|Issue No 107||17 August 2001|
What's The Deal?
Interview with Peter Lewis
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis explains how a Beazley Government will rebuild our broken system.
Both sides of politics are looking at using industrial relations in the Federal Election but with different emphasis. How do you see IR being played out?
I think industrial relations has the potential to be a significant issue in this election. I think workers from one end of the country to the other know that the system that John Howard has put in place is no longer the fair system that they have been used to, and they are feeling the brunt of it, because it is not fair, because the field has been tipped very heavily one way and because the umpire has had its powers taken away from it. They are finding life at work much harder. Their standard of living is deteriorating, not improving, and all of that leads to a powerful political dynamic.
I think at this next election there is a real opportunity for Labor and the labour movement to make headway.
I've got to say the recent TriStar dispute put a lot of that into focus too, because people saw their workers trying to get what every worker in Australia wants, and for their trouble, all they got was abuse and attack from this government - even told by the Minister. So I think that very much crystallized the issues for many Australians.
Howard is trying to use the union movement as his trump card. Do you think the unions are a plus or a minus for the ALP?
I think Howard has fallen into the trap. I mean, he is often painted, and I think correctly, as a person of the Fifties - the 1950s that is - and he took the same attitude to industrial relations. He is in trouble politically and he is falling back on the time honoured approach of Liberals before him - bashing unions in the hope that somehow that causes people to move away from the Labor Party.
I think the dynamics of all that have changes for the sorts of reasons just described. I think the public support for unions is now at a high level. People, whether they are in unions or not, want to know that there is a unions system in place to protect their interests. They want to know, whether they are in a union or not, that there is a fair system of industrial commission operations.
The unions would have a much greater percentage of the workforce as members, if the system was fairer and if people did not think they would be victimized for joining a union, and what has happened under the Howard Government is that they have developed a culture where people are afraid to be in a union - notwithstanding the fact that they support them.
At the moment we are seeing a real outbreak of industrial unrest - quite a lot of strikes occurring right across the economy. As somebody who wants to see himselfs get elected into government, do you sometimes wish the unions were toning down their activity at this stage of the political cycle?
There is always a risk in politics, particularly with the way in which the general media report these matters, that a strike will be painted in the way in which John Howard wants to - and that is very much as an attack upon the Labor Party. But I think that depends on each case, and increasingly depends on how things are being conducted.
I mean, people saw what happened to the workers at OneTel; the workers at HIH; they have seen what happened at TriStar. And the public support was very much with the workers in those situations.
Now at TriStar that was a very high profile industrial dispute. The government tried to politicize that as much as they could. They even told the employers not to negotiate and not to compromise. So they wanted this dispute to run on and on. And the public saw through that and the public also understood that the workers are entitled to have their wages and long service leave and other things protected. I don't think the Government got out of TriStar the sort of public spin that they were hoping for, and I think that that does herald a different attitude in the Australian public's mind about these things.
As somebody that comes out of the Union Movement, do you feel that your orientation has changed from your time as a union official to your time as a candidate for the ALP?
I think orientation certainly has. I mean, it is a different job. I am a member of a union. I hope always to be a member of a union, and clearly I am proud to identify myself as a unionist. But my job as a Minister in a Beazley Government is not to be a union official. It is to be a Minister. It is to put into place a fair and decent system that operates for all Australians and helps advance the living standard for all Australians. It is a different job.
But the core values that I grew up with - that I lived with as a union official - are still with me, and I can't imagine that they will ever leave me.
With that background, what has been the hardest call you have had to make in negotiating through and devising the industrial relations policy you will take to the next election?
I don't feel there has been any fundamental derogation from those core principles. I reject the view that being a unionist and adhering to those sorts of principles is somehow counter-productive to the good of the economy or the profitability of enterprises. Frankly, I think they go hand in hand. I don't see that there is a tension that is there. I think there is a false tension that is sometimes developed in the media perception, and I guess it would be fair to say that not everybody who is a unionist would share my view on that. There are certainly some people who probably have an attitude that was more in vogue in the Fifties and Sixties, and do see a potential tension. I don't. I think the prosperity, the security of employment, the right for people to organise collectively - all these things are intertwined in a progressive and democratic and productive economy.
You know, it is interesting when you look around the world at the different systems, all the studies that have been done on these issues show that systems that are based on collective negotiations - on union representation - are just as productive - and according to some of the research - more productive - than those systems which try and deny workers the right to organize.
So it is not as though one of them promotes good economic outcomes and the other doesn't. I think they work hand-in-hand.
Let's talk about some of the specific themes that we are talking about in the campaign the unions are launching. On entitlements, Labor has promised comprehensive entitlement protection, but they are not adopting the Manusafe Model. Why is that?
Manusafe is a trust fund model which is a totally legitimate scheme, and there are a number of trust fund models that operate already in different industries and in some companies, and there is nothing at all wrong with a trust fund model, but Labor took the view that in establishing a national system to cover all workers, trust funds are not going to be preferred models for many, and we have adopted an insurance based scheme which, unlike a trust fund model, has a much lower annual premium to operate. That commitment we have is to a national scheme. It is a commitment to cover all workers' entitlements. It will guarantee those entitlements are paid out quickly, so workers don't have to wait for the company assets to be sold. The insurer will take on that responsibility. And at the end of the day, it will produce for all workers the security and comfort that they should have, that if they are unlucky enough to find themselves in a company that has gone belly up, they will at least get all of their money back.
Programs like Manusafe and the other trust funds that are operating will operate side-by-side with that. Firms that are participating in those funds obviously won't have to contribute a second time to our national scheme and I think for most employers, they will find the national scheme a far better option.
Could you understand concerns of unions who have set up these trust funds, fearing that their employers are just going to want to go for the lower cost option and just opt into the insurance scheme now?
I think those unions that have taken the initiative on those matters deserve to be applauded. They have actually tried to fill a void that has existed frankly for too long. Now for some companies and for some industries a trust fund model will be preferred. The disadvantages of a trust fund is that you have got to put more money in each year to get it going. The advantage of a trust fund is that in the long term you can actually have a situation where the fund is self-funding. That is, after a period of time you don't have to put any more money in it. The interest that the fund earns is enough to pay for the ongoing demands on the fund.
So for some firms and for some industries, depending on their worker profile, depending on their cashflow, a trust fund model will actually be better for them and I recognize that. That is fine. I have no difficulty with that whatsoever. But for others they will be better placed and will prefer to have an insurance model, which is why we went down that path. So I don't think there needs to be a competition as it were. They are two different models to achieve the same outcome. One will be preferable in certain circumstances, and that is fine. The important thing is that the initiative that those unions have taken and the commitment we have as a Labor Party, achieves the necessary outcome - all workers' entitlements will be protected.
You have also promised to increase the powers of the Industrial Commission. On a practical level, how would a dispute like TriStar have been conducted differently under your changes?
One of the things that stands out in the TriStar dispute is that not only did the Government not put in place a system to protect the workers' entitlements; and not only did they attack the workers for trying to get a decent outcome; but under their system, when this dispute occurred and went to the Commission, the only thing the Commission could really decide was whether or not the workers would be allowed to continue their strike. Because the Commission has had its powers taken away from it by Peter Reith and John Howard and Tony Abbott, the Commission doesn't have the power to decide whether or not, for example, the company should contribute to Manusafe or an insurance bond, or anything at all. It is not one of the allowable matters.
We intend to remove that restriction from the legislation, so that the Industrial Commission will be free to deal with these sorts of cases, and if necessary, arbitrate them on the merits of the arguments in dispute. Unfortunately the Commission no longer has those powers.
One of the big differences with TriStar would have been the opportunity for the umpire not just to say you can or you can't strike, but for the umpire to have a look at the substance - the areas of dispute - and if necessary make some decisions about it.
On individual contracts - what is going to happen to people who are already on AWAs?
We will abolish AWAs from the legislation, so that no new ones will be entered into. For those who are currently on an AWA, they will cease to operate during the life of the next parliament. Now for most of them, that will be the normal expiry date, but there has been some evidence given to us that in some places companies are trying to sign up as many people on AWAs now, before the election as they can. Of course, these are secret document, so we don't have access to that detail, but in Government, if we see that evidence then we will also need to state a date after which they will all cease to operate. And that will be a date that gives people plenty of time to make alternative arrangements.
In the formulation of this policy, have you had any thought, talks or regard to the attitude of the Democrats, presuming they maintain to hold the balance in the Senate? AWAs for instance were something they agreed to. What are the prospects of them changing their view?
We have been very mindful of what may happen after the election with the passage of Labor's legislation through the Senate. That has not changed our view of what we think is right. Our legislation will enter the Parliament as we believe it should be passed. At the end of the day I recognize that we are going to have to negotiate with the Senate to get that legislation through.
I am confident that we will get the vast majority of our legislation through, and notwithstanding some of the public comments that have been made by some of the Democrat Senators, I am also confident that our views on AWAs will succeed as well. The evidence is overwhelming in relation to AWAs. These are instruments that were designed by Peter Reith and John Howard, simply to undermine the rights of workers to organize and get decent outcomes.
And the proof is in the pudding. Average workers on AWAs today are getting $55.10 a week less than they would if they were on a collective agreement like a union agreement. There is no doubt why they have been put in place, and I think when the evidence is put before the Democrats I would be confident that we will get their support.
This isn't an official ALP IR launch today. Are their other issues of policy that you are still looking at releasing in the lead up to the Federal Election?
I hope, in the not too distant future, to release our Industrial Relations Policy. Part of the difficulty with the timing of all that, is the guesswork on when the election campaign is. We certainly got a detailed policy document from our National Conference last year and from that we have a very clear election manifesto in industrial relations. Some of that has been set out already in speeches by myself or by Kim Beazley, but we would like to get a coordinated policy launch in the not too distant future. That is a matter for the Campaign Committee's tactical planning at the moment.
And finally, in terms of the election, what is your gut feeling?
I think this election is going to be close, and I have held that view for a long, long time. I believe that the last three weeks are going to decide who wins the election. That 10% of the population who decide in that last three weeks what they are going to do, will decide whether or not we have another three years of John Howard, or whether we have a change for the better. I think the way things are panning out at the moment, we have probably got our nose ahead, but that is all it is. This is going to be a fight right down to the wire.
So what can working people do to help Labor get over the line?
I have always been a great believer in the power of people to talk to their workmates. To make sure that literature is distributed. We are never going to compete with our opponents in the mass media activities, and we seldom have the sort of editorial support that they can regularly get. The strength of the labour movement has always been in its people on the ground. So whether it is helping out on information stalls; whether it is door-knocking; whether it is talking in the lunchrooms - these are all important things that have helped us to get across the line in the past and I think they will be important this time too.
Interview: What's The Deal?
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis explains how a Beazley Government will rebuild our broken system.
E-Change: 2.3 The State of the Union
White hope or white elephant? The future of trade unions is by no means guaranteed in the networked society.
Industrial: Into the 21st Century
ACTU President Sharan Burrow looks at the landmark deal delivering workers 12 months paid maternity leave.
Unions: The Black Hole
Jim Marr goes inside Stellar to discover the human cost of a management philosophy that says: you are on your own.
History: The Age of Dissent
The Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History has organised a Conference on Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975.
Media: ABC and the Knowledge Nation
Tony Moore looks at how the national broadcaster's fortunes are closely linked to the Knowledge Nation Agenda
International: Brazil´s C.U.T. - When Big Is Beautiful
The CFMEU´s Phil Davey drops in on Brazil´s equivalent to the ACTU, the Central Unica Dos Trabalhadores (CUT).
Satire: Bracks Disputes Cabramatta tag
Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has called for a national council to decide on a location for Australia's drug capital.
Review: Globalisation Is Globalisation
In an extract from his book, Christopher Shiel argues that the official Australian perspective on globalisation is strikingly narrow.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005