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
'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
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
This volume of proceedings will be a valuable reference
for many years to come.
N R Evans
President, November 1992