Let's Start All Over Again
Ladies & Gentlemen, is Australia a Free Country?
This is the question you should all be able to answer when
I have finished my few words tonight. Failing that, you may wish
to ask some of the sitting labour members who are being pursued
by 'standover merchants, thugs and other sleazebags' according
to backbencher Warren Snowden this week.
Senator Nick Minchin, President Ray Evans, Mr Charles Copeman,
distinguished guests and members of HR Nicholls Society.
I have been a member of the Society for over ten years and
have attended most Annual conferences. I have witnessed the presentation
of the Charles Copeman medal to many very worthy recipients.
However I was very surprised and flattered when I was approached
to be this year's Charles Copeman Medal winner. I was amazed
that what I and my wonderful team members have endured over the
last ten months was worthy of such recognition. My sincerest
thanks to the committee for your acknowledgement of what we have
Tonight I intend to give a background of our business, the
strike and then my thoughts on where Industrial Relations are
going in Australia.
My late father commenced our business in 1947 after returning
from military service in Borneo during WW2. The business was
primarily in metal manufactures, namely pressed metal, turning,
spot welding etc. In 1955, they built their first plastics injection
I joined the company 28 years ago, having worked for a number
of different businesses locally and overseas. During my time
at Kemalex I have participated at local and national levels with
industry and employer associations; namely the Plastics Industry
Association (now PACIA), Business SA (was SAECCI), Engineering
Employers Association and its national affiliate the AIG (formerly
Our company tried to participate in Award Restructuring many
years ago until our employer association warned us that if we
tried to have our agreement ratified by the Commission then an
unwanted Third Party would be present at the commission hearing.
The third party was to be a Union. As a result, our team members
decided not to go down the Award Restructuring path. After all,
our company had no union members and our team wanted it to stay
that way. In fact, during our 58 years of business, our company
never had an unfair dismissal claim and we were on maximum bonus
with Workcover in South Australia.
I had witnessed for many years member companies of our employer
association constantly being dragged off to the Commission because
of alleged underpayment of wages, or unfair dismissal claims,
etc., etc. I had no desire for our company to participate in
this total waste of time. However, I also knew that as we grew
our business there would be an ever-increasing risk of someone
or a group making a mischievous claim against our company.
In addition, Workcover in SA was making it more and more difficult
for employers should the employee aggravate an alleged prior
medical condition during their employment with our company. In
other words, just because a person injures themselves on a school
play gym or falling off a rocking horse, the employer's Workcover
record is negatively impacted should their medical condition
be allegedly aggravated by their employment with our company,
irrespective of whether the employee disclosed the condition
prior to commencing employment. Ladies and Gentlemen I had, and
I still have, a problem with this issue.
Consequently, all future job applicants had to have thorough
medicals prior to an offer of employment being made. The first
time we went down this path, four of the five candidates failed
their medicals and one has since died. However we needed to work
with one of the applicants but not take on the possible onerous
medical liability should he aggravate his condition while sitting
at a computer terminal.
So given the difficulty of working within the constraints
of the normal employer/employee relationship and dealing with
Workcover, I decided there had to be a better way. And there
was. At the Society's conference eleven or twelve years ago at
Brighton I was delighted to hear our very own Ken Phillips' presentation
titled 'Creating Non Employment'. As many of you will recall,
his speech explained very clearly the benefits of working with
self-employed contractors engaged through the Odco method. Not
a 'sham' method of contracting. A method of contracting that
was defended by our Federal Treasurer in his previous life as
We introduced self-employed contractors with the full knowledge
of all our full-time employees. They all understood that any
new people working at our Adelaide factory would be self-employed
and that no existing staff would be in anyway encouraged to become
self-employed. As a result, over the next ten years, by evolution
85 per cent of the team were self-employed. In fact, a number
of employees did resign and signed up with the agency we were
using for our contractors.
In early 2002, we purchased a plastic moulding business in
Melbourne from Pitcher Partners who were the Administrators.
The previous owners had purchased the business from a liquidator
two years before that. Clearly the business needed to have some
changes if it was to survive supplying plastic parts to the very
competitive automotive industry. Again we decided to introduce
self-employed contractors by evolution. This was explained to
the union, namely the National Union of Workers. In fact, it
took three meetings to explain to the union what it was we were
doing, again with no threats to the existing staff assuming customers
continued to buy from us.
The NUW were not at all pleased that Richard Colebatch wanted
to run his business his way, the legal way in compliance with
the Enterprise Agreement that they had previously negotiated
with me. Consequently, the union patiently waited for our next
Enterprise Bargaining phase to commence in late February last
year. At this time, their log of claims was so ridiculous I had
to ask them what they were smoking at the time they dreamt up
Some of the demands were a 10 per cent wage increase each
year with no offsets, state LSL provisions, redundancy of six
weeks per year of service with no cap, pay out all unused sick
leave upon termination, preference of overtime to full-time employees
and wait for it, removal of all sub-contractors from our site.
Can you believe it?
Naturally we had numerous meetings with the Union, but at
the end of the day I had more success talking to the brick wall
in my office. The union clearly wanted to have a fight.
During our negotiations with the Union we had consulted with
the Australian Industry Group for advice. However, when the strike
was threatened, the AIG industrial officer suggested that we
should engage a competent solicitor to assist us. Needless to
say, we had already engaged Tanya Cirkovic & Associates due
to the poor/little assistance being provided by the AIG and their
clear reluctance to stand beside us when the heat came on. The
AIG's CEO has written to me recently and threatened to consider
their options should I continue to tell the truth about the AIG's
reluctance to assist us during the strike. Fancy thinking her
threats are going to make any difference when I have been threatened
by the biggest goons of the union movement who are all trying
to enter Federal Politics! Heaven help Australia.
The Union and 47 of our employees commenced a strike (protective
action) on the 27th April 2005. Caravan, port-a-loo, electric
generator, tents, banners, signs, fires and mountains of wood
were set up immediately outside our factory in both Tatterson
and Greens Road. The area became an absolute eyesore, however
the Dandenong Council did absolutely nothing, even after many
of the neighbouring businesses complained.
The picketers manned their positions on each of the three
shifts, seven days per week. Loud speakers, whistles, yelling,
abuse, threats, vandalism etc., 24 hours per day.
Just prior to the commencement of the strike, a number of
customers retrieved their tooling and product while one requested
we move theirs to our Adelaide facility.
We formed a 'war cabinet' consisting of our solicitors, an
IR barrister, myself and three IR consultants. The best advice
I was given at this time was that the Union is not interested
in results; it is only interested in the process. How true that
advice turned out to be. Our group met regularly and agreed that
nothing would be done by any member without the approval of the
group. Everything had to be co-ordinated.
The Union made application to the Australian Industrial Relations
Commission in an effort to try and see if our company would buckle
and give in to their demands. I told Senior Deputy President
Jenny Acton that I was prepared to withdraw all the sub-contractors
from our factory if the union was prepared to take responsibility
for our customers and bank, otherwise she could tell the union
from me to get stuffed. On the second hearing and after many
private discussions with the Commissioner, the Union dropped
their last demand, namely the withdrawal of all sub-contractors.
This back-down by the Union was most unexpected and therefore
we required more time to consider their remaining five demands.
Two days later, and after significantly more pressure, threats,
intimidation from the picketers, union officials and their 'rent
a crowd', we announced to Senior President Acton that the company
would not negotiate an agreement where the Union was to be a
party to it, instead we decided to negotiate directly with our
employees. Needless to say, the Union was very surprised at our
attitude and after another threat was made by the union, Senior
Deputy President Acton adjourned the matter indefinitely.
The daily (and nightly) task of defending ourselves against
the most disgusting, foul-mouthed, ugly people women have ever
given birth to was full-time. Many of the Rent-a-Crowd were or
appeared to be members of the Maritime Union of Australia, CFMEU
and like-minded unions.
The Union utilised its Website very effectively. The statements
made about our company were generally prefaced by the word 'alleged'
or it was 'rumoured'. Many other Leftist sympathisers copied
and pasted these onto their own Websites. What was interesting
was that the copying was never accurate and the numbers always
grew to enhance the impact of the message. Journalists, present
company excepted, were equally lazy and, nine times out of ten,
merely copied and pasted from the Union Websites.
We made a decision from the beginning not to make any public
comment whatsoever as this was a battle we could never win with
the 'left' media. After the Kerry O'Brien 7.30 Report
we received numerous e-mails complaining about our 'alleged'
demands of forcing all our employees to be sub-contractors etc.,
etc. We responded politely to each e-mail, thanking them for
their interest and promising to inform them when we do make any
After four weeks of the strike, our first public statement
was released exclusively to journalist Robert Gottliebsen who
published his article in The Australian. We immediately
handed a copy of the statement to each of our associates inside
and outside both plants and then released the statement onto
People who had earlier e-mailed us were notified of the statement
on our Website. The feedback from a number of them was amazing.
They expressed total amazement at the manner in which the facts
had been twisted by the ABC's 7.30 Report.
Eventually an olive branch was presented to our lawyers from
the State Secretary of the NUW, Martin Pakula. By the way, this
is the man who is trying to muscle out Simon Crean from the seat
of Hotham where our factory was. Some of you may remember that
Simon Crean successfully muscled out Jenny Acton from pre-selection
for the same seat some years ago. The whole strike was orchestrated
by the union movement to lift Martin Pakula's profile amongst
his peers before seeking pre-selection. The Sun-Herald
reported this during the Strike.
Martin Pakula conveyed to Tanya Cirkovic that she had a madman
for a client. There were a number of times during negotiations
and at the picket line where it was necessary for some theatre
on my part---after all, I was mad. If requested, I may expand
upon one of these occasions.
It took a further four weeks of daily negotiations with the
Union representatives, solicitors and me. However, after meeting
regularly with the Assistant State Secretary and the State Secretary
of the Union, the most significant turning point in the negotiations
was when the Assistant National Secretary intervened. What the
State officials could not or would not entertain, the Ass National
Secretary very quickly indicated that what we wanted was do-able.
The particular issue at the time was our need to pay for 38 hours
work rather than 35.5 hours.
The next significant turning point was when the Union agreed
that they were prepared to accept a two-year agreement rather
than their three-year demand.
The final turning point of significance was when the winter
southerly winds eventually came to the picket line with the associated
drop in temperature and much rain.
The pressure on our team of associates working inside the
factory throughout the strike cannot be understated. They were
all under an enormous amount of stress and abuse from the Union
picketers. Some of their cars were vandalised and some were visited
by Union officials at their homes in an effort to convince them
to turn against the company by making false statements. It was
very important to keep close to all staff so that these issues
could be addressed. All the damages to staff cars were repaired
at the company's expense.
After the return to work and prior to the appointment of the
Voluntary Administrator on the Monday 31st October, a total of
eight 'former picketers FP' had been counselled and/or given
their first and second warnings for a number of issues, including
not following Operating Procedures which resulted in poor quality.
There were a number of customer complaints where the employees
FP had been deliberately sabotaging product manufactured. In
addition, the amount of sick leave taken reached the level of
the great plague. A number of new medical conditions were reported,
including PTS (Part-time stress). Able to work Tuesday, Thursday
and Fridays for a number of weeks until the Workcover claim was
finally rejected by the insurer. Conditions greatly improved.
Five employees FP submitted Workcover claims for a number
of medical conditions. Only one had been formally rejected at
the time of VA appointment.
An employee FP was caught working as an employee for a public
company while taking paid sick leave from our company. Needless
to say, sacked on the spot and escorted off our premises.
Our ability to run the company as per the Enterprise Agreement
was immediately challenged by the NUW. The NUW wanted the company
to make three of their members FP redundant due to our transferring
(returning) them to lower paid duties with the appropriate notice.
Given that there was a very high absenteeism and large back orders,
it seemed ridiculous that the company could be forced to payout
a redundancy lump sum (reward) and then hire three new workers
and spend another lump sum training the new workers. However,
experience says that this logic lunacy is well and truly alive
when it comes to the AIRC. This gamble and the pending significant
legal costs were the last straw, in addition to the others previously
Prior to the VA appointment, three of our Melbourne customers
requested in confidence that we move all their tooling, fixtures
etc to our Adelaide facility. The second time for one customer.
On the Melbourne Cup weekend we carried out a perfect 'military
exercise'. Six Adelaide staff packaged up tooling, fixtures,
etc., for three semi-trailers and decommissioned five moulding
machines for another two semi-trailers without being discovered
by any Dandenong employee. These loads were arriving at our Adelaide
facility before any of the employees or NUW knew what happened
over that particular weekend.
We did win a battle with the NUW with the return to work (sic),
however it is sad to think that until there are 'significant'
changes to the IR system in Australia, the likes of the NUW,
CFMEU, MUA, etc., will continue to legally or illegally use thuggery
to achieve their aims, whatever they are supposed to be. The
loss of 85 jobs at our Dandenong facility will add to the 20,000
Victoria lost in September last year.
The media, and in particular the Australian Financial Review,
keep referring to 'Howard's far-reaching industrial relations
reforms'. Ladies and Gentlemen I remain disappointed every time
I hear this sort of description given for what I and many others
believe are very modest changes to the IR system in Australia.
For our industries and employers to become globally competitive,
we need a globally competitive IR system to operate in. I believe
the Federal WorkChoices Act is the biggest missed opportunity
for providing employers and their employees a globally competitive
IR system. Given that the explanatory notes to the Act are almost
the same number of pages as the Act itself means that IR practitioners
in the Unions, Employer Associations and in private practice
are guaranteed very lucrative futures, particularly while the
AIRC remains and continues to try and remain relevant by making
I am not sure how many times the word 'reasonable' appears
in the Act or the soon-to-be-released regulations, but I am assured
that a lot of money will be spent with lawyers trying to find
out what the word means. I am also told that the word 'regulation'
appears over 140 times in the new Act.
While the AIRC remains, there is no hope for employment contracts
becoming simpler. However, if the Federal Government delivers
on the proposed Independent Contractors Act and keeps it simple,
then at least there will be an option for companies who wish
to maintain employment with Australians who want to look after
themselves and actually work. From my experience, there are many
many people who want to make their own choice rather than be
bullied by those with vested interests in maintaining their own
So Ladies and Gentlemen,
Is Australia a Free Country? I don't think so, unless of course
you are a member of the privileged Industrial Relations Club.
I think I should join a group of 'standover merchants, thugs
and other sleazebags' and look for a spot for the next election.
When is your pre-selection coming up again Nick?
Seriously Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very excited by my next
employment opportunity. It is to quickly grow an importing business
of plastic mouldings from China and Vietnam for the remaining
assemblers as quickly as I can.