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Tuesday, 7 December 1993
Page: 4046

Senator SHORT (8.05 p.m.) —The Industrial Relations Reform Bill 1993, which we are debating tonight, should be a landmark in the essential reform of Australia's outdated, rigid, inflexible and very costly industrial relations system, and should reduce the iron-like grip of the trade union movement over our industrial relations structure.      The government had a golden opportunity, perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity, to promote major reform. It had the support of the Australian public; it had the support of that 71 per cent of all private sector employees who have chosen not to belong to a trade union; it had the support of small and large employers and employer associations; it had the support of not a few of the more responsible trade union leaders; and it had the support of the coalition, which has long seen meaningful, sweeping reform of our industrial relations system as arguably the most important and serious challenge and opportunity facing our nation. That sweeping reform is essential is undeniable.

  If we want to reduce the present cruel, intolerable and unacceptable level of a million Australians unemployed, if we want to encourage new investment and so increase our productivity to improve our international competitiveness, both in our domestic markets and in overseas markets, and thereby increase job creation, reduce unemployment, give hope to our people and raise the living standards of all Australians, then we must remove the inhibitions and roadblocks that our antiquated industrial relations system places in the way of achieving these fundamental objectives.

  We have seen today in the report of the Industry Commission, which follows a plethora of reports from government and other agencies, that industrial relations reform is quite crucial to the future of our nation. That is what was needed with this legislation. That is what we hoped the government might provide. Indeed, our hopes were buoyed shortly after the March election when, on 21 April, the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) said in an important speech—we hope it was an important speech; he thought it was an important speech—that there were not enough genuine enterprise bargains, that the agreements that did exist were insufficiently comprehensive and that too often they were merely add-ons to awards when they should be full substitutes for awards.

  At that time the new Minister for Industrial Relations, Mr Brereton, grandly echoed these noble sentiments, both in Australia and overseas. They were aspirations that had the full support of the Liberal and National parties because, in large part, they reflected the key objectives of the coalition's own industrial relations policy. But what happened? In a nutshell, the fact is that the government, the Prime Minister, his industrial relations minister, and the caucus in the end, never had any intention of following through on their fine rhetoric. Why not? Simply because the trade union movement demanded, as it always has, a payback for the massive support that it gave the Keating government during the federal election campaign in March of this year.

  Lest there be any doubt at all, let me just quote from the public debate which occurred between the ACTU Vice President, Jennie George, and Bryan Noakes of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, ACCI, on the contents of the bill now before us. In that debate Ms George said openly, frankly, blatantly and unashamedly:

What employers have to understand is that we won the election in March and this bill is a payback for the commitments that were made by the government in the course of that election campaign.

As my colleague Senator Parer, I think, said in his remarks yesterday, I do not recall Jennie George or the ACTU actually standing for election in March of this year. But so close is the relationship between the ACTU, the whole of the trade union movement, and the Labor Party that she, the Vice-President of the ACTU, could not draw a distinction between the two. So there we have it from the horse's mouth, from the Vice President of the ACTU herself.

  What we have before us now is not an Industrial Relations Reform Bill, which is the title of the bill, in any meaningful sense whatsoever. Rather, as my colleague John Howard said so accurately in the other place recently, what we have is a trade union payback bill. It is, at best, a Clayton's industrial relations bill and, at worst, a bill that in the most damaging manner sets back the essential course of reform of our industrial relations system. At the same time, it entrenches still further the power of the trade union movement in this country, despite the fact that the majority of workers in Australia have chosen not to be part of the union movement, have chosen not to join a trade union. As I said, 71 per cent of all employees in the private sector have chosen not to belong to a union.

  Many of my colleagues have already made significant contributions to this second reading debate, and we will be pursuing many further and more detailed issues during the committee stage of these bills. I do not propose to reiterate much of what has already been said, but I do now want to summarise very briefly what I see as some of the more fundamental weaknesses and dangers in these bills before the Senate.

  However, before doing that, I would place on the public record my appreciation for the work done on these bills by several of my Senate colleagues. In particular I mention Senator Winston Crane and Senator Grant Chapman. Their dissenting report to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training which inquired into these bills should be required reading for anyone who is interested in these matters.

  Before going to the content of the bill, let me also digress just briefly to comment on a couple of points that were made previously by a couple of government speakers. Before diner tonight, Senator West claimed that all the faxes we have all received about the urgency and problems of the bills before us are—so Senator West claimed—something to do with a master-servant relationship; indeed, she went on to talk, I think, about a master-slave relationship.

  What absolute nonsense that is. It is a complete lie because, in fact, very few, a handful, less than 10 of the many hundreds of faxes that most of us have received have made any mention at all of a master-servant relationship or anything vaguely relating to it. Rather, the faxes reveal the full extent of the huge concern felt throughout the community, and particularly throughout small business—the backbone of this nation, the very important sector of this nation without which we will never prosper and thrive and go on to higher living standards, job creation and reduced unemployment—about the grave dangers inherent in this legislation. That is what the faxes I have been receiving are all about; that is what the faxes that my colleagues have been receiving are all about. Quite frankly, the comments made by Senator West before dinner tonight were just absolute nonsense and totally incorrect.

  There are a couple of factors I would like to mention in relation to Senator Cooney's speech which preceded mine. He talked about this bill being a pro-employer and a pro-employee bill. I agree that we can have a bill which is a win-win; there is no doubt about that. If the government had got its act together and got it right, we would have had a win-win bill for employers, employees and Australia. But I believe that for Senator Cooney to say this is a bill which is pro-employer and pro-employee is just cloud-cuckoo land. He has obviously read a bill which is different from the one I have read, because everything in this bill is stacked against employers—and shortly I will come in some detail to my reasons for that statement.

  Senator Cooney also, though, questioned why there had not been a discussion in this debate on what minimum standards should apply. So far as the coalition is concerned, that has all been set out and its policy is there and has been on the record for a long time for all to see. So far as terms and conditions of employment are concerned, there are minimum standards that should apply in this country; there is a safety net in any policy that the coalition has put forward; and to imply, as Senator Cooney has implied tonight, that opposition to the provisions of this bill somehow or other means opposition to having a set of minimum standards is, with due respect to my friend Senator Cooney, equal nonsense.

  The bills suffer grievously from lack of involvement in their formulation by employer representatives. The consultations leading to this bill were supposed to be tripartite; they were supposed to involve the government, the unions and employers. But employers were almost totally shut out; it was a lock out, so far as they were concerned. For example, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry—which represents 30,000 Australian businesses of every size, shape and colour across the length and breadth of this nation—was not represented on the negotiating committee. It was not even provided with a copy of the final agreement which was struck between the government and the ACTU. One could only describe that as an act of vindictive, spiteful, petty and counterproductive retribution by a vengeful Prime Minister.

  The lack of consultation and the unseemly haste involved in the drafting of this legislation was reflected in the government itself, when it went into the House of Representatives with its famous bill, having to produce no less than 177 amendments to its own bill. That is an absolute disgrace for a government which claims to be an efficient and competent manager. Not only that but, having gone through all that process, it comes into the Senate with the bill and in the last day circulates amongst us a whole raft of further amendments.

  Quite contrary to the Prime Minister's post election rhetoric, these bills entrench the rigid award system as the basis for our wage fixing system. This inhibits the flexibility and labour mobility that is essential for increased job creation and improved productivity. This is the great lost opportunity—the opportunity to grasp the nettle and introduce a framework for an environment of dynamic, responsive human and industrial relations needed so desperately by this country.

  The bill comprehensively advantages trade unions and, equally, it comprehensively disadvantages employers—and, I must say, many individual employees. The employers' rights of access to common law are restricted and disadvantaged by this bill; so also is employer redress against secondary boycotts significantly weakened in this bill.

   This bill has a totally different philosophy from that which the government intimated, through the Prime Minister's speech back in April, that it would introduce. The philosophy behind this bill is that one should not move away from strict award provisions without considerable difficulty. What is needed in this country is a bill which encourages direct negotiations between employers and employees to achieve essential productivity gains needed to reduce unemployment and increase living standards.

  The transfer of sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act to the Industrial Relations Act removes employers' protection against political boycotts by rogue unions and others. The proposed changes mean that a business, organisation or individual will not have access to quick and effective relief against an irresponsible boycott action. Indeed, what happens under this bill is that it would take 72 hours before any action can take place; that is, before an employer can go to law and get injunctive relief. Lots of businesses, particularly small businesses in the climate that we have in Australia today, can go broke in 72 hours. Yet this bill prevents them from taking any action of an injunctive or any other nature to solve that problem.

  Because the bill reinforces and extends the reach of the federal award system, it reinforces and extends the reach of trade unions. Unions are given extraordinary standing, even in the case of agreements for non-unionised workplaces. The bill allows preference to be given to unionists over non-unionists when an agreement is being negotiated. That is a problem of very significant measure so far as employees who choose not to join a trade union are concerned.

  But a preference clause the other way—that is, in favour of a non-unionist—is prohibited under this bill; in other words, in effect we have a proposal that leads us to the closed shop and to compulsory unionism. That is just like the familiar `no ticket, no start' demand that we have had in this country for far too long. Unions should not be able to demand preference and employers should not be able to trade on it.

  The bill also relies on the use of the external affairs power of the constitution to create minimum standards based on ILO conventions and recommendations and to impose them on traditional state jurisdictions. In my view, that is simply not on in a democratic country such as ours. First of all, there is the use of the external affairs power at all for these measures, but even worse than that is the selective use that the government has made of the external affairs power in this legislation. That is a use that my colleagues Senator Crane and Senator Chapman, in their dissenting report on the inquiry into this matter, described very accurately as obnoxious.

  The bill will not facilitate access to enterprise agreements by non-union workplaces. Indeed, the bill will deter most, if not all, non-unionised workplaces from seeking access to an enterprise flexibility agreement. We on this side of the chamber believe that when striking an enterprise flexibility agreement there should be no requirement either for a dispute to exist or for a trade union to be able to participate in the approval process by right. Sure, a trade union can participate if all parties want it to participate, but it should not be there to participate by right.

  The Industrial Relations Court (Judges' Remuneration) Bill 1993 establishes an Industrial Relations Court of Australia. There is no valid reason at all that has been given for that. It was rejected by this government in 1988. There has been no evidence as to why that situation should change. There are many other provisions in the bill which are equally objectionable and questionable, but time does not permit us to go into them.

  In conclusion, this legislation is worse than a lost opportunity; it is a massive sacrifice of our nation's competitive future, the hopes of the unemployed and underemployed and the prospects for employers and employees alike to work together to achieve success in this very important area of industrial relations. For all of those reasons, I join with my other coalition colleagues in flatly rejecting this bill, hoping that the government will withdraw it, go back to the drawing board and start again. That is the only thing that can satisfactorily conclude this debate.