Standing Fast

Standing Fast

Michael Kroger

Mr President Ladies and Gentlemen.

Despite having attended many H R Nicholls Society conferences and dinners over the years and despite having given hundreds of speeches on topics both relevant to politics and industrial relations since the founding of the H R Nicholls Society, this is the first occasion on which I have had the honour to formally address it. This could mean that the Board of the Society could find no other appropriately qualified person or alternatively it could be the Board felt that I had something to say which may be noteworthy.

Whilst I acknowledge that the H R Nicholls Society is strictly a non-party political organisation you will forgive me, I am sure, for addressing a few of my remarks to the re-election of the Keating Government. And so, whilst the re-election of the Labor Government will be a set back for those passionately committed to the cause of industrial relations reform in Australia, it will not terminate our ambitions, our hopes or our desire to one day have an Australian workplace free of ridiculous l9th century work practices, free of centralised wages fixing principles, free of restrictions on the basic human right for ordinary Australians to determine for themselves whether or not they join a trade union in seeking and maintaining employment.

In any case, let me say at the outset, there should be no gloom tonight---no gloom whatsoever---because the ideas represented this weekend and the people present tonight have built monuments and participated in triumphs far more enduring in the post war era than anything created or engaged in by our industrial opponents. And far, far more important to Australia's future. As we are repeatedly told, Australia is now part of the international financial community. As such, we are of course judged by international standards. The shocking industrial record of Australia in the post war era is unfortunately known internationally and the damage caused by so few to so many is damage which has created such an unnecessary but enduring legacy only now beginning to be repaired. The process of reform and change will go on despite the instincts of our industrial opponents.

So, we should celebrate tonight the heroes of the modern Australian industrial revolution. It was what you might call a quiet revolution in that it was not born out of the recklessness or lawlessness of some small business people and their supporters, but it was born out of a desire by those people to see the Australian workplace governed by the same rules that govern every other aspect of our society.

A company director who breaches the Corporations Law faces civil and criminal penalties. A business which breaks contracts with its suppliers or refuses to pay its bills faces legal action and the possibility of legal action against those in effective control of the company. Yet for many years some of the more extreme elements of the trade union movement and their office bearers believed that they were part of the Consular Corps---that is to say, immune from prosecution for wrong doing. Friends like Fred Stauder helped end the Consular Corps mentality. They restored law and order to the workplace. They gave business people confidence. They restored people's faith in our legal system. They gave other small business people hope and courage. In some ways, it is true to say that small business people won back their pride. Most importantly Australia's international reputation started to improve when the market place learned the Australian workplace was not lawless any longer.

The challenge facing the reformers in the industrial relations arena is not a case of standing fast, it's a case of continuing to push forward despite what will no doubt be the attempts by some to turn the clock back to the last century, to turn the clock back to a time when the power and privilege of a few in the workplace dominated the rights of the small business person and ordinary Australian workers.

As Emerson said, "this time, like all times, is a very good time if we but know what to do with it". The first obligation is to ensure that the spirit of Dollar Sweets and Mudginberri lives on forever.

In rushing to use our language and embrace our concepts---only days after winning a great tactical victory, some of our traditional opponents have conceded our essential point that workplaces must be organised on the basis of economic efficiency.

There are many arguments to come; many, many times, we will be accused of wanting to wreck civilisation as we know it; but every time we are challenged we have answered and will continue to answer the call.

Every time we attack a workplace problem, our opponents try to say that we're somehow turning the known world upside down.

We are attacked for making the system exactly as it should be---and our critics know it.

Right now, in Victoria, we're experiencing some protests against the Kennett Government's industrial relations reforms.

Lest anyone think this is unprecedented, let me quote the remarks of Governor Gipps about a colonial election in 1843:

"It had gone off well", he reported to London, "although there have been mild riots among the contending parties with the loss of one life."

As I watch those rallies led by John Halfpenny I'm irresistibly reminded of a bygone era.

The people marching behind Mr Halfpenny think they're defending their wages and conditions---but what they're really defending is the right of the small minority of trade union leaders and trade unions to continue to operate in a manner and with a privilege, open to no one else in the community.

As long as the existing system prevents people from making their own decisions as long as the existing system sends good companies to the wall because they have to compete with one hand tied behind their back, the system is open to ridicule.

Because as long as wages and conditions are determined away from the workplace, and as long as negotiations are conducted with outsiders as principals, there will always be misunderstanding, mistrust and division. But without wanting to sound too conspiratorial, it is obviously in the interests of some to keep it this way. But it is the height of intellectual bankruptcy to say that an Australian worker must be represented by a trade union in his or her negotiations over their wage. The very same workers can make decisions to have families, to spend tens, and often hundreds of thousands of dollars on properties, but they suddenly become financially uninformed and illiterate when they sit down at the workplace table to negotiate their terms and conditions of employment.

And why should a business in Bourke have to pay a wage that will send the owner broke; and why should a business in Sydney be restricted to a wage which will keep its workers under rewarded?

In addition to the problems still being encountered because of a highly regulated wage fixing system, revelations of continuing workplace absurdities, many coming to light only in the past few months, shows the folly of trying to make the same rules for different workplaces. For example take the ludicrous problem in Victoria, which was the redundancy just before Christmas, of the conductor who'd been on the restaurant tram for 10 years without, ever collecting a single ticket. For 10 years he or she sat at the back of the restaurant tram watching the world go by. The free scenic tour of Melbourne every night at the expense of the restaurant proprietor may have been somewhat repetitive but it was never taxing. There was a conductor on the restaurant tram for 10 years because the tramway's union demanded that every tram had to have a conductor, a demand which also included maintenance trams even though no tickets were being sold, because they didn't take passengers.

Mr President, on another matter, almost anything can happen in Australia these days---you can bid for a Pay TV licence for $500.00. You can have your children kidnapped by foreigners who suffer no penalty, you can be part of a Government that loses hundreds of millions of dollars and front up again seeking to be re-elected---but there's one thing you can't do...and that's try to shear sheep in Queensland on a Sunday, or try to work in the Pilbara on any occasion without a union ticket.

In Southern Queensland, according to the relevant award, builders labourers must prepare and lay concrete floors---although only those poured in one operation---but heaven help them if they ever try to put a topping course on such a floor, because this is solemnly declared to be exclusively the domain of members of the Operative Plasterers and Plaster Workers Federation.

But thanks to recent changes, the Clothing Trades Award now includes an "enterprise flexibility clause" which says that you can change anything at all in the award---except---pay, hours, meal money, leave, leave loading, sick leave, times of breaks, contract work provisions, severance pay, superannuation and some other more minor matters---provided---any change to whatever is left doesn't breach "national standards", and finally that the union, the majority of employees and the Industrial Relations Commission agree and no employee loses any income.

Now that's real enterprise bargaining!

Then of course, there's waterfront "reform"---which, in Newcastle last year, led to 63 wharfies being retired on packages of $100,000.00 or more and, in many cases, being re-employed the following week as casuals earning their old rate plus 20 per cent.

Then of course there was the story of the first aid officer engaged at a Queensland grain loading port to dispense first aid when required by wharf labourers working on board ships. It was compulsory for a first aid officer to be on duty when a ship was being loaded in case of injury to one of the stevedores. Needless to say, in the waterfront reform process it was the original view of the WWF that the first aid officer was an integral part of the ship labour force and was required at all times. The issue was resolved when the first aid officer's log book of the first aid he had dispensed in the previous year was examined. Apart from the distribution of a few band aids and disprin the log was empty. The first aid officers position was subsequently abolished.

Yet none of this should be taken as suggesting that all of the wisdom is on one side of the debate.

In the Financial Review last year, for instance, Labor Senator Peter Walsh reported how waterfront unions had blocked an export contract by insisting that potatoes be loaded by normal stevedores charging up to $36.00 a tonne---instead of a private contractor who could do it for just $7.00 a tonne. The comments by Senator Walsh and others on the Labor side of the political debate in this country at least provide encouragement to those who think Australia will be better off if Australians from all sides of the political fence understand the gravity of the international problems we face and put the national interest before their own personal interests.

And so where to from here?

The path ahead should take the same general direction as the path behind---straight but a little bumpy along the way.

Real workplace bargaining has not yet been achieved.

Genuine voluntary unionism has not yet been achieved.

The campaign against overmanning, ghosting, loadings and tired old work practices goes on.

For HRN however, I see another more immediate challenge: to write a definite history of the changes to industrial relations in Australia over the last 10 years, before our opponents reÄwrite it.

From the foundation meeting and then dinner of HRN, to this very day, attacks on the society and its ideas have continued, although with dwindling integrity and relevance.

In 1985 ours were the views of "the economic lunatics and troglodytes". We were "un-Australian" and even an industrial "Ku Klux Klan".

But the ideas of '85 are the mainstream of today.

The opponents of workplace reform, enterprise bargaining and the use of law to protect small business, are their supporters today.

Just look at the opponents of reform today all backsliding, all apologising, all whingeing, all explaining, all chortling, all differentiating, all supporting enterprise bargaining as it were their own idea. Some people have no shame.

In closing I say this; People will defend a system which they think is working; people will tolerate a system which they only suspect is defective; but they won't wear a system which they know is damaging the whole community.

The system as it was, was of course damaging the whole community. Use of the common law and the Trade Practices Act in Dollar Sweets and Mudginberri have done an enormous amount to restore our damaged industrial reputation. Voluntary unionism, enterprise bargaining, a more flexible and competitive workplace are the monuments to industrial reformers in this country who include the members of this Society. At the prize giving ceremony when awards are handed out to those Australians who had the courage to fight against a failed and discredited status quo, who had sufficient conviction to stand firm against the l9th century thinking of industrial relations club members from both the left and the right and from both inside and outside every political party in this country, then, at the front of the queue for the prizes will be people like Ian McLachlan, Peter Costello and John Howard, and many, many other prominent Australians who have provided a voice for the little Australians who by themselves had no voice.