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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4803

Senator BUCKLAND (9:45 AM) —Of the two bills that we are dealing with here this morning, I will start with the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 and then move on to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 seeks to foil pattern bargaining by amending the Workplace Relations Act. This bill also aims to bestow on the Australian Industrial Relations Commission new powers to defer a bargaining period for a specified time. During the deferment or cessation of the bargaining period, the commission removes the statutory protection available to persons engaged in industrial action whose sole aim is to achieve a new workplace agreement. I ask: why shouldn't they seek a new workplace agreement? If indeed the business is progressing, then the work force should progress with the business.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill is a modified version of the original bill which was rejected by the Senate, first in 1999 and again in 2000. The current form of this bill still leaves a lot to be desired and is nothing short of being callous. The bill has no intention of assisting the genuine bargaining process. It is simply a tool to give the government a double dissolution trigger. However, the one thing this bill will do is stop bargaining altogether.

In truth, the only great misdemeanour of pattern bargaining is that it is a logical and effective response to a deregulated wages system. It is commonsense that workers from one industry will have interests in common with other workers from the same industry in another workplace. Consequently, they expect their union to promote their interests. To decline them their rights and to limit their prospects through legislation confined to an individual business is establishing an environment whereby employees will be bargaining at a level where their bargaining power is at its weakest. This legislation is an ideological test that industry and its work force can do without.

Labor has always strongly supported enterprise bargaining. It has always been an integral part of our industrial relations policy, and it is a policy that should be left alone. It is apparent that the Liberal government, rather than taking a progressive attitude to improving enterprise bargaining, has taken an obstructive position. The government's approach is one that promotes industrial action rather than limits or reduces it. The old adage `if it is not broken, don't touch it', takes on new meaning with the Howard government. Their view of industrial relations is, `if it is fair for the workers, make it unfair.'

To put it clearly, there is a whole sequence of conduct that takes place before anybody considers taking industrial action. This conduct includes: the exchange of correspondence; efforts to arrange meetings and then, consequently, having those meetings; setting out the claims and counter claims, and then due process of consideration of those claims and counter claims. During the progress of negotiations, compromises and proposals are put on the table by both sides in an effort to reach a mutual agreement—`mutual' being the operative word. When a situation arises and negotiations hit a deadlock, the parties can use the conciliation process of the Industrial Relations Commission. A prime example of this was during the recent BHP Western Port dispute. There is a certainty when parties bargain in good faith and that certainty is that agreement is more likely to be reached and in a quicker period of time.

What the government recurrently disregards are the remarkable improvements that had been made by pattern bargaining. One of the real improvements is that you do not have what I always referred to, when I was practising in the industrial arena, as `leapfrogging': one factory gets an increase and an improvement in conditions and the factory down the road tries to get just that little bit better than the factory up the road. Pattern bargaining does away with that leapfrogging process. There has been improvement in productivity techniques and generally the development of best practice models which, if not implemented with the consent of the trade union movement, have been implemented as a result of the trade union movement. This has been done through enterprise bargaining. It cannot be denied that the entire process has resulted in a great number of businesses evolving from the system where they were only capable of producing for a domestic, patchy and unreliable market. They are now in a position where they are highly developed and have systems that allow them to lift their production to competitively challenge the rest of the world.

The other important thing about pattern bargaining is that it allows industry to plan. It creates an environment where the employees do not have unrealistic expectations and it removes conflict between the employer, the workers and their unions. Perhaps the greatest thing about the introduction of enterprise bargaining was the fact that workers, unions and management actually spoke to each other, not in a confrontationist way, but in a meaningful way where they were looking to progress the business in the interests of all involved. In the current system there is sufficient scope to allow for adjustments for companies that are struggling and for periods when markets are depressed. There is also the opportunity to make adjustments to wages and conditions where technological change has brought about improved work practices and production methods. It keeps the parties in touch with reality. There are no grandiose claims by the employer or the employees. They get down to the real issues and negotiate in good faith. The unions know the reality of what is happening on a global scale, and the organisations used by the employers—known as the employers' unions— have a like knowledge. Pattern bargaining has to be seen as the most effective way of keeping a degree of control on employment within industry groups.

I now turn to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002. I will preface this by saying that, in my time with the union movement, I think that I would have been strung up on many occasions had I suggested that there be a secret ballot before people took their action. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Workplace Relations Act to provide for compulsory secret ballots before industrial action is taken. Like the previous bill that I spoke about, the government has twice in the past wanted to introduce compulsory secret ballots: in the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999—that is something that we might want to talk about at some time in a realistic light—and in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2000. Senate committees reported on both these bills.

Essentially, the reintroduction of this bill, albeit with some changes to neutralise several criticisms, is another possible double dissolution trigger. That is all that this is about. It is not about improving industrial relations. It is simply about getting the government that trigger for a double dissolution. The veracity of the government's changes to this bill has done little to address these previous concerns or its critics. Currently, the amendments will require the conduct of a secret ballot by union or non-union members, as the case may be, as a prerequisite for gaining authorisation from the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to take ensuing protected industrial action against the employer during enterprise bargaining negotiations. That would not be such a bad idea, provided that on the way through and at the conclusion there was a secret ballot to see if workers would go back to work or whether they would lift any restrictions that were in place. But the bill does not go that far.

The argument for this is to make certain that those playing a part in industrial action have decided upon the action themselves and have not been misled by union officials. Let me make it very clear that I never misled anyone before action was taken. All votes, for whatever reason, including industrial action such as stoppages, overtime restrictions or whatever, were always done in an open and democratic way. If people want to be a part of a work force and want to achieve something, then they should be prepared to put their hand up and be seen to be promoting an idea, not hiding behind a secret ballot that will not change anything. I can remember one occasion when we were instructed by the commission to conduct a secret ballot because the company was insistent that the count had been misjudged on the first occasion. We conducted the secret ballot, and on this occasion got a unanimous decision to take action against the employer. It proves nothing. It is words and a frustrating way of doing things. If people are confronted with a system where they have to take a secret ballot, they will not wait around to do it; they will walk at the time. This is where this government has got it so wrong.

The government would like you to believe that union members may be misled by union officials. The real question is: how gullible are the workers? I suggest that they are not gullible. The truth of the matter is that the ballot procedure is so complicated and bureaucratic that, if followed through, it will thwart effective industrial action by employees or encourage wildcat strikes. That will be the outcome. People will not tolerate the frustrating processes that are contained within this bill. The bill also robs the Australian Industrial Relations Commission of its present good judgment to direct a pre-strike ballot where it considers that it would facilitate the settling of a dispute. This particular bill is deliberately intended to strengthen the position of employers in industrial disputes. Strengthening the position of one side against the other can only lead to continuing conflict. It will do nothing to resolve the dispute. You build up frustration, you build up anger and the result is that the workers will react. Any good legislation should look at a fair, just and equitable way of managing it.

Such is the case that, if this bill were passed, employers would not be obliged to hold a secret ballot with their shareholders before locking out employees. Where is the fairness in that? It is all one sided. Nor are employees required to take part in a secret ballot to return to work. If you are going to make something fair and equitable, you have to follow it all the way through, and this government does not think that far ahead.

It is evident that the Howard government has tried to exploit this issue on a number of occasions. There has been a small minority of trade unionists who may not have always operated in the best interests of their members or for the national interest. It is, however, incredibly unfair for the Howard government to take advantage of a small number of scallywags on this issue and subsequently respond to an industrial relations framework on the basis of the activities of a minority group of people for the purpose of obstructing rather than nurturing a fair and equitable industrial relations system.

There is no provision in this bill to deal with shonky or unscrupulous employers. While I understand that some people get frustrated and excited about industrial relations when they feel that the workers are being disadvantaged, there are also many employers that are less than pure in the light of things when it comes to industrial relations. In fact, it is not unlike some employers to promote poor industrial relations for their own advantage. Both these bills are designed to disadvantage decent workers of Australia for the government's ideological pandering to their big business contributors. I urge the Senate to support the opposition's amendments.