Light on the Hill: Industrial Relations Reform in Australia
Mr Premier, other Ministers of the Crown in the State
of Queensland, the Honourable the Deputy Leader of
the Federal Liberal Party, other Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you, Sir Joh, for accepting our invitation to
open this Conference---and, if I may say so, for doing
so in such a characteristically vigorous manner. It
is a measure of how far the H R Nicholls Society has
moved forward into the forefront of public interest
and attention that a State Premier---even one who is
as prodigal of his good works in these matters as yourself,
Sir---should be prepared to find the time to come here
today and launch this Conference. It is all the more
so when we know the crushing pressures upon your time
and energies at this particular moment in the fortunes
Lest there be any misunderstanding generated by your
presence, Sir Joh, I should perhaps say that the H
R Nicholls Society has no party political affiliations.
As you are aware, our invitation to you to honour proceedings
in this way has its origins in the happy circumstance
that this Conference is being held in the State of
which you have long been Premier.
I confess that, when the Society held its Inaugural
Seminar in Melbourne in February 1986, we would not
then have presumed to invite the Premier of Victoria
(Mr Cain) to do us similar honour by opening the proceedings
for a Society which had then never been heard of. It
is perhaps interesting to speculate whether, if this
meeting were also being held in Melbourne, Mr Cain
would today have accepted the similar invitation which
we would undoubtedly have tendered to him. Perhaps
not; still, he may at least have felt able to send
the Secretary to the Victorian Cabinet (Mr Coghill)
in his place.
Be that as it may, it is splendid to see this gathering
of people, some of you from as far away as Western
Australia, coming together to spend that most precious
of commodities---a long weekend---in serious discussion.
For that purpose, I know you are to receive a series
of papers perhaps even surpassing in quality, if that
were possible, those which we presented at our Inaugural
Members of the Board of the Society are particularly
grateful to two of our Queensland members, Mr David
Russell and Mr Wayne Gilbert, who persuaded us that
we should come to Mooloolaba for this Conference and
who have done so much to assist in the preparations
for it. I take this opportunity, I am sure on behalf
of all other members, to express to Mr Russell our
warm congratulations on his elevation to the rank of
Queen's Counsel earlier this year.
It is a little over 15 months since our Inaugural
Seminar took place. The four people who came together
to initiate it in the summer of 1985-86 would never
have believed that the Society would achieve such national---and indeed even some international --- prominence
Now to be fair, we must not take all the credit for
that to ourselves. A good deal of it is surely due
to the Prime Minister, who paid us the signal honour
of describing us and our members as ''political troglodytes
and economic lunatics'. Words from the Prime Minister
have ceased to have much meaning, so that abuse of
that kind would nowadays count for little . Yet at
the time it was uttered, it undoubtedly made an impact
on the public consciousness which helped to catapult
the Society into the full glare of media attention.
The 'credits' should not stop there. No less an authority
than the then Special Minister of State, the Honourable
Michael Jerome Young, assailed the Society in an even
more violent manner on the Channel 9 'Sunday' program
last August. In a rather transparent bid to cement
together the factional divisions within the Labor Party,
Mr Young raised the bogey of jackbooted oppressors
of the working classes bearing down upon the honourable
traditions of Australian trade unionism. He did not
actually mention such latter-day folk heroes as Mr
Norm Gallagher or Mr Wally Curran of the Australasian
Meat Industry Employees Union, but no doubt he had
them in mind.
Others have also added their mede. The Minister for
Finance (Senator Walsh), whom we are to have the privilege
of hearing address us at this Conference on Monday,
has utilised his notable forensic skills (and of course
his Parliamentary Privilege) to attack the Society,
and some of its more prominent members, from time to
time within the Senate. With these and other enemies
such as the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the
H R Nicholls Society has hardly needed friends.
Apart from this signal public relations triumph, however,
what have been the actual achievements of the Society
to date in forwarding its declared objectives? These
are, as you all know, to promote debate in Australia
about our industrial relations system, and the system
of determination of wages and other conditions of employment---including of course the inseparably related question
of Trade Union power. Our theme for this Conference
of course bears directly upon that latter topic.
In a purely material sense, a detached observer might
say that the Society has done little. Following our
Inaugural Seminar 15 months ago, the proceedings of
that gathering have been published under the title
'Arbitration in Contempt' and some 1,500 copies of
that extraordinarily valuable book have been sold.
As all of you would know, the book itself was triumphantly
launched by Professor Geoffrey Blainey on 30 September
last year at the Southern Cross Hotel, Melbourne, on
what can only be described as a splendid occasion.
I note in passing that Professor Blainey is in Hong
Kong this weekend and has expressed his personal regrets
that he cannot be with us.
On 6 December last, the Society mounted a one-day
Seminar in Melbourne under the general topic 'Trade
Union Reform: the proceedings of which have also subsequently
An H R Nicholls tie has been produced and I note that
many here today are proudly wearing it. It has been
described by Dr David Clark of the 'Australian Financial
Review' as exceedingly ugly, which suggests to me that
Dr Clark's economic analytical abilities far outweigh
his abilities as a sartorial assessor. The tie in fact
proved extremely popular, to the point of becoming
almost a cult symbol, and we have been forced to order
a production of a second batch. I understand that many
a politician---and many a big businessman, if that
is not saying the same thing---has one secreted in
his wardrobe. No doubt they are waiting for the day
when they can, with popular acclaim, wear it into the
various Parliaments (or big business clubs, as the
case may be) of Australia. I hasten to add that in
order to deflect any unworthy criticism of sexual bias,
an H R Nicholls scarf has also subsequently been produced
and has also been in good demand.
These then---together with this weekend's Conference---are the physical manifestations of the Society's
work over the last 18 months. But what are the important
consequences, the increases in understanding, that
have resulted from this activity?
It would be inappropriate in a Presidential Address
to claim that this or that great change has occurred.
But there are two points which I think can be legitimately
made. The first is that, as a result of the Society's
work, a significant and long overdue reappraisal of
the history of the evolution of our industrial relations
institutions---trade unions, employer organisations,
and notably the arbitral tribunals---is now being undertaken.
It is a noteworthy and regrettable feature of Australian
society that while the ordinary people of Australia
are extremely interested in our real history, how our
great-grandparents came here and settled the country,
how the next generation went off to Europe to fight
in that terrible conflict of 1914-18, and how their
sons and daughters went again to World War II, by contrast,
the political elites of the nation---journalists, politicians
and academics---seem determined to use, indeed to reconstruct
if necessary, our history to serve current political
purposes. This was recently demonstrated in the work
done by a staff member of the Federal Parliamentary
Library, a Mr Kevin Tuffin, who was commissioned at
the taxpayers' expense by the Minister for Social Security,
to undertake research on the life and work of our patron,
Henry Richard Nicholls. We can summarise Mr Tuffin's
researches by saying that Nicholls was condemned for
not conforming to the posthumous requirements of what
the so-called Progressive Left of the 1980s regards
as proper for a Chartist immigrant of the 1850s. All
that aside, it is I think a most welcome development
that debate and argument concerning these vital matters
should now be high on our national agenda. I believe
the H R Nicholls Society can claim credit in this regard.
Edmund Burke tells us that all government is based
on opinion. Opinion is formed, often very slowly, by
debate and argument. It is the great strength of our
political institutions, institutions which we have
inherited from Britain, that debate is at the centre
of all of them. The various Houses of Parliament, the
Cabinet Rooms, the Caucus Rooms in which Party debates
take place, are all places where debate is seen as
the reason for their existence.
Debates in the true sense are debates in which people
can, and do, change their minds. The Houses of Parliament
have, over the last century, become less and less places
where people can change their minds. This means that
it has become much more important to engage in debate
in situations where people can change their minds,
in books and other publications, at functions such
as this all over the country, where people meet to
discuss the mounting problems we face as a nation,
even perhaps on television.
Australia is today facing economic and thus institutional
problems which are as difficult as those of the 1890s
which led up to Federation and which had their hand
in shaping the false steps which were then taken into
the so-called 'new experience of law and order'. From
that disastrous Long March we are only now beginning
to find our way back to sanity in our industrial relations---the human relations, in the end, between employers
and those in their employ.
The full force of these problems is yet to bear upon
the mass of the people. The Government, irresponsibly,
a few days ago, was telling us that 'the worst is over'.
There is no more effective response available to us,
in the face of imminent and very great economic difficulties,
than that of releasing the energies and capacities
of the Australian people to work, to cope with adversity,
and ultimately to prosper, free of the constraints
of trade union legal privilege and monopoly trade union
power. To bring about this freedom, the people must
be convinced it is theirs for the asking. This Conference
here at Mooloolaba will take a further step towards
spreading that conviction.
The Prime Minister has called an early election, and
a new Parliament and a new Government will come into
being after 11 July. As part of the political manoeuvrings
leading up to the announcement of this election, Mr
Hawke announced that the Hancock Bill---the Bill which,
if passed, will alter the fabric of Australian society
more than any Bill in the history of the Commonwealth---was to be deferred.
I emphasise deferred. If the Hawke Government
is returned to office, it is clear that this Bill will
be the first cab off the legislative rank in the new
Parliament. It is also clear that the Democrats, who
in return have been given the double dissolution without
which their Party would have been history, will continue
in that event to support its passage through the Senate.
I understand Hugh Morgan will be commenting on this
Bill and what it means for Australia in his remarks
at dinner tonight. I will not trespass on his territory
now. Let me therefore pursue the other possible outcome
of the election, a majority for the coalition of the
Liberal and National Parties. It is entirely possible,
given the nature of Senate representation, that even
if the Coalition Parties win a majority in the lower
house, they will not also win, at the same time, a
majority in the Senate.
Just as the Democrats have committed themselves to
support of the Hancock Bill, it is most improbable
that they will be inclined to support a Bill to repeal
those sections of the Commonwealth Conciliation and
Arbitration Act which give monopoly power and legal
privilege to the trade unions. Much will depend, in
that regard, on the nature and extent of the 'mandate'
received by the new Government at the polls. We shall
Thank you Ladies and Gentlemen.
Why HR Nicholls?