Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 22 September 1949

Mr MENZIES (Kooyong) (Leader of the Opposition) . - by leave - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time. 1 propose to say something very briefly about the general purpose of this bill, and then to direct particular attention to its provisions, when honorable members have the bill before them. Some little time ago, the Government brought in a bill dealing with irregularities in trade union elections and, in the course of the debate on that bill, I took the opportunity to say something about the general case for secret ballots. As I suspect that the time allowed for this debate will not be unlimited, I do not propose to occupy the time of the House by reiterating what I said then. I can sum up the case for a secret ballot in. industry in a very few words. Organizations are vital to the arbitration system. Every honorable member who is familiar with the Commonwealth arbitration system knows that it is literally founded on organization - organizations of employers, and organizations of employees, better known as unions. Trade unions and, to a much lesser degree, organizations of employers, are a vital element in the structure of the Arbitration Court. The union itself, under the arbitration system, is given very great powers. I remind honorable gentleman that it has, among other things, the right to create disputes, the right to put forward claims on behalf of its members, the right to represent its members before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, whether before a judge or before a conciliation commissioner, and the right to enforce an award by taking the necessary proceedings to ensure that the member of the union is paid what he ought to be paid under the award and that the prescribed conditions are being observed in relation to him. In addition to those things, there as and has been for many years in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, a power to award preference to unionists. Thatpower, of course, is now exercisable by the conciliation commissioner, not by the judge. I merely recite those facts briefly in order to remind the House that the trade union, the organization of employees, is now inextricably bound up with the whole of our notions of the arbitration system. In those circumstances, we believe, and have said so repeatedly, that it is of the first importance that these great organizations, with all their proper power in the community, should be democratically controlled.

The first requirement in the democratic control of any body is that there shall be a system of voting which reflects the true opinion of the people who are entitled to vote. As I have said very many times in public - and I am sure that many other honorable members also have said the same thing - nobody in any democratic country like Australia would dream of going back to the old open ballot. In the political field, we recognize at once that the only vote that is worth having is a vote taken by secret ballot. Yet, in the industrial field, we have shambled along for many years with a system which permits great decisions to be taken in very great trade unions by chance votes at mass meetings, not by a system of secret ballot. Bitter experience has shown, particularly in recent years, that an open vote taken at what may be, in very large measure, a chance meeting does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the organization at all.. There must be very many people in Australia who believe that one-half of the great strikes that we have had in the last three years would not have occurred had the rank and file member had a chance to cast a vote by secret ballot on the issue of the stoppage. All of that can be summed up by saying that a vote that is a mere minority vote at a mass meeting is not democratic and that the only democratic vote is that in which everybody has the right to vote without fear, favour or affection. I imagine that, in the eyes of most, Australians, I need not argue that basic proposition for very long. I am convinced that there is an overwhelming body of opinion in Australia in favour of the secret ballot for industrial purposes. That being so, how should we go about introducing it? That question has given us some cause for consideration.

It is very undesirable, I think, that a secret ballot should appear to be forced upon unionists from outside sources. I am quite familiar with the feeling that every trade unionist has that he ought to be the master of the affairs of his own trade union and that nobody else should interfere them. That, of course, is the whole object of the hill. A man will never be the master of his own trade union until his vote is as good as the vote of anybody else in that trade union and until rank and file control of elections in the union and of great decisions of tha union has been completely established. Therefore, the bill is really designed, not to interfere with, but to strengthen the rights of unionists and to give to them an unquestioned power over matters that are vital to them. I speak of unionists, although the principle of the bill applies equally to employers' organizations, which, of course, have nothing like the same measure of development as employees' organizations have secured.

Applying the principle that I have just mentioned, the bill proposes that the secret ballot shall be introduced as a part of the rules of registered organizations. Most honorable members are familiar, some of them particularly so, with this machinery, but I point out for general information that, before a union can have itself registered in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, it must prepare its rules, which, under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, must comply with certain conditions. If honorable members will look at the act, they will find, in section 70, the following provision: - (1.) Any of the following associations or persons may, on compliance with the prescribed conditions, be registered . (2.) The conditions to be complied with by associations so applying for registration and by organizations shall be as set out in Schedule B or as prescribed.

The conditions that appear in Schedule B were, in fact, replaced many years ago by regulation, but without going into the details, honorable members may take it that there is a list of provisions with which the rules of the union must comply before it can become registered. The very first of those conditions is that the rules must provide for the election of a committee of management of the organization and of its branches and of officers of the organization and of its branches under a system of voting which makes adequate provision for absent voting. Thus, in fact, the Parliament looked into this matter many years ago and actually provided that a union seeking registration must provide in its rules for a system of voting, including absent voting, or in another form, postal voting.

What we propose in the bill is that a further provision shall be imposed in relation to the rules of a union applying for registration. That provision will be found in clause 3, which proposes that in section 70 of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, which I have mentioned, these words shall be inserted - (2a.) In addition to the conditions referred to in the last preceding sub-section, the rules of associations applying for registration and of organizations - (a.) shall provide that the system of voting for the election of a committee of management of the organization and of its branches and of officers of the organization and of its branched shall make adequate provision for postal voting and for the conduct of the voting by secret ballot under the supervision ofsome person approved by the Registrar:

The reason for the use of the expression contained in the last few lines is that there may be some organization that is controlled, for example, by Communists. In such a case, the Industrial Registrar might say, "I am not satisfied that this man is going to conduct the ballot properly ". However, I have no doubt that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the Registrar would automatically appoint the man who was normally the returning ofiicer for the union. The essence of the proposal is that there is to be in the rules of the union a provision for the conduct of voting by secret ballot so that the union's own rules will embrace the secret ballot.

Mr Thompson - It will still be optional for members to vote, though.

Mr MENZIES - Yes, I quite agree. I gave some consideration to that point, but there were very great difficulties in the way of devising a system of compulsory voting, as the honorable member will realize when he looks through the bill carefully. I agree that this bill contemplates noncompulsory voting. If some one can devise a system for. making it compulsory, I shall be very happy to accept an amendment along those lines. In the second place, there is a provision to be put into the rules, and certified as reasonable by the Registrar, under which, if any members of the organization are concerned in any industrial dispute and there is a proposal that there shall be a lockout, in the case of the employers' organization, or a strike, in' the case of the union, no such lockout or strike shall take place until the question whether it shall take place has been submitted to a secret ballot of those members of the organization who would become parties to the lockout or strike if the proposals were carried out. That means that there are two proposals or topics to be dealt with by the rule which is to be put into the body of the rules of the trade unions and employers' organizations. The first is that there shall be a secret ballot for the election of officers and the second is that there shall be a secret ballot among those concerned before a lockout or strike may take place. The next provision in the bill is that if a lockout or strike takes place and a secret ballot has not been held in accordance with the rules of the organization, the Registrar may proceed to conduct, or cause to be conducted, a secret ballot on the matter. So, if an organization fails to conduct a secret ballot, the Registrar may step in and conduct it instead. In order to be complete, the bill contains definitions of " lockout " and " strike ", which are substantially in line with the definitions of "lockout" and " strike ", which stood in the act for many years until the provisions for the prohibition of lockouts and strikes were struck out the better part of twenty years ago.

Mr Lemmon - If a lockout were proposed, who would vote in the ballot?

Mr MENZIES - The members of the employers' organization concerned. There are two types - lockouts by employers, strikes by unionists. The employers would vote in a secret ballot on whether or not there should be a lockout and the unionists would vote in a secret ballot on whether or not they should strike. If the parties to the proposed lockout or strike did not conduct a ballot, the Registrar would be able to step in and say " As you have failed to take a ballot on this matter,, I now propose to hold one". When he has held one, he will have to ascertain its result and publish it forthwith in such manner as he thinks fit.

Mr Thompson - How would the proposal apply to a lockout by one big firm in an industry in which there were no other firms ?

Mr MENZIES - That would not be a registered organization. A ballot would be irrelevant. It is one firm and it makes one decision.

Mr Thompson - That is often where trouble arises.

Mr MENZIES - The honorable member must not suppose that any one thinks that a secret ballot is going to prevent all lockouts or strikes. No one supposes that for a moment. In the case of a lockout by an individual employer, it would be absurd to talk about a secret ballot, for there must be unanimity in a decision when he is the only man to make it. But organizations, which have very great powers under our legislation, ought not to be able to exercise those great powers in a way that may injure the community, unless, first of all, it is clear that its members want to take the suggested action. A strike that injures the public is, goodness knows, bad enough at any time, but a strike that injures the public and represents the will of only some and not the majority of the members of the union is a strike for which no justification can possibly be found. So we say that complete industrial democracy inside the trade unions would exist as the result of this legislation. No one outside the union will be able to tell it what decision it has to make. Only the rank-and-file members will be able to decide what course the union shall take. That is an eminently democratic proposal.

Mr Thompson - What is sought, in effect, is a secret ballot on strikes rather than on the election of officers.

Mr MENZIES - There are many cases in which officers of unions are elected by ballot.

Mr Thompson - They are in most of the big unions.

Mr MENZIES - But in some they are not. From the public point of view, the more burning question is whether there : should be a secret ballot before a lockout or strike.

Mr Holloway - All that the honorable gentleman is worried about is strikes, not elections.

Mr MENZIES - May be. I am not prepared to debate that at all. The overwhelming public interest concerns strikes or lockouts. That is the major consideration in the bill. Provision has been made for the election of officers by secret ballots, because that provision makes the bill logically complete, although the conduct of a secret ballot i3 not nearly so important on the election of officers as it is on a stoppage of work, which may have very wide repercussions. Many things might be said about the bill, but I am anxious that the House shall have the opportunity of expressing its view. I put forward the hill as an eminently democratic measure, which, far from impairing the strength of trade unions, will strengthen their position by making certain that decisions taken by them shall really be the decisions of their Tank-and-file members. I commend the bill to the House. I commend its principle as unanswerable. Some changes may need to be made in point of detail. Indeed, if amendments are put forward in committee, I assure honorable members that I shall not use my majority to ensure their rejection. On the contrary, I shall be happy to consider them on their merits.

Suggest corrections