From Industrial Relations to Personal Relations:
The Coercion of Society
Discrimination at Large
Dr Colin Howard
Ray Evans announced the theme of this conference in
a notice dated 23 September 1994. In case the theme,
"From Industrial Relations to Personal Relations---
The Coercion of Society", was not self-explanatory,
the notice continued as follows, and I quote:
- This theme has suggested itself because the various
industrial tribunals have taken it upon themselves
... to make rulings upon matters which are normally
the preserve of families, or churches, or other independent
institutions in society. The use of anti-discrimination
powers in order to force people to enter working relationships
which they would otherwise not have entered, or to
compel people to continue with employment arrangements
which at least one of the parties wishes to terminate,
is an obvious example ...
- Parental leave, child care facilities, ... the overriding
of religious schools on their employment policies,
are all elements of this new ambit claim for platonic
control over our lives.
Ray's choice of the adjective "platonic" for that last
remark is spot on. The corporatist philosophy of fascism
finds its intellectual origins in Plato's fantasy of
a dirigiste ideal world.
The point I want to make today is that the intrusive
industrial phenomenon to which Ray refers does not
exist in a vacuum. It is a natural product of the
current social and political climate. It reflects
a dismal and continuing decline in moral courage in
this country. The signs are not lacking. What they
have in common is a retreat from the proposition that
individuals should be responsible for their own decisions
That is not all they have in common. The expression
"warm inner glow" has become popular among commentators
who, like myself, view the trend away from personal
responsibility with alarm and despondency. The reason
is that it catches the essence of a particular attitude
towards society with unusual precision.
This attitude is characterised by a marked preference
for feeling good rather than doing good. It dislikes
facts that prevent the beholder from feeling good.
That is not surprising. We all like feeling good
and we all dislike facts that deprive us of that pleasure.
But what matters is how we react to those facts.
Some people become skilled at pretending that facts
they do not like do not exist. Like Pangloss in Voltaire's
Candide, they are often mistaken for optimists.
If you want a contemporary example, drive along the
Great Ocean Road from Anglesea to Lorne in Western
Victoria and observe how many householders have apparently
learnt nothing from the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires,
and the consistent advice of the fire authorities,
about clearing fuel foliage. As a general proposition
however there is at least one good feature of the attitude
of such people. It is that although they do nothing
to improve society, at least they do nothing to make
it worse. They do not suffer from the sin of hubris.
They simply cannot face facts.
Others accept the facts and try to accommodate themselves
to them. This can take a variety of forms. One is
to decide that, regrettable though the situation is,
nothing much can be done about it. Another is to promote
comparatively minor reforms on the basis that they
cannot do much harm and are worth a try. A third is
that the situation should not be tolerated and that
something should be done about it.
People who fall into this third category include many
who do not rest content with their beliefs on the matter
but try to do something practical about promoting sensible
reform. I am anxious to make that point clear. I
do not wish it to be thought that any of the criticisms
I shall make shortly of people who pose as reformers,
but have quite different motivations, are directed
at those valuable members of society who daily devote
much time and often unrewarded effort to trying to
Whether they act on their beliefs or not, people who
fall into the three categories that I have just identified
share a characteristic which is important to my theme.
It is that, whatever their individual motivations,
they do keep their eye on the facts. They are not
navel gazers or mere seekers after power or fame.
Above all, they are not primarily interested in making
themselves feel good. They act out of conscience and
a sense of responsibility. They are concerned with
situations outside themselves, not with self-interest.
Of course they are pleased if their efforts produce
a good result, but merely to be pleased with themselves
is not their primary motivation.
There are however yet other people who similarly accept
the facts, and do not like them, but whose reaction
to them is fundamentally different. What these people
object to is the state of not feeling good, not the
actual existence of whatever it is that is preventing
them from feeling good. This leads them to take, or
espouse, measures which make them feel better regardless
of the effect on the facts.
It is these people who are preoccupied with the warm
inner glow. All too often they inadvertently lend
support to cynical power seekers who are interested
only in facts which can be exploited to further their
ambitions. Colloquially they are often called do-gooders
because they are capable of doing a great deal of harm,
but they might just as well be called feel-gooders.
They are particularly prone to destroying the potential
of basically decent ideas by distorting them out of
Take, for example, the currently prominent buzzwords
"equality" and "discrimination". These are difficult
concepts at the best of times, and the times are far
from the best. By way of introduction to the blatant
misuse of these terms at the present day let me recall
that there is a native Australian concept of equality
which has nothing to do with warm inner glow.
By "native" I do not mean that Australians invented
it. Not at all. The idea of equality has always been
closely related to the idea of justice. It is many
centuries since rebellious peasants in England chanted,
"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?".
No, Australians did not create the concept of equality,
although it took firm root here. Nor do they seem
to me to have been attracted by dogmatic abstractions
about people being born equal, being equal in all their
talents or being of equal moral worth.
What they did do was adopt a concept that everyone
should be judged on his or her own qualities of character,
not on occupation, income or position in the social
hierarchy. To this they added, not the dogma that
everyone should have equal opportunity, whatever that
means, but that everyone is entitled to a fair go.
To my mind there is a profound difference between
these ideas and the self-contradictory nonsense that
we have to put up with nowadays under such rubrics
as equality of outcome and positive discrimination.
The importance of the native Australian concept of
equality is its basis in self-respect. That in turn
is attainable only if the individual accepts personal
responsibility for his or her own decisions and actions.
It is this that is being steadily eroded by the warm
inner glow. Take, as an example, equality of outcome.
This expression has been particularly prominent in
recent years in educational contexts, at all events
in Victoria, but potentially it has a far wider range
Suppose people in a State education department are
unhappy about examination results in secondary schools.
They are perturbed because, in their view, examinations
discriminate in favour of the cleverer children by
revealing their superior ability. This is seen as
unfair because it makes life even harder for the less
clever children than it would be anyway. The constant
reminder that they are not the cleverest diminishes
their self-esteem, which is perceived as more important
to them than it is to the cleverer children.
The argument is advanced also that those who come
from non-English speaking backgrounds (signified by
the acronym NESB) are probably not less clever at all
but just have more obstacles to overcome. In the departmental
view this too is unfair and probably leads to all kinds
of social problems as well. At this point some anguished
soul who cannot bear another moment of torment about
examination results decides that what is wrong with
the system is that the concept of equality is being
applied in the wrong place.
The children all have equal opportunity to sit the
exams but, for one reason or another, they do not all
have equal opportunity to come top. This means that
the initial equality is illusory. The difficulty however
would disappear if equality were applied instead to
the results of the exams. Then everyone would come
top of the class. The fact that everyone would also
come bottom of the class can be dismissed as ideologically
Let us see what has happened here. The line of thought
starts with the accurate perception that competitive
examinations in mass education, whilst yielding a body
of reasonably reliable information about comparative
ability, do have the unfortunate feature of leading
all too many people to accept the results as a measure
of moral worth.
Successful examinees are highly praised and rewarded
with prizes. Those at the bottom of the class are
regarded, and all too often regard themselves, as inferior.
In one form or another dunces cap theory may emerge:
the dismal idea that the less successful will be encouraged
if they are exposed to the derision of the rest.
Such a situation understandably troubles the conscience
of people of goodwill. On the one hand the successful
deserve praise for their achievement in coping well
with the examination. It is unfortunate perhaps that
the achievement is too often seen as coming top, or
near to it, rather than the high standard of scholarship
attained, but that is not the fault of the examinees.
The problem to be tackled in no way requires taking
something from the successful but devising methods
of persuading the less successful that they are not
unworthy. Their potential skills may not be adapted
to a written examination, or they may just not be very
bright. But whatever the problem, constructive methods
of encouraging their self-esteem should be sought.
Contrast this approach with the scenario that I sketched
a moment ago. The troubled people of goodwill have
kept their eyes on the facts and produced a constructive
and potentially fertile idea. In Australian terms
the source of that idea was the concept of the fair
go: that children and young people who do not cope
well with formal competitive examinations deserve an
opportunity, if possible, to prove their worth in other
ways. The same concept requires that this not be done
at the expense of successful examinees.
The feel-gooders started from the same position as
the people of goodwill but promptly distorted the concept
of the fair go into an egalitarian caricature. In
my view they did so because it represented the quickest
way of attaining a warm inner glow about all the good
they claimed to be doing. The fact that they were
on the way to making a genuine educational problem
not better but far worse escaped them because they
averted their eyes from the actual facts of the situation
as quickly as possible.
If there is anyone here, perhaps from interstate,
who thinks I have been making all this up, let me assure
them that I have not. I have merely summarised what
went on in Victorian State secondary education circles
for about a decade under ALP governments. The people
I called the feel-gooders propounded, and tried to
force on everyone else, the theory of what they called
equality of outcomes. The consequences, had they been
successful, would have been disastrous. Indeed, to
some extent they came to pass. A rush, by parents
who could afford it, to move their children into private
schools was predictable and duly took place, an ironical
outcome for self-styled egalitarians if ever there
was one. Children whose parents could not afford it
felt more discriminated against than ever.
The CHIP Foundation, which exists to promote the dissemination
of knowledge about gifted children, for years encountered
great difficulty in getting any funding at all. Its
records reveal cases of children of genuine ability
becoming discouraged and sometimes deeply emotionally
disturbed. The major universities were quick to point
out the looming repercussions on selection procedures
and the fact that they were not equipped to re-educate
large numbers of teenage illiterates.
In short, even partial success for the feel-gooders
and their fellow travellers was a major disaster.
Total success would have assumed the proportions of
a national catastrophe. I should like to believe that
even if they could not teach, they might by now have
learnt a lesson, but I doubt it. Minds that can seriously
advocate equality of outcomes are, I fear, not readily
I have dwelt on that example because in terms of my
theme today it illustrates the destructive power that
the move away from personal responsibility can generate.
The educational feel-gooders lacked the moral courage
to say, simply and honestly, that competitive examinations
are a necessary feature of any effective system of
mass education but not a sufficient one. A society
which ignores such simplicities and indulges in the
luxury of undermining individual self-reliance in the
name of a spurious egalitarianism is heading for disaster,
as even the mighty USSR found out in the end.
I am reminded, as I often am, of the deft way in which
W.S. Gilbert used to deal with social illusions. You
may recall that he satirised misplaced egalitarianism
in The Gondoliers, summing the matter up in
the ditty the refrain of which ran,
- "In short, whoever you may be,
- To this conclusion you'll agree,
- When every one is somebodee,
- Then no one's anybody."
I am reminded also of Paddy McGuinness's characteristically
succinct summing up, in an article in the Melbourne
Age on 26 October 1994, of where we are at with
equality. He wrote, and I quote:- "Moreover, far
from equality involving equal treatment, it is now
argued that inequality of treatment is required in
order to produce equality of result." Which brings
me to discrimination.
Although anti-discrimination is dignified, if that
be the word, with a name of its own, it is only a particular
form of the misplaced egalitarianism that I have been
talking about. Saying that someone is being discriminated
against is the same as saying that she or he is not
being treated equally with the rest. This is why discrimination
shares with equality the characteristic of being a
difficult and often self-contradictory concept. Nowadays
it is similarly misapplied. I quote Mr McGuinness
again, from the same article. He has just mentioned
an increasing tendency in the United States (and he
might have added the European Union) to find ways of
giving minorities more voting power in legislatures.
He continues, "Schemes for multiple voting or weighted
votes or blocking minorities would effectively deprive
the majority of the community of any right to assert
its will simply because it is the majority." Again
the point made is capable of wider application.
Every time a law is made for the benefit of an identifiable
category of people, to the exclusion of everyone else,
that law discriminates in favour of that category of
persons and against everyone else. In the usual case
the identified group is a minority, so, as Mr McGuinness
points out, the possibility arises of such an accumulation
of special minority rights that a numerical majority
of the population becomes, for practical purposes,
itself a minority. Alternatively such a situation
can be seen as an entertaining instance of discrimination
against a majority by a majority of minorities. I
make that point only to emphasise the ease with which
the concept of discrimination can fall into linguistic
confusion. The success of the feel-gooders in this
area owes much to that vulnerability. The measure
of their success has been the extent to which people
nowadays take for granted that discrimination is intrinsically
bad without noticing that it is as inevitable a feature
of life as individual self-reliance.
This would not particularly matter were it not for
the fact that the prevailing confusion obscures the
point that people should not be under pressure to support
a purportedly anti-discriminatory measure simply because
it is anti-discriminatory. It may be bad, or at least
of doubtful value, for quite other reasons. A current
example is legislation prohibiting racial vilification,
an ironical development at a time when the High Court
is doing its best, in the interests of freedom of speech,
to roll back our absurdly restrictive laws against
The heart of the trouble is something that I have
commented on before. It is an unavoidable side-effect
of anti-discriminatory laws that they tend to create
the very harm that they purport to prevent. As soon
as something is officially classified as discriminatory,
people start discovering it all over the place. Pitiable
problems arise about whether a joke in poor taste about
an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman are racial
vilification, discrimination or harassment, and if
so, of whom.
We seem to be at the point where even to inquire if
something is discriminatory is to imply that it is.
Such a state of affairs is of course ludicrous, not
to say highly undignified. It is however, both intrinsically
and in many of its manifestations, far more serious
than that. The reason is, once again, that the whole
anti-discrimination movement has become a method of
policing people's lives by removing from the individual
the responsibility for her or his decisions or actions.
This works both ways. The majority lose incentive
to behave reasonably because the decision whether they
are doing so is taken out of their hands. The minority
are an even worse case. If they are perceived as having
benefited, they get no credit for their own efforts
because everyone knows they are in a privileged position
by law. In addition to this they have to resist the
temptation to exploit their advantage unfairly.
It should also not be overlooked that the intended
beneficiaries may not by any means necessarily appreciate
the efforts of the feel-gooders. The ALP is currently
full of enthusiasm, at least publicly, for increasing
the number of women MPs by way of quotas at the pre-selection
stage. My impression is that such measures are not
universally popular among ambitious women.
From personal contacts, and what I read in the newspapers,
I understand that one school of thought regards advancement
of women on that basis as a devaluation of their achievements
and an encouragement to advance mediocrities by awarding
them merit points merely for being female. It is also
not the case that every Aborigine in the land has welcomed
either native title or the Native Title Act.
Another disquieting aspect of anti-discrimination
legislation is its close connection with the unpleasant
phenomenon known as political correctness. Political
correctness is enforced conformity with currently popular
feel-good opinions about society. Its most usual manifestation
is suppression of free speech and inquiry. You will
be familiar with the resistance aroused by any attempt
nowadays to investigate the nature of human intelligence.
Any scientist who so much as applies for funds for
such research risks ostracism and the ruin of a career.
This is because anti-discrimination sentiment in the
form of political correctness is characterised by a
massive absence of wisdom. The argument for preventing
the discovery of any reliable information about the
nature of human intelligence is that such knowledge
may be used to oppress and persecute races perceived
as inferior. The example of the Nazis is regularly
cited in this context. Yet the most obvious feature
of Nazi racial theories is that the psychopaths who
dreamt them up had no idea what they were talking about.
They did not misapply knowledge. They simply invented
it for their own appalling purposes.
I believe it was Evelyn Waugh, but it may have been
Graham Greene, who remarked that no-one should be brought
up in a manner suitable for the twentieth century.
It has always seemed to me that if more people had
been brought up in a manner suitable to the twentieth
century, the last hundred years might have turned out
a lot better than they did. The argument from ignorance
is always a menace, whether purportedly anti-discriminatory
or otherwise. The best way of countering it is not
the creation of yet more ignorance but the discovery
and dissemination of knowledge.
Take another example, closer to home. The United
States of America suffers, understandably, from a collective
phobia about that part of the population which identifies
as Black. Any attempt to investigate the nature of
human intelligence is viciously resisted for fear that
the results could be used to justify continued neglect
or mistreatment of Blacks, or Afro-Americans as they
are now called.
It never seems to occur to anyone that the policies
which have thus far signally failed to improve the
lives of the great majority of Afro-Americans is that
in the present climate of near hysteria about racial
discrimination, no policy is likely to be more than
guesswork based on wishful thinking, plus of course
a deep desire to feel good about something that is
If innate intelligence does indeed vary with statistical
significance as between different segments of the human
race, surely that is an important factor to be taken
into account in formulating humane and constructive
social policy. If there is no such correlation, then
fine, at least we get that monkey off our backs. Either
way there is absolutely nothing to be said for ignorance
and mob rule disguised as concern about racial discrimination.
The interrelation between ideologically inspired egalitarianism,
anti-discrimination and political correctness, and
how deeply they have penetrated our society, are well
illustrated by a description given to me recently of
an incident in a class conducted at one of our better
law schools earlier this year. For reasons which will
become obvious, I do not intend to reveal my source
but, I can assure you that it is entirely reliable.
The lecture was on a routine legal subject, let us
say contract. The lecturer was female. She referred
to a book of cases and materials and criticised it
on the ground that only a small minority of the cases
cited involved women. In discussion this sentiment
received strong support from most of the women in the
class, who were a minority. One of them however disagreed,
making what one might have thought was the reasonable
point that the sex of the litigants is not necessarily
relevant to the legal issue in a case.
She was almost literally shouted down and found herself
on the receiving end of personal abuse. Two things
were particularly disturbing about the incident. One
was that after the class a male student came up to
this woman and apologised for failing to support her.
He explained that he thought most of the men agreed
with her but none of them was game to criticise the
lecturer on such an issue or take on any of their female
contemporaries. The second disturbing feature was
that this happened in, of all institutions, a major
school of law.
Although I have written and spoken on many occasions
about the native title upheaval, it is impossible to
comment on discrimination, or anti-discrimination,
in this country without at least mentioning it. The
event illustrates so many features of anti-discrimination
mania so well. Consider for instance the damage it
has done to personal responsibility.
On the basis of a hastily constructed theory of reconciliation,
the several generations of Australians living at the
present day suddenly become liable to lose their land
or pay compensation for acts allegedly committed by
a handful of the long dead ancestors of a few of them.
As I remarked on a different occasion a few months
ago (and I apologise to those who were present then
for quoting myself), it is almost as if in 1900 or
so the House of Lords in England had drastically altered
the land law of Scotland to atone for the fact that
the English victory in the battle of Culloden in 1746
was followed by a merciless policy of driving the native
Celtic highland clans from their glens, never to return.
The concept of personal responsibility involved is,
in my view, incomprehensible. I can understand personal
responsibility for my own decisions and actions. I
cannot understand personal responsibility for the actions
of my ancestors, especially as none of them ever set
eyes on this country. Perhaps one should not be surprised
therefore that the adoption of such a peculiar version
of ancestor worship ushered in the making of discriminatory
laws, both judicially and legislatively, of a blatant
and extraordinarily sweeping character.
I mentioned earlier the logical possibility of the
majority of the population being discriminated against
by a minority. Here we have a vivid example and, ironically,
it is racial discrimination that is in issue. The
only people who can take advantage of the Native Title
Act 1993 (Cth) to claim land or compensation are people
descended wholly or in part from Aborigines. That
means that such people have special rights that are
denied by law to almost the whole of the population
on the basis of race.
The situation is truly grotesque. There is nothing
egalitarian or anti-discriminatory about it. As a
matter of law it is not equality but inequality and
massive discrimination which has been introduced.
You will recall my earlier observation that anti-discriminatory
laws tend to create the very harm they purport to prevent.
This has not taken long to emerge. There is not only
dissension between various Aboriginal interest groups.
There is increasing tension between claimants and
non-Aboriginal occupants of land. The hardening of
attitudes associated with the Yorta Yorta claim in
north-eastern Victoria, a closely settled area for
well over a century, is noticeable.
It is against the darkening background of national
self-deception of which I have been speaking this morning
that I think this conference should consider the specifically
industrial causes for unease to which Ray Evans has
directed our attention. The coercion of society has
not gone unnoticed by the big battalions of the industrial
law world. They have studied the latest techniques
of coercion by confusion and clearly understand them
As one last example, taken from the Industrial Relations
Reform Act 1993, the Brereton Act, it did not take
long for them to adopt the language of enterprise agreements
in order, with Mr Brereton's assistance, to convert
the legal reality back into the familiar centralised
control of wage-fixing, once again an exercise in the
destruction of personal responsibility for individual