For The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire
None of the themes chosen for an H R Nicholls conference
have generated more interest or criticism than the
text taken from the 10th chapter of St Luke's Gospel,
"For the labourer is worthy of his hire".
This conference was held in Melbourne in early April
1992, not long after the then newly elected Tasmanian
Government, headed by Premier Ray Groom, had been sworn
into office. The Tasmanian economy has long been recognised
as a declining economy, characterised by a stagnant
population, poor employment opportunities, low per
capita incomes, high and growing public debt, and a
dependency on government mandated transfers, particularly
During the 1980s Tasmania became a pawn in federal
politics. In 1983 the federal election was fought,
in part, over the use of the external affairs power,
by the Federal Government, to block the building of
a dam on the Franklin River. The newly elected Hawke
Government did block the Dam and the Act authorising
the decision was validated by the High Court in the
Tasmanian Dams Case. Subsequently, in March 1989, a
major paper and pulp investment at Wesley Vale was
likewise vetoed by the Hawke Government, on environmental
In a State election held on May 13, 1989, the Gray
government was defeated by the ALP which formed a minority
Government, headed by Premier Michael Field. This Government
held office with the support of five 'Green' independents.
It fell early in 1992 because of its inability to resolve
the deep conflicts of interest between Labor's traditional
constituency, which is interested in jobs and economic
opportunity, and the Greens' constituency, which takes
jobs and opportunity for granted.
Soon after, a major industrial dispute, which dominated
news headlines for many weeks all over Australia, broke
out at APPM's paper mill at Burnie, Tasmania. This
dispute was seized by governments and media alike,
all around Australia, as a symbol of the labour market
problems which characterise contemporary Australian
life. This dispute was in its early stages when this
XIIth H R Nicholls Conference took place and Chris
Oldfield, Public Relations Manager for North Broken
Hill Peko, gave the participants a first hand insight
into the problems faced by a management which understands
the imperative for international competitiveness, but
is confronted by trade unions which see no need for
competitiveness at all.
Labour market reform has been, and still remains, an
urgent and pressing need for Tasmania if the State
is to become again, as it was in the nineteenth century,
a thriving economy.
The Society was delighted that Eric Abetz, and Forbes
Ireland, two eminent Tasmanians active in the cause
of labour market reform, were able to present papers
at this conference. Subsequently opponents of reform
used these papers as a device to whip up a furore in
Tasmania and it was not until the end of 1992 that
a reform Bill was passed by the Tasmanian Parliament.
This Act will doubtless be seen in the future as a
first step to effective reform.
New Zealand was very important in Australian political
debate during 1992. The Victorian Government, headed
by Labor Premier Joan Kirner, campaigned very strongly
during the State election campaign of September 1992
against Coalition labour market reform policies. The
ALP ran TV commercials featuring "Russell" and "Meg",
embittered NZ critics of the NZ Employment Contracts
Act, who told us that New Zealand was in decline and
that industrial relations there were in a terrible
state. (Despite these ads the Victorian Coalition won
a sweeping election victory.)
This Act was proclaimed in May, 1991 and has provided
New Zealand with a labour market which is far freer
than in Australia. The success or failure of this Act
will have far reaching consequences for Australia.
If this Act, because of its obvious and overwhelming
benefits, becomes part of the New Zealand social fabric,
a non-controversial and permanent part of New Zealand
life, then it will be impossible for Australia to resist,
indefinitely, matching the New Zealand reforms.
The Society was privileged at this conference to have
as the Keynote speaker, Mr Douglas Myers, Executive
Chairman of Lion Nathan Ltd, now (amongst other activities)
a major Australasian brewing company. He is also Chairman
of the New Zealand Business Roundtable. Mr Myers gave
a review of the New Zealand labour market after nearly
twelve months of experience of the Employment Contracts
Act. His paper, which was widely distributed after
the conference, provided first hand and up to date
experience of the New Zealand story. It will reassure
advocates of reform that common sense does produce
important benefits when applied in effective doses.
Many trade union leaders are deeply hostile to freedom,
particularly freedom by workers to organise their own
working lives. In the commercial building industry,
an industry dominated by unions such as the BWIU and
the BLF, the success of the Troubleshooters Available
Agency, which successfully provided an intermediation
service between self-employed building trades sub-contractors,
and the managers of big building projects, was a challenge
to union control of the industry. The Troubleshooters
case went to the High Court and that court upheld the
validity of the contractual arrangements which were
the foundation of the legal relationships between Troubleshooters,
the sub-contractors, and the construction managers.
The barrister who nursed the Troubleshooters case through
two Federal Court cases, and the appeal to the High
Court, was an H R Nicholls Society joint founder, and
currently Federal Shadow Attorney, Peter Costello.
This conference provided an opportunity to have the
Troubleshooters story told by a key protagonist. The
importance of this case is that it demonstrates unequivocally
that trade union claims concerning their essential
role in maintaining wages and conditions are false.
The returns which the independent sub-contractors obtained
for their labour were better than the returns which
union controlled employees obtained.
This situation was intolerable for the construction
unions and the Federal Government, with the support
of the Democrats, amended the Commonwealth Industrial
Relations Act in June 1992 with the aim of overturning
the High Court decision in Troubleshooters. Because
the Housing Industry Association, the body which represents
domestic housing sub-contractors, put up a valiant
public campaign against the Bill, the Act as passed
was much less damaging to independent contractors than
was first planned by the Minister, Senator Peter Cook,
and his former colleagues in the BWIU. Nevertheless
this Act was passed to entrench and extend trade union
power, and its repeal is an important and urgent matter.
Other topics discussed at the conference were local
government, the meat industry, and the key issue of
statutorily enforced minimum rates in the labour market.
In this volume the H R Nicholls Society continues with
its task of recording and disseminating important developments
in the Australian debate on industrial relations. The
reader will find here a collection of papers of historical,
philosophical and theoretical importance.
N R Evans President
Why HR Nicholls?