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Tuesday, 20 September 1983
Page: 988

Mrs KELLY(4.23) —I listened with interest when the honourable member for Balaclava (Mr Macphee) spoke for 27 minutes to try to determine exactly what the position of the Opposition was to be on a wages policy. It was only at the end of his speech that he came out with a statement in the form of an amendment, from which I am now trying to get some sort of sense. That is difficult because the Opposition has no firm policy on wages. Instead it has come up with a statement which basically says nothing. It states that the wage pause should be extended in the interests of economic recovery but it does not state for how long it should be extended, for what purpose it should be extended and what the economic results will be. It also does not give a clear statement of whether the Opposition supports a centralised wage fixing system. After all, we know that the shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, the honourable member for Balaclava, has very different views from those of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard). What in fact is the Opposition's policy? If in fact the Opposition is to present criticisms of government policy, we will not mind, but we would like to see what it would put in its place. For 27 minutes the Opposition criticised our policy, but at no point did the members say what exactly they propose as an alternative. That shows the quality of the Opposition that exists in this country.

We have before us a simple piece of legislation to repeal the provisions of the Salaries and Wages Pause Act which implemented a wage pause on all public sector salaries for 12 months. This legislation applied solely to Commonwealth public servants-68 per cent of the work force in the electorate I represent. Public servants have forgone salary increases, inceases which would be of great assistance in keeping up with the rising cost of living. For the year ended June 1983 there was an increase of 11.1 per cent in the cost of living in the Australian Capital Territory alone. It is important that honourable members realise that the large majority of public servants affected by this legislation earn between $12,000 and $14,000 per annum. More than half of all public servants employed under the Public Service Act are Fourth Division officers, and added to these are the high numbers of blue collar workers. A fettler, for example, with the Australian National Railways, receives gross pay of $243 per week which gives a take home pay of $190 a week. These are the people who have been affected for 12 months by this wage pause legislation.

The wage pause was a gimmick. It was introduced by the previous Government in a last desperate attempt to revive the economy and save its skin at an election. It was a short sighted approach which obviously could not last. If there had been no election what would the previous Government have done with the wage freeze? Would it have independently applied it in regard to Commonwealth public servants? The reality is that the Opposition had no wages policy when in government and it still has none. There are differences of view in the Opposition. That is reasonable to expect, but we would like honourable members in the Opposition to come out with some explanation to the Australian electorate of exactly what they propose. They mouth criticisms of the Government's prices and incomes accord but they have no alternative to present.

The Opposition, I presume, is now arguing for an extension of the wage pause, but for how long? This is totally unrealistic. The first thing I think a politician has to do is to realise that politics is the art of the possible. It is not possible to sustain this wage pause any longer because sectional wage claims would undoubtedly occur. Failure to repeal the Act would also grossly disadvantage government employees. It will also be inequitable. The passing on of a national wage case increase would therefore be delayed. The repeal of this legislation is ensuring that any decision of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission will apply equally to Australian Government employees as to employees in the private sector. Surely, even members of the Opposition would admit that that is fair and reasonable.

The Government established an historic accord with the union movement to form the basis of a genuine and workable prices and incomes policy. The thrust of the policy is based on the premise that unemployment and inflation must be tackled simultaneously if we are to ensure that living standards are no longer eroded by inflation. The purpose of the prices and incomes policy, so well appreciated by the electorate at large, as demonstrated at the last Federal election, is to ensure that the benefits of recovery and of growth are not wasted by inflation through another bout of the wage-price spiral or the erosion of our international competitiveness. The long term goal for Australia, which the previous Government failed to recognise, must be the restoration of genuine full employment and the maintenance of real standards of living. These goals obviously cannot be achieved overnight. They will be achieved only by a concerted and united effort by all participants in the national economy and that is what we are witnessing today.

We can see this process already under way. There was, first, the prices and incomes accord with the union movement; secondly, the May economic summit meeting; and, third, reconfirmation of the meeting's decisions as late as last week by the recent Australian Council of Trade Unions Congress. The Congress demonstrated that the union movement supports the Government's economic strategy and has taken a responsible national approach to solving the economic problems facing us, unlike the members of the Opposition. The prices and incomes accord was reaffirmed. One union which attempted to move outside the guidelines-the Food Preservers Union of Australia-was left in no doubt about the whole union movement's attitude to its actions. The record indicates that there has been a 99 per cent adherence to the accord. There is no doubt that the union movement as a whole appreciates the necessity of ensuring that the basic principles of the accord should remain intact and that the future lies in collective action for the collective welfare rather than allowing any particular union to go off by itself following a different course of action.

I listened with interest last Friday to a wind-up report on the program The World Today of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Congress. I would just like to quote to honourable members some of the aspects of that debate just to show how supportive the union movement is of the wages accord. This debate involved several industrial writers for the various newspapers. Paul Ellercamp, the labour writer for the Australian, said, in answer to a question about the main achievement of the ACTU Congress:

I think mainly the unanimity on wages. We saw yesterday a very stimulating debate on wages policy and the interesting thing is that we had assurances all across the political spectrum from the Right through the moderates to the extreme Left that they are united on wages policy and wage restraint behind an indexation system if the Arbitration Commission hands it down.

Peter Stevens, chief industrial writer for the Melbourne Age, when asked about that comment, concluded that the great achievement of the Congress was the mood. He said that the mood certainly had had a great influence and that it reflected the unanimity of the union movement behind the Labor Government. He said that that had been clearly illustrated and he went on:

It's always easy to say that we've heard it all before but you haven't heard any of this forum before. And that's what is significant . . .

That is what was significant last week at the ACTU Congress. It is a great credit to members of the union movement. It is also a great credit to this Government that we have acted hand in hand with the union movement. The people of Australia will benefit from this system.

In conclusion, if this Bill were not repealed there would be a serious breach of the accord as it applies to Australian Government employment. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why public sector employees should be expected to continue to bear this burden. It is government policy to ensure that Australian Government employees are placed on an equal footing with private sector employees and State government employees. It is essential that the wage guidelines established by the Government in the prices and incomes accord should apply to all wage earners. It would be unfair to wage earners, both in the public and private sectors, to delay the passing on of any national wage increase. Unless the guidelines apply to all, adherence to the centralised wage determination system would be placed in jeopardy and we would be back in the no- man's land in which the Opposition is still floundering. The success of the Government's wages policy is dependent upon an equitable application of the guidelines to all wage earners. This Bill ensures that public sector employees are not disadvantaged. For that reason I commend the Bill to the House.