'We used to run this country,
and it wouldn't be a bad thing if we did again'

In Praise of a 'Comrade'

Ian McLachlan

I remember well the day Sir Samuel Burston, President of the National Farmers' Federation, Wolf Boetcher, a very right-wing Western Australian of German descent, and I, interviewed a shrinking violet called Paul Xavier Houlihan, fresh from the secretariat of the Tasmanian Clerks' Union, for the job of industrial officer at NFF.

Considering the National Farmers' Federation view of unions in the late '70s and early '80s, it is a wonder he got an interview at all.

Despite his somewhat socialist views on a number of matters, he was obviously starting to consider things like productivity, export performance---we thought he might actually be on the philosophical turn, so to speak. In any case, he was our last chance, so he got the job.

Notwithstanding the fact that he called me "comrade" for the first ten years of our association, and sometimes still does, Paul Houlihan has increasingly believed in those nationally-desirable objectives he espoused all those years ago at his interview.

I know it is strange for some of us in this room, but it is true, I think, that the 40-year-olds and younger of today may not be able to contemplate how bad was the industrial relations system of 20 years ago in Australia, and how maniacal you were considered if you espoused any other.

These same 40-year-olds were 12 or 14 when the farmers of Australia had to break union embargoes on the export of live sheep, in 1978, in Adelaide and Perth.

In those days, this was radical stuff. For a start it took six weeks. It took hundreds of farmers, and involved the national sin of refusing to go to meetings called by various illustrious members of the Industrial Relations Club, namely, the president of the ACTU, R J Hawke at the time, the prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, or George Polites, head of the Employers---or all three of them.

I remember the chairman of Australia's biggest abattoirs saying to me during this dispute, where all sheep were physically blocked from leaving the country, "McLachlan, don't you understand that the name of the game is conciliation and compromise. If you want to play any other game, we're against you".

This was a time when unions were dominant, the ACTU was king, governments were compliant, and business owners and managers were---if you will excuse the expression---piss-weak.

Most important of all, union power and this system, were protected by protectionism itself.

Well, after we managed somehow to win that live sheep dispute without Paul in 1978, as he joined NFF a couple of years later, he and I, on behalf of the Wool Council of Australia, became embroiled in what became known as the Wide Combs Affair.

This contretemps was about the size of the comb on a shearing handpiece, which hadn't changed for 80 years, and so the AWU did not think it should do so in 1984. Some shearers in Western Australia and some New Zealanders had been shearing in the eastern states with these new wide combs---productivity being the objective---and some, against this new move, and supported by the AWU, went on strike. In fact, the AWU called on a national strike.

The AWU was to lose this dispute, because we managed---shearers and growers alike---to shear the sheep without them. And even though it got a bit physical, as Paul put it at the time, we "beat them on the grass". In other words, the job got done in the face of a national strike.

The result of this disaster for the AWU was that voluntary unionism reared its beautiful head in the oldest union in the country.

The union which started the Australian Labor Party (which is still voluntary, I hope) was knocked over.

A system that Paul and I used for sustenance was to consume two bottles of 1978 St Henri each night in the Wentworth Grill, and then in the morning repair to the offices of the Livestock and Grain Producers Association of New South Wales, now the NSW Farmers' Federation to prevent them from doing a deal with the union. There were plenty of doubters of our strategy. There always was in these matters.

However, there were always a few who would stick, and it was the few in all of these disputes which made the difference.

For several years, from the time Paul came on board at NFF, we had been trying to get ourselves face-to-face with the Australian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU), as there were more than a few workplace problems to fix---industry tally systems and the like.

Our problem was always that we didn't own the stock by the time they got to an abattoir, and the middle man who did own the stock was always in a very weakened position.

One night, Paul rang me. I remember it extremely well. And said to me that he had found the perfect place for the might of NFF to take on the national might of the AMIEU.

Mind you, it was the tenth time he had made such a suggestion.

I said, where is it? He said, 200 km south-south-east of Darwin, which I didn't think was a great start.

I said, how many cattle does it kill a year? He said, it kills buffalo.

I said, how many employees did it have? He said, it has 28. Not 280, or 2800, just 28!

I said, what is it called? He said, it's called Mudginberri.

Which I later had to explain to Prime Minister Hawke was not the contents of a fruit pie.

Notwithstanding these obvious precedent-setting advantages, Paul managed to talk the NFF executive into supporting these employees, and their owner, Jay Pendarvis, who were being picketed by the AMIEU for, interestingly, writing their own AWAs in 1985!

This matter finally finished in the Federal court, and the union was forced to pay nearly $1.9 million in damages for its bad behaviour. Our estimate was that it cost them well over $3 million in 1986 dollars by the time it was finished.

Later, Paul, having been supported in these mad right-wing adventures, and having been castigated by left and right alike, went private and got involved with Corrigan, Reith and the Liberal government, and the NFF again under Donald McGauchie. And we know the history of that great win in the battle of the waterfront, which Paul was so instrumental in bringing about.

My own belief is that the importance of these disputes and the order in which they occurred, was vital.

The live sheep dispute showed that the union movement, even in the face of physical picketing and blockading, could be beaten. One of the great advantages the farmers had, of course, was that they could go home and no-one could find them. A la, the Boer War.

The result of the Wide Combs Dispute, which was a combination of workers and farmers, shearing on in the face of a national strike, was that unionism---in the AWU of all unions!---became voluntary. An absolutely vital national change.

The result of the Mudginberri dispute was that in a real court, a union could be fined an amount of money which had to make them much more cautious than in the past.

And the result of the waterfront, which was the big one, but which when one thinks about this in retrospect, could not have been taken on until these other precedents had been completed, was all about productivity and the defeat of employers and employees who would not understand that Australia had to compete internationally, despite their own short-term interests.

Back to my theme---the difficulty of the youth of today understanding the pathetic dilemmas of days gone by.

I have a piece written by the wonderful Bert Kelly, whose campaign against protectionism should have brought him five knighthoods. He wrote in his column in 1986:

    You would expect Providence to be on the side of the angels and occasionally even on the side of the troglodytes, but surely never on the side of traitors and fascists.

    However, this seems to be happening.

    The new Right in general, and the H R Nicholls Society in particular, have benefited by being attacked by the Prime Minister, Mr Dawkins, Mr Halfpenny and many others for being stupid troglodytes and traitors [...]

    Now no one would have heard of us and what we were trying to do if we had not been attacked so enthusiastically.

    So we are grateful to our attackers for both their attention and for trying to do so much of what we have been urging them to do.

    Then, just when we were beginning to run out of steam, along comes Brian Powell, the Director-General of the Chamber of Manufactures in Melbourne, who brands some of us as fascists, so now we are off and running again.

    Providence is indeed on our side. Mr Powell does not say which of us are fascists; he just smears us generally.

    At the Nicholls dinner on September 30, I sat at the same table as Mr Alfred Stauder, of Dollar Sweets fame, the man who stood firm against union bullying in Melbourne.

    He did not behave like a fascist at the dinner, though I admit he is rather large.

    But perhaps Powell thinks Stauder behaved like a fascist by standing up to his unions. He told me that he received a lot of help from the Victorian Chamber of Commerce, so perhaps they too are fascists.

    I understand that Dollar Sweets had little help from the Chamber of Manufactures so I suppose that Powell can go around claiming that his slate is clean because he was not messed up in any unseemly confrontation.

    Paul Houlihan and Ian McLachlan were also at the dinner. They were the people, backed by the NFF, who had the nerve to confront the unions at Mudginberri.

    This is evidently the kind of behaviour that Powell regards as fascist.

    I admit that Houlihan looks rather menacing, behind his whiskers and McLachlan has a kind of sardonic look about him, so perhaps they are the people Powell has in mind [...]

    If they are fascists, I just wish we had more of them. [1]

Bravo, Bert.

And finally, let me just read you a few verses of a rather nice poem that Henry Lawson put together, called "The Men Who Come Behind". Not that Paul ever did, but as Paul will agree after many of his ventures, not all your friends are quite on your side. But in the end, he and his friends have changed much about Australia. I've left out some verses, but Lawson wrote:

    There's a class of men (and women) who are always on their guard---
    Cunning, treacherous, suspicious---feeling softly---grasping hard---
    Brainy, yet without the courage to forsake the beaten track---
    Cautiously they feel their way behind a bolder spirit's back. [...]

    They will stick to you like sin will, while your money comes and goes,
    But they'll leave you when you haven't got a shilling in your clothes.
    You may get some help above you, but you'll nearly always find
    That you cannot get assistance from the men who come behind. [...]

    They will follow in your footsteps while you're groping for the light;
    But they'll run to get before you when they see you're going right;
    And they'll trip you up and baulk you in their blind and greedy heat,
    Like a stupid pup that hasn't learned to trail behind your feet.

    Take your loads of sin and sorrow on more energetic backs!
    Go and strike across the country where there are not any tracks! [2]

Paul Houlihan has struck across the country where there weren't many tracks and has done an enormous service, for all of us, and for Australia.


1. Bert Kelly, "'Fascist' tag is cannon fodder for New Right", Stock and Land, 16 October, 1986.
2. Henry Lawson, "The Men Who Come Behind".