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Monday, 13 December 1993
Page: 4417

Senator BURNS (4.53 p.m.) —It is very interesting to hear people on the opposite side of the chamber talk about how trade unions operate and the day-to-day thoughts of trade unionists. If any of them have been involved in this sort of activity they are absolutely ignorant of these matters. Having conducted probably thousands of trade union meetings in my many years in the trade union movement, I can speak with some authority and quote instances where those opposite are so wrong as to be quite ludicrous.

  I have always felt that the democratic process was important, but never have I seen the need for a secret discussion by trade unionists about their attitude to a particular set of wages and conditions that, with an employer, they may be seeking to reach agreement on. I have always encouraged open and forceful debate where people have put a point of view; it gives a clear understanding of the attitudes of people who represent those on the floor and how to go about negotiations.

  I have seen situations, for instance, where a lot has been made of the fact that people vote a particular way because they do not have the protection of a secret ballot. Some years ago the National-Liberal party government in Queensland changed the legislation governing industrial relations to provide that strikes could be legally conducted if a secret ballot were held—and Senator Parer would recall this.

  Quite a substantial number of people who were engaged in construction were involved in a dispute at the Gladstone power house. The dispute ran for some weeks and, finally, an order was made by the commission that a secret ballot should be held. During that time, included as part of the discussions, negotiations and meetings that went on, to which reports were made, there was a meeting of the wives who voted even more firmly than had their husbands in favour of a continuation of the dispute. But, finally, the Electoral Commission conducted the secret ballot and the vote in favour of staying on strike was even higher than it had been at open meeting—even higher. The point is that it was being said at the time that, if there were a secret ballot conducted, they would all return to work.

  I do not want to see any small meeting at a workshop held to discuss conditions and wages being cluttered up with a silly secret ballot with people wanting to hide what they feel behind silence. They should feel free to say what they think and to vote however they choose—and they are. Let us look at this in comparison, though, with some other areas. Throughout this country there are virtually thousands of organisations continuing to operate and have meetings at which they do not hold secret ballots on policy issues, on decisions they make to go about the work for which they have been established; they do not do that.

  For instance, if one looks at elections of people to boards of management, day by day we read in the paper who has cast their vote in favour of a particular board member. They do not hide behind the fact that they cast a million share votes behind a board member. But I must say this: when that board of directors is elected, behind the doors of their organisation they secretly make decisions every day which affect workers and people in the community; they do that secretly.

  I do not believe that things should be done in that way. I think we should do things openly. Everyone should know what the discussion was about. It should be quality discussion and it should be clearly understood by everybody where the merits or demerits of any case lie.

  The question has been asked: are unions afraid to have people who are in the workshop make decisions? Obviously, things that I have said in this chamber as well as history show that that is how I have operated always—having discussions in a workshop with people who are members of the union, although they are sometimes not, and majority decisions being made. But that has always been on the basis of there being some equality in terms of the negotiations where people have been empowered on both sides with knowledge of what the issue is about. It is not an uneven competition or contest where, on one side, we have people who know exactly what is going on—they understand the way in which the company is constructed, what its reserves are, what its policy is and are advised by the top industrial relations policy people available to them for whom they pay—and, on the other side, we have a group of people in a workshop who have had no experience with struggle or negotiation and who are so disadvantaged that it is totally unfair to go ahead with it.

Senator Crane —So what? That is what we are saying.

Senator BURNS —Yes, I agree with the proposition that people should make majority decisions that way. But they have to be empowered by that knowledge and, through that empowerment of knowledge, have some basis for being able to negotiate from an efficient position of strength. What those opposite want and would propose is a situation where people will accept a substandard offer by the company that is involved. I reject that in every way.