Light on the Hill: Industrial Relations Reform in Australia
The H R Nicholls Society was born in the summer of
1985-6. The impetus for its birth was the Hancock Report
on Australian Industrial Relations and the prospect
of Commonwealth Legislation based on that report. The
Hancock Report was presented to the Minister in May
1985 and proclaimed the doctrine that justice ought
to be dispensed according to the relative power of
the disputing parties rather than according to Law.
It also proposed the establishment of a Labour Court,
which would have exclusive jurisdiction in industrial
relations matters, and which would be staffed by legally
qualified people with appropriate 'industrial relations
Two years after the Hancock Report was published the
Government introduced a Bill which did have provision
for just such a Labour Court, and which severely curtailed
the rights of Australians to seek redress from the
real courts if they suffered injury in the course of
an 'industrial dispute' The chronology of the introduction
of this Bill by the Commonwealth Minister, Ralph Willis,
and its subsequent abandonment, together with the announcement
of the Federal Election of 11 July 1987 (which the
Hawke Government won with an increased majority) are
detailed in the speech by Hugh Morgan which is published
as Chapter 7 of this volume.
It had been suggested to the Society at the end of
1986 that it should organize a conference in Queensland
with the aim of, amongst other things, enabling discussion
of new legislative initiatives by the Queensland Government
in the field of industrial relations. The opening speech
by the Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the paper
by the Queensland Minister for Industrial Relations,
Paul Clauson, and the papers by Andrew Brown and Chris
Carberry are specifically about developments in industrial
relations law and practice in Queensland since the
watershed SEQEB dispute of January 1985.
Whilst the conference programme had been compiled
with this aim in view the background to the discussions
at the conference was the prospects of the Hawke Government
at the forthcoming election and the possibilities of
industrial relations reform if there was to be a change
of government. Senator Fred Chaney, who was appointed
Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations in early 1987,
had agreed to deliver a paper many weeks before the
announcement of the election. Because of election commitments
his paper was presented on his behalf by the Hon Neil
Brown, his predecessor in that shadow portfolio. This
paper appears as Chapter 10. Officially, it was Senator
Chaney's paper. However there is much of Neil Brown's
advocacy in the text, and it was appropriate that it
should have been delivered by Neil Brown at the Conference.
One of the most extraordinary stories in the history
of the Australian construction industry is the story
of the Newport Power Station. This project was declared
black by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and was
eventually built by volunteers, under budget, well
within schedule, in an outstanding display of productive
and efficient teamwork. The Society was fortunate in
having the former Premier of Victoria, The Hon Lindsay
Thompson, and the former Assistant General Manager
of the SECV, Mr Jack Johnson, relate the story of Newport
Power Station. These accounts (Chapters 5 & 6)
give us a picture of how prosperous Australia could
become if we could create a Newport Power Station environment
in every workplace in Australia. The building of Newport
Power Station represents 'The Light on The Hill' in
a dramatic and incontestable way.
Australia, since it first became economically viable
at the beginning of the nineteenth century with exports
of wool and whale oil, has been dependent on the shipping
of commodities to overseas markets for its prosperity.
The efficiency and productivity of Australia's ports
and wharves is of major economic importance to all
Australians. Two papers in this volume, the account
by Roger Rooney of the desperate struggle by Bruce
Perkins, a veteran of the Burma Railway, to establish
a barge shipping industry based in Darwin, and the
discussion by Ian Wearing of the problems of grain
handling in Australia, show that the operation of these
crucial facilities is a national scandal. There is
urgent need for deep rooted and major reform.
The H R Nicholls Society became part of the national
political debate in August 1986. The propulsion of
the Society onto the national stage came about because
Mr Charles Copeman, Chief Executive of Peko Wallsend,
and one of the foundation members of the Society, became
embroiled in a major industrial dispute at Robe River.
This dispute was of national and historical significance,
and Mr Copeman's membership of the H R Nicholls Society
was deemed by the press to be a significant factor
in the dispute. It was at this time that the Prime
Minister accused the Society of being a group of 'political
troglodytes and economic lunatics'.
Mr Copeman presented a paper at the conference detailing
a full history of the Robe River story, and this historic
paper is Chapter 8 of this volume.
Because the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, and the Special
Minister of State, Mr Michael Young, had attacked the
H R Nicholls Society in the most belligerent terms,
the Society had despaired of influencing opinion within
the Government. Thus when Senator Peter Walsh, the
Minister of Finance, complained in the Senate that
he had never been invited to address the H R Nicholls
Society, we promptly asked him to give a paper at Mooloolaba.
We were pleased when the Minister, despite the demands
of the election, accepted our invitation. His paper
appears as Chapter 14.
Mr Peter Gorringe's paper is an extensive and theoretical
analysis of the economic literature concerning the
theory of contracts, particularly contracting in the
labour market. It provides substantial theoretical
background material for the continuing debate concerning
the most desirable forms of trade union institutions
in Australia's present economic predicament, and will
be used as a reference work for some time to come.
The final chapter in the book is Wayne Gilbert's reminiscences
of his experience in the brewing industry in Sydney,
and more recently the electricity supply industry in
Brisbane. Taken all together these papers cover a very
wide diversity of experience and insight. Their publication
helps to ensure that the aims of the H R Nicholls Society,
to promote discussion about, and to support reform
of, industrial relations in Australia, are promoted.
Why HR Nicholls?