Light on the Hill: Industrial Relations Reform in Australia


NR Evans

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 experience'.

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.