From Industrial Relations to Personal Relations:
The Coercion of Society
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
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),
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
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?