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Wednesday, 7 December 1983
Page: 3451

Mr ROCHER(11.36) —The Government's commitment to the establishment of a Prices Surveillance Authority, to monitor and assess the justification for price increases under contemplation by selected corportions and public authorities has all the earmarks of a sop to the trade union movement, although I must confess that the statement of the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions might give the lie to that sentiment. This is a measure which seeks to ape programs tried in the 1970s in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The United Kingdom is mentioned despite denials by the Prime Minister ( Mr Hawke) during this year's election campaign that price and income controls were in force in Britain during the years 1973 to 1978. Presumably the Prime Minister's faulty memory or lack of knowledge can be explained, although it must add to the alarm felt by many that the Government is not aware of lessons learned in a country with a comparable economy. Worse than that, the Prime Minister of Australia, when making his election promises and when promoting the prices and incomes accord and the so-called consensus, did not even know that policies similar to his own had been tried and had failed in the United Kingdom in recent times.

It is an indication of the lack of competence on the part of this Government that despite the intention and the details of this legislation being known as long ago as May, when details were published in the Press, the Government has only now managed to bring it before this Parliament. Because this is the second last day of sitting we are necessarily curtailed in our opportunity to have a good look at it. We would have liked to have a good look at the almost absolute control of the Government and the Treasurer (Mr Keating) over the PSA. We would have liked to look at what will be necessary and very high qualifications of at least four of the top people who are to be appointed to the Authority. We would have liked the opportunity to explore the criteria to be observed by the PSA in determining its objectives, its conduct and its ultimate findings. We would have liked the opportunity to examine in some detail the inability and lack of resolve on the part of the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) to come to grips with the underlying causes of price instability which fall within his area of ministerial responsibility. Instead, I am constrained and I will deal with a few points only.

Telecom Australia and Australia Post, as well as other Commonwealth statutory authorities, will be required to do what they have always done but will now also be subject to surveillance by the PSA. We will have another statutory authority in the PSA which will have, amongst its other duties, the task of keeping existing statutory authorities honest, as if that were not a legitimate responsibility of government. Once that might have appeared ludicrous but not in these days of big and expanding government which offers to become even bigger government under this Administration.

The PSA is not expected to allow prices which might be sought to be raised to accommodate unauthorised wage demands. I suppose that is fair enough at first glance but it begs these questions: What will, in the immediate future or somewhere down the track, constitute an unauthorised wage demand? What is to be an authorised wage demand? Most importantly, who authorises an authorised wage demand? From the last of those three questions flow these other questions: Will the Government authorise wage demands, will the Australian Council of Trade Unions, or will individual unions, such as the Builders Labourers Federation?

Despite meaningless platitudes along lines that these are sensitive issues and that they have been and will be discussed, there are many out there in the commercial world who await answers to these questions with more than eager interest. They will deplore the fact, as I do, that we have not had those answers so far from the Minister or from the Government. Furthermore, business will not be reassured by the prospect of the Authority having the discretion to allow interim price increases pending its rulings and under the conditions laid down in this legislation; nor will business be reassured by a promise that notified increases will not be allowed until the Authority makes a determination within what is, in effect, an unspecified 'specified period'. Unless the PSA exercises its discretion to allow an interim increase, notified price increases will not be allowed in part or in full measure during the notification, examination and inquiry periods. Business might be required to wait for months and months, for all this Government cares. Prescribed firms will be less than enchanted to know that legal sanctions may be applied against them if they fail to notify a price increase. They will not be very pleased that no such legal actions are in prospect for unions which do not have to notify campaigns for increased wages for their members.

While legal sanctions are not envisaged against firms which fail to comply with the findings of the PSA, the Government has expressly reserved the right to initiate intensive examinations of companies or industries that patently refuse to comply with those findings. In that we have the heavy hand of government which says, in effect: 'You are not bound to comply with the findings of the PSA . But if you do not we will make your life so miserable and put you to so much inconvenience and expense by subjecting you to intensive examination that you will wish you had complied'. Not only does this smack of the heavy hand of government with authoritarian inclinations, but also it promises coercion of the most blatant kind.

It may be said that all this was put to the National Economic Summit Conference ; that this marvellous price surveillance mechanism was discussed by big unions, big business and by big government, and that criticisms of the type levelled tonight were not in evidence during or after the Summit. One reason for that may very well be that participants attending the Summit were not asked whether they were agreeable to the establishment of the Prices Surveillance Authority. They were in reality only told that the policy of this Government in this respect was to be implemented. Let no one rest on the defence that, because group therapy was practised in the form of a so-called Summit Conference in April, any of the participants were able to influence effectively the policy or this legislation. That opportunity plainly was not there. Drawing on the experience of President Carter's policy of voluntary wage and prices restraint and on the British experience, both of which I would have liked to have gone into in some detail this evening, the best one could say about price surveillance mechanisms is that they may be more of an irritation than a threat to business and the rest of the economy. That would be an extremely dangerous and simplistic conclusion.

There is a very real danger that, if the effect of this measure proves to be only an irritation, pressure will grow for tighter controls with more powerful sanctions. Should that happen, the deplorable consequences and side effects of the British and United States experiences during the 1970s will be repeated in Australia. Amongst other things, the ineffectiveness of price surveillance will cause disenchantment in the union movement, and if that happens it is a safe bet that the ACTU and its member unions will clamour for statutory controls on prices. We have already had signs of that in the statement made earlier today by the President of the ACTU. In that event, employers and business will be in the position of having to fight this Government's battles with the union movement while the Government sits by and tut-tuts.

The clear inference from the establishment of a proposed PSA is that business has been singled out as a major contributor to the causes of high inflation and even higher unemployment. That is plainly not the case, although I must confess the Government's actions may have already persuaded the community to that point of view. Most importantly, this Government has yet to learn lessons from what happened as a result of similar measures in Britain and the United States of America. They appear to have learnt that the only way government can make people act against their economic self-interest is to threaten them with some sanction. Obeying arbitrary guidelines makes no long term sense for either corporations or unions. To be effective, and to be seen to be effective in the eyes of organised labour, it can only be a matter of time before additional threats and controls are introduced or made to encourage compliance with the findings of the PSA. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no prospect of this Government applying the same thinking to its political base, the trade union movement. Quite the contrary; there is every prospect that deals of the type to be made at the behest of the unions by employers will get the blind eye treatment when those deals are in breach of pay guidelines. A classic example is to be found in the Government's active involvement in and condonation of the deal made in the building industry to bypass its own guidelines.

In both Britain and the United States, governments justified taking no action against breaches by organised labour on the basis that settlements were within prescribed limits if 'special' factors were taken into account. Ingenious loopholes were found in those countries, and have already been found in Australia to accommodate powerful unions which the Government will comfort while maintaining a myth that guidelines applied to wage movements remain intact. The outcome of all this will be steps by this Government towards taking actions which are even more arbitrary and politically motivated and towards a situation in which the weak are punished but the organised and strong are not. While there is little hope that it will do so, the Government may well ponder the direction on which it will embark after it establishes the PSA and it may very well consider that in the context of its relationship to the trade union movement it should reconsider its actions-also in the light of the comments tonight of the President of the ACTU. Mr President, in opposing this legislation I urge the Government to reconsider-

Mr SPEAKER —Order! I remind the honourable member that he is in the House of Representatives despite the presence in the gallery of his former distinguished Presiding Officer, Sir Harold Young. I take it that the honourable member has finished his speech.

Mr ROCHER —I am suitably admonished.