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Thursday, 22 September 1949


Dr EVATT ("Barton) (Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs) . - I must say at the outset that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Menzies) has explained his bill in a way that is helpful to the House and tends to bring before the House and the country what is the great problem in democracies - the problem of industrial peace. I agree with the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Holloway) that the more important part of the proposal relates to strikes. What I ask the House to consider is that the whole background of the problem has entirely changed. I think it is fair to say that the right honorable gentleman prepared the bill before recent legislation was passed' by the Parliament, because the title refers to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitra tion Act 1904-1948, when, of course, there is no such act. The act now is the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904-1949. The right honorable gentleman, no doubt, had the bill in preparation before the recent legislation, which is very important legislation, was passed. I shall refer to that legislation a little later.


Mr Menzies - The right honorable gentleman knows that I gave notice of this bill before the bill to which he refers was submitted to the Parliament and passed.


Dr EVATT - That is quite correct. The right honorable gentleman drafted legislation to meet a situation that has changed. That is my point. The situation has been changed', in my opinion, by the passage by the Parliament of the recent amendment of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, in which very important changes were made in the provisions governing the elections of officers of registered organizations. I shall return to that a little later. The substance of that law is important. It is being administered actively. There are cases at present before the court under its terms in order to ensure that the affairs of these organizations shall be conducted in a way that is above suspicion. The court has power under that act to order a new ballot, and to add to a returning officer of the organization its own appointee as joint returning officer. Very drastic consequences have been imposed by Commonwealth law for the first time, all designed to ensure the regularity, correctness, and propriety of the organization ballots.


Mr Menzies - I agree that the amending legislation of 1949 deals with additional powers, and is designed to prevent irregularities. However I think that the Minister will agree that it has no relation to a power in connexion with a strike or lockout.


Dr EVATT - I entirely agree with the right honorable gentleman and I thought that I had made that point clear. The bill is divided into two parts, one relating to the election of officials, and the other to strikes, which is of crucial importance in the modern industrial age. That aspect is enormously more important than the first. So far as the first part of the bill is concerned the background has changed entirely as a result of the passage as recently as the 12th July last of the bill dealing with irregularities in the elections of officials of organizations. That measure was enacted, and, as I mentioned a moment ago is being actively implemented by the Registrar and by the Court. In my opinion it will do everything that the first part of this bill aims to do. Further, I think it is equally important to call the attention of the House to the fact that although the bill itself became law the industrial background has changed entirely because of the legislation passed by this House in connexion with the coal strike. I refer to the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act 1949, that was passed by the Parliament on the 29th June. As a result of action taken by the Government thereafter, and by the great majority of the trade union movement, that great crisis was successfully surmounted. I want the House to bear that in mind when addressing itself to the second part of the bill, which deals with the subject of strikes. At this moment a great convention of the trade unions of Australia is being held. It has already adopted a new code in order to restrict and control strikes. As I have said before, this represents a complete and overwhelming defeat for those sections of trade unions into which political matters were injected by the Communist party of Australia. In my judgment nothing is more remarkable in Australian industrial history than the determination of the trade union movement during the coal strike to see that the community was protected, that the Government was supported, and that the small number of extremists in substantial control of a few unions would not be able to impose their political will directly upon this Government and the arbitration tribunal, and indirectly upon the whole arbitration system of this country. The problem of the strike, as I ventured to suggest to the House when bringing that legislation forward during the coal strike, is really a by-product of something which in itself is essential to the welfare of Australia, that is the full employment of our people. Reference has been made to the lockout. Although that is rarely resorted to in times of full employment, it would again become a very great menace to industrial peace in this country if depression came and there was a substantial army of unemployed. In times of full employment there is no longer any question of a lockout. In my opinion, the object of those who wanted to continue the coal strike in order to bring pressure to bear upon the Arbitration Court was to secure a political advantage and so, a minority of people was able to inflame the minds of the members of the Australian Coal and Shale Employees Federation, resulting in an overwhelming majority in favour of a strike. I do not wish to go into the detailed history of this matter. The legislation now submitted to this Parliament does not provide that there must be a ballot to see if the members of a union may lawfully strike or not. At the best it provides that there will be a secret ballot; if the members vote in favour of a strike, it can be gone on with. If they vote against a strike, it can still be gone on with. That is the net effect of the second part of this bill. That part does nothing to stop a strike; it merely provides that the trade unions must have in their rules a means of taking a vote before their members strike. If a ballot is not taken the Registrar may, if he thinks fit, order a vote; but if that goes in favour of the strike, what then? In my judgment it gives an imprimatur to the regularity and propriety of a strike, which, if it were of the nature of the recent coal strike, might be aimed at the very life of the community. Therefore it is like offering a couple of aspirins to a man in a desperate state of health, suffering from some disease that must be dealt with by drastic methods, such as a major operation, and saying to him, " These will make you well for an hour or two ! "


Mr Thompson - It is the Registrar's duty to publish the result.


Dr EVATT - That is so. He need not take a ballot. It would be in no sense an attempt to solve this great problem, but the Government of this country, supported by the Parliament in the emergency coal strike legislation, the trade union movement, and the Labour movement of Australia are engaged in tackling that question to-day. Whilst some of the observations made by the right honorable gentleman are perfectly true, the background of this legislation, which I have endeavoured to describe, may also include legislation that was passed in 1947, but which honorable members may have forgotten. The Communist party endeavoured to boycott the defence project at the Guided Weapons Range at Woomera. It engaged in that objective merely for political purposes, not to improve the industrial conditions of the workers. We passed legislation in this Parliament the effect of which was to put a complete and absolute stop to the boycott, and because of that legislation there has been no further attempted interference. Although the firm enforcement of the emergency coal strike legislation by the Arbitration Court held the fort at a time when everything seemed in danger in this country, we could not have carried the matter to a successful conclusion were it not for the fact that the overwhelming body of officials of the trade unions who had no connexion with communism, that is to say, 90 per cent, of the unions in Australia, and the Labour movement of Australia, gave their overwhelming support to the Government, as indeed did the Parliament, by passing the emergency legislation.







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