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Wednesday, 14 November 1973
Page: 3296

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (Wannon) - The Opposition wants sensible debates on industrial matters, and has taken some steps to achieve that. There have been examples of co-operation between the Government and the Opposition in regard to the recent Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. The Minister for Labour (Mr Clyde Cameron) sensibly accepted a Bill much improved by Opposition amendments and changes. The Minister is now moving towards holding tripartite talks between himself, employers and employees. The Opposition's attitude to those talk6 is almost identical with that of the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Mr Hawke, who is reported as having said: 'I think it is always possible that you might gain something, and you cannot lose anything'. That is a realistic enough attitude by Mr Hawke, and it depicts our attitude also. In a statement indicating that he proposed to hold these talks, the Minister spoke of the need for better communication. I think it would have been preferable if, before launching his proposal for talks and determining terms of reference, which were decided unilaterally, he had established better communication with the ACTU, the States - for it was the Premier of Victoria who first indicated the need for talks - and the employers.

Be that as it may, what the Opposition really wants to bring to the notice of the House on this occasion is that other Ministers are intruding into the affairs of the Minister for Labour, and it is our view that they should keep off the the grass. What they are saying and have said is very much contrary to the spirit of the tripartite talks which the Minister is proposing. The Minister for Housing (Mr Les Johnson) in particular has shown a partisan, vicious and one-sided approach to industrial matters. I am surprised that the Minister for Labour accepts this interference, for I am quite certain that in the days when he was having one or two friendly discussions with the Australian Workers Union he would not have allowed anyone to get in his path for more than a moment of two. The Minister was willing, as we know, to use the Commonwealth Industrial Court legislation - which I think he voted against in this House - in order to win against his own union.

However, the point here is that the Minister who is responsible in these important industrial areas must not be bypassed, for people dealing with the Commonwealth need to know who is responsible and who is the official spokesman for the Government. Some Ministers have indicated a biased attitude. They have shown an abuse of power. We know what the Minister for Minerals and Energy (Mr Connor) did in relation to the Snowy Mountains Council and the power dispute in New South Wales. He secretly sent a letter to the Snowy Mountains Council demanding that it produce power only in conformity with the wishes of the striking power unions. I have asked him for the minutes of the meeting held on 23 September - the telephone hook-up meeting - but those minutes so far have been kept secret. In that instance the Minister plainly acted on the side of the striking power unions and against the New Souh Wales Industrial Commission and the Government and people of New South Wales. Hansard shows, I believe, that he misled this House in relation to his activities in that instance.

The Minister for Housing has taken a more serious and partisan attitude to building difficulties and strikes, which the Builders Labourers Federation claims are holding up $3,000m worth of building work and 40 projects in New South Wales. One of the tragedies of this situation is that in this neverending dispute, as it appears to be, a good deal of violence and a great deal of difficulty and hardship have been caused. As early as May of this year newspaper editorials were calling for an end to the dispute, but there has been no end up to this stage - unless one is in process at the present time. Early in that month there were headlines referring to 400 police guarding city work-in sites against striking members of the builders labourers Federation, and a number of people were arrested in that instance.

One of the results of the alleged green bans has been to prevent work proceeding on a housing project which, on information available to me, in fact has been approved by the National Trust. That being so it is hard to give credence to the green bans motivation of the Builders Labourers Federation in all instances. It has become plain that in New South Wales the stage had almost been reached where the project had to have the imprimatur, according to the 'Sydney Morning Herald', of a mob of industrial anarchists. That is a situation which cannot be allowed to continue.

It ought to be noted that a significant Minister of the Government has - in fact 3 Ministers have - supported this union in its activities against orderly progress in New South Wales. A situation has been reached in which the State Labour Council - 'again according to the 'Sydney Morning Herald' - caused itself to be dissociated from the tactics employed by the Builders Labourers Federation, Surely that indicates a pretty extreme situation in relation to this one union. As a result there has been a bid to deregister that union. It has been pointed out that unions quite clearly have a mandate to look after the industrial interests of their members but not to act as a conservation foundation at large. There are proper authorities for that purpose. There is even the Minister for the Environment and Conservation (Dr Cass), although I do not know what he has done in the course of this year. As far as I am aware he has made no significant statements on the subject in this Parliament.

Mr Whittorn - He has praised the union.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER - Yes, he has praised the union for what it is doing. But we will look at that a little more closely in a moment. Again, quite recently, the 'Sydney Morning Herald' had this to say:

Not content with egging on the saboteurs of the Builders Labourers Federation, Federal Ministers now threaten penalties against building contractors whose crime is their refusal to bow to industrial anarchy .... To gain its ends, the BLF uses strongarm tactics, menaces and intimidation. Behind its rejection of building approvals from properly constituted authority lurks the threat - and, on occasion, the actuality - of physical violence. These are the policies which are being blessed from Canberra.

That is not a Liberal Party politician speaking. That is an editorial from one of the great newspapers of Australia. It is my view that 3 Ministers have supported the leaders of this union at a time when the tide was starting to run against them. The Minister for Housing in particular, _the Minister for the Environment and Conservation, and the Minister for Urban and Regional Development (Mr Uren) on an earlier occasion, sought to bolster the fortunes of this union.

In particular the Minister for Housing has acted falsely. He issued a Press statement which was baseless. In so doing he has again abused power. Let me examine the first charge - that he has acted falsely. He claimed that Mr Justice Aird had given a direction to the men to return to work and that lock-outs must not be imposed by builders. There was no direction. I am advised that there was a recommendation. I am also advised that no lockout was imposed. We need to look at this situation because a good deal hangs on it. The Builders Labourers Federation advised that it would be prepared to go back to work on a partial basis and on conditions which it determined. It was not an offer to go back to work. The Federation was prepared to work in certain places on conditions which it determined. This is like asking an employer to continue to employ somebody who is prepared to do only half his job. In those circumstances it would certainly notbe a lock-out. I think it was quite false and unreasonable to suggest that it was a lock-out. The Minister in his Press statement said it was an illegal lock-out. But the Master Builders Association refused. It said that work must continue on sites where work had already commenced. Mr Justice Aird on 2 November is reported in the 'Sydney Morning Herald' as having said:

This offer was refused by the Master Builders Association of New South Wales and, in my view -

That is in the Judge's view - quite properly.'

If action by an association of this kind has won the commendation or more than the tacit approval of the judge in question how can its action be branded as a lock-out by a Federal Minister, by the general public or by anyone else? That is utterly improper action on the part of the Minister concerned. So on the basis of this false charge the Minister embarks on a vicious, partisan one-sided approach to the Master Builders Association. He says that he will invoke all the penalties of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act, that he will examine contracts to see whether he can fix the contractors for violations of contracts, that he will make sure that penalties are provided in all future contracts and that he will give a low priority to contractors who have been involved, as he says, in these matters. That means that they will not get a chance to tender on fair and just terms.

That was all in the Minister's Press statement. In the television program 'This Day Tonight' the Minister said that he was protecting Commonwealth money and that is why he acted. When he was asked whether he would act against unions which were holding up Commonwealth projects, he said no, that it would be for the contractors to do that through the conciliation and arbitration procedures. As far as the Government is concerned, the unions can hold up Commonwealth contracts and involve themselves in a wastage of Commonwealth funds and the Government will do nothing about it. But if a contractor is falsely accused of having done this, the Government will try to throw the book at that contractor in a vicious and partisan manner. The Government will act against employers with all the force of law that it can muster, but if there is any suggestion that a union or some union leaders have held up a particular project, the Government will do nothing; it will say that it is for the employers to act. But when the Minister says that, he knows that it is Government policy to remove every sanction from the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Therefore, on that basis there would be no grounds on which employers could act in that circumstance.

I believe that this kind of attitude is in direct conflict with the tripartite conference proposed by the Minister for Labour. For the sake of industrial peace in Australia we must hope that there will be some success from that conference. But there cannot be success from that conference if people like the Minister for Housing basically and naturally see the employer as the enemy. That is what he has done, and he has acted in that way in a quite unreasonable fashion. The Minister's statement was false in other matters, but they are not major ones and therefore are not worth relating to the House. But he wanted a pretext to attack the Master Builders Association in support of the builders' labourers in order to demonstrate his particular unity with the extreme Left and with the industrial anarchy in New South Wales.

In a moment or two I should like to say something briefly about the conference originally proposed by the Victorian Premier. I was glad to see that the Minister for Labour radically changed his mind from the position that he first took when he rubbished this proposal and other proposals of the Victorian Premier. He said:

Premier Hamer's proposal for an 'industrial peace conference' is more in the style of Premier Askin's political gimmickry.

He had some other things to say. Then he went on and used the words that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) indicated yesterday in the House he had used. He said:

Industrial unrest cannot be solved by union leaders, employers and politicians sitting around a table of champagne and cigars making grand and meaningless declarations and gestures on labour relations.

If the Minister for Labour held that view on 9 November, I am glad that he subsequently changed his view and suggested a conference because whatever the limitations of that conference might be, it is a move which, in the words of the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, might result in something. In the Minister's statement there are expressed some odd views concerning the tripartite conference which I believe he should clarify. In his second and fourth grounds for having a conference he suggests that penalties will be imposed on both parties - on the unions as well as on the employers - if agreements are broken. If that is so, it should be spelt out. He is also suggesting that the sanction clauses in Part VII of the Act should be removed, and is almost suggesting that they should be removed from employers as well as from employees. If that is so it would indicate an even handed approach by the Minister in this matter I think for the first time since he was rolled on a much more even handed industrial policy a year or two ago. But if he is proposing that, I would have thought that the parties which attend this conference would need to know of it. But. despite whatever reservations the Opposition might have about this proposed tripartite conference and the lack of preparation that should have taken place before the original announcement was made, we must hope that the conference will create a better climate.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

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