Wrong Way---Go Back


NR Evans

The Society's XVIII conference "Wrong Way---Go Back" was held on 5-6 September 1997, and covered a wide range of issues.

The various Acts of Parliament which confer legal privileges on registered trade unions have created a class of rent-seekers (in this case trade union officials) who inevitably spend large sums of money (provided by the union membership) in litigation. This litigation ensues because the monopoly privileges of representation which the unions enjoy are defined in words used by members of arbitral tribunals, and those words are always capable of differing interpretations. The privileges are valuable and so large sums of money will be spent on seeking to defend them and extend them.

When, under the Hawke and Keating Governments, union amalgamations were promoted and encouraged, litigation increased as different groups of union officials sought to maintain their privileges within the new structures, and this was indeed manifest in the merger of the AWU and the old FIA. One leading trade union official who found the whole process entirely distasteful, managed to extricate himself from the pointless and profitless life of a rent-seeker, and begin a new career as an adviser to companies and workers trying to get on with their working lives more effectively.

That union official was Steve Harrison, formerly National Secretary of the FIA and then of the AWU after the merger between those two quite disparate organisations. The Society was fortunate in persuading Mr Harrison to open the conference and his paper reminds us that the roots of Australian trade unionism are to be found in the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, as well as in the doctrines of class warfare formulated by Karl Marx. In the end however, these two visions of relationships in the workplace are not only incompatible with each other but both are obsolete in an economy characterised by mobility and opportunity.

The important background to the conference proceedings was persistent unemployment, a problem totally unaffected by the Howard Government's industrial relations legislation---the Kernot-Reith Workplace Relations Act (1996). Most of the papers presented here, in part or in whole, focussed on this vital issue.

The conference concluded with a speech by Mr Horst Rilk, formerly CEO of Colombus Line in Australia, who spoke of his experiences with the waterfront unions. His paper was topical indeed. No progress has been made, at all, in winding back the monopoly control which the maritime unions exercise over Australia's waterfront. The consequence of that monopoly power is uncompetitive ports and grossly uncompetitive domestic shipping. And that in turn has a serious impact on Australia's ability to compete in the transport and processing of raw materials, an activity in which we should enjoy significant comparative advantage.

N R Evans