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Tuesday, 24 September 1974
Page: 1331

Senator DONALD CAMERON (South Australia) - I support the Bill for the reasons that have been put forward by Senator Button but not for the reasons that we have just heard from Senator Hall. Perhaps Senator Hall realises that it is very doubtful that this Bill will pass the second reading stage and therefore his amendments will not be debated at the Committee stage. This is the third occasion on which we have heard the same arguments from the Opposition in this chamber. They have not been added to very much by the new senators who came into the Senate after the last election and they certainly would not convince anybody that there ought not to be a change in the existing provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. If one checks the number of amalgamations that have taken place in Australia since the previous Government amended the amalgamations provisions in the Act one will find that there have been very few. This shows that the restrictions in the Act at present make it practically impossible for any unions to amalgamate.

I would like to give an example of a union that has a diversification of members scattered in outlying areas and covering many industries. It would not be possible for the Australian Workers Union ever to get 50 per cent of its members voting in a ballot whether it were for an amalgamation or for official positions in the union. The highest percentage that has ever been recorded in a ballot in the history of the Australian Workers Union is 42 per cent. On that occasion very intensive campaigning was carried out by both sides. So under the provisions of the existing Act there would never have been any amalgamations within the Australian Workers Union.

I believe that the Government is sincere in trying to make amalgamations easier than they are now. The excessive number of unions is no doubt one of the problems affecting industrial relations in Australia. There has been a slight decline in the numbers of unions in Australia. In 1 956 there were 375 unions. In 1972 there were 305 unions. I understand that by the end of last year there were something like 294 unions. Of these unions 158 had fewer than 1,000 members; 82 had between 1,000 and 5,000 members; 28 had between 5,000 and 20,000 members; 23 had between 20,000 and 50,000 members; and only 14 had a membership of over 50,000. In a population of only 13.5 million, where we have something like 5.5 million workers in industry and where about 51 per cent of those 5.5 million workers are members of organisations, it seems to me to be ridiculous to have nearly 300 unions covering only about 2Vi million members. This situation is completely different in other advanced countries like West Germany where about 1 6 unions cover millions of workers.

This Bill will make the amalgamations of the unions much easier. Surely the unions themselves want it this way. The officials of the unions want it this way, and I am certain that a lot of employers in industry want it this way. But we see the legislation obstructed from time to time by the Opposition in the Senate. In the PostmasterGeneral's Department there are 28 unions involved. Workers at the Sydney Mail Exchange are covered by no fewer than 20 unions. The work force of Trans- Australia Airlines is covered by no fewer than 26 unions. The men and women employed by the Commonwealth Railways belong to 14 unions. The fragmentation of union resources, in terms of staff, finance and facilities, imposes limitations on the unions and makes the effectiveness of a union very limited. The resources for research by the unions is limited where each small union has to have an industrial officer and a research officer doing exactly the same work as others in small unions are doing to try to compete with the rising cost of living and to keep the working conditions of the members of the union up to a standard that is accepted by the trade union movement.

The fragmentation of unions leads to an almost impossible position if they are dealing with a well organised employer group or a major company. Let us take the example of employees of a multi-national corporation. The Australian employees of such a corporation might well belong to only 6 or more organisations. I have not heard Opposition senators mention the amalgamation of the Chamber of Manufactures and the Chamber of Commerce. For reasons of convenience they called it a merger. No ballot was taken. Even if the Employers Federation in South Australia wanted to join the Chamber of Manufactures no ballot would be required under the Conciliation and Arbitration Act or any other Act. We are trying to enforce restrictions on the trade union movement so that the amalgamations of unions are practically impossible and at the same time the employers and their organisations are given a free hand to amalgamate and merge without any inhibitions.

The unions will not accept the provisions of section 158k subsection (2) of the existing Act. This Bill seeks to amend the existing provision requiring that 50 per cent of the members vote in any ballot and, provided that a majority of members cast a formal vote, the decision is taken on the majority of that vote. There is a distinct anomaly under the existing legislation. In a ballot of 49 per cent of members of a union all of whom had voted unanimously in favour of an amalgamation the amalgamation could not take place because it would need to be supported by 50 per cent of members. On the other hand, 50.5 per cent of the membership of an organisation could vote and only 26 per cent of them need vote in favour of the amalgamation and the amalgamation would automatically be approved by the Registrar.

The Opposition has stated that if this legislation is passed amalgamations will be made easier. It has been proved in the last 2 years since the existing legislation has been in operation that the legislation is a complete failure. The Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, as I have pointed out, makes it unnecessarily difficult for unions to amalgamate. At present, for amalgamation proposals to be adopted, 2 conditions must be satisfied. One is that at least half of the members of the union must vote and the other is that more than half the formal vote must be in favour of amalgamation. As I stated earlier- in contrast to the amendments which have been introduced in this place for the third time- those conditions would no longer be necessary provided 50 per cent or a majority voted at a ballot in favour of the amalgamation.

There is one other objectionable aspect of the existing legislation which is not accepted by the unions. The unions believe that they should have a right to determine the affairs of their own union, including the conduct of a ballot, the election of officers and any other issues which affect only members of the union. They should not be subject to rigid restrictions included in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act where this inherent right is taken away and referred to the Industrial Registrar. I believe that most unions, if not all, would have some provision in their rules and constitution for a ballot to be decided by the members. I refer to the 'Australian Workers Union Constitution and General Rules'. Rule 43 under the heading of 'Plebiscite' states:

Convention or the Executive Council, when they deem fit, may take the opinion or financial members upon any question by submitting the same to a plebiscite. The arrangements for the taking of such plebiscite shall be such as to secure as large a vote as circumstances will admit, and each plebiscite taken shall be denoted in the advertisement and on the ballot papers by one of the letters printed on the voting slip attached to members ' tickets.

Those provisions are contained in the rules for the Australian Workers Union already registered under the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Those rules deal not only with balloting on amalgamations but also deal with every other aspect of union affairs. Opposition senators, of course, have very little knowledge and experience of the trade union movement. Very few honourable senators opposite have ever been members of a trade union organisation. The only knowledge they have regarding trade union affairs comes from the employers; the Press; or someone like Senator Hall who attended a meeting of the Transport Workers Union in Adelaide as a pimp and a spy, attending the meeting without the knowledge of the organisation. He had no right whatsoever to be sitting in at that meeting. He was there simply to listen to what was going on. He could not even do that.

Senator Cavanagh - It was a contemptible act.

Senator DONALD CAMERON -Senator Cavanagh is quite right. It was a contemptible act. His action of sitting in at the meeting was contemptible enough but even more contemptible was that when he left the meeting he did not report what actually took place at the meeting. Senator Hall's report of the meeting was completely garbled because the person who reported to him apparently does not know how to write shorthand and he relied on his memory, which must be very bad. I may not have another opportunity during this debate to discuss Senator Hall's proposed amendments. Although Senator Hall has said that he will support the second reading of the Bill, he expects the Government to accept these amendments which, of course, it cannot accept. Senator Hall in his amendments, proposes to change clause 6 on pages 5 and 6 of the Bill by deleting subsections 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. These are the provisions in the Bill which give the right to unions to determine how they want to process an amalgamation- whether they want to conduct the amalgamation under their own rules, or whether they petition to refer the matter to the Registrar. Senator Hall's proposed amendment completely takes away the right of a union to conduct its own affairs by conducting a ballot for an amalgamation under the rules and constitution of the union. Surely no organisation, whether an employee organisation or an employer organisation, would hand over the inherent right and powers that they have in relation to the affairs of their own organisation to an outside body or to an industrial registrar unless petitioned by members.

The other amendment proposed by Senator Hall deals with making a ballot compulsory. This is where Senator Hall showed his ignorance of trade union affairs and trade union ballots. It is absolutely impossible to get the ballot papersmat is the postal ballot papers- returned by members of an organisation who are scattered over a wide area. A trade union, such as the Australian Workers Union, has members at Mount Isa, members scattered within the pastoral industries, itinerant workers who follow the fruit picking industry and thousand of other members working on highways and working at quarries and mines etc. Probably 200 industries are covered by that union. Making it compulsory for union members to vote in a postal ballot would be an absolute waste of time. The imposition of a $5 penalty for those who do not vote is strongly opposed by the trade union movement. The Government does not accept that proposal.

We believe that the members of a union take sufficient interest in the affairs of a union to decide themselves whether the amalgamation of a smaller union with a bigger union is beneficial for the whole membership. I believe that a decision to make a 50 per cent vote compulsory with a penalty of $5 for those who do not vote, would be abhorent to the trade union movement. I am certain that it would not be accepted by any members of the unions. I would like to read out a short passage from what the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) said when he delivered the Labor Party policy speech at Blacktown on 29 April this year. He said:

The vast majority of Australian employees are members of unions or employee associations. The key to industrial efficiency is efficient employee organisation. Our opponents have obstructed our efforts to modernise and democratise Australian trade unions. There are too many unions in Australia. We have sought to reduce the number of unions. There are too many needless strikes in Australia: We have sought to remove the causes of needless strikes. In those efforts we have been opposed by our opponents in the Federal Parliament and have met with no co-operation from their confederates in the States.

Responsible leadership of both unions and industry Strongly supports a reduction in the number of unions and of demarcation disputes between rival unions. Our legislation to help union amalgamation has been twice rejected by the Senate.

Twice, in 2 elections, the people of Australia have been told of the industrial policies of the Australian Labor Party, particularly in respect of industrial disputes. We recognise and realise that some industrial disputes are caused by demarcation disputes between unions on the job. Senator Hall gave a good example when he referred to a dispute in South Australia between the Transport Workers Union and the Waterside Workers Federation over the handling of steel. If those 2 unions had been amalgamated that demarcation dispute would not have occurred. I know of unions which have been waiting months and months to amalgamate. They hoped that the Bill introduced by the Government would be accepted. They will not proceed with their amalgamation proposals until the existing legislation has been changed and made acceptable to the trade union movement. Therefore I strongly support the Bill that has been introduced and just as strongly oppose the futile and useless provisions put forward by Senator Hall in an effort to make union ballots compulsory while at the same time not doing anything regarding the amalgamation or merger of employer organisations.

Senator Hallsuggested that voting in a trade union ballot for amalgamation was similar to voting in a Federal or State election. He said that the Australian Labor Party supported compulsory voting in elections for State and Federal Parliaments. However, he did not tell the Senate that under the Commonwealth Electoral Act it is compulsory for everybody to be registered- to have his name, address and occupation put on the electoral roll. Voting in State and Federal elections, where it is compulsory under the Commonwealth Electoral Act to be registered on the electoral roll, to have one's name, address and occupation on that roll, is quite different from voting in an election in the trade union movement where it is not compulsory to join a union. I, for one, would readily accept compulsory voting in the case of amalgamations in the trade union movement if the Opposition supported compulsory membership of a trade union by employees working in industry. That would be quite a different matter; the voice of the Opposition would be strongly opposed to any compulsion for employees to join an appropriate union. Therefore, in my belief it was irrelevant for Senator Hall to refer to the fact that the Australian Labor Party supports compulsory voting in elections for parliamentary office and the imposition of a fine on those who do not vote, when he suggested that it should be compulsory for members to vote in a trade union ballot for amalgamation. This Bill, as introduced, will ensure that the unions have this right and it will make it easier for them to amalgamate.

Members of the Opposition would know from looking at ballots conducted within the trade union movement over the years that some ballots for official positions often create more interest than that which would be created by an amalgamation. Some such ballots have resulted in a percentage vote as low as 15 per cent. I have seen the percentage as low as 10 per cent- nearly as bad as that in the municipal elections that took place in Sydney last Saturday.

Senator Greenwood - A lot worse, in fact.

Senator DONALD CAMERON -Even worse than that. Some trade unions are not able to attract the same miserable vote as was attracted at the municipal elections in Sydney last Saturday, as Senator Greenwood admits; yet he suggests that another 20 per cent should be added to the percentage vote in order to make certain that there will be no more amalgamations, that the weaker unions will stay weak and that there will be an imposition on members of those small unions through their having to pay higher contribution fees, knowing that unions cannot function efficiently and effectively when they do not have large memberships. I strongly support the Bill as introduced.

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