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Tuesday, 16 May 1972
Page: 2559

Mr SCHOLES (Corio) - Like my colleagues, I am very concerned about the words 'public interest'. I am concerned for 2 reasons. I do not see any coherent body anywhere in Australia which can define or represent the public interest. 1 think that applies more to the present Ministry than to any other group of people which may wish to present evidence in a court. I use as an example something which is current in Australia and which I think indicates the lack of clarity that there can be on any issue at any one time about what is the public interest. Someone, somewhere, will go into a court with the force of law and demand that what has been said at a particular time to be the public interest shall be complied with. There is on the bookstalls at the moment a publication called 'The Little Red Schoolbook'. It is on the bookstall at the Canberra Airport.

Mr Cope - Do not stir that up.

Mr SCHOLES - Just a moment. On the front bench of the Government Parties is the Minister for Customs and Excise (Mr Chipp) who says that it is in the public interest that this book be distributed, there is the Minister for Housing (Mr Kevin Cairns) who says that this is a subjugation of the rule of law and the Minister for the Navy (Dr Mackay) who makes similar comments. I ask the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Lynch) and the Assisting Minister assisting the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Street) - I do not use them as examples because this is a different matter - how they could define in circumstances such as this what in fact is the public interest. If they were to go into a court on an economic matter, they most likely would say: 'Well, economic matters are a little more clear cut. If the workers want more wages, it is in the public interest that they should not get them'. That is what the Government has always said, lt has said that although the workers want lower working hours, it is in the public interest that they do not get them. 1 suppose that one could say that the public interest is clearly definable in this area.

There is conflict among Government Ministers on what is in the public interest in economic matters. For instance, the Treasurer (Mr Snedden) believed that the Australian dollar should be maintained at its parity with sterling. The Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr Anthony) - the de facto Prime Minister - maintained that it should be devalued. So it was devalued. Who is to say that that decision was in the public interest? The decision was reached purely because of the brute forces of Party politics which operated within the coalition. The public interest had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision. Any decision which is reached by the present Cabinet and, in all probability, by successive cabinets on what should be done in wage cases will be arrived at on the basis of what is in the political interests of the government of the day. It will have nothing whatsoever to do with the public interest. Let us not be completely hypocritical about the situation.

How can anyone suggest that, even with the myriad of advisers which the Government has available to it and who, 1 hope, would disagree pretty violently not only with the Government but also with one another - if they were doing their job they would have to disagree - that the Government, on the basis of this advice, can arrive at a clear-cut decision on what is in the public interest? It is now only 8 months since the Government came into this Parliament and said that it was in the public interest to increase taxation in Australia and it is now about 1 month since it came into the Parliament and said that it was in the public interest that that mistake be corrected. If a mistake of this nature is made in the national wage case, the Government is not dealing with an increase of 20c a week for the person on $70 a week; it is dealing with his ability to maintain his standard of living. If the national wage case does not give to people that level of wages to which they are entitled, they have no other area from which to obtain them. This is especially so with those people who are in the weaker bargaining positions, such as employees of State governments.

Reference has been made to increases in productivity. By way of interjection railway drivers were mentioned. I make this point: A train crew of only 2 people can now drive any number of locomotives. The number of vehicles on trains has been considerably increased and the average tonnages which are drawn per man hour have considerably increased. But the relativity of the rates of pay of the engine drivers, who are responsible for this increased productivity, when compared with a fitter's rate of pay, are now 25 per cent lower than they were 20 years ago. In fact, engine drivers have increased their productivity by more than 100 per cent but their relative pay rates have dropped. Where is the public interest in that? What is all this talk about people benefiting from increased productivity? What the court has said is that the employer has invested money in the industry and the employees are not entitled to the benefit of the results flowing from that investment. This is what has happened in the railways. When one asks people to increase productivity so that they will obtain increases in real wages one should remember that those people who have increased their productivity substantially over the years have in fact had their relative wages reduced. So let us not kid ourselves about what is in the public interest in that situation.

The crux of this matter is that the Government is writing into this legislation provisions for making a political judgment which could have been legally made had the Australian people supported the referendum on wages in 1946. They did not do so, and now what the Government is trying to do is to find semi-legal methods - because I doubt very much whether it is a constitutionally valid proposition - to get around the decision of the Australian people, because the Government knows that if this question were put to the Australian people again by way of referendum, it would be defeated.

The facts of the matter are that no matter what way one looks at this clause, it is not possible for any group of people sitting in a parliament, or in any other area, to define what in fact is in the public interest. A group of people can define what is in the economic interests of some of the employers, what is in the economic interests of some of the employees, or what is in the political interests of the party which happens to have power or those parties which happen to be able to exert the maximum political pressure- not necessarily those parties which govern. We are perpetuating this situation in this legislation, and what is going to be said in court will not necessarily be in the public interest. It may be what the Treasury thinks is in the public interest, which may be totally opposed by the Department of Trade and Industry, and this is not an unusual situation. It may be what is in the immediate political interest of some section of some political party. As I have said previously, there are sitting on the front bench at question time here 3 Ministers who, on another subject, quite publicly are expressing 3 different versions of what is in the public interest. Who is to say which version is right? The judgment day has not arrived yet. I do not believe that this is a valid point. I believe that this is a very dangerous process to put into a system in order to determine by a fairly unscientific manner what levels of wages and conditions should be provided within the community.

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