Mr President Ladies and Gentlemen.
Despite having attended many H R Nicholls Society
conferences and dinners over the years and despite
having given hundreds of speeches on topics both relevant
to politics and industrial relations since the founding
of the H R Nicholls Society, this is the first occasion
on which I have had the honour to formally address
it. This could mean that the Board of the Society could
find no other appropriately qualified person or alternatively
it could be the Board felt that I had something to
say which may be noteworthy.
Whilst I acknowledge that the H R Nicholls Society
is strictly a non-party political organisation you
will forgive me, I am sure, for addressing a few of
my remarks to the re-election of the Keating Government.
And so, whilst the re-election of the Labor Government
will be a set back for those passionately committed
to the cause of industrial relations reform in Australia,
it will not terminate our ambitions, our hopes or our
desire to one day have an Australian workplace free
of ridiculous l9th century work practices, free of
centralised wages fixing principles, free of restrictions
on the basic human right for ordinary Australians to
determine for themselves whether or not they join a
trade union in seeking and maintaining employment.
In any case, let me say at the outset, there should
be no gloom tonight---no gloom whatsoever---because
the ideas represented this weekend and the people present
tonight have built monuments and participated in triumphs
far more enduring in the post war era than anything
created or engaged in by our industrial opponents.
And far, far more important to Australia's future.
As we are repeatedly told, Australia is now part of
the international financial community. As such, we
are of course judged by international standards. The
shocking industrial record of Australia in the post
war era is unfortunately known internationally and
the damage caused by so few to so many is damage which
has created such an unnecessary but enduring legacy
only now beginning to be repaired. The process of reform
and change will go on despite the instincts of our
So, we should celebrate tonight the heroes of the
modern Australian industrial revolution. It was what
you might call a quiet revolution in that it was not
born out of the recklessness or lawlessness of some
small business people and their supporters, but it
was born out of a desire by those people to see the
Australian workplace governed by the same rules that
govern every other aspect of our society.
A company director who breaches the Corporations Law
faces civil and criminal penalties. A business which
breaks contracts with its suppliers or refuses to pay
its bills faces legal action and the possibility of
legal action against those in effective control of
the company. Yet for many years some of the more extreme
elements of the trade union movement and their office
bearers believed that they were part of the Consular
Corps---that is to say, immune from prosecution for
wrong doing. Friends like Fred Stauder helped end the
Consular Corps mentality. They restored law and order
to the workplace. They gave business people confidence.
They restored people's faith in our legal system. They
gave other small business people hope and courage.
In some ways, it is true to say that small business
people won back their pride. Most importantly Australia's
international reputation started to improve when the
market place learned the Australian workplace was not
lawless any longer.
The challenge facing the reformers in the industrial
relations arena is not a case of standing fast, it's
a case of continuing to push forward despite what will
no doubt be the attempts by some to turn the clock
back to the last century, to turn the clock back to
a time when the power and privilege of a few in the
workplace dominated the rights of the small business
person and ordinary Australian workers.
As Emerson said, "this time, like all times, is a
very good time if we but know what to do with it".
The first obligation is to ensure that the spirit of
Dollar Sweets and Mudginberri lives on forever.
In rushing to use our language and embrace our concepts---only days after winning a great tactical victory,
some of our traditional opponents have conceded our
essential point that workplaces must be organised on
the basis of economic efficiency.
There are many arguments to come; many, many times,
we will be accused of wanting to wreck civilisation
as we know it; but every time we are challenged we
have answered and will continue to answer the call.
Every time we attack a workplace problem, our opponents
try to say that we're somehow turning the known world
We are attacked for making the system exactly as it
should be---and our critics know it.
Right now, in Victoria, we're experiencing some protests
against the Kennett Government's industrial relations
Lest anyone think this is unprecedented, let me quote
the remarks of Governor Gipps about a colonial election
- "It had gone off well", he reported to London, "although
there have been mild riots among the contending parties
with the loss of one life."
As I watch those rallies led by John Halfpenny I'm
irresistibly reminded of a bygone era.
The people marching behind Mr Halfpenny think they're
defending their wages and conditions---but what they're
really defending is the right of the small minority
of trade union leaders and trade unions to continue
to operate in a manner and with a privilege, open to
no one else in the community.
As long as the existing system prevents people from
making their own decisions as long as the existing
system sends good companies to the wall because they
have to compete with one hand tied behind their back,
the system is open to ridicule.
Because as long as wages and conditions are determined
away from the workplace, and as long as negotiations
are conducted with outsiders as principals, there will
always be misunderstanding, mistrust and division.
But without wanting to sound too conspiratorial, it
is obviously in the interests of some to keep it this
way. But it is the height of intellectual bankruptcy
to say that an Australian worker must be represented
by a trade union in his or her negotiations over their
wage. The very same workers can make decisions to have
families, to spend tens, and often hundreds of thousands
of dollars on properties, but they suddenly become
financially uninformed and illiterate when they sit
down at the workplace table to negotiate their terms
and conditions of employment.
And why should a business in Bourke have to pay a
wage that will send the owner broke; and why should
a business in Sydney be restricted to a wage which
will keep its workers under rewarded?
In addition to the problems still being encountered
because of a highly regulated wage fixing system, revelations
of continuing workplace absurdities, many coming to
light only in the past few months, shows the folly
of trying to make the same rules for different workplaces.
For example take the ludicrous problem in Victoria,
which was the redundancy just before Christmas, of
the conductor who'd been on the restaurant tram for
10 years without, ever collecting a single ticket.
For 10 years he or she sat at the back of the restaurant
tram watching the world go by. The free scenic tour
of Melbourne every night at the expense of the restaurant
proprietor may have been somewhat repetitive but it
was never taxing. There was a conductor on the restaurant
tram for 10 years because the tramway's union demanded
that every tram had to have a conductor, a demand which
also included maintenance trams even though no tickets
were being sold, because they didn't take passengers.
Mr President, on another matter, almost anything can
happen in Australia these days---you can bid for a
Pay TV licence for $500.00. You can have your children
kidnapped by foreigners who suffer no penalty, you
can be part of a Government that loses hundreds of
millions of dollars and front up again seeking to be
re-elected---but there's one thing you can't do...and
that's try to shear sheep in Queensland on a Sunday,
or try to work in the Pilbara on any occasion without
a union ticket.
In Southern Queensland, according to the relevant
award, builders labourers must prepare and lay
concrete floors---although only those poured in one
operation---but heaven help them if they ever try to
put a topping course on such a floor, because this
is solemnly declared to be exclusively the domain of
members of the Operative Plasterers and Plaster Workers
But thanks to recent changes, the Clothing Trades
Award now includes an "enterprise flexibility clause"
which says that you can change anything at all in the
award---except---pay, hours, meal money, leave, leave
loading, sick leave, times of breaks, contract work
provisions, severance pay, superannuation and some
other more minor matters---provided---any change to
whatever is left doesn't breach "national standards",
and finally that the union, the majority of employees
and the Industrial Relations Commission agree and no
employee loses any income.
Now that's real enterprise bargaining!
Then of course, there's waterfront "reform"---which,
in Newcastle last year, led to 63 wharfies being retired
on packages of $100,000.00 or more and, in many cases,
being re-employed the following week as casuals earning
their old rate plus 20 per cent.
Then of course there was the story of the first aid
officer engaged at a Queensland grain loading port
to dispense first aid when required by wharf labourers
working on board ships. It was compulsory for a first
aid officer to be on duty when a ship was being loaded
in case of injury to one of the stevedores. Needless
to say, in the waterfront reform process it was the
original view of the WWF that the first aid officer
was an integral part of the ship labour force and was
required at all times. The issue was resolved when
the first aid officer's log book of the first aid he
had dispensed in the previous year was examined. Apart
from the distribution of a few band aids and disprin
the log was empty. The first aid officers position
was subsequently abolished.
Yet none of this should be taken as suggesting that
all of the wisdom is on one side of the debate.
In the Financial Review last year, for instance, Labor
Senator Peter Walsh reported how waterfront unions
had blocked an export contract by insisting that potatoes
be loaded by normal stevedores charging up to $36.00
a tonne---instead of a private contractor who could
do it for just $7.00 a tonne. The comments by Senator
Walsh and others on the Labor side of the political
debate in this country at least provide encouragement
to those who think Australia will be better off if
Australians from all sides of the political fence understand
the gravity of the international problems we face and
put the national interest before their own personal
And so where to from here?
The path ahead should take the same general direction
as the path behind---straight but a little bumpy along
Real workplace bargaining has not yet been achieved.
Genuine voluntary unionism has not yet been achieved.
The campaign against overmanning, ghosting, loadings
and tired old work practices goes on.
For HRN however, I see another more immediate challenge:
to write a definite history of the changes to industrial
relations in Australia over the last 10 years, before
our opponents reÄwrite it.
From the foundation meeting and then dinner of HRN,
to this very day, attacks on the society and its ideas
have continued, although with dwindling integrity and
In 1985 ours were the views of "the economic lunatics
and troglodytes". We were "un-Australian" and even
an industrial "Ku Klux Klan".
But the ideas of '85 are the mainstream of today.
The opponents of workplace reform, enterprise bargaining
and the use of law to protect small business, are their
Just look at the opponents of reform today all backsliding,
all apologising, all whingeing, all explaining, all
chortling, all differentiating, all supporting enterprise
bargaining as it were their own idea. Some people have
In closing I say this; People will defend a system
which they think is working; people will tolerate a
system which they only suspect is defective; but they
won't wear a system which they know is damaging the
The system as it was, was of course damaging the whole
community. Use of the common law and the Trade Practices
Act in Dollar Sweets and Mudginberri have done
an enormous amount to restore our damaged industrial
reputation. Voluntary unionism, enterprise bargaining,
a more flexible and competitive workplace are the monuments
to industrial reformers in this country who include
the members of this Society. At the prize giving ceremony
when awards are handed out to those Australians who
had the courage to fight against a failed and discredited
status quo, who had sufficient conviction to stand
firm against the l9th century thinking of industrial
relations club members from both the left and the
right and from both inside and outside every political
party in this country, then, at the front of the queue
for the prizes will be people like Ian McLachlan, Peter
Costello and John Howard, and many, many other prominent
Australians who have provided a voice for the little
Australians who by themselves had no voice.