A New Province for Law and Order


NR Evans

The H R Nicholls Society's XIIIth conference was held in Adelaide on 13-14th November 1992. The Kennett Coalition Government had been elected to office in Victoria with a very large majority on 3rd October and a new Victorian Industrial Relations Bill was available for analysis and comment. Dr Colin Howard provided this analysis, one based on his "IPA Backgrounder" which had been published before the election.

Since this Bill was introduced and passed there have been strikes and demonstrations in Melbourne, organised by trade unions protesting at the legislation. As the reader will find, there is much to criticise in the new Act, but the grounds for criticism are, in most instances, far removed from the complaints of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

The keynote speaker at the conference was Mr Laurie Short. This legendary trade unionist who, with his close colleagues and legal advisers (including John Kerr and Jim McLelland), wrested control of the Federated Ironworkers Union from the Communist Party of Australia in the late forties and early fifties, captivated those who heard him with his wit, charm and encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian political and social history.

Unemployment is the cruelest contemporary manifestation of our grossly over-regulated and distorted labour market. There remains a great deal of intellectual resistance to the elementary proposition that statutorily controlled prices of labour (particularly of unskilled and youthful labour) have a great deal to do with unemployment. The paper by Professor Peter Hartley, on the effects of statutory minimum wages on employment, is an important and original contribution to this debate.

New Zealand continues to provide a valuable example to Australia in labour market reform. Since the passage of the NZ Employment Contracts Act in May 1991, critics and supporters of the Act have watched developments in NZ with close attention. By November 1992, some evidence was emerging that unemployment was at last beginning to fall in NZ. Since that date further encouraging evidence has come to hand. In his paper Greg Cutbush discussed the latest currently available employment figures from New Zealand and sought to distil reasonable conclusions from them. Six months later the evidence coming in from New Zealand is more encouraging. Unemployment figures are coming down, business investment is rising substantially, export sales likewise. If New Zealand can stay the course then its economic future appears very bright, and the influence of growing New Zealand competitiveness on Australian politics will be great indeed.

Since this conference was held a Federal election has come and gone. The Prime Minister and the ALP were confirmed in office by a narrow majority of votes which provided, nevertheless, a substantial majority for the Government in the House of Representatives. The prospect of rapid labour market reform, driven by a Federal Coalition Government, vanished on election night March 13, 1993.

Governments come and go but the pressures of the market place remain. In Australia's case that market is the international market and the Prime Minister's renewed commitment, declared in his speech to the Institute of Directors on April 21, 1993, to the phasing out of tariffs and other forms of protection demonstrated that the energetic and sustained counter-attack, by the protectionists, during 1991 and 1992, aimed at returning Australia to policies of mercantilism and neo-isolationism, had failed.

These policies had been laid down early in this century by the new federal parliament. Richard Woolcott,, formerly Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, described how it happened in these words. ("The Australian" 17/4/93)

"Let me go back briefly into our history. Early in this century, Alfred Deakin and the fledgling Australian Labor Party led Australia down a path of insularity. We developed a highly centralised industrial relations system, unrelated to the international market; we built up very high levels of protection and we adopted the discriminatory White Australia immigration policy. This insular approach was underpinned by the expectation Imperial Britain would defend us in case of need and, later, the US would do so."

The story of Deakin's legacy is a most important one for Australians to know and understand. Professor David Plowman has written perceptively on this topic and his paper led to spirited debate. As the dismantling of Deakin's legacy continues the political spotlight will lock: onto our labour market problem and the scandal of unemployment with increasing intensity.

The Society's Guest of Honour at this conference was S.E.K Hulme, AM, QC, one of the most eminent silks of the Victorian Bar. His primary topic was the constitutional capacity of the Commonwealth Government to legislate for de-regulation of the labour market, an issue which had given rise to considerable debate at previous H R Nicholls conferences. His remarks on that issue provide, I believe, a definitive view on the constitutional problems which labour market reformers face and will provide a reference point for many years to come.

The second topic which Mr Hulme addressed was the life of Australia's great jurist, Sir Owen Dixon. No other Australian lawyer has approached Sir Owen Dixon in international esteem, and it was during his period on the High Court that that institution achieved an enviable reputation throughout the entire English speaking world. The long awaited biography of Sir Owen is still to appear and in the meantime SEK Hulme's remarks will help to fill the gap. This paper was published as one of three papers in a pamphlet entitled "Australia At Work - The Unions, The State, & The Law'' in December 1992 and in it Mr Hulme referred to Sir Owen's car as a Bentley. It was in fact an Armstrong Siddeley and the correction is made in these proceedings.

This collection of papers provides continuing evidence of the energy and vitality with which the H R Nicholls Society continues to pursue its task of persuasion and argument in this great debate. It is a debate which must be resolved soon. Failure to do so will entrench a welfare and dependency culture, a culture of joblessness, amongst many hundreds of thousands of Australians; a culture which will be then transmitted to the next generation.

N R Evans President
19 May 1993