Workers Online
Workers Online
Workers Online
  Issue No 38 Official Organ of LaborNet 05 November 1999  





Peter Reith

Interview with Peter Lewis

We've fought him for the last four years, perhaps it's time to try to understand him.


Federal Workplace Relations Minister: Peter Reith

Thanks for talking to Workers Online. The point of this interview is to get an idea of your ideas, rather than having a debate about the ins and outs of the Second Wave. So, I'd like to start off by asking you: what values actually underlie your approach to industrial relations?

There are some very important values. There are some basic human rights which we think everybody is entitled to. There are some fundamental principles of law which we think are important in the workplace relations area as underpinning principles. There is also a general view that given the right and fair - given a fair regulatory environment - sensible workplace relations reform can produce very good practical outcomes for everybody.

If you were to wrap up all those reforms into your view of life, what would it be?

Fairness and practicality.

What is your view of the competing rights of the collective and the individual?

You see, I don't really have the collective and the individual at odds. All we are trying to do is to give people the choices to exercise as to what best suits their own particular circumstances.

One of my values, which really puts me at odds with many in the trade union movement is to say that whilst unions are important, the days when they should be given a privileged status as instruments of social reform are really well and truly over. Now, that's not to deny the importance of trade unions in the history of this democracy and other democracies, or their importance in other societies, but in Australia the role once undertaken by unions has, in many cases, been overtaken by events whereby the role is largely a statutory one, provided through the parliament. That is not to say they don't have an ongoing role for individuals but there is a fundamental divide here I think between how people of my view and people in the trade union movement who see unions as having a special status.

So what would you think people in the union movement would say their reason for being in the 21 Century is?

They see it as a politico social role and that is that unions have a role the same way as the media have a role, or the judiciary has a role in society. Different, but having an importance in society which marks unions out against the local bowling club or tennis club. Whereas for me I see unions as service providers and standing and falling on the quality of that service provision. That is a very different world outlook which does divide I think.

At what point would you have departed - at what point do you think unions ceased to have that innate role in society?

I think in the 20th Century in Australian society the coming into the parliament of the labor movement through the Australian Labor Party and the adoption by parties of both left and right in Australia of the responsibilities of the society at large - or an acceptance that society at large through the parliament has a responsibility to citizens at work.

So does that mean you believe that the success of Labor in parliament has basically made the work of the unions outmoded?

It's undermined their claim for special standing and privilege yes. Can I just say, it's not just Labor. You know on our own side the Liberal tradition has supported government intervention to provide a safe workplace; occupational health and safety standards; minimum wages; minimum conditions of all sorts. I mean, no one argues against the proposition that the parliament should provide for example, superannuation arrangements, that is a minimum condition. No one argues that the State parliament should not provide minimum long service leave in Australia. You can argue about the details of these things but they are examples of where the parliament is setting terms and conditions to ensure a minimum safety net for everybody.

Let's imagine a 21st Century without trade unions. Would you accept the same premise that in an economy with less than full employment an employer does have greater negotiating powers than an individual worker?

Not necessarily. No. And there are lots of examples today in our society where there is a shortage of skills and where employees do have real value in the marketplace and they are in a stronger negotiating position than the employer. And add to that, employers are a pretty diverse group in our society. Many employers are just individuals themselves. They are small business people. There are a million of them, and they employ in the labour market up to 40 per cent of all employees.

Would you think there are some employees who are in a position of less bargaining power than their employer?

Oh certainly, and we have said that. We've said that. And we acknowledge that there is a role for the parliament to provide a basic safety net of protections for those people. And yes there are some people - and not only have we legislated, but - despite some criticism from some quarters - we have maintained funding for working women's centres for example. And the reason we have done that is because there are some women at work who are not in strong positions and we do need a means of somehow providing them with more than just a legislative framework. You've got to give information to them, education and the like. The Office of the Employment Advocate again has a role to look to the interests of employees as much as employers and in that case that can be providing people with some basic advice about their rights.

Can you understand the scepticism some feel about the Office of the Employment Advocate, in that they haven't actually launched any prosecutions on behalf of workers yet?

Well, they have certainly sued lots of employers, and taken them through the courts and required of them the same standards as they require of other parties, including unions.

Now, you have said in the past that you are not anti-union, that you are just opposed to bad unions? What's your definition of good trade unionism?

Well, I'm opposed to conduct which is outside the law, whatever sort of registered organisation it is.

But what is your definition of a good trade union?

Well, I think there's two questions here. There are some effective trade unions in Australia today because as I see it they focus on providing a service to their members and I think those unions will go on and prosper and thrive and they will do well. And I don't think there is a scenario in which we wont have unions in the next century. We'll obviously have unions at the turn of the century and beyond.

In terms of what standards of behaviour should we expect of unions or employer bodies for that matter, are both of the standards set down by the parliament. That's how we run a democracy. Parliament sets the standards, it sets the framework and if somebody is operating within that framework then, you know, they are acting responsibly.

But again, what is your definition of a good union? Is if just one that provides a good service or could you give me more specifically what you think a good union would do?

Well, I think a good union responds to the demands made upon it by its members, so that it is providing a good service. I don't give to unions a greater role than that. They are entitled to a political role, just as anybody else is entitled to group together and express a point of view and so I accept for them, as I accept for everybody else, freedom of expression and freedom of association and the like. And provided people operate within the law, that's fine.

Do you think that there is a role for government to create the conditions that good unions can do what you say good unions should be doing?

Well, governments don't provide that framework. I mean, you don't start any of this sort of philosophical debate with a blank piece of paper in Australia. We have a long record of responsible trade unionism. And we have a long tradition of encouraging and providing a framework in which people can express their point of view, make their demands upon the system and the like. And that is going to continue.

There is a quote that has been attributed to you before the 1998 election : "Never forget the history of politics, never forget which side you are on - we're on the side of making profits; we're on the side of owning private capital". What did you mean by that?

(Laughs) What I meant by that is that in this society there is nothing wrong with owning capital. And it applies as equally to trade unionists as it does to anybody else. You are entitled to own capital, you are entitled to build up your assets, you are entitled to make the most of your opportunities to buy capital, to build up capital and the like. Now, I'm always bemused by my political opponents seeing this as some revelation of some deep and evil point of view. You know, if we are talking philosophically, Australia is a capitalist society inasmuch as we encourage people to own their own capital. Telstra employees have got capital in Telstra. Now there is nothing wrong with that and what I was saying in that statement is that there is nothing wrong with people making profits.

But who is the other side?

Well, now you see that's a good question because that statement doesn't imply that there is another side. We are on the side of encouraging people to own capital.

I thought you were embracing a Marxist analysis of the world where you have capital and labour in opposing camps?

Er, no. But for those who see this whole debate about the labour market. That's how they see it. But I don't see it that way.

There's only one side?

Well, all I'm saying is that this is a society in which you can own capital and there is nothing wrong with it, and there is nothing wrong with making a profit. There's no more to it. There's no deep, dark, sinister meaning in that statement. You see, people who see a dark side to this, they actually do have that view. That this is all a contest between capital versus labour. But see that is a view of the world that was fine in the last century, but really in the last 20 or 30 years it's an old hat view. It was certainly old hat when the wall fell in Berlin. ...

Given though, that you have used those views to pursue your political agenda can you see why working people would see you as being their enemy? Do you understand them having that view, given the way you came across during the waterfront dispute, and the way you have pushed your industrial relations waves?

I think for people who are just focussed on ideology I understand that reaction. But that is not how most people in Australia think. For people who are today employees, I mean I would say to them, if you want to know what sort of government and what sort of system we are promoting have a look at your wage package. That's a much better demonstration of what our true attitudes are. Have a look at the fact that we are committed to providing an employee entitlement scheme. Something that no Labor Government was prepared to do. Have a look at the freedom of association which we have legislated. Which is a very fair law whatever is your circumstance. I mean, we have provided greater protection for people to join a union than was legislatively provided by our predecessors. Your question might be the question in the minds of some who see all this debate about the labour market as an ideological battleground. But for most people that is well removed from reality.

Given that you say that it is not a battle, is there a point at which you stop your 'reform' process? ?

It's an evolutionary process to try to better manage the relationships between employers and employees and to have a system in which there are incentives for people to better manage, where there are rewards for people to do better and those rewards are basically higher living standards through higher wages.

Is there an end game though?

No, for Australia this is the infinite race if you like to make the most of what we've got as a country and the assets that we enjoy. No, there's no end game this is just a constant demand upon ourselves to try and do better in the way in which we manage our most important asset, and that is our people.

I'll go back a step. You were talking before about your idea of good unionism was providing a good service to your members. That's actually at odds now with the approach that's been adopted by the new ACTU Secretary, Greg Combet, who's pushing an organising approach. What's your view of organising?

Greg sees it as an organisational model. It's right to contrast that with the service model, and I think that was a great model for the 1890s but not for the 1990s. That has much more to it the flavour of a political model. It's a political movement for the Labor movement. There are political goals and objectives to be reached and so you organise the workforce. The workforce does not want to be organised by people outside of their workplace. What they want is the capacity to manage their own affairs - sure with minimum protections and the like and a fair system in place to allow them to manage their own affairs. But they basically want to have the say to manage their own affairs, to be involved and participate in those affairs, which in my view is right at kilter - at odds to the concept of a shop steward who comes into the workplace - or a union secretary - and says: "Well, today I've got good news for you. I'm going to organise you all."

Now, as people have become better educated, their living standards lift, they want arrangements that suit their demands; not the demands that are suggested to them that they should adopt for their particular circumstances. This phenomena of people wanting a greater say, being able to be more independent, being able to control their working environment more and more is akin to developments more generally in society that as people have higher living standards and are better informed and better educated, they want to have a greater say over those things within their ambit of - within the ambit of their lives.

Take a practical example: This whole question of work and family responsibilities. This is a very big issue for a lot of people. How they juggle the work and the family. Now, it has been sort of portrayed as a women's issue because we've seen a lot of women come into the workplace and they've still got the family responsibilities so they juggle. But this is going to be much more an issue for the blokes as time goes on, and for men and women with older family members where there is also a family responsibility to the senior generation. Now, it's very hard to manage those responsibilities in a workplace under a sort of "one size fits all" approach.

You know, the working time arrangements. One of the most important issues to decide in any business - when are you going to work?. Now for many individuals the answer to that question is going to be different, even within an enterprise because they have got different personal circumstances. Now in that situation those people don't want to be organised, they want a system in which what suits them individually - and it may be collectively - but its what suits them personally - you know - can be arrived at in their particular business.

Where does that leave someone like the woman who was working for Steggles and she couldn't - basically she asked for a different time to start work and the employer said no - take the job or leave it?

Well, if you are asking me if there are lots of businesses where people need minimum protections and the like, well of course there are. And that's going to go on being the case, but I mean we have to think beyond just everything on a minimum protection basis. There is always going to be lots of situations where if necessary the system provides protection for people. And we accept that. We've never quibbled over that basic proposition, but you've also got to look beyond where we are today and where we are going to be in 10 years, 20 years and 30 years and 40 years, and hopefully where we'll be as continuing rising living standards; a continuation of high standards of education, etc. etc. Now in that world as we move to it, and there's plenty who haven't got there yet, and there's plenty of people who haven't got a job either, so we've got to work to get them into the system, but as time goes on society is changing and in that sort of society, whilst keeping those minimum protections in place, you've got to have a system which responds to what individuals actually need. And so the service model is much more - is much more in sync with where we are going and we know that just as a bald statement of fact that unions have to struggle to accept this concept and when they don't accept it the rank and file say "Well thanks very much but sorry we are not going to join you."

And Greg says: "Oh you know, we've held our numbers. He hasn't even held his numbers. He's dropped from 2.5 million to 2.1 or whatever the number is and his percentage has dropped like a stone. That's going to continue unless there is a realisation that the organising model was fine when everybody used to be in the union and everything could be organised and all the employers were organised and there was a place for everything and everything in its place but those days have just gone.

If I was to hand you the job of ACTU President, what would be the first thing you'd do?

I would say that we've got to recognise the mistakes of the past and I'd be quite up front and blunt about the mistakes that have been made. The first thing I'd say is the organising concept is not the way ahead. And the fault I'd recognise is that we just don't have structures that allow the rank and file to have a real say and to really involve them in the affairs of the trade union movement generally, let alone in the affairs as they affect the individual workplace. So I'd admit my mistakes. I'd say it's time we had a different view and I'd adopt a real strategy of a real service model and I'd drop a lot of the politics and the ideology. I'd take a much more practical approach to the role of trade unions and I'd make a real point of listening to hear what the rank and file actually want.

On the republic, why do you believe it's important to directly elect a President?

It's very important because, well firstly you are not going to get a Republic in my view unless you offer that and I think finally that most of the commentators are starting to realise that there is sort of a big block there standing in the way of us moving to a Republic. And that block is public sentiment which says, if we are going to have a Republic it will be on our terms thank you very much.

Why would it be a good thing? Why is it important? It's important because I think that with the change in the monarchy and the standing of the monarchy and the relevance of the monarchy to Australia, the truth is that the Head of State in Australia, the effective Head of State. the Governor General, does not have that authority and credibility which I think can only come in a democracy by a vote of the people at large. I believe that if you did have a directly elected President, people would have a real sense of ownership in the Head of State, and they would rightly feel that in a system that where equality of franchise was given effect to, they would rightly feel that their President genuinely was their President - not somebody foisted on them as a result of some political deal but it would reflect their choice and represent therefore the community in the best way that you can be representative - namely if you are elected.

The Irish do have a directly elected President and it is a good system to look at for Australia because it is a Westminster tradition and the like and Mary Robinson was one of the recent Presidents in Ireland. She wasn't bought by a big money campaign. She was, I think an academic before she went in and she really was somebody that everybody could look up to regardless of party political affiliation and say, well she was our President. And she was highly respected internationally. She gave the Irish a presence that I don't think a Governor General can every really provide. And Mary Macalesh continues the tradition.

I think it would be fantastic for Australia if we had a directly elected President. I also like the idea of a Resident for President. I think it would be great if a Reith grandchild could be a President. But it would be a real presidency because they would only ever make it if they actually could win a vote to demonstrate that public support for them holding that office. That would be a good thing for this country.

Presuming the vote goes down on the weekend, how important has the Republic become for you? Is it say, as important to you as industrial relations reform?

I don't compare one issue off against the other in that way. Look, I think the constitutional arrangements are very important. That's the rules of the game for politics. So, I don't deny their importance. I've always been interested in the Constitution and I think it would be a fantastic thing for Australia if we were a bit bolder and a bit more innovative and moved to this system.

So you'll keep working with Cleary and Mack after the vote?

Yeah. Look, I've spent a lot of time talking with them on the phone during this campaign and I think they are basically right. And in terms of employees; people at work; people that are trade unionists - a lot of them are going to vote "no" because they're direct electionists. As one Labor MP said to me: "Reith, you're giving us a lot of hard times 'cause most of our rank and file workers are not prepared to stand on the booths on Saturday, 'cause they agree with you."

And you see, this is a parallel to some of the other issues we are talking about in workplace relations. If you are a rank and file trade unionist - there's a lot of the rank and file trade unionists who look at the Presidency and say: "We're going to have a President - I'm going to have a say!" And when they look at the trade union movement they say to themselves: "Well, I don't have a say".

So you'd advocate a directly elected President of the ACTU?

Well, I tell you what (laughs) - that would be a hell of a lot better system for the ACTU. Well it would be. People would have a genuine say. Now, even Jennie George was complaining about the fact that there was a meeting to settle her succession and she didn't have a say. It is a pretty natural instinct for people in a democracy to say "give us a say please". There's no wonder they are browned off with the ACTU President and Secretary.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 38 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Peter Reith
We�ve fought him for the last four years, perhaps it�s time to try to understand him.
*  Education: The Boston Strangler
If the teachers' salaries "offer" had been any good, John Aquilina, the Minister for Good News Only, would have made the announcement and been seen to promote it.
*  Economics: Key Indicators
A new ILO publication provides real cross national comparisons which show that Australian workplaces rate very well on productivity, wages and non wage measures
*  Unions: Dili's Union Presence
The International Federation of Journalists� Safety Office for the Media in East Timor (SOMET) is conducting an investigation into the recent killings of two journalists in East Timor.
*  History: Maritime Dispute Records
A Joint ACTU � ASSLH project will identify and preserve as many records as possible arising from the 1997-98 Maritime Dispute.
*  International: Western Mining into Guns and Gold
An Australian mining company, Western Mining Company Limited (WMCL), has effectively won the support of the Philippines army in its battle with traditional owners in Southern Mindano.
*  Satire: Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene
Gay scientists today released a study which, they claim, at last identifies the �Christian Gene".
*  Labour Review: What's New in the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, our resource for students, delegates and officials.

»  Reith : Directly Elect the ACTU President Too
»  Unions Launch Search to Fill Games With Local Workers
»  Public Servants Offered Quadruple Time for New Years Eve
»  If You Want to Protest - Dump the Preamble
»  Six Minutes To Clean a Classroom: Cleaners Draw the Line
»  New Labour Advisory Council Meets
»  Teachers Pay Site Doesn�t Give Full Story
»  Bankstown Students Win Union Support
»  Workers to Use AGM to Call Telstra to Account
»  Unions On Line Conference
»  Foxy Officials to Crash Backlot
»  POSITION VACANT - APHEDA, Union Aid Abroad.

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»  Piers Watch

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»  Lines of Demarcation
»  Referendum? No Dam(n) Choice!
»  With Friends Like These ...
»  Get Real

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