Light on the Hill: Industrial Relations Reform in Australia

Presidential Address

John Stone

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 of Australia.

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 Seminar.

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 so quickly.

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 been published.

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 see.

Thank you Ladies and Gentlemen.