towards stimulating employment in this country—we have this opportunity—yet this bill fails to make the appropriate adjustments that freely allow employers and employees the right to bargain and agree to work conditions and wages. The bill fails because it props up the very rigid award system and union power and, worse, union interference.

  Once, now a very long time ago, the award system was not such a subject of debate in this country. We were far more economically secure than we are today and we were capable of absorbing wage hikes and unproductive practices. Quite frankly, we no longer have that luxury and we can no longer afford that luxury. Our backs are to the wall.

  If the government and the unions have any concern or any heart for the unemployed, not just for the employed, they would allow the introduction of genuine employer and employee bargaining systems. Yet, incredibly, this legislation fails through a twisted path of ambivalent language, false perception and cumbersome structures. It would have been better if the government had left the system alone than to have introduced this so-called reform system. The legislation places an even greater block on the creation of employment for the great pool of unemployed in this country. It is accepted as a matter of commonsense by both sides of the house, the media, employer groups, such as the Business Council of Australia, and even the Treasury, that, if Australia is to pull itself towards a higher level of international competitiveness, it is vital to provide enterprise bargaining solutions to enterprise based problems.

  Yet all this bill does is spread the old combative, rigid union power structures even more than before, at a time when large and small companies are scratching for every possible productivity gain to keep themselves in the marketplace. After all, if a company does not grow—this should be simple enough for Senator Burns—it does not employ. A company will shed labour or go to the wall. That is a simple fact of business life which is very much lost on the government and the unions.

  Just prior to the introduction of this bill, the existing system of so-called enterprise bargaining, now to be replaced by the bill before the Senate, was never successful in freeing up the marketplace and producing productivity gains for business. It provided no more than the award being the base rate, and any agreements that were made were to be over-award payments. After all, these conditions were written into the charter of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. While this system maintained all its rigidities, it was seen and hoped to be but the first step in freeing up the system. It was the first signal to an entrenched and bloody-minded union movement that Australia needed desperately to change its industrial relations laws.

  When Paul Keating addressed the Institute of Directors in April, employers were persuaded that he could deliver the goods. Other factors gave employers grounds for hope. Few really believed that the Prime Minister would deliver such a landmark speech in April on industrial relations without the blessing of the ACTU and Mr Bill Kelty. Moreover, his choice of Laurie Brereton as Minister for Industrial Relations suggested to some employers that the Prime Minister wanted to counter the ACTU's influence on policy.

  Key sections of the bureaucracy, notably Treasury, have argued for a more flexible system of enterprise bargaining. It is little wonder that employers were so optimistic this time round. Instead, the union movement proved what we have all known in this country for a very long time: they are in charge. What could be more profound than the statement made in the media by Jennie George while debating the contents of the bill. This has been referred to by many speakers on this side of the house before, but it warrants repeating. Straight after the election, she said:

What the employers have got to understand is that we won the election—

the union movement won the election, according to Jennie George—

in March and this bill is a pay back for the commitments—

the money—

that were made by the government in the course of that election campaign.

That says it all. For all the slipping and sliding of the Minister for Industrial Relations, Mr Laurie Brereton, he was not successful in pleading the case for real reform. He was booed, hissed and tomatoed at the ACTU congress back in August when he caved in to union demands.

  The weakened proposal of the government is basically threefold: firstly, to maintain the award system with all its cumbersome approach as the base rate for negotiation; secondly, that unions are involved in every stage of negotiation when representing their members; and, thirdly, and most importantly, for the non-unionised labour, which makes up 70 per cent of the private enterprise, unions must be consulted and represented at the Industrial Relations Commission before any agreement can be accepted by the commission.

  Having outlined the broad approach to this bill, in my final moments I can only say that this bill does not take us forward; in fact, it would have been better if the government had left the existing legislation alone. Sadly, this legislation does take us backwards. That is more sadly so for those in rural and regional Australia where the unemployment rate is well over the national average. In some parts of Ballarat, Bendigo and other parts of my state of Victoria, it is up to 18 to 20 per cent.