From Industrial Relations to Personal Relations:
The Coercion of Society


NR Evans

In considering a theme for its December 1994 conference the H R Nicholls Society decided that the time had come to examine the implications of the decisions which the arbitral tribunals of our labour market were making with respect to parental leave, child-care facilities, homosexual "families", and the employment policies of religious schools, amongst other issues.

The theme chosen for the conference, therefore, was "From Industrial Relations to Personal Relations:- The Coercion of Society".

The argument that employers should not discriminate against prospective employees on grounds of religion, for example, seems at first sight to be impossible to oppose. For 70 years or more Australian society was disfigured by sectarian animus and there were many important firms of which it was said that no Catholics need apply for jobs. Contrariwise it was assumed by many people that the public service was a Catholic preserve and that the key issue in some government departments was whether or not one had been educated by the Jesuits or the Marist Brothers.

But once the principle that private sector jobs had to be offered to applicants without regard to religious affiliation, or gender, or sexual conduct, or marital state, or political or trade union affiliation, or personal appearance, then it is difficult to see how intellectual, linguistic or physical capacity could logically remain as grounds for preference amongst job applicants.

The distaste which developed for religious discrimination during the years of sectarianism has grown into a powerful anti-discrimination industry, replete with tribunals and advocates and of course competition between tribunals for administration of the new body of anti-discrimination law. The consequences for Australian society, unless this industry is choked off, are full of foreboding.

At the conference those who were present heard nine excellent papers on a variety of issues. The keynote paper was given by Professor Judith Sloan. Professor Sloan has become a very important figure in the labour market debate throughout Australia and the Society was honoured by her participation. The paper published here is an edited version of her address and it provides an authoritative snapshot of the process of disintegration of a labour market regime which is rapidly losing all popular as well as intellectual legitimacy.

Colin Howard's paper takes up the conference theme and explores its implications. He identifies the anti-discrimination industry with Procrustean obsession. Procrustes was the hotelier of Greek legend who welcomed weary travellers but who, when his guests were asleep, proceeded to either surgically shorten the legs of those who were too long for his standard bed, or lengthen, through a racking mechanism, the legs of those who were too short. The survival rate of travellers in his district was very low. As Colin Howard argues, the activities of Procrustean obsessives, particularly when they have captured political office and control of government budgets, can wreak enormous damage upon society.

Bill Kerley's paper analyses in some detail the manner in which the Commonwealth Industrial Relations Amendment Act of 1993 (the Brereton Act) seeks to create a Calvinist state in which Australians will not be compelled, as were the citizens of Geneva, into holiness but into becoming more caring, more tolerant of homosexuals, more equal, and sometimes, perhaps, a little more productive at work. Discrimination on grounds of "race, colour, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction, or social origin" will not be tolerated. (ss 170MD(5), 170ND(10))

Calvin used a system of home visitation by church elders to ensure that Geneva's citizens were living lives of godliness and holiness. The church elders of Calvin's time are, in our case, replaced by Justice Diedre O'Connor and her colleagues within the IRC, and beneath them, we have the officialdom of the trade union movement. I wonder how our custodians of tolerance will handle an appeal by a child molester, on grounds of discrimination against pederasts, against dismissal from a position of trust involving children.

Professor Ross Parish provides a stimulating paper on the perverse consequences which flow from the social engineering activities of legislators, regulators and judges. Dr Gerald Garvey discusses the intellectual support which Nobel Laureate Robert Solow and prominent labour economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald have provided for the sort of detailed and intrusive labour market regulation which we endure in Australia. The arguments used by these economists, to quote Garvey, take the following form:

"(i) assert that the case for freer trade between employers and employees rests on the textbook micro-economic models with a wage rate that equates spot demand and supply for labour.

(ii) Make a host of arguments, some basically correct and others utterly misguided, to establish that the textbook model is incomplete. The idea is simply that the basic demand-supply model is an adequate description of the market for "commodities" such as fish and cabbage, but is seriously wrong for the special case of labour.

(iii) Draw (i) and (ii) together to conclude that we should advocate free trade in fish and cabbages but that the special case of labour requires a host of paternalistic and restrictive measures."

Garvey gives these eminent but misinformed or mischievous economists short shrift.

Geoffrey Partington provides a detailed and richly illustrated paper on the origins and growth first of trade unions and then of statutory interference, through the creation of arbitral tribunals, in labour market relations in Australia, from the 1850s until the early years of federation. Particularly noteworthy is Partington's discussion of the systematic use of violence by the trade unionists of the 1890s against their colleagues who declined to join the union. This tradition of violence persists to the present day and the attacks on vehicles at the picket lines at Hoechst in Altona, or the night time burning of the homes of "scabs" in the Pilbara, is in a tradition of threats of murder and the widespread practice of arson, which were legitimised by trade union leaders such as W G Spence and William Lane a century ago.

Barry Maley's paper on the causal relationship between unemployment amongst young men in the 21-25 age group and suicide, is a model of careful and cautious reasoning. This issue strikes at the very heart of our labour market tribunals and the privileged trade unions which they serve. It is tragic that no political leader in Australia today has a sense of moral outrage sufficient to cause them to make this scandalous state of affairs a public issue. Deaths amongst young people resulting from drug abuse have inspired the establishment of high-powered official bodies charged with recommending cures. Suicide from unemployment, surely the most poignant and needless of tragedies, should inspire similar official concern.

Part of the official rhetoric of our time is the uncontested assertion that more education, or more precisely more government expenditure on education, is the gateway to greater prosperity and more fulfilling lives. Ken Baker examines this assumption and brings considerable knowledge of contemporary debates within the educational establishments, as well as an acute understanding of contemporary cultural and religious tendencies, to bear upon the issue of education and employment. The costs to the nation and the citizenry of the profound official misunderstanding of these matters is huge. Dr Baker's discussion should be carefully studied and his arguments taken to heart.

The conference concluded with a dinner address, "The Catholic Church, Freedom, and Anti-Discrimination", from the most Rev Dr George Pell, Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne. Bishop Pell discussed the influence of Christianity on Australian society and noted the attacks on orthodoxy both within and without the mainstream Christian churches, and the consequences of those attacks. A generation or so ago it was taken as beyond argument that Christian doctrine on marriage, abortion, sexual conduct and behaviour, the legal privileges accorded to the traditional family, for example, would greatly influence and guide statutory law on these matters. Further, the idea that the state should establish tribunals which would interfere with the staffing policies and practices of religious schools would, in those days, have seemed outrageous. The latter is now part and parcel of the education sector, and as the passage of the NT's Euthanasia bill demonstrates, concerted church opposition to a Bill is, today, certainly no guarantee that a Bill will not be passed.

Bishop Pell's careful and wide-ranging paper gave rise to considerable discussion and the Society was honoured by his participation in the conference.

N R Evans President
20 December 1995.

Why HR Nicholls?