HUNTER VALLEY COAL DISPUTE
The Hon. Dr MEREDITH BURGMANN: My question without notice is directed to the Attorney General, and Minister for Industrial Relations. Will the Minister inform the House about progress of the dispute between Rio Tinto and various trade unions at the Hunter Valley No. 1 mine?
The Hon. J. W. SHAW: No doubt honourable members will have followed this damaging dispute closely and I am sure they have been concerned generally to see a resolution of the dispute. In fact, with the Government’s assistance the dispute has been resolved. As I understand it ordinary work is resuming and an orderly process has been put in place to resolve the dispute by way of conciliation and, if necessary, arbitration. It is relevant to look at how the dispute has been handled in the context of the Federal Government’s new industrial relations system. The Workplace Relations Act passed by the Federal Parliament last year reduced the Federal Industrial Relations Commission’s powers to intervene in industrial disputes. This was apparently grounded in a belief that the commission as a third party had somehow stymied the reform plans of some companies by forcing them to reach compromises with their work forces, with whom they found themselves in dispute.
As the Rio Tinto dispute entered its fourth and fifth months it became increasingly clear that the dispute could not be resolved between the parties. It was damaging the Hunter community, the New South Wales economy and Australia’s international trading reputation. That is why I appeared on behalf of the New South Wales Government before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to argue that the commission could use its powers to intervene and arbitrate on the issues in dispute. I argued that while the Federal Parliament had reduced the Federal commission’s power to exercise its arbitration powers, there still existed a discretion to intervene in the national interest. That argument was supported, responsibly I thought, by the trade union movement but it was vigorously opposed by Rio Tinto, which asked the commission to allow the parties to battle it out. The company did not offer any solution. It did not offer any method of resolving the dispute in the short or even medium term: it wanted the bargaining period to persist indefinitely.
The company was content apparently to allow the disputation, the strike, the lack of work to persist indefinitely. Recently Justice Boulton accepted the New South Wales Government’s submission that the dispute was so damaging that the matter should be conciliated and/or arbitrated. The decision was an important signal that the Federal Government’s Workplace Relations Act does not give the Federal commission the power or the authority to simply watch from the sidelines as employers and employees battle it out on the ground. It means there is still a role for an independent umpire in the Federal system. Indeed, it places the Rio Tinto dispute on the footing it would have been on months ago under the New South Wales industrial relations system. There is no doubt that under our Act, under our regime of industrial relations, that dispute would have been settled much more quickly and without the damage that has occurred Federally. I understand that the company has lodged an appeal against Justice Boulton’s decision. I urge the company to reconsider, accept the ruling of the commission and enter into an orderly process of arbitration. Otherwise the dispute may continue to fracture a community that is already hurting, and further damage our national economy.