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Thursday, 11 October 1973
Page: 1946

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) - I wish to direct my remarks to some of the implications of the prices and incomes referenda, but before doing so I would like to take the opportunity of making my own personal position clear in regard to certain matters of wages and hours. For many years I have been an advocate of the highest possible wages that could economically be paid, and for many years I have also been an advocate of the shortest working period that was consonant with the maintenance of our economy. I might recall to the House that some 30 years ago I advocated, and I still advocate, the better use of increased leisure time. I spoke then of the long week-end as an alternative to shortening the daily hours of work, and this is now becoming a possibility with the idea of a 4-day week and changes of that character. I actually appeared before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in an inquiry into this matter, I think some 25 years ago, advocating that in place of shortening the daily hours of work we should consider giving more holidays, perhaps a 4-day working week, the long week-end and things of that character.

I place myself on the side of those who take the most liberal view in this matter, but I do not believe that at the present moment we can envisage either shortening hours or increasing wages because of the extreme inflationary situation in which we are placed and which is, I think, one of the most dangerous things that any economy can face. If I might use a simile, it seems to me that the Australian economy is rapidly getting out of control like a car careering down a hill. One certainly would not want to apply the brakes to an extent that a skid would be caused, but on the other hand it would be irresponsible under these circumstances to put one's foot fiat down on the accelerator. At the present moment therefore I feel, and I am sure all people of reasonable responsibility will agree with me, that this is the time for restraint. That is a short term policy. Over a longer term I am in favour of the raising of the real wage and not only decreasing hours of work but - I think this is even more important - also using the increased leisure time coupled together in the form of extra holidays, long week-ends or something of that nature and not dissipated simply in a few minutes off in each day of work. This is something I have consistently advocated for some 30 years.

I come to something that occurred in the House yesterday. The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), in answer to a question, I think behaved in a way which evaded the issue. I want to put it squarely on the line. The Prime Minister at his Press conference the previous day - and I have a verbatim report of that conference - said that if the referenda were carried and if he got new powers over prices and incomes he would apply to non-wage incomes the principles that were already applied to wage incomes, and he spoke of bringing them before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. I quoted his exact words to the House when I asked him the question. There is no point in my repeating them now. They stand as a verbatim report of that conference, and they were not denied. The Prime Minister is perfectly well aware that the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission does not declare maximum wages. It does not put a ceiling on wages; it puts a floor on wages. It declares a minimum, not a maximum wage. It does not say: 'This is a wage which must not be exceeded*. It says: This is a wage which will he maintained. Nobody will pay less than that'. The Arbitration Commission does not say: 'Nobody will pay more'. In point of fact many wage earners have availed themselves of their undoubted right to get over-award payments. This is quite common, and it is certainly within the framework of the law and within the framework of the arrangements of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Indeed, under the present arrangements I do not think that the Commission has any constitutional power to declare maximum wages. It can declare minimum but not maximum wages.

If the prices and incomes referenda were carried it would certainly acquire the power, if the Australian Government so directed it, to declare maximum as well as minimum wages. I think this is what the Prime Minister must have intended when he spoke at that Press conference, because otherwise his words are meaningless. Does he mean that for nonwage incomes he will prescribe, as is provided for wage incomes, a floor and not a ceiling so that he will be prescribing for these nonwage incomes a minimum and not a maximum and anybody will be entitled, as a wage earner is now entitled, to get something over the prescribed amount? That would surely be not consonant with any possible effective economic control through the new powers. Or does he mean that he would use the new constitutional powers to direct the Commission to outlaw over-award payments, to put a real ceiling on them? This is the question I asked him and he did not answer it. He spoke of a wage freeze. In the question I did not raise the point of a wage freeze at all. I spoke of over-award payments, and that is something quite different. He evaded that question. He would not answer that question. He turned the whole discussion aside toy bringing in a lot of windy irrelevancies.

I will put my own position in regard to a wage freeze or a prices freeze and an incomes freeze. I believe - in fact I was the first advocate of the idea - that there is a case to be made out for a short term, and I emphasise short term freeze on wages, incomes and prices. Over the long term it simply will not work because the black market comes in and complexities come in. But in this present system of endemic inflation I believe there is virtue in a short term and temporary freeze, a kind of 90-day halt to stop the momentum forward, but I am not in favour of a long term permanent freeze of this character. Do I make my position clear? The Prime Minister in his irrelevant reply to me said, and I quote from Hansard:

However, it is clear from looking at the statistics for the last 20 years or so that the amount of the gross domestic product represented by wages and salaries has gone down but other forms of income have gone up.

I ask leave to have incorporated in Hansard a table prepared by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library Statistical Service showing the real position.

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