Trade Union Reform
On 30 September, 1986 The H R Nicholls Society held
a dinner at the Southern Cross Hotel, Melbourne, on
the occasion of the launching by Professor Geoffrey
Blainey, A.O. of 'Arbitration in Contempt'---a work
which, as Professor Blainey said on that occasion,
had probably been the subject of wider (and more heated)
public discussion in the period leading up to its launching
than any other book he could personally remember.
During my own remarks at that dinner on the topic 'Repairing
Australia', I quoted from a then recent statement by
the New Zealand Business Roundtable in which, in discussing
the problems New Zealanders are having with their
labour market, and the need for reform thereof, that
highly respected body said:
'The clash between labour market and other policy
settings is at the heart of Australia's current economic
difficulties, which offer a telling example of what
happens when economic policies are incoherent and inconsistent.'
Just so---albeit (as I observed on that occasion)
a trifle humiliating to have our current economic difficulties
so accurately, and so pithily, diagnosed by a New Zealand
Those 'labour market settings' to which the New Zealand
Business Roundtable referred are in turn the product
of an extremely powerful trade union movement working
within the framework of an arbitration system which
represents one of the most important bases of that
power. As many observers have pointed out in recent
years, it is therefore nothing to the point to speak
merely of the need to obtain more economically rational
outcomes from our system of determining wages and other
conditions of employment. It needs to be simultaneously
recognized that doing so must inevitably mean addressing
the problem of trade union power.
Our present Government used to talk a great deal about
its 'consensus' approach to policy questions, particularly
where those questions were potentially socially divisive.
Yet if there is one proposition on which, among people
across the length and breadth of Australia, a true
consensus does exist, it would be that our trade
union bosses today have too much power.
In the fact of this undoubted consensus, what is our
Government contemplating? It is contemplating legislation
which would give our trade union bosses even more power.
In particular, it is contemplating legislation which
would remove all legal processes relating to trade
unions from the realm of real law, and real courts,
and place them in a Labour Court (or perhaps more accurately,
Labor Court) to be newly created for that purpose.
The so-called 'Justices' of this new kangaroo Court
would be the President, and those legally qualified
Deputy Presidents of the Commonwealth Conciliation
and Arbitration Commission who, when not sitting in
this Court, would be sitting in the Commission within
which they presently operate. What H R Nicholls would
have said about this particular put-up job is difficult
to imagine in detail, but I do not think words would
have failed him.
Clearly, if Australia is to have any hope of reconciling
both its economy and its society with the demands of
the 21st Century, these matters are going to have to
be tackled, and on a number of fronts. As noted earlier,
one of those fronts to be addressed relates to the
excessive power of trade unions in Australia, and the
need for trade union reform more generally.
Against that background the H R Nicholls Society convened
a Seminar on Saturday, 6 December 1986, on the overall
topic of 'Trade Union Reform'.
Some may think that to talk of 'reforming' our trade
unions is a contradiction in terms. However, while
there is certainly much evidence for that view, it
is not my own view, nor is it the collective view of
the H R Nicholls Society. What is clear, however, is
that our trade unions have suffered the fate embraced
by Lord Acton's famous dictum, that 'power corrupts,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. It was therefore
to that process of corruption---using that word in
its widest sense---that our Seminar was basically directed.
The five papers presented to that Seminar are now published
herewith in order that they might become available
to a wider audience. Of course, in a one day Seminar,
it would be unlikely that five speakers could, between
them, cover all aspects of a topic so wide as trade
union reform. To take but one obvious gap in their
coverage, none of them addressed that particularly
unpleasant form of corruption of the trade union movement
which actually results in direct criminal activity
by trade union officials.
It was activities of that kind, for example, which
initially led to the setting up of the Costigan Commission
of Inquiry. The history of the United States trade
union movement is riddled with examples of its penetration
by criminal elements ranging from the Mafia downwards.
Without in any way seeking to tar the Australian trade
union movement with that brush, it would be a very
foolhardy person who asserted that we have no such
problems in Australia today, and an even more foolhardy
one who asserted that, with the increasing power of
trade unions, we shall not have a good many more such
problems in the future.
Despite the absence of discussion of this and some
other aspects, however, the papers published herewith
cover a wide sweep of issues relating to trade union
reform and make fascinating reading. Perhaps I should
say in passing that I do not personally agree with
every point that is made in every one of them; for
example, there are some important elements of Mr Routley's
paper from which I personally would differ. Nevertheless,
it is the great virtue of all of them---and of Mr Routley's
paper not least---that they provoke thought, and debate,
about the fundamental issues they address. Since that
is after all the sole purpose of the H R Nicholls Society,
their authors have indeed served us well.
It is important to note that not merely economic issues
are at stake. Professor Kemp's paper on 'Trade Unions
and Liberty' goes to the heart of the issues raised
by its title. One quotation only from that paper will
serve to show their gravity:
'Liberty.. requires law protecting individuals against
the harmful conduct of others... the free society ... requires
an ethic of respect for others and for their equal
rights to pursue what is important for them.... It
requires private institutions which have a genuine
independence.... institutions of government responsive
to the values and standards of the community....
Unionism is compatible with such a society. The particular
kind of unionism which has evolved in Australia is
not. Australian unionism has become grounded to a
significant extent in compulsion and conscription
of both people and resources. It actively seeks the
replacement of the law which protects individuals
with a law which denies individual rights; Australian
unionism has too readily ........ taken the view that
the end justifies the means, and that damage to the
livelihoods and even the lives of others is permissible
in the pursuit of union goals. In seeking to transcend
the independence of business, educational, public
service and other institutions .........and in pursuing
continuing extension of its influence over the leaders
and management of these institutions, Australian
unionism has eroded the institutional pluralism of
a free society, and laid the basis for the monopolistic
policy process of the corporate state.'
These are not mere theoretical musings. Mr Purvis'
paper spells out in detail instances of the unprincipled
use of trade union 'muscle'. It thereby provides chilling
evidence of the extent to which our democratic society
is already threatened by that same view that 'the end
justifies the means' to which Professor Kemp refers.
A further instance is given by Mr Russell in his paper
on 'Trade Unions: Privileges and Power', when referring
to the notorious case of Gibbins & Others
v. Australasian Meat Industry Employees' Union,
heard last year in the Federal Court.
In any society there comes a time when, if abuses continue
to go unchecked, they will increase both in number
and in magnitude, to the point where the task of correcting
them threatens to be beyond the capacity of democratic
Governments. That essentially was the road down which
trade union power travelled in Argentina under Peron.
The first casualty of such a process is freedom.
The need in Australia for significant reform of our
trade unions must therefore be seen as vital not merely
by those who have the future of the Australian economy
at heart, but also by those who are concerned with
the future of democratic freedoms in this country.