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Thursday, 25 August 1983
Page: 329

Mr STEEDMAN(8.35) —I thank you for that courtesy, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have the honour of representing the electors of Casey in this Parliament. Casey is an electorate on the outer eastern fringe of Melbourne. It has been called a litmus seat, and since its inception in 1968 it has always been held by the Government. Since Casey goes to whichever party forms the government of the day, I envisage a long parliamentary career for myself. The seat of Casey was held with great distinction between 1972 and 1975 by Race Mathews, currently a Minister in the Cain Labor Government in Victoria. I hope to be able to change the record of the last seven years of inactivity under the Liberals, and I thank the electors of Casey for their support.

Casey is an electorate that has suffered from what I call the second wave in terms of economic casualties. The unemployment boom under the Fraser Government' s disastrous monetarist policies first affected the blue-collar working class areas in the west of Melbourne, but as the malaise grew and the economy slumped, the unemployment base widened. Unemployment moved into areas that until then had been relatively unaffected by the social changes occurring in the industrial suburbs. Casey has a high proportion of the educated white-collar managerial class within its boundaries, and it was these people who began to feel the pinch during the 1981-82 recession. They began to understand directly the full meaning of the policies of the Liberal Government. The nightmare had become a reality and the rhetoric of a Prime Minster lashing out and blaming everyone except his Government for the disaster was not acceptable to the people of Casey. The McCarthyist scaremongering that the then Prime Minister substituted for a campaign only insulted the intelligence of these people and they rejected the man, his divisive policies and his discredited Government in their thousands. For the first time, the dominoes really did fall, and with the loss of Casey, Diamond Valley, Deakin, Chisholm and Flinders, the Liberals were left with only four metropolitan seats in the State once called the jewel in the Liberal crown.

I now move on to a subject close to my heart-the trade union movement. I believe that those people in our society who are obliged to rely on the mass media or the statements of the Opposition for their knowledge of industrial relations might well be forgiven the impression that the average Australian employee spends more time in disputation than in work. They may be forgiven for thinking that a small group of union officials has absolute power over our economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that the vast majority of union officials spend long and hard hours looking after the needs of their membership and trying to save them from the exploitation of some of our born-to-rule opponents who consider that the greatest evil to have befallen our society was the abandonment of the serf system.

My occupation immediately before coming to this place was as an official with the Municipal Employees Union, often known affectionately as the garbos union. These are the people who know what it is like to be at the bottom of the socio- economic ladder. These and other workers are the people who know what it is like to pay a high rent or mortgage repayments and still try to bring up a family on a gross weekly income of $220. These are the people who in the country areas feel the lash of the cockies who control the councils and treat them as a sub- human species. These are the people fighting for a just and reasonable share of the resources of our society. These are the people who have been so cruelly brutalised and sold down the drain, and who have had their expectations shattered by successive Liberal governments.

The sorts of conditions that workers had to endure before the advent of the union movement is a matter of record. I remind all honourable members here today , and Australian society in general, that the work conditions that they accept now as their right were fought for with great courage by the union movement in the face of fanatical opposition by conservative governments, the owners of capital and the media. The gains of 40 hours or less for the working week, holidays, holiday pay and loadings, health and safety conditions, and recreational facilities, are only a small part of a lifestyle which we now accept as our right. All of these measures had to be fought for by the unions- against people such as the honourable member for marihuana here. The union movement started in Australia in the 1930s, but it was the latter half of the nineteeth century that saw real growth in union membership and a demand for an eight-hour day. It was the political impotence of the trade unions that led in the 1890s to the formation of the Australian Labor Party and soon after, in 1904 , to the election of the world's first Labor Government.

I now wish to look a bit more closely at the demonology of the union movement as propagated by our opponents and aided by a hostile Press. It should first be said that the media is not just on the side of business; it is big business. It takes its stand against the just claims of the union because its role is to maximise profits. The major shareholders in the media are the large conservative financial institutions, the banks and the insurance companies. The role of the media is to sell advertising space and time to advertisers. Its programs are designed to attract advertisements from big business. It obviously can also be affected by demands for wage increases and strike action. It is interesting to note that most people in our democratic society believe that a person has a right to withhold his labour; it is just that he is not allowed to strike. The perfect strike, of course, according to the media and the Opposition, should be held in the striker's own time rather than in the employer's time.

It should be pointed out that, contrary to these distortions, the overwhelming majority of industrial disputation is solved within a day by consultation. Occasionally we have temporary stop pages for half a day to debate the issues, but rarely is there protracted action. Such actions, of course, are the ones that make newspaper headlines. These are the disputes that allow the media to squeeze the last drop of pathos by a selective portrayal of those inconvenienced . We read of a family, group or individual undergoing great hardship because of the actions of unionists. We do not hear about the plight of the unionists and their families. No one wants an industrial stoppage. The people who are hardest hit are the workers and their families. We hear of lost production and lost man hours, but it is interesting that large scale unrest in areas such as car manufacturing always seem to coincide with production gluts. Statements by motor manufacturers display surprising optimism in their calculation of the production which would have been achieved but for a stoppage. In setting a cash value to this lost production they tend to forget that they have been saved such costs as wages, materials and components. The cynic might suspect that in some circumstances a strike could even be provoked, for example, when an employer is faced with production difficulties such as dwindling orders on the books.

It has long been noted that our political opponents, when in government, attempt and sometimes manage to provoke industrial action by the transport or power unions immediately prior to an election. It is also interesting to note that millions of working days are lost because of industrial accidents, often caused by the refusal of management to introduce even the most basic safety equipment. This also causes sharp increases in workers compensation premiums, an area of concern in many small businesses today. It is these issues that management and its advisers would do well to consider. It is also necessary to counter the mistaken belief that the unions actually cause disputation. Statistic after statistic proves that the majority of disputes are caused by management's inability to negotiate with the work force. In fact it is managerial incompetence. A glance at the latest statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics will confirm that it is management policy that is often at fault.

It is impossible in this speech to cover properly the range of distortions that have been put about by conservative governments and the media in relation to the union movement. That will have to wait for another day. The reality is that in my lifetime we have not had many Labor governments. Apart from the war years and the period following that conflict, Labor has been in power for only three years since 1949. The burden of opposing the repressive conservative governments from Menzies to Fraser fell upon the union movement. It was the union movement, not the Parliament, which fought and achieved the conditions of work and wages of which Australians are so proud. The people of Australia owe a lot to the union movement and they should not be fooled by the continuous union bashing indulged in by the puppets of big business and the multinational interests. The working people of this country have a right to a good secure job, a decent wage and the expectation of a tranquil and productive retirement. I believe that a Labor politician should say straightforwardly to the electorate that industrial action is often the only defence workers have. We must let them know that a strike by labour is nowhere near as crippling to the economy as a strike by capital, and that social welfare for the poor costs much less than handouts to the rich.

I now wish to make some comments about the way in which members of this Government can support workers and their representatives in a practical way in a time of economic recession and mass unemployment. The first thing that must be emphasised is that, far from being all powerful, trade unions in Australia suffer from a lack of resources and need considerable support simply to conduct the defence of their members' interests. Those interests do not stop with the conventional forms of industrial dispute or the understandable priority given to the maintenance of real living standards. As the Labor Party policy makes clear in many different areas, the interests of workers and trade unions extend to the controls they experience in their own working lives. They focus upon the powers that are exercised by management without democratic control. Industrial democracy is more than a paper commitment; it is vital for a decent life for Australian workers. Although the media may sensationally highlight strikes and work to rule actions, there are many other issues of corporate management and control that trade unionists need to understand and influence.

In order to understand the work environment the trade union movement requires government assistance with the longer term problems of trade union education and research. As part of the prices and incomes support policies, the Government can show its commitment to industrial democracy by instituting an inquiry into industrial democracy and the barriers to its implementation. Such an inquiry requires the widest terms of reference. The greatest priority should be given to affording trade unionists at all levels an opportunity to contribute from their own experience and knowledge of working conditions. In this inquiry every attention should be paid to unions' needs for education officers and research facilities.

Senior Labor Ministers have complained about the quality of Australian management. It is time we heard from the mouths of those who are subjected to the orders and directions of management. Then we may be given a perspective on industrial life in this country that we would otherwise never see or hear, let alone believe. Australian workers suffer from one of the least healthy and least inspected work environments in the Western world. The loss of days from industrial accidents and illness is often commented upon. What is less commented upon is the impact such an environment has on people's lives. ALP policy on these matters needs the most urgent efforts for implementation. In order to obtain union support there is no substitute for a display of immediate and effective action.

In summary, as a Labor Government we have immense obligations to the people of this country to provide jobs and security and to ensure that all Australians have equal access to those services that only governments can provide, such as education, health, transport and housing. It is our obligation to provide the legislative framework to ensure that the men and women of this country can work in a safe and healthy environment, and that they have a meaningful participation in the decision-making processes at their place of work. It is our obligation to ensure that all members of our society have an opportunity to work, and I can only pray that the recent Budget will assist us in attaining our goal of full employment and equal opportunities for all.

Finally, I wish to mention the obligations that we as Labor politicians have to the rank and file of our Party. For many years in the ALP the political process has been a frustrating and soul-destroying experience. We have not had the opportunity to sit on this side of the House for most of the years since Federation. The branch members of our Party have spent many years initiating, discussing, arguing and refining policies based on their experience and knowledge as working people from all walks of life and all levels of society. They have fought continuously against formidable odds to achieve one goal, control of the Treasury bench and a Federal Labor Government. Their faith in the parliamentary process must be renewed and revitalised after the scurrilous events of 1975 and seven years of Fraserism. This will be done only if we as a government implement the policies they have laboured so long and hard to formulate and if we use our powers as the elected Government to redistribute the wealth and resources of this country in favour of those whose need is the greatest.

The people in the Labor movement have great expectations of their political representatives, whom they pre-selected for the Parliament and for whom they have worked so hard. We must not fail them nor fail the philosophies and aspirations of our Party. As members of Parliament we are only a small part of the political process, and we should note that the great figures from the Labor past are remembered because of their dedication to the policies of the Party, their ability to keep in touch with the rank and file, and their commitment to the principles of Caucus consultation.

In this Parliament I am proud to join colleagues on this side of the House, who are worthy representatives of the labour movement. I am particularly proud of my female comrades, who have once and for all laid to rest the myth that women candidates cannot win mass support from the electorate. The blatant sexism that has existed in the past and resulted in many people of great talent being denied the same career opportunities as their male colleagues is, I hope, finally breaking down. Their contributions to the cause of women and the cause of peace have been amply demonstrated in the early months of this Parliament. Had they been in a position to implement the sentiments expressed in many of their maiden speeches about peace and arms control, we certainly would have seen fewer working class men marching off to battle to become fodder for the capitalist war machine.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope those of us who have strong ties with the union movement and the working people of this country do not forget why we were elected to this Parliament. We will not turn our backs on the men and women of this country who have placed their lives and futures in our hands. Together with my parliamentary colleagues, I intend to continue the struggle on behalf of the men and women of this country who have been so disadvantaged by the last seven years of Liberal rule. As a Labor government we will work for the benefit of all Australians, not just for the benefit of large companies, tax avoiders and multinational interests.