A Matter of Choice


NR Evans

This volume of proceedings brings together the papers given to the Society's XVth conference, 'A Matter of Choice'. These words were used in October 1993 by the Secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury, Ted Evans, in describing the tragic level of unemployment which now threatens the social fabric of Australian society.

The conference was held at Scarborough, a beach suburb of Perth, on the weekend of April 15-17, 1994. It was attended by members and friends who came to Perth from all over Australia.

Some five months previously the Brereton Bill had been enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament. This Act entrenched the legal privileges and monopoly powers of trade unions in their role of representing employees in arbitral tribunals and vis-à-vis employers, regardless of the wishes of employees. It sought to supersede the authority in industrial relations matters of the States, notably Victoria, by relying on the external affairs power of the constitution and on certain ILO conventions, some of which were signed by Australia at Executive Council meetings immediately prior to the 1993 elections.

One is reminded immediately of the mediaeval church, which enjoyed a monopoly position of mediating between God and the people of Europe, regardless of whether the people wanted this mediation service or not. It took the religious wars of the sixteenth century, and much shedding of innocent blood, before that monopoly was given up.

The Brereton Act is under challenge in the High Court from Victoria, Western Australia, and South Australia. That challenge will not be heard until 1995. In the meantime it is Commonwealth law, which prevails over State law where there is conflict between the two, and so the trade unions are busy seeking to build impregnable fortresses using the Brereton Act as building material whilst the winds of political fortune are blowing in their direction

Given that the conference was held in Perth and opened by the Premier of Western Australia, the Hon Richard Court, it was clear that the papers would reflect the strong attachment held by Western Australians to federalism, as opposed to the centralism which is much more ubiquitous in Victoria and New South Wales. There was also a great deal of recent and not so recent Western Australian history canvassed at the conference. The paper by Hal Colebatch on his father's role as Premier of Western Australia in the Fremantle dockers' strike of 1926, is one example. The papers by Russell Allen on recent developments in the Pilbara, and Graham Kierath, the State's Minister for Labour Relations, on recent legislative reforms to its Industrial Relations Act, are other examples.

It was a conference where debate was vigorous and very stimulating. Readers will find that the papers published here echo the vigour of that debate.

N R Evans President
September 1994