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Tuesday, 24 September 1974
Page: 1320

Senator BUTTON (Victoria) - I rise to support the Bill. Perhaps at a later stage I will have the opportunity of commenting on amendments which are now being distributed. Before I speak about the general purposes of this legislation I should perhaps make some comments about Senator Greenwood's analogies between the corporate structures of capital and the corporate structures of trade unionism, as he called them. Of course, this Senate has passed recently the trade practices legislation which is predominantly concerned with protecting the public interest against the activities of large aggregations of capital- the corporate structures of capital in our community.

This legislation which we are now debating is concerned, of course, with the internal affairs of the running of trade unions. The trade practices legislation is not concerned with the internal affairs and the running of corporate structures in their internal management. That, of course, is the difference between the 2 pieces of legislation. It is a cause of concern for many unions that the Conciliation and Arbitration Act is seen by Opposition senators as a means of, in some ways, providing unionists with facilities or, in other ways, directing how they will conduct their affairs within the structure of the union itself.

I turn now to the initial premises which are behind this piece of legislation. The number of registered trade unions in Australia at the moment is approximately three hundred. Of those 300 unions one-third have a membership of less than 5,000 people. The registration system which now operates was established in 1900 or shortly thereafter. By and large, it has operated since then in spite of vast changes which have taken place in our community. If one thinks of the position of one-third of the unions of Australia with membership of 5,000 or less, one realises it is almost impossible to manage a union of that size in today's circumstances. It is a matter of sheer lack of income and sheer lack of capacity to engage appropriate staff and so on to carry on the union's activities.

Another example of what the Government is concerned about is that there are 28 unions operating in the Post Office in Australia and 26 unions operating in Trans-Australia Airlines. Anybody concerned with industrial relations in this country knows the sorts of difficulties that brings about in the workings of the arbitration system from day to day. Union advocates are not the only ones who are aware of these difficulties. Almost everyone is aware of them. Senator Greenwood seems to be aware of them, too. If one were to ask any of the major employer bodies in Australia what their attitude is to this piece of legislation, one would find that the employers almost unanimously approve of the legislation for the simple reason that they know it will facilitate the workings of the arbitration system. I think it was in 1918 that Mr Justice Higgins, the first President of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, made the comment in the waterside workers' case that 'competition for membership between unions is disastrous to industrial peace'. That statement is as true today as it was in 1 9 1 8. But this is one area of industrial peace which is not susceptible to problems such as inflation and the various problems which cause unions to get involved in industrial problems with employers. This is an area of industrial warfare- if one likes to put it in that way- which can be cured by appropriate legislation. In this regard I doubt the good faith of some Opposition senators. For example, Senator Greenwood spoke about the recent problems of demarcation disputes in the transport industry. In the first place, the matter to which he referred was not a demarcation dispute between 2 different unions at all. In this industry one should examine particularly the sort of situation which occurred in the Port of Adelaide about which senators in this chamber asked questions on a number of occasions. That was a clear-cut case of a demarcation dispute and nothing else between the Waterside Workers Federation and the Transport Workers Union of Australia which held up a large quantity of steel at the Adelaide wharf for a long time. In a holiday period of 1972 there was an oil shortage in the State of New South Wales, again resulting from a demarcation dispute between 2 transport unions.

The attitude of Opposition senators seems to be that they must oppose anything which on paper seems to make unions more powerful. To illustrate the extent of demarcation disputes I refer to the May bulletin of the Bureau of Census and Statistics on this subject. Of all the industrial disputes which occurred in Australia in the relevant 12 months, one-seventh related to demarcation issues. In that situation, surely it is important for a legislature- indeed for a house of review- to consider by what means the oneseventh of the industrial disputes which occur in Australia can best be avoided in order to facilitate the operations of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. That is why all the employer organisations in Australia want this piece of legislation. They want it because they want to get rid of oneseventh of the industrial disputes which occur in this country.

The fact of the matter is that the present legislation, which was introduced by Senator Greenwood 's Party when in office, just has not worked. It has failed to work for reasons which involve criticism of the trade union movement itself. Trade unionists are like every other section of this community insofar as they belong to voluntary associations; they are, by and large, apathetic unless a particular situation concerns them in a particular way. It is to take a particularly false view of industrial relations to say that when a mass meeting of union members occurs about a wage issue those people are somehow conned- if I may use that expression- into attending that meeting. If a demarcation matter concerns members of a union vitally they certainly will take a part in the union's affairs in relation to that matter. If a wages issue concerns them vitally, they certainly will take part in the union's affairs in relation to that issue. What the present legislation does is to limit the capacity of the unions to properly conduct their own affairs in relation to amalgamations.

Let me indicate briefly the sort of problems encountered and the reasons why the present legislation does not work and why we say that in amalgamation proposals the running should be taken by the committee of management of a union. There are in Australia a number of unions which have sought to amalgamate with other unions. Some of them are in a situation in which one-third of their membership turns over every 6 months; for example, unions concerned with the wool industry, the food processing industry and other industries of that kind. In a situation in which people may belong to a union for three or four months, because they happen to work in the Shepparton canneries or the wool industry for three of four months, it is absolutely ludicrous to say that they should be placed in a position n of equal importance with officials and elected officers of that union who have contributed to its running over many years. It is absolutely ludicrous to say that people in this position should be in any way compelled to vote on a proposal relating to union amalgamations. It is just unreal.

One of the great tragedies of the Opposition, of course- plenty of criticism is made of the Government in this regard- is that its members just do not understand the situation which exists in many trade unions. They do not bother to understand because it is not an area in which they are particularly interested. If they took the trouble to ask the relevant employer bodies in Australia what they thought about it, they might gain a better understanding of the sort of problems which unions face in this regard. The objective of this legislation is quite clear. It is to reduce the friction and the causes of one-seventh of the disputes which are so detrimental to industry and society generally. The objective of this legislation is consistent with the objectives of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act itself. There are many unions which at this time desire to amalgamate, and they have been prevented from doing so because of the requirements of the present legislation. It is our view in regard to this Bill that they should be free to do so legally and with the minimum of legislative interference.

I hope that the current desire for amalgamations does not stem from a desire to match the corporate structures of capital, as Senator Greenwood calls them, but it obviously does stem from changes in society itself which have taken place in recent years. New technologies have introduced changing patterns of work relationships. Industries, in terms of employee crafts, come and go. It is essential that those changes be recognised in a fairly flexible arrangement which facilitates union amalgamations to accommodate those technological changes. If the conciliation and arbitration system- which, by its very structure and its very Act, depends on the representative organisation of bodies of employers and employees- is to survive with any sort of viable future, having regard to the public benefit which is envisaged by the system, then there is the need for flexibility which will reduce conflict. As I have said before, both unions and employers operating in the field of industrial relations recognise the necessity for these sorts of proposals.

I quite readily concede that Opposition speakers have a view of the public interest about which they are concerned. I think it is not unfair to say that it goes something like this: 'Really, in our society, trade unions cause a lot of trouble and for that reason it is desirable that they do not become too big, because if they become bigger they will cause more trouble, and we on the Opposition benches know that unions are manipulated by malevolent men who run the unions from the committee of management level and tell the unfortunate slave members what they have to do'. I do not dissent from the fact that there may be a slight grain of truth in that proposition; but what I am trying to put to the Senate is that that is a simplistic view of the way trade unions operate and it is a simplistic view of the way the conciliation and arbitration legislation operates. As I have said before, those involved in conciliation and arbitration recognise that that is a simplistic view of the situation. When one talks about amalagamations, of course, it is not true to say that they are all necessary or desirable; but many are necessary and desirable in the interest of rationalisation of various industries and callings. Those who are most aware of what is desirable and what is rational are employers engaged in the particular industries and the best informed members of unions engaged in those industries, who are, of course, the members of the committees of management.

I think we in this country have to be very careful that we do not facilitate here or elsewhere legislation which rushes us into a situation of some sort of giant corporate state in which the corporations of labour and the corporations of capital clash in a sort of neanderthal giant manner to the exclusion, perhaps, of the public interest and to the exclusion, perhaps, of smaller business interests and smaller unions in the community, because there are certain logical arrangements of society which are not consistent with that view of a giant corporate state. If one examines the situation of unions one sees that that really is not what this is all about. It is not a question of amalgamations so that there are giant unions. The majority of unions concerned in amalgamation proposals at the moment are very small unions which do not remain viable institutions -

Senator Greenwood - I would have thought that the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union was fairly described as a giant union.

Senator BUTTON -Yes, the AMWU certainly could be described as a giant union. I would not dissent from that proposition. But that is not the union which the Opposition's proposed amendments are designed to catch, is it? Not really. It is the unions which seek to amalgamate in the future for which the Opposition's proposals will make it difficult -

Senator Greenwood - They might help to prevent the ironworkers' union from being taken over.

Senator BUTTON -The honourable senator ought to ask the ironworkers about that. He referred to the Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia. For some time that union has been trying legally to amalgamate with the Federated Artificial Fertilisers and Chemical Workers Union of Australia, but it cannot do so because the legislation which was introduced by the previous Government just does not work in terms of the union being able to carry out a successful amalgamation proposal. If Senator Greenwood wants to refer to the Ironworkers Association for a comment on the existing system I suggest that he do so, because that is the problem with which that union is confronted at the present time. In saying that one is concerned that this should not become a field for the clashes of the giant corporations. I again emphasise the importance of flexibility in amalgamation arrangements. I am sure that we on the Government side do not see this as a proposal which will relieve all the stresses of industrial organisations or, indeed, as the ultimate solution to many of the problems which are created by change in the industrial relations sphere and changes in our society generally, but it will help greatly in reducing the friction which now exists.

Senator Greenwoodreferred to the changes made by this Bill. I shall refer to some of those changes in detail. The first change relates to the proposed new section 158 G under which a proposed scheme of amalgamation will not only have to be submitted to the Industrial Registrar and published in the Australian Government Gazette but will also have to be published by each of the organisations in the appropriate union journal and in a metropolitan daily newspaper. That is an additional measure to advise people what is going on in relation to amalgamations. Of course, it is a sensible improvement because how many trade union officials- indeed, how many honourable senatorsfor lighter reading dip into the Australian Government Gazette? Not too many, I would think, but that is the provision in the present legislation. One found out about union amalgamations by reading the Australian Government Gazette. As I say, honourable senators do not read it, so why should ordinary rank and file trade unionists read it? But they do read metropolitan daily newspapers. I am sure that that improvement in the legislation will bring the notice of proposed amalgamations more readily to the attention of members of trade unions. I think that even Senator Greenwood would agree that it is a democratic procedural improvement in the legislation.

Senator Missen - But you are cutting out the statement to members, are you not?

Senator BUTTON -Does the honourable senator mean the statements which accompany cases to the Industrial Registrar?

Senator Missen - Yes.

Senator BUTTON -I think, with great respect, that that is a matter which is not of major concern to rank and file trade unionists. I think the important thing is notification of a proposed amalgamation and with whom. That is the thing which alerts people to what is going on in the particular organisation with which they may or may not be concerned. Surely the point is to alert people, because under any union rules there are procedures whereby meetings have to be held and these matters have to be considered and voted on. That is the important procedure, to alert people to what is going on.

The second matter to which objection is taken is the proposal that a ballot has to be conducted by each organisation in accordance with its rules. Of course, that principle is quite explicitly spelled out- and it was during the period when Senator Greenwood was Attorney-General- in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. It provides that a ballot of unionists on any union matter shall be conducted in accordance with the union rules. The only requirements of the Act are to ensure that a ballot is a secret ballot, and so on. The union rules are supposed to provide for that. If they do not provide that the Conciliation and Arbitration Act lays down proceedings for challenging any ballot that is not conducted in accordance with the scheme envisaged in the Act or in the scheme envisaged in the union rules.

Senator Steele Hall - It could be a show of hands, I suppose.

Senator BUTTON -No. I think the honourable senator will find that throughout the Conciliation and Arbitration Act there is reference to secret ballots. I concede that some unions may not carry that provision out, but if they do not do so there are proceedings for dealing with them under the present Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Our position on this matter is simply that an organisation conducts a ballot in a normal way unless there is a request to the Industrial Registrar by 250 members or one-twentieth of the union membership, whichever is the less. An organisation conducts a ballot unless there is a request in that form to the Industrial Registrar for the ballot to be conducted otherwise. That proposal is totally consistent with every provision in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act relating to the conduct of union ballots.

Union ballots are not conducted by the Industrial Registrar unless a committee of management or a percentage of the membership of a union requests that they be so conducted. That, again, is consistent with every provision in the Act. I make the simple comment that there should not be interference in that scheme relating to the conduct of ballots which has existed from time immemorial under the Act. There should be consistency here, and there should be no interference unless the provision relating to a request for a ballot to the Industrial Registrar is invoked by members of a union. Again I put it that unless that sort of a request is made, it is sound policy that a union should be able to conduct its own affairs in accordance with its rules. Many unions now prefer that their ballots be conducted by the Industrial Registrar. I have not known of any unions in recent times which have proposed amalgamation with other unions and which have not as a first step gone to the Industrial Registrar to seek his advice about the steps which had to be taken and about the way in which any ballots in relation to those amalgamations should be conducted. It is almost a standard procedure for trade unions now to consult the Industrial Registrar about a ballot which has to be conducted in connection with an amalgamation. Of course, the principle involved is simpler than that.

I reiterate that if one examines the Conciliation and Arbitration Act one finds that this legislation is consistent with everything that is in the Act. It is consistent with everything that was in the Act when Opposition senators were in government.

Senator Greenwood - Except for the safeguards.

Senator BUTTON -I am talking about the method of conducting union ballots, and the method of conducting union ballots is denned in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act as being by secret ballot. If unions do not conduct secret ballots aggrieved members can go to the Industrial Registrar and complain about the matter. That principle has been in the Act since 1940- during the whole time Senator Greenwood was in government- and the proposal in this legislation is quite consistent with that provision. The only thing different about our amalgamation proposals is simply that as policy matters are to be considered and negotiations are required with employers in industry and with other unions, it is very appropriately a matter which in all instances should be dealt with by the committee of management of a union unless there is so much concern about it in the union that its members want to invoke the safeguard provisions which require a ballot to be conducted by the Industrial Registrar. If one looks at the provisions in the Act one finds that the legislation which in fact was introduced by the previous Government required a lesser percentage of members than the percentage of members which is required by the present amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act to petition for a ballot to be conducted by the Industrial Registrar.

The next major difference occurs in section 158m which deals with the determination of the result of a ballot. This provision simply means that the proposal for an amalgamation is approved if one-half of the members voting in the ballot vote in favour of the amalgamation proposal. It involves the deletion of the provision that 50 per cent of the financial members must vote in the ballot. I take a hypothetical case. If only 10 per cent of the union members are interested in an amalgamation proposal and vote and if 6 out of 10 of those people vote in favour of the amalgamation, the amalgamation scheme is approved. It might be said that that principle is wrong. But it happens in local government elections in New South Wales. It happened last weekend. People are not compelled to vote in local government elections. A very small percentage of them in fact did vote. Why should unions be placed in a different position? It is said that unions should be put in a different position from other voluntary associations in our society because of some concern of Senator Greenwood's, which I share, that the activities of the unions appear to affect the public interest from time to time in various ways. That may be so, but the activities of all kinds of bodies in the community affect the public interest. The same sort of inhibitions are not sought to be put on those other bodies, but they are sought to be put on trade unions.

Senator Steele Hall - You are kidding.

Senator BUTTON -Senator Hall says that I am kidding, but I hope that when he speaks he will tell us of the inhibitions that are put on the internal affairs of the management of the Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd. I would like him to point to provisions in the Companies Act which require shareholders to attend meetings and which require them to vote at meetings of giant corporations such as BHP. These matters affect the public interest. There is nothing in any Companies Act in Australia which compels people to vote at shareholders' meetings, which compels people to attend meetings or which requires a majority of 50 per cent. It it is absolutely hair-raising to look at the provisions in Companies Acts throughout Australia with regard to the requirements that are put on people in control of major corporations such as Broken Hill Co. Ltd. That is the difference between the affairs and management of the corporations of capital and the affairs and management of the corporations of labour.

Senator Greenwood - Do you not think the corporations of capital regard the takeover provisions as onerous and would like to be free of them?

Senator BUTTON -Senator Greenwood will find that all the corporations of capital agree with this legislation which we are now debating. They are probably much closer to it than he is. The corporations of capital are not interested in confronting powerful unions if they can confront small unions. But they are interested in having to deal with one union rather than 28 unions. I understand their point of view. It is a very sensible point of view. The Australian Post Office has had to deal with 28 unions. This is the sort of problem which employers face when they have to deal with a great number of unions instead of one. We say that the Opposition, by the proposed amendment to the provisions for determining the result of a ballot, is seeking to insert in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act conditions in relation to the administration of the internal affairs of trade unions which are not imposed on anybody else in our society. The philosophical view behind that, as I understand it, is either that it is desirable to keep unions weak or that unions are more prey to malevolent men than is any other corporate organisation in our society. With the greatest of respect, that is a simplistic and not a well thought out view if one wishes to solve some of the problems which lead to one-seventh of the industrial disputes in this country. That is why we are seeking a flexible and reasonable procedure for organisations which are, after all, composed of many individual citizens and members and not just a handful of people. The composition of organisations changes from time to time and should in the circumstances be subject to a much more flexible arrangement than presently exists.

The procedures in this legislation are designed to ensure that amalgations are still subject to every conceivable check by the Industrial Registrar. They incorporate a right of objection. They are subject at all times to any challenge which might be made in the Australian Industrial Court. For those reasons we say that the legislation does nothing more than give the degree of flexibility which employers and unions desire. It incorporates the sort of safeguards which are desired both by Opposition spokesmen and, 1 believe, the unions. It represents a form of relief from legislation which has proved unworkable. Unions should not be subject to different impositions from other corporate structures in our society. In this legislation there is still a greater degree of regulation of the internal affairs of unions which desire to amalgamate than there is of the affairs of other bodies in society which attempt to fuse their activities or amalgamate in one form or another.

One cannot successfully legislate in the Senate or anywhere else to abolish apathy. I know that governments have tried from time to time to do that, but not with monumental success. One cannot legislate to abolish apathy in the affairs of trade unions, if that exists, as it does from time to time, as in other organisations or to compel trade unionists to take part in the affairs of the union unless the members are interested in those matters. This situation is covered by the provision which allows people, who are concerned about anything which has been initiated by a committee of management, to have it the subject of a ballot, subject to scrutiny by the Industrial Registrar and, if necessary, by the Australian Industrial Court. All that one can do in relation to registered organisations under the provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act is to provide a legislative arrangement which gives the maximum information to the people concerned. This legislation does that. It does more than the existing legislation which gives certain safeguards in certain circumstances and provides a flexible system which is at all times subject to checks and balances contained in the legislation. This legislation provides that. It is a workable piece of legislation as distinct from that which now exists. It is sought anxiously by unions and employers in the community so that the industrial relations system can at least have one area of conflict substantially reduced.

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