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Friday, 11 October 1996
Page: 4057

Senator ROBERT RAY(3.25 p.m.) —Madam President, I am sure you will be able to read the brilliance of my speech in Monday's newspapers because, under your wise counsel and brilliant leadership, you have rectified an injustice in this building. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your wise decision.

Let me get on to the bill itself. Unscrupulous employers will be licking their lips upon the passage of this bill. Government senators, in my view, subscribe to the naive view that unscrupulous employers will not misuse their power over employees for commercial gain. Further, they subscribe to the view that downward pressure on wages and conditions has no adverse consequences for occupational health and safety or for the community generally.

Perhaps those parroting these naive views might take time out to consider the report and conclusions prepared by James Henry Staunton QC from the commission of inquiry into relations between the CAA and Seaview Air. It is clear from chapter 5 of this report that Seaview Air exploited its market position and the vulnerability of air pilots to drive conditions and safety standards down. The inquiry found on page 115 that young pilots were vulnerable to exploitation as their ambitions to fly for major airlines are dependent on the accumulation of experience and flying hours.

It was clear from the evidence that the pilots were constantly contacting Seaview Air looking for work. Seaview Air received dozens of CVs a week. John Green of Seaview acknowledged that, in respect of the employment of pilots, it was a `buyers' market'. Former pilots testified that they were remunerated solely on the basis of flying hours and received no payment for extra duties. They were frequently over-rostered in breach of civil aviation orders, generating pilot fatigue and therefore reducing safety. This was not disputed by John Green.

Basically, the inquiry found that Green was `in a position of significant domination in relation to his pilots'. Significantly, in evidence, he acknowledged that he was in a position to bend the rules on overloading and on maintenance releases. For the purposes of the Industrial Relations Act 1988, Mr Green was a respondent to the Pilots (General Aviation) Award. It appears that John Green did not take a responsible attitude to the obligations imposed by his respondency. Indeed, Mr Green acknowledged in evidence that, had he received a log of claims, he would have thrown it in a bin.

The inquiry concluded that, regardless of the fact that John Green did not consider himself to be a respondent to the award, he was indeed bound by the provisions of the award. Further, the commission concluded that Green and therefore Seaview gained a competitive advantage over their competitors by not complying with the provisions of the award. Finally, the inquiry found:

Believing themselves to have lesser rights than those conferred by the award, the pilots were more susceptible to the demands of an employer seeking to maximise aircraft use and minimise costs. They were more likely to bow to pressure to fly long hours, overload aircraft and understate hours on maintenance releases. Such practices are not in the interests of the safety of pilots and passengers . . . Mr Green's non-compliance with the award was obviously for commercial gain.

The government disingenuously asserts that driving unions out of the system, stripping them of powers and reducing their viability and effectiveness, will have no impact on safety standards and conditions. To mindlessly chant slogans about reducing union privilege is to encourage the John Greens of the world to exploit positions of power over employees. Currently such exploitation is illegal and able to be scrutinised by union presence. This will disappear under the new regime foreshadowed by the legislation. The problems identified with Seaview and the exploitation of employees that occurred with its deleterious effects on passenger safety will be magnified 50 to 100 times with the passage of this particular legislation.

Let me go to some specifics of the bill. The bill encourages the establishment of single enterprise unions. The government claims this will create greater autonomy for members. What they are really seeking is poorly resourced unions, lacking the industrial capacity to bargain effectively for their members. Employer dominated unions will be the result. The experience to date of staff associations at the enterprise level has not been an encouraging one. Indeed the report of the Economics References Committee noted the experience of Metway Bank in Queensland where the Australian Industrial Relations Commission found the staff association's negotiations on behalf of members to have displayed `an appalling lack of competence'.

The abolition of the `conveniently belong to' rule by the repeal of section 204 of the Industrial Relations Act is not designed to promote freedom of association as this government claims. This rule prevented the registration of unions under the act in circumstances where it could be demonstrated that there was an existing registered organisation to which members could conveniently belong. Repealing these provisions is really all about reducing the viability of unions.

But as well as creating a proliferation of unions, this measure will lead to an increase in demarcation disputes. So the coalition has maintained the power under section 118A of the act to grant exclusive coverage to a union—one of the considerations of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in granting exclusive coverage being the consequences for the employer. In other words, the government's commitment to freedom of association for union members is pretty shallow when put to the test. Indeed, what we will quickly find is that it will be freedom of association unless it is inconvenient for the employer.

The workplace relations bill removes the right of entry for unions and effectively voids provisions in existing awards that would have guaranteed right of entry—unions will only be able to enter a workplace at the invitation of a union member. Again, this provision is dressed up by the government in the language of choice. What it really does is restrict the ability of unions to monitor compliance by employers with the terms of agreements that they have entered into with their workers.

It assumes that employees will be aware of their entitlement to invite union attendance and will not be intimidated by employers into not exercising that right. It will make the policing of notorious industries such as the sweated shops and the textile, clothing and footwear industry impossible. By insisting that the invitation be in writing the bill places further restriction on union access by being intimidatory.

The bill also abolishes union preference, that is, unions getting preference in employment, and closed shops. The first point to note about union preference is that it is usually subject to an `all things being equal' rule. So any concerns about merit being the sole criterion for advancement are not well founded. Even with preference rules, this was the case. Changing the rules midstream, as this act does, will however create disputes, as many agreements containing preference clauses and entered into in good faith will now be illegal, and the new laws will enable employers, if they wish, to discriminate against union members—something that preference rules were originally designed to prevent.

In relation to closed shops, it should be noted that nowhere was there legal recognition of so-called closed shops. Rather they were the product of informal agreements between unions and employers. Now any such agreements will generate substantial monetary penalties. Why can't such clauses be inserted into agreements when all parties agree to them?

The next point I want to go to is industrial action. Industrial action will only be legal during the bargaining period of a certified or workplace agreement. The commission will be able to prevent unlawful strikes. The Federal Court will be able to award damages and sequester funds in such circumstances.

Under the current act, bans clauses in awards prevent behaviour not in accordance with the award. Both employees and employers are restrained from behaviour contrary to that anticipated by the award. The new arrangements abolish bans clauses and replace them with injunctive relief. Not only are these a blunt instrument punishable only by an action for contempt of court but the relief is only available to employers. This is clearly unfair and is further evidence of the contempt with which the government holds unions and union members throughout Australia.

The secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act will be reintroduced as well as a reduction in the scope for some primary boycotts. This essentially means a limitation on the right to strike. As well as increasing the range of unlawful industrial activity under the Trade Practices Act, the bill will also increase the penalties for such activities. Fines of up to $750,000 may be imposed for union breaches.

There will no longer be a requirement for conciliation to precede common law action. This is coupled with the abolition of the 72-hour cooling-off period during which the Australian Industrial Relations Commission could conciliate an industrial dispute.

All of this represents a return to the vagaries of common law actions to resolve industrial disputes, backed up with punitive legislative provisions. A more constructive approach surely must be the encouragement of conciliation and discussion between parties. The coalition is really about establishing a coercive regime of measures designed to intimidate unions from taking legitimate action to protect the interests of their members. The Australian Business Review Weekly noted in June 1996:

When all the rhetoric is stripped away, when all the jargon is removed, this legislation is about reducing union power.

By reducing union power, the coalition correctly believes that a reduction in the pay and conditions of Australian workers will follow. This negative view of the way to promote prosperity in Australia informs all of their measures—whether it is budgetary cuts or industrial relations or a reduction in labour market programs. The Governor of the Reserve Bank has already noted that the passage of the workplace relations bill will not create jobs; the budget papers acknowledge that the government's fiscal strategy will contribute little to growth. So where will the jobs come from? This bill is not about growth; it is about attacking the role of the industrial relations system.

We will hear countless times in this chamber accusations that the Labor Party is protecting the union position in this country. I could not care less if those accusations are made. The political party on this side of the chamber was born of the trade union movements in the 1890s. The key factor in motivating the unions to have a political arm was the use of the cohesive powers of the state against union members in the 1890s, and it has been ever thus.

Coalition members have consistently attacked unions and union rights in this country from Federation onwards. One only has to look back at the industrial relations debates of 1903 and 1904 and then later in 1927 when the Bruce government tried to transfer all industrial relations powers back to the states and at the actions taken by state governments, in particular the Kennett and Court governments, to see the regressive nature of the industrial relations reform approach of coalition members.

I know it excites them. I have never seen the sparkle in their eyes more than when they get up and kick unions. We hear derogatory remarks directed to this side of the chamber that we represent unions—well so we do. We declare that self-interest here today because we are their political arm in the Australian movement. We often hear the criticism that there are too many trade union officials in this or the other chamber. I would very much like to go through the frontbench and point to the first five lawyers sitting there at question time. It is not a relevant factor in adjudging this bill what someone's background is.

If this legislation goes through, it will create and meet the real agenda of the coalition parties, which is confrontation. They have always believed that, out of that confrontation, political support will flow towards them. It will not. I believe this bill should be rejected. I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say that we will be voting against this bill with great enthusiasm.