Standing Fast


NR Evans

The Society's XIVth conference, "Standing Fast", held in Canberra on May 14-15, 1993, had been planned prior to the Federal election of March 13,1993. During the pre-election period, and then during the campaign, virtually every political commentator was convinced that, despite the GST, the Coalition would win, despite the evidence from the polls that it would, at the very least, be a very tight finish.

The trade unions saw the election as a make or break situation and poured every resource at their command into campaigning, particularly during the last week and particularly in the marginal seats.

On election night it soon became clear, even as the Tasmanian results came in, that the ALP would be returned. In the final result it was a very narrow win, (1500 votes distributed in the key marginal seats) but the Keating Government was nevertheless returned with an increased majority in the House of Representatives.

Immediately after the election the pressure on the Coalition, both from within its ranks, and from outside, to abandon hard won positions was immediate and unrelenting. Particularly on protectionism, and on labour market reform, the clamour for a return to the policies of Fraser and McEwen became almost deafening. The ABC, "The Australian", and the Melbourne "Age" amplified the noise.

During the two weeks following the election the positioning of the candidates for leadership posts within the Coalition, and the campaigning issues upon which the candidates staked their claims for support, are worthy of record and comment.

In the leadership ballot John Hewson defeated John Howard 47 to 30. After the elimination of five other candidates Dr Michael Wooldridge defeated Peter Costello 45 to 33 for the Deputy Leadership. From the press of the day we can get some idea of the issues that swayed the members of the parliamentary Liberal Party.

In the "Age" of March 17,1993, we read, under Mark Metherell's by-line

"Few doubt the intelligence of Mr Costello, who as a barrister won the Dollar Sweets Case against union power in the Victorian confectionery industry.
"But his critics privately argue that he represents the values that the voters rejected on Saturday. As an anti-union champion and a foundation member of the conservative H R Nicholls Society, Mr Costello is seen by many as part of, not a solution to, the party's policy crisis."

Mr Costello's identification with The H R Nicholls Society might, arguably, have cost him the Deputy Leader's post in that ballot. But in the two months following the election the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, in two major speeches, took up the issue of unemployment and of the compelling need for labour market reform. He used words which gave his supporters within the trade union movement cause for public concern and led the ACTU to spearhead a campaign against changes which would have allowed enterprise agreements to be endorsed by the Industrial Relations Commission, without trade union involvement.

This was a breach of trade union monopoly of employee representation which the ACTU was not prepared to accept. The ACTU and its affiliates unleashed a major campaign, in the process humiliating the Minister for Industrial Relations Mr Laurie Brereton at the ACTU Congress. The outcome of this ACTU counter-attack was the Brereton Industrial Relations Reform Bill, 1993, which, if it is passed and survives challenge in the High Court, will do very great harm to Australian economic life and will jeopardise any improvement in employment.

The lesson we have to draw from the 1993 Federal election and its aftermath is one which Lord Salisbury, the great British Prime Minister of the late C19 knew well. "History"', he said, "is the record of a series of reactions in the strong workings of mens' passions. In any great conflict what will be seen as the aim of Providence? Our foes will say the stroke; our friends the rebound."

The central problem which faces all Australians as we ponder the great moral scandal of our unemployed is this. The legal privileges and monopoly power of the trade unions, and the law making capacity of our arbitral tribunals, join together to form the lion in the path negating any prospect of getting those unemployed people back to work.

This is also the central problem facing the trade union movement, and we should not be surprised if its leaders continue to deny its existence. We are up to Accord Mark VII. These documents, one suspects, will soon be published in Latin in order that they might share the ecclesiastical authority accorded to papal encyclicals. Each Accord seeks in its own way to deny the existence of this great problem.

The first Accord, February 1983, had this to say about the unemployment which was causing great concern at the end of 1982 and early 1983.

"The parties (ie the ALP and the ACTU) have also agreed that no new policy approach, however radical and innovative will be capable of meeting, in the short term, the parties' prime objective of full employment. Overseas and domestic factors continue to produce the sobering conclusion that while an alternative policy approach would enable a sustained recovery to occur and would reduce the plight of the unemployed no rapid solutions are to be found for a return to full employment."

Those words were written over ten years ago. We are up to Accord Mark VII, and unemployment is worse, and the prospects for full employment, under our present labour market regime, are regarded by most observers as a mirage.

The papers presented at the Canberra conference covered a wide range. Ian McLachlan gave the keynote speech and in this speech he broke new ground in the Mabo debate. In the future it will be difficult to appreciate why this speech was seen at the time as a watershed, but he was the first Coalition frontbencher to publicly state his grave concern at the drift in Coalition policy on Mabo, and the danger to Australia's well-being implicit in the High Court judgment.

David Brewer, General Manager of the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, (near Invercargill at the southern tip of the South Island of NZ) gave a paper on the great changes which have occurred at the smelter since the NZ 1991 Employment Contracts Act had come into effect. This Act has had an increasingly dramatic impact on the whole NZ economy, and the productivity and morale changes which have taken place at the Tiwai Point Smelter are indicative of a new workplace culture spreading throughout NZ. The implications for Australia are obvious. Regrettably this paper cannot be published at this stage.

Professor Judith Sloan, Director of the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, discussed recent attempts by the Industrial Relations Commission to adapt to changes in public opinion, changes in government policy, changes in union attitudes. Her forthright and perceptive paper was illustrative of her growing influence in the national debate.

Barry Hammonds is a New Zealand born shearing contractor who has built up a business in Western Queensland, a part of Australia that has been suffering from a prolonged drought. He has teamed up with Graeme Haycroft, a Sunshine Coast consultant who has applied the principles of the Trouble Shooters Case to the shearing industry. These two men have between them offered a ray of hope to the drought affected and economically depressed Queensland pastoral industry. Barry Hammonds' story of his imprisonment for breach of the award, and his subsequent triumph at the Barcaldine Court, is one of the great chapters in the history of freedom in Australia. The Society was privileged to hear this laconic and quietly-spoken shearer tell his story, and to listen to Graeme Haycroft play the supporting role.

One of the major figures behind the changes that have taken place in Coalition thinking over the last decade has been Michael Kroger, President of the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party from 1987 to 1992. Michael was Guest of Honour at the Canberra Conference and he discussed the way in which the organisation and membership of political parties play a very important role in the political life of the nation.

This conference was attended not only by many of our Canberra and Sydney based supporters, but also by many who travelled hundreds of miles in order to come to Canberra. It was a stimulating and morale boosting weekend, and this volume of proceedings will rank with many of our most important conferences.

N R Evans President
April 13, 1995