When young Australians left school, college or university in the fifties and sixties the idea that they would have any difficulty finding a satisfying job would have seemed to them completely absurd. In the 1972 election campaign the Coalition Government led (to defeat) by William McMahon and Doug Anthony was much embarrassed by an unemployment rate of 2%.
Since those days unemployment has moved steadily upwards. When the business cycle goes down unemployment moves up, but when confidence returns and economic activity picks up the unemployment figures never return to the pre-recession levels. There is a ratchet effect at work; each recession posts an increase in the unemployment levels associated with good times.
The 'No Vacancies' conference was held in Melbourne in April 1991 at a time when unemployment was rising beyond the 11% level and fears of further increases in job losses were widespread. Since April 1991 unemployment has moved between 11% and 12%, the participation rate has declined, but more significantly some economists (notably Professor Bob Gregory of the ANU) are predicting that these levels of unemployment will be with us for very many years to come.
The cornerstone of all these predictions is the continuance of our labour market regulatory institutions and of the monopoly power which these institutions bequeath to trade unions. Unfortunately the Australian community has not been informed of the deep and abiding connection between the ubiquity of the 'No Vacancy' signs throughout our towns and cities, and the labour market regulators who see themselves as providing 'wage justice' throughout Australian society.
'Wage justice', under the aegis of our arbitral tribunals and privileged trade unions turns out to be unemployment for many, and opportunity denied for many, many more. It also means continuing economic decline for Australia.
Many Australians, particularly those from political and intellectual elites, either accept or even prefer the continuance of these institutions, regardless of the social damage they cause. But most Australians find these levels of unemployment abhorrent. They understand that suicide, crime, drug abuse, domestic violence are the consequences of the misery of unemployment and would much prefer an Australia where jobs were plentiful.
The unnecessary tragedy of unemployment is a theme which the H R Nicholls Society has taken up ever since its foundation in 1986. There is still much to do to explain to the Australian community concerning the causes of unemployment. The ideas of Henry Bournes Higgins and his disciples still permeate the language and thinking of politicians, journalists, clergymen, and other opinion leaders, and the very close connection between these ideas and the ubiquity of 'No Vacancies' signs, today, is not widely understood
The keynote address by IPA Director John Hyde focussed directly on the theme of the conference and defined the main conceptual problems we face. Most of the subsequent papers did not directly address this issue. But the tragedy of unemployment is an ever present leitmotif. That aside, it should be noted, for the record, that the paper presented by Mr Greg Craven, then of the University of Melbourne Law School, subsequently resulted in the establishment of The Samuel Griffith Society, a society concerned with the debates on constitutional reform in Australia.
The paper given by Mr Roger Kerr, the Director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable, foreshadowed the passage, through the New Zealand Parliament, of the NZ Contracts Employment Act of May 1991, which, arguably, de-regulated the NZ labour market to an extent exceeded elsewhere, in the developed world, only by Hong Kong. New Zealand, has in the past, set political and intellectual trends which were subsequently followed in Australia. Changes in labour market law in New Zealand have, since May 1991, become an important part of Australian political debates, even to the extent of playing a major role in state election campaigns.
Other important papers include legal contributions by Terry Tobin QC, David Russell QC, and Dr Graham Smith.
This volume of proceedings will be a valuable reference for many years to come.
N R Evans
President, November 1992