'We used to run this country,
wouldn't be a bad thing if we did again'
In Praise of a 'Comrade'
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
Considering the National Farmers' Federation view of unions
in the late '70s and early '80s, it is a wonder he got an interview
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. 
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
Cunning, treacherous, suspicious---feeling softly---grasping
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
But they'll leave you when you haven't got a shilling in your
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
But they'll run to get before you when they see you're going
And they'll trip you up and baulk you in their blind and greedy
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!
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