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

Acceptance Speech

Paul Houlihan

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, and a particular welcome to many members of my family.

This is I think is the seventh or eighth time that I have spoken to this Society since its formation, and that indicates the standing that I have always held HRN in, so you will be pleased to know that as I think this sort of speech should be brief, so I will be. I have already told you all I know seven or eight times.

For me to be the recipient of this Charles Copeman Medal is a real joy. Charles has been a hero of mine since I first came across him while he was trying to drag King Island Scheelite into the twentieth century, a little while before he decided to fix up the iron ore business. Charles was never one to be burdened by small ambitions.

Imagine for a moment if Charles Copeman, Urb Larratt and a few others hadn't fought that fight at Robe River, would iron ore be the backbone of our economy today, or would the lads still be going on strike over the fact that the choice of ice cream flavours was down to four?

In its own way, that comparison between how iron ore mining was and is today, forms a great exemplar of the changes that we have seen and in many cases made, in Australia.

The issues were never about the right to strike (mind you the poor bloody pilots thought that they had such a right, only to be brutally disabused), or about wether people could join Unions, no, it was about the capricious, and totally unnecessary use and abuse of Union power. Just think about shutting the Pilbara down over choices of ice cream.

It is a remarkable thing to be given the opportunity to look back over a period of time, in this case some twenty years since we first gathered at the CWA Rooms in Toorak, for the first session of the HR Nichols Society.

It is fair to say that while our gene pool there was excellent, it was very narrow.

If you took out the elected leader of the National Farmers Federation, its main barrister, one of its solicitors, a former deputy director and then current industrial director, there weren't a hell of lot of others there.

With some notable and particularly honourable exceptions.

Of course Charles Copeman was there, and so was Hugh Morgan, ably assisted by the genius who came up with the name of the Society, Ray Evans, and Barry Purvis.

Ian McLachlan perceptively said that it was easier for farmers to be brave about unions because it was so much harder for the unions to get at them than virtually any other part of the economy.

And, of course, today to speak in those terms sounds melodramatic, because the threat of union power seems so remote. It wasn't then.

It is astonishing to recall that the Hancock Commission reported, just before this Society was established, (and in no small way speeding its establishment), that society possessed various power centres, and that the most powerful in the Australian society was the trade union movement. And in so many words said that those troglodytes that were raising concerns about that power, and its misuse, should get used to it.

Of course, those of us around at the time who came together in this Society weren't totally surprised by these findings. The Prime Minister, RJ Hawke was a subscriber to the old adage that you don't hold an inquiry unless you can be sure of the findings, and given that he appointed the three amigos to that inquiry, he got the result that he wanted.

It is only twenty years since we were told that not only did we have the best system of industrial regulation in the world, but it was hard to see how it could be improved. Quite overlooking the fact that we had about nine per cent unemployed and we had fairly stagnant growth. Of course our standard of living had been declining by comparison to most other developed countries since the formation of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, in 1904.

I think the one thing that sums up best the way Australia had adapted to the utterly distorting effects of overly powerful and important Unions, and their accompanying institutions, is seen in Paul Kelly's book, The End of Certainty.

I think Kelly is one our best journalists, and in that book he details the enormous changes that were taking place in our society and our economy during the eighties.

It is a magnificent description of what was happening and what needed to happen and so on.

But the status quo in this area was such a given that even Kelly missed it.

Thank God Charles Copeman didn't, Hugh Morgan didn't, and particularly importantly Ian Mc Lachlan didn't.

Of those three, Charles paid the highest price as he had a Board that was more susceptible to the type of pressure that a Federal Government, particularly a very peeved Federal government can bring to bear. I like to think that this Society named its medal after Charles, not for the King Island issue, not for Robe River, but for the stoic grace and courage he displayed when men, he was entitled to expect support from, folded under pressure from the Federal Government.

As we look at the likelihood of the ALP returning to power nationally, we should remind ourselves that in that structure of the Labor Party, built as it has been upon the chassis of the Trade Union Movement, there is a sense that attacking Unions is in some incoherent way akin to treason. I say that not in disparagement, but to explain the sort of venom that was directed at Charles, and indeed all of us in those early days of this Society.

Who could forget the then Minister for Industrial Relations (I think a long lost relative of mine actually) John Dawkins drawing the scene of our first session, and using the fact that we met at the Country Women's Association Rooms as some sort of a proof of conspiratorial badness on our part. Talk about long bows. Indeed, the ABC recently did a series of programs on the CWA, and I was interested to see if this particularly nefarious part of their history would surface, but it didn't.

Equally of course, who could forget John Stone's demolition of the said Minister, who apparently went to the same exalted College as John did, and that was shared by the famous Doctor Spooner, of the juxtaposed words, which John reminded us all of, before going on to describe Dawkins, in Spooner's words as "a shining wit of the Labour Party". Stone of course delivered this with a dead straight face, (and is there a straighter straight face anywhere than John Stone's?)

I have spoken about the enormous shift that this Society and its friends have been able to bring about in this critical industrial part of our community and economy.

We have achieved a great deal, and frankly it can all be lost again fairly easily and probably we have started to see that happening under this Prime Minister, who certainly knows, and understands more about this area than any other politician in my time. Yet the current Federal legislation is a case study in the re-regulating of the labour market, not the deregulating of it.

I should take this opportunity to apologise to Ray Evans who I upbraided at an HRN function in Melbourne shortly after the Act was passed. Ray was livid, and I basically told him to take a cold shower. He was right and I should have been livid.

If we get legislation like this from the Howard government, God knows what we will get from Julia Gillard.

That said, it should be good for Dan and my business, so hopefully the old adage about ill winds still holds true.

Let me conclude these remarks by saying how much I have enjoyed my time in and around this Society, with so many of you that I consider friends, with people here that I have experienced some really difficult times with, that I have enjoyed some of history's great lunches and dinners with, and particularly to Ray Evans for all that you do and have done, for this Society, and for society generally.

I particularly want to thank Ray for getting hold of my old mate Steve Harrison to do the honours tonight. Steve and Cathy go back to our misspent days as Union Officials in Tasmania together, where we learnt many useful things, and some that have stayed with us all our lives. We share a deep affection and respect for working people, and Steve, while it took him a bit longer than it took me, we also share a real concern about the appropriateness of Union representation and structures in a modern economy. This is an important issue for society generally, and I don't know of anyone doing any serious thinking about it. Not in the Unions, and certainly not in academe.

I have had the privilege of making so many speeches at so many places all over Australia, but this is very special to me tonight because my wife Mary is here, and that is rare, and wonderful and because three of our four kids are here, and two of our three children-in-law are here as well, and I do thank them most gratefully. I acknowledge that while I was out, racing around, fighting the good fight and curing the country's woes, Mary was at home doing a magnificent job of raising four terrific young Australians.

To Charles Copeman I say simply this, you are a great man and a wonderful fellow. I remember being with Charles at a CAI (now ACCI) meeting where we had been drawing the line in the sand against the inexorable union advance, each meeting we had to redraw that line as we had been pushed back a few miles each time, and at morning tea, Charles said to me, " what do you reckon, we've been here for two hours and we haven't mined a ton of ore nor shorn one sheep, should we go?" And go we did, the NFF left CAI

Thank you for your tolerance of my rambling recall, for the honour that you have done me, and I wish the Society well and God speed.

Why HR Nicholls?

More...