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Tuesday, 16 May 1972
Page: 2591


Mr WEBB (Stirling) - This clause seeks to amend section 39 of the Principal Act, which is a very important section, by adding the following new subsection: (2.) In proceedings before the Commission under section thirty-one, section thirty-four or section thirty-five of this Act, the Commission shall, in considering the public interest, have regard, in particular, to the state of the national economy and the likely effects on that economy of any award that might be made in the proceedings.

This is an unwarranted extension of the Government's right to intervene in matters that it considers to be of public interest. It can only lead to the frustration of the processes of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. It will create delays and impose additional expense on employees and employee organisations. This Bill, in effect, envisages agreements and even minor awards being subjected to hearing by the full bench of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission at the behest of this Government. This fact, coupled with the Government's policy of wage and salary freezing, and the unlimited right of manufacturers and retailers to increase prices, will place employees, particularly those represented by unions which adhere to the ordinary processes of conciliation and arbitration, in an impossible position. The proposed new sub-section is an extension of section 31 (3.) of the present Act which states, inter alia, that the arbitration authority may refuse to certify if it is of the opinion that it is not in the public interest that an agreement should be certified. I again refer to the question: Who is to define 'public interest'? One would consider that to keep people at work at reasonable rates of pay and conditions of employment would be in the public interest.

I draw attention to what I said only a few minutes ago. Public interest has now become the important part of this Act. It is not easy to define what is the public interest. As I said before, at one time acts of God were used to stop workers from receiving their just rights. It used to be said that God was on the side of the biggest battalions; now he is on the side of those people who have the control and the authority in this Parliament and the judges of these courts. This is what the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Lynch) had to say in his second reading speech in regard to the question of the Commission having to pay regard to economic consequences:

I have already emphasised the implications that decisions of the Commission can have for the national economy. Therefore, the Bill proposes an amendment of section 39 of the Act to ensure that, when the Commission is constituted to deal with appeals and references and with the reserved matters under the new section 31, it shall, in considering the public interest, have regard in particular to the state of the national economy and the likely effects on that economy of any award that it might make.

I say that the Government simply is passing the buck. Section 39 of the principal Act is to be amended by adding a new sub-section (2.) which, inter alia, states: . . the Commission shall, in considering the public interest, have regard, in particular, to the state of the national economy and the likely effects on that economy of any award that might be made in the proceedings.

This is an unwarranted extension of the Government's right to intervene in matters that it considers to be of public interest. It will create delays and additional expense to the employee and employer organisations. The provision seeks to place the Commission in the position of giving undue weight to economic considerations, even when a just and reasonable case has been advanced for improvement in wages and salary standards or in working conditions. It places the Commission in the invidious position of having to assess the future of the economy, which is something that the Government could not do as was revealed by the last Budget and the shifting ground since then by the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) and the Treasurer (Mr Snedden). It will have a restrictive influence on the Commission in its efforts to come to a just and reasonable decision in accordance with the evidence before it. The Government is seeking to make the Commission assume responsibility for the overall economy - a responsibility that obviously is one that can be properly exercised only at government level. It is asking the Commission to do the Government's dirty work.

The Commonwealth's appearance in the national wage case was not in the public interest, as the Government claims, but in its own political interests. That is why it appeared before the Commission. It tries to shift the responsibility for economic control and unpopular measures away from itself to the Commission. The function of controlling the economy is surely the duty of the Government, not of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. The primary role of the Commission is to settle industrial disputes, not to manage the economy. The Government has shirked its responsibility for controlling the economy. In 1959 the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review advocated a widening of the economic powers of the Commonwealth, but here again the Government failed to act. The Government shirked its responsibility by putting to one side that review of constitutional reform.

The Commission always states that it looks at the whole of the evidence placed before it on any matter on which it has to adjudicate and makes its decision in the light of that evidence. Without doubt, when the Government makes submissions to the Commission, as it did in the recent national wage case, the Commission gives weight to the economic evidence placed before it, but the degree of the weight depends upon the material presented as a whole, and I think undue weight was given to the submissions of the Commonwealth Government in this recent wage case. The Bill seeks to insert into the Act provisions to place the Commission in the position of giving undue weight to economic considerations, even when a just and reasonable case has been advanced for improvements in wages and salary standards or working conditions. Further, it places the Commission in the invidious position of having to assess the future of the economy, a most difficult task as the Government has found out. The last Budget and the results flowing from it show clearly that the Government, even with the expert advice that was available to it, was unable to read the future of the economy and this is amply demonstrated by the shifting ground of the Prime Minister and Treasurer in recent months.

The major effect of the proposed change is that it will have a restrictive influence on the Commission in its efforts to come to a just and reasonable decision in accordance with the evidence placed before it. The Government is seeking to make the Commission take responsibility for the overall economy of this country, a responsibility that obviously can be properly carried out only by the Government if it has the guts to do it.







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