Behind the Coalition mask on industrial relations (01/11/2011)

08 January 2013

qantas-pilots-tarmac.jpgStephen Jones argues that the Qantas lockout has provided a glimpse behind the Liberal Party mask on industrial relations - and the view ain't pretty.

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONSis on the public mind again.

It is on the public mind because of Qantas's behaviour in locking out workers and leaving customers in their thousands stranded on the tarmac. No doubt it is also on our minds because of the behaviour ofthe Coalitionduring this unfortunate dispute. As the days and hours unfold, many people in this place are wondering whether those opposite have had some role in conspiring in this unfortunate series of events.

This evening on ABC television we saw the spectacle of the member for North Sydney confirming that Qantas had told him that the grounding of the fleet was on the cards. When pressed about when he first heard this issue, Mr Hockey said he could not recall, but when asked if he had heard it personally in a meeting from a Qantas representative, he confirmed, 'Yeah, sure, as did others.'

So there are many people tonight watching the ABC interview with the member for North Sydney and wondering whether thousands and thousands of people would have had their holidays and trips disrupted if the member for North Sydney had been acting in the public interest instead of in his own political interests.

This of course is a reminder of the need for an industrial relations system that provides minimum standards, rights and responsibilities for workers and employers engaged in negotiations but also provides a mechanism to resolve disputes when they get out of hand, when they are causing damage not only to the industrial parties but also to innocent bystanders. Thankfully, we do have those laws and we have a Prime Minister and a minister who were willing to act. They did not keep it a secret, like the member for North Sydney did; they acted in the national interest to get passengers back on the planes and parties back into negotiations.

Mr Speaker, you would know that 2009 was a watershed in the way we deal with industrial relations in this country because it saw the passage of the Fair Work Act. After 11 years of experimenting with the extremism of Reith, Abbott, Andrews and Hockey and after 11 years of stagnation in productivity and days lost to industrial disputes three times what they have been under Labor, we saw the introduction of a fair and balanced workplace relations act, the Fair Work Act.

The Fair Work Act re-established awards and protected penalty rates from the unmitigated theft under Work Choices. It gave workers a say in how they would bargain. It gave them the right to vote for collective bargaining and a means of resolving disputes when they got out of hand.

This system is under threat today because today we have seen members opposite re-engaging. Their masks have slipped.

A few weeks ago they were lovers of the workersthey could not get closer to someone wearing a hard hat and a blue singletbut today their masks have slipped and we have seen them cheering the employer who locks out their workers and abusing employees engaged in an industrial dispute.

Lockouts were relatively unknown in Australia until 1996. Although the right to lock out did exist under Australian law from 1993, it was barely used under ALP governments. There were a handful of lockouts between 1996 and 2000 but then they literally exploded. I quote from the report by the knowledgeable Dr Chris Briggs of the University of Sydney entitled Lockout Law in Australia. He found that over that period the proportion of working days lost to disputes involving lockouts had increased almost six-fold. He said:

This reflects a four-fold increase in the number of working days lost to industrial disputes involving a lockout during the second half decade Employer lockouts, not strikes by unions, were responsible for most of the long disputes in the second half-decade of enterprise bargaining.

We have heard today reference to very famous disputes, including the G & K O'Connor abattoir dispute in your state of Victoria, Mr Speaker, and the Hunter Valley dispute between 1997 and 1998. We saw long-running disputes with workers locked out, lost production and damage to the community and the economy, but where did we see the workplace relations minister and the Prime Minister in each of those disputes? Intervening in the courts, telling the courts to stay out of it and saying to the employers, 'Go your hardest and stay your longest, because we love a lockout.'

Their masks have slipped.

Speech to Parliament 1 November 2011 - Adjournment - Qantas