MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto and the new IR laws

Published by MAC on 2004-03-22

Rio Tinto and the new IR laws

by ABC Lateline

22nd March 2004

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Well, joining us now is the Opposition's Industrial Relations Spokesman, Stephen Smith. He's in our Perth studio. Thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: Until now it has appeared that the industry groups were by and large delighted with the Government's industrial relations reforms, but looks like Rio Tinto of all things, appears to be breaking ranks. They are saying the new award arrangements could see the clock wound back 30 years. Do you agree?

STEPHEN SMITH: Will, certainly there have been some industry association cheer squad leaders out there on behalf of the Government. But in the main, business and industry has been pretty quiet and I don't think too many of them want to be at the pointy end of the Government's spear. And today seeing the comments from the mining industry, from Rio Tinto, BHP, of their concerns, doesn't surprise me at all. That's what happens, Tony, when you are driven by political ideology and not by a desire to have good public policy and good public administration. That's why we are now seeing on Monday a complete dog's breakfast, gaps in jurisdiction, complexity, 1,800 pages of various legislation, regulations and explanatory material, which Kevin Andrews thinks a few seminars will guide people through.

TONY JONES: But this is –

STEPHEN SMITH: They are driven by - sorry, you go ahead.

TONY JONES: Isn't this somewhat ironic when you consider that former Rio Tinto executives and lawyers have been instrumental in advising the Government on how to put these reforms together in the first place?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there might be some irony about it, but it doesn't surprise me. When we look at analysis of productivity improvements in workplace changes, they've been driven by enterprise bargaining and we've seen that occur in the mining industry, in the two great outlying states, the minerals and petroleum resources states of Western Australia and Queensland. John Howard has got an obsession about individual contracts. What the mining industry wants, and what we want in terms of an economy, is a harmonious productive economy that keeps us internationally competitive and at the moment the resources industry, minerals and petroleum resources, is effectively the main stay of our economy. You've just got today an alarm bell from the mining industry essentially saying, the great risk for this is it leads to inefficiency, rather than productivity, and it leads to good old-fashioned disharmony and turf wars, rather than ongoing accepted relationships between employers and employees and between employers and unions.

TONY JONES: I'll come to the turf war question in a minute. Their first concern, however, is that they could be forced to dismantle enterprise agreements they've had in place for decades in which the companies and the unions appear happy with.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just as we've got the Government rushing to implement its legislation and its regulations, we've got the Government affecting a review of awards and it has put the award review taskforce on to an impossible timetable and that's bound to see errors occur. It's quite possible that in public policy terms you could have a dispassionate review of awards and look at simplification of awards. That's not what is driving the Government here. What is driving the Government here is its view of a review of awards is essentially stripping entitlements, stripping conditions. That's what it is on about. And the great danger is in that exercise, pursuing that ideological exercise, that you lose some of the nuances of the minerals and petroleum resources industry. There are qualitative differences in the various sections of that industry. What oil and gas might be doing and what their individual arrangements might be to make sure they remain internationally competitive is qualitatively different from base metals in Queensland or, indeed, iron ore. So, when you are driven by arrogance, when you're driven by ideology, when you're driven by extremism and not driven by good public policy, that's what happens.

TONY JONES: The other major concern, apparently of the mining corporations, is as you've just said, it could create new turf wars. Now, is that your understanding of what could happen?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly the same concern has been expressed to me by the union movement that one of the general things that we will see out of these changes is disharmony and disruption in the workplace. That always occurs when your starting point is one of unfairness. The last thing that -

TONY JONES: Can I interrupt you there. Are you saying here that the AWU, which is the union control in the open-cut mines in Western Australia, has expressed these concerns to you?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the particular concern that's been expressed to me is the AWU in Queensland which is in effect the major mining industry union. But the general point has also been made that one of the dangers of the dog's breakfast of transitional arrangements is opening up demarcation disputes, which is the last thing that Australian industry wants and it's the last thing that a modern trade union movement wants. That's the danger. That's the risk that you run.

TONY JONES: What does that mean, though, Stephen Smith? Does that mean in fact what the AWU is worried that another union the CMFEU will get into workplaces which it now controls?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, people are always worried about their own patches, whether it's a particular company or a particular union. What you know is that if you have disruptional disharmony, particularly if it's a demarcation dispute, what follows from that - improvement in our international competitiveness doesn't follow. Improvement in our productivity doesn't follow. So, you'll recall, Tony, that when this
legislation went through the Parliament, John Howard stood up and said as a matter of the necessary passage of this legislation a number of things will occur automatically. Employment will increase, unemployment will decrease, our international competitiveness will improve and productivity will improve. All of those assertions are fallacious and today we've got the mining industry, Rio Tinto, BHP and the Mines and Metals Association making the the point that they can't see any productivity improvements in what is being foisted upon them.

TONY JONES: OK. Let's move on. The ACTU's new campaign - do you think Greg Combet's electronic membership is going to be enough help the union movement avoid redundancy?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think it says a few things. Firstly, the trade union movement and individual trade unions do have to provide as part of their existence and activity, a sensible and good and effective service to their members and having a one-stop shop for membership is obviously these days a sensible thing to do. I think it say as couple of other things as well. Obviously there's also a reaction to the very extreme way in which the Government is seeking to crack down on the capacity for individual employees to choose to be represented in the workplace and in the regulations that we saw published over the weekend. Time after time we see pernicious and deliberate attempts by the Government to wine back the sensible union movement activity we've seen occur throughout workplaces for a long period of time.

TONY JONES: What is that going to mean now? Sorry, we're nearly out of time. Does it mean the concept of the old workshop meeting is going to take place in cyberspace now?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think these days, Tony, modern communication is much different from what it used to be. Whether that's done in the family home via the Internet or through modern means of communication like digital TV that the ABC is putting to air. I think the third and important point is what's also showing is a reflection in Australian society that there remains a view in Australian society that the existence of the trade union movement is an important thing to have for the social and economic affairs for Australian society. Everywhere I go people say, "I'm not a member of the union. My dad was but I'm not." When there is trouble afoot as there is with John Howard it is important for people, particularly those at the lower end of the market place, there's a strong union movement to protect them. That's what Greg's initiative today is also reflecting.

TONY JONES: OK Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you for taking the time to come and talk to us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much, Tony.

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