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Monday, 19 October 1970


Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - There should be no necessity for an 'urgency' debate on this matter. But the Opposition is not prepared to remain silent and idle in the face of the repeated pronouncements by the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) and other Ministers which are clearly calculated to embarrass, compromise and prejudice the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in the discharge of its constitutional and statutory functions. The Government is attempting to use the Commission as an instrument for implementing its own discredited economic policies in the belief that it can thus transfer the public's odium to a body that is unanswerable to the electorate. When the Prime Minister told the 1 970 convention of the New South Wales Division of the Liberal Party that the Commission would cause damage to the Government's economic policies if it increased wages, he was merely confirming a view held by most observers that the Government has come to treat the Commission as a de facto part of its economic machinery, and therefore obliged to put government policy into effect. The fact that the Commission has appeared willing to accept this role is to be regretted by all who want the system to succeed.

The Prime Minister went even further in his now notorious after dinner speech to the Chamber of Manufactures in August of this year, for on that occasion he told a gathering which actually included the President of the Commission, Sir Richard Kirby, that it would be disastrous for Australia if a profitable company could be called on to pay more than industry generally. That statement was telling the Commission to reject the submissions of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in the then pending oil industry wage case. As a matter of fact, the Commission did reject the ACTU submissions and there will always remain the suspicion that it was influenced by the publicly reported text of the Prime Minister's speech. I cannot prove that the Commission rejected the ACTU's oil industry case on account of the Prime Minister's warning. What I do say - I speak for the whole of my Party on this point - is that the Commission must always be seen to be independent of outside influence if it is to enjoy the full confidence of those who appear before it. There must be no reason to suspect that the Commission is the political creature of the Government. All parties appearing before the Commission must be satisfied that its decisions are based upon the submissions, arguments and evidence presented by the parties during the hearing and not merely upon the after dinner speeches of the Prime Minister. 1 am in good company when J express these sentiments because the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Snedden) in a talk to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia on 8th of this month said:

The Commission, whether at the level of Presidential or lay members, is expected to reach decisions based on the submissions, arguments and evidence presented by the parties and interveners, and should not be influenced by backroom economists oi other expert advisers whose views are not subject to the normal processes of crossexamination and public scrutiny.

That was a fully justified rebuke to the Prime Minister for his unexaminable vapourings on what questions should be considered by the Commission. At the same time, it was a denunciation of the Treasurer (Mr Bury) and his predecessor, the Minister for External Affairs (Mr McMahon) as well as of the speaker himself, because like them, he too has offended all the common decencies of political behaviour in relation to the Com mission. In the very same speech to which I have just referred the Minister tried to outrank the Prime Minister in his efforts to coerce the Commission into an acceptance of the Government's economic policies. He said:

There cannot be any substitute for the Commission accepting responsibility for the economic consequences of its decisions.

I dare say that will be his argument today. When I condemn the Minister for that statement I am, oddly enough, still in his own company, because without leaving his CEDA speech, I find him saying:

.   . the ultimate responsibility for economic policy must rest with the Government and the Government alone.

With that portion of the Minister's speech the Opposition finds itself in complete accord. Yet, today he will no doubt argue that it is the responsibility of the Commission. However, for a prime example of double-talk, the Minister's CEDA speech must surely take the prize. That speech contained at least 3 conflicting propositions. However, it took the Minister only 10 days to ignore that proposition in which he condemned people who sought lo influence the Commission with unexaminable public statements because in an afterluncheon speech in Sydney on 18th of this month the Minister again followed the Prime Minister's poor example by publicly informing the Commission that when it deals with national wage cases it should consider only movements in productivity, lie went on to produce some rather dubious statistics to support his case. For example, he said that over the past 5 years average money earnings had increased by about 6.5 per cent a year, that prices had increased by only 3 per cent a year and that national productivity had increased by a mere 2.5 per cent a year. And then, in what cannot be regarded as anything but a veiled threat to the Commission, he warned that if this continued, it would be quite unacceptable to the Government. The Minister said:

The solution must be found in rational wage policies and I. believe the Commission cannot disregard the economic consequences of its decisions.

If the Minister wants to quote figures designed to have a bearing on this year's national wage case, why does he not observe his own strictures against backroom economists by making his statements inside the Commission so that the President of the ACTU, Mr Bob Hawke, can crossexamine him? Mr Hawke would probably want the Minister to reconcile the 1968 statement of the then Treasurer, that the gross national product in 1967 had increased by 5.7 per cent, with his own estimates of only 2.5 per cent. Mr Hawke would be interested to hear the Minister disprove the 8 per cent increase in non-farm productivity which has been forecast for 1969-70 by the Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research. And, since the Minister confesses to the fact that his Government has not yet bothered to set up machinery for measuring and recording movements in productivity, Mr Hawke might also like the Minister to explain how the Commission could, in fact, establish an accurate wageproductivity relationship without the benefit of reliable productivity statistics.

Mr Hawkemay, perhaps, be interested to test the Minister's assertion that money earnings have increased by 6i per cent a year against Kenneth Davidson's assessment that real wages in 1965 increased by only 1.6 per cent, by 2.3 per cent the following year, and by a mere 0.8 per cent in 1966-67. The Minister would, I believe, become a rather embarrassed witness trying to prove that prices have risen by only ?< per cent a year. Surely no-one will doubt that the Minister's recital of those controversial figures was deliberately designed to prejudice the ACTU's national wage case. How can anyone blame Mr Hawke for complaining that 'this is yet another example of the contempt which the Government has for the Arbitration Commission'? Is it any wonder that the reputation of the Commission is falling with each case it handles.

There has never been a more blatant breach of the law than these attempts by the Prime Minister and his Ministers improperly to influence the outcome of a case that will affect the wellbeing of some 4 million wage and salary earners. The constitutional function and authority of the Commission flows directly from section 51 of the Constitution. Under that section the Commission is obliged to confine itself to conciliation and arbitration for the settlement of industrial disputes. That must always be the primary aim of the Commission. It is for the Government to take such political steps as are necessary to adjust its economic policies to harmonise with the wage policies deemed to be desirable for the wellbeing of the Australian people by the Commission. The Government has the right, if not the duty, to make considered submissions to the Commission during the hearing of national cases; but it should be done in a way that permits a public testing of the validity of its evidence, argument and submissions.

In the 1960 hearing, counsel appearing for the Commonwealth categorically argued that no wage increase should be granted; and many commentators believe that it was those submissions which led to the near defeat of the Government in the 1961 elections. Since then, the Government has refrained from making positive submissions about wage increases. In 1966, for example, Mr John Kerr, Q.C., as he then was, told the Commission that the Government favoured a 'moderate increase', argued against a 'large increase', but declined to say what was meant by a moderate wage increase'. Mr Justice Wright described the Commonwealth's case as 'meaningless'.

The Government now expects the Commission to take into account all aspects of current government economic policy and to fix wages in a way that will minimise the need for politically unacceptable adjustments to the Government's irresponsible attitude to social and economic problems. I have already accused Ministers of the Crown of having acted in breach of the law, as well as in breach of political refinement. Let me now deal with the first of these charges. Although the Commission is not a court, it is nonetheless protected from those who seek improperly to influence its decisions. Section 182 of the Act provides for a penalty of $200, or imprisonment for 12 months, or both, for any person, who by writing or making a speech uses words calculated to influence improperly a member of the Commission or to bring the Commission into disrepute.

No one can deny that the Minister and his Prime Minister have used words calculated to influence improperly the members of the Commission, and no one can deny that these Ministers have brought the Commission into disrepute. On the occasion that certain building employees sent telegrams seeking to influence the deputy Public Service Arbitrator last

October, the Arbitrator warned that anybody who tried to influence him improperly could be fined $200, or imprisoned for 12 months, or both. The Arbitra or continued:

It is quite improper for a group of employees to approach the tribunal because it leaves open the suggestion that pressure is being exerted on me.

It is equally improper for a Minister to do so. is it any wonder, therefore, that the President of the ACTU should contrast the Prime Minister's law and order campaign with his own breach of the law in attempting to influence the Commission by such improper conduct. Even the Melbourne Age' has condemned the Prime Minister and his Ministers for their interference with the Commission. In its editorial of 22nd September 1970, the 'Age' had this to say:

The Commission's standing in the eyes of combatants and the community is likely to suffer if Mr Gorton and his Ministers use outside forums to make speeches which might be interpreted as attempts to influence deliberations.

Referring to the Prime Minister's afterdinner lecture to the President of the Commission on the oil industry case, the editorial in the 'Australian' of 7th August 1970 said this:

In the circumstances, it was an incredibly inappropriate piece of rhetoric which can only damage the arbitration system no matter what it decides next week. If the decision favours the status quo it will inevitably encourage a suspicion that the Commission bowed to political direction.

Well, the Commission did favour the status quo established in the 1966 General Motors case, that profitability of an industry was not a ground for higher wages. And it is inevitable that there will be widely held suspicions that the Commission was, in fact, influenced by what Ministers of the Crown had said outside the Commission. The same thing happened in the equal pay case. It happened again in the annual leave case, and most people now believe it will happen in tomorrow's national wage case. The Government constantly talks about law and order and about public interest. Its Ministers treat the first with utter contempt when it suits them and they refuse to define, much less show any regard for, the second. Bob Hawke correctly summed up the Government's scant regard for the public interest when he told the Industrial Relations Society that the Government was adopting a brothel-type approach* to the public interest on arbitration, lt embraces the public interest', declared Mr Hawke, but has no lasting affection for it'.

In conclusion, I want to say this: Unless the Commission is permitted to fulfil the role given to it by the Constitution, with an apparent as well as actual, impartiality, 1 am afraid it is destined to just melt away, to be remembered by historians as a dream that might have become a reality but for a Prime Minister's prostitution of his political power.







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