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