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Tuesday, 27 March 1973
Page: 698

Mr SCHOLES (Corio) - I wish to speak on a matter which has become the subject of some fairly irresponsible debate around the country in the last couple of weeks and which has now reached a stage where the level of debate is reaching dangerous proportions for the future of several maritime ports in Australia. Over the last 2 or 3 weeks, the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Malcolm Fraser) has made a number of charges in this House about the inactivity of the Federal Government and its failure to prevent employers of waterfront labour from changing the means by which the idle time levies are collected in minor ports.

The Victorian Government, which is acting purely in an election situation, has no power or authority in this field but has a Minister running around the country making all sorts of irresponsible statements. I refer to the Stop Press article in this afternoon's Melbourne Herald' as an illustration of the degree of irresponsibility displayed by the Victorian Government on this matter. The Minister foi

State Development in Victoria said that the Victorian Government would investigate what action it could take within its legislative power to ensure that the people of western Victoria could send their wool and other products through the port of Portland. The report says that his Government was taking a strong stand against the Commonwealth Government on inflated levies on shipping at Portland. Last Wednesday, in the State Parliament, where he was answerable to other members, the Minister for State Development said that he acknowledged that the present situation was not the responsibility of the present Federal Government. However, for public consumption he now is reported as indicating that the Federal Government is responsible for the situation.

I should like to deal with this matter on a far more serious plane than has been the case in the past. The honourable member for Wannon quite clearly is grandstanding. He was a member of a government which, without protest passed through this Parliament legislation which created the present situation. The Waterside Workers Federation of Australia did not want the abolition of the general industry levy which had applied prior to 1967. The Federation did not want the responsibility for the collection of the levy taken away from the Australian Stevedoring Industry Authority and placed in the hands of employers. This was done against the protests of employees in the industry; it was done according to the basic philosophy on which the Liberal Party governed, namely, that the government should not act in matters of relationships between employees and employers.

At the time, the now Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) said in this House that it was the Government's aim to place the stevedoring industry on the same basis as private industry, whereby employers were responsible for the employment conditions of their employees. Honourable members will be fully aware that the stevedoring industry is not a normal area of employment. In order that the House will fully understand what has occurred, I point out that, arising out of the Woodward Report of 1969, Australian ports fell into 2 categories - ports where permanent labour was employed and ports where the casual labour situation remained.

The levy, which now is the cause of such consternation, was not struck on all ports. It was struck only on those ports where casual labour was involved. The purpose of the levy was to meet the cost of paying minimum guaranteed wages where the employment available did not enable waterside workers to earn the minimum guaranteed wage. It does not require an Albert Einstein to work out that ports with low rates of usage will be the ports which require the greatest amount of making up of the guaranteed minimum wage. The result of this policy, which was accepted by the Government and handed over for the employers of waterside labour to control, was that ports such as Geelong, Burnie and one or 2 other ports such as Albany and Bunbury in Western Australia were required to add to the costs of labour an amount per man-hour sufficient to pay the idle time levy in other ports such as Portland, Cairns and a number of other ports around Australia. In fact, what was happening was that ports which were in direct competition with capital city ports - Geelong's main competitor for work load is not Portland; it is Melbourne - were charged a levy of 40c in order to subsidise minor ports.

In principle, I would not object to this if it were applied uniformly on all ports and if a general industry levy were collected by the Government's own authority, the Australian Stevedoring Industry Authority, to be paid to waterside workers where they did not earn the mimimum guaranteed wage. If this were done, it would be fair. It is a solution which I now strongly recommend to this Government. But what was proposed by the Victorian Government in the Victorian Parliament last week and what has been proposed by the honourable member for Wannon is a solution which would require this Government to cripple ports such as Burnie. Geelong and Albany so that idle time can be paid in Portland. I think we should understand exactly what we are talking about in this situation.

The honourable member for Wannon denied a statement which was made by the Minister for Labour (Mr Clyde Cameron) last week that work had fallen off in the port of Portland. 1 have pointed out that the honourable member had used annual figures over a number of years to prove that work loads had been increasing. However, in the first 2 months of 1973, when the Association of Employers of Waterside Labour decided to change the levy system to one where each port was responsible for paying its own labour - I would have thought that this would have lent itself to Liberal Party philosophy - only 4 ships called at the port of Portland and they loaded something like 3,000 tons of cargo. In the same period in 1972, 16 ships called at the port of Portland and loaded in excess of 100,000 tons of cargo. So for the honourable member for Wannon to suggest that the situation at the port of Portland was not precipitated by a falling off in the rate of cargo shipped through that port is to mislead this House. The fact is that less than 3 per cent - it is nearer H per cent - of the loading which went through that port in the first 2 months of 1972 went through it in the first 2 months of this year.

The solution to the problem is not to close any ports or place an unfair burden on other ports which are in a better, though not dissimilar, position to the port of Portland and which are also struggling for survival. There is a concerted effort by the conference lines to close down every minor port in Australia and some of the capital city ports. The solution to the immediate problem of Portland which is being bandied around by t he honourable member for Wannon and supported by the Victorian Government will facilitate the closing down of those ports by the conference lines. Quite clearly it is the responsibility of this Federal Parliament to enact legislation which will ensure that the Commonwealth of Australia decides through which ports and under what conditions our goods will be shipped and if the conference lines seek to continue the monopoly which they have had on our shipping over a number of years they should be required to comply with those conditions which the Australian Government lays down. But to suggest that ports such as Geelong in Victoria, Burnie in Tasmania, and Albany and Bunbury in Western Australia should pay a levy which is 20 times what they are required to pay to meet idle time or the unearned portion of the minimum guarantee in order to subsidise smaller ports while the major ports in the capital cities do not meet this levy in any shape or form is eventually to destroy not only these smaller ports but also the intermediate ports and to assist the conference lines to achieve their objective of reducing the number of Australian ports to two or three major ports.

Already the major proportion of goods produced in the Portland area which are to be shipped by sea are railed to Melbourne for loading onto ships. Already a substantial proportion of goods which could be shipped from the port of Geelong is railed to Melbourne for loading onto ships. Ports which have adequate facilities to handle these goods are not being utilised. Shippers prefer and are obviously prepared to meet the cost of transporting their goods by rail or road to the capital city ports for loading onto ships. 1 ask that the Government give serious consideration to this problem and reject out of hand the suggestions which are being made, fostered by the Victorian Government for political purposes, that the solution to the problem of Portland is to close the port of Geelong. This is the- end result of the proposal which the honourable member for Wannon has put forward and the proposals which have been put forward in the Victorian Parliament by supporters of the Victorian Government. This will not assist the situation in Portland. All that will happen will be that the goods which could be shipped through Geelong will be transferred to Melbourne for shipment and the situation in the minor ports then will be even worse.

The only solution to the problem is the reintroduction of a general levy on the whole of waterside labour to be collected by the Australian Stevedoring Industry Authority, as was done prior to 1967 under a system which was abandoned with the full support of the honourable member for Wannon and other members of the Liberal Party in this House because they believed that the employers had the sole right to do so. The accusation made by a Victorian Minister that this is something which was done by the Commonwealth Government is utterly untrue. The fact of the matter is that this change in the levy system, and 1 can tell the House the extent of the change, has meant that the uniform 40c which was charged on all ports where casual labour was employed has been varied so that at the port of Geelong it has dropped to 2c while at the port of Portland it has increased to SI. 25. This is a serious blow to a port such as Portland and the solution to the problem is to reintroduce the general levy.

I think it is incumbent upon me to deal with one other matter before I conclude. At question time I asked the Minister for Overseas Trade (Dr J. F. Cairns) a question in relation to the importation into Australia of overseas carpets. The Minister indicated that he was not aware of the matters I had raised, namely, that carpets which had been banned

In the United States because of the high fire risk in buildings in which they were laid were currently being exported to Australia. I am assured by carpet manufacturers and textile industry representatives in Australia that regulations have recently been introduced in the United States under which carpets must meet a minimum fire safety standard and that carpets which had previously been manufactured and which did not meet these standards are now being exported to Australia at prices with which the Australian industry cannot compete. Unless there is a very substantial reappraisal of the standards required for the entry into Australia of this type of material the Australian public in the next few weeks will be sold material which is a danger to those people who place them in their homes and especially to people in major buildings in which this material is used. I raised this matter with the Minister today because I consider it to be extremely important. It is especially important because the Australian industry could well have its future existence threatened by the dumping in Australia of substandard goods which are not saleable in the country of their origin. I ask the Government to give very serious consideration to this and to examine fully the claims which are being made by the Australian carpet industry. This is a very serious matter.

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