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Address of Welcome

The Lord Mayor of Newcastle,
Alderman John McNaughton

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for your introduction. There are among you tonight some who will know that my being here to bid you welcome to Newcastle has not been without some local controversy. I should say, however, that I see it as my duty as Lord Mayor of this city to accept invitations such as yours and to welcome to Newcastle those people and groups who show an interest in our city.

I confess, however, to some bewilderment as to your purpose in selecting Newcastle for such a gathering. If Newcastle was intended to provide your members with an opportunity to rub shoulders with some 'industrial rough company' or to provide a plangent background for your wisdom, then you chose unwisely indeed.

The reputation of the H R Nicholls Society precedes you and the prescriptions associated with its name are at sharp variance with the preferences and practices of this city.

It is true, of course, that Newcastle is perceived as having a poor industrial relations image; yet its record during this decade is one of accomplishment and change, especially in the industrial relations arena. Indeed, Newcastle today is more the victim of those who set the agenda with generalisations than it is of its own industrial practices.

I do not present myself to you as an industrial relations expert. However, I would like to put before you a picture of some of the developments taking place here which may not be known to you, and indicate our preference for an alternative model to that suggested by your Society.

In the past decade some $9 billion of capital projects and infrastructure have been completed in Newcastle and the Hunter region, with virtually no industrial disputation on construction sites. This huge investment grew out of the so-called energy crisis of the late 1970s: the industrial and social pressures thus created called for innovative control measures.

Chief among these was a series of individual site agreements which eliminated demarcation problems, and put in place feasible and accessible dispute-solving procedures.

Now the detail of those agreements I will have to leave to others to pursue, but the result has been that massive capital projects in the public and private sector have been completed on-time and on-budget, with considerable dollar savings to the investors concerned.

Some comparative figures of performance make interesting reading. Time lost on some of these major projects in the region costing about $4 billion are:

    %

    Tomago Aluminium Smelter 2.9

    Alcan Aluminium 0.03

    Hunter Valley No 1 Coal Preparation Unit 0.02

    Kooragang Bulk Loader 0.0

Time lost on the giant Bayswater Power Station between 1980 and 1985 averaged 1.87 per cent annually.

Compare that performance to the 14.16 per cent time lost at Loy Yang Power Station and the 25-30 per cent loss on the first attempt to build the Portland Smelter.

Time lost at the Wagerup and Worsley Refineries in Western Australia was up to 12 per cent.

This successful performance by the Hunter Valley did not occur by accident, particularly since this is a region where, in the past, industrial relations were often characterised by bitter disputes between organised labour and capital.

Success occurred for three main reasons:

  • Our industrial relations community recognised the huge challenge it faced and was prepared to create innovative solutions.
  • Those solutions were arrived at through careful negotiation based on a common willingness to co-operate and to build systems that were fair to the parties, considerate of the community, and civilised for the practitioners.
  • The region is the first in Australia to have a resident Deputy President of an industrial tribunal, capable of working in both State and Federal jurisdictions where circumstances warrant.

The fact is that, without exception, the parties to the agreement, and particularly the trade unions, have kept their word to honour the agreements they made. Variations of these early site agreements are still being implemented at the rate of about 30 a year in the Hunter Valley and Northern New South Wales.

The system is an achievement which in its time-scale, extent of investment and large numbers of people involved, is without precedent or parallel in Australian industrial and developmental history. The system acknowledges the inevitability of conflict, but puts an onus of performance on the parties themselves, within a framework to which they have mutually agreed.

It is an achievement of which we, as a city, are proud, and which I am particularly pleased to draw to your attention tonight.

I suppose the lesson of that experience is that Newcastle has very good grounds to resent being taken for granted, or being stereotyped.

It is true, of course, that the image of the past lingers. Whilst the first of our new agreements was put in place 10 years ago, it is only in the last two-and-a-half years that the success of site agreements has been in the public domain.

The idea of co-operative agreements between labour and management is, however, taking hold in other sectors, including the metals sector and manufacturing.

There is now a 'culture' of industrial activity in this city that is based on positive negotiation, co-operation, and getting the job done.

The process is painstaking, and some industrial sectors such as coal mining (which has historical and social peculiarities known to you all) are slower to change than others.

But, the process of change is well under way. We have the advantage that the process was begun and consolidated in a favourable economic climate, and the 'culture' that has resulted is coping constructively with the rigours of restructuring our industrial base, making our industries more competitive, and introducing a new technological base for employment generation.

I make these comments in my formal welcome to Newcastle so that you do not begin your Conference by imagining that Newcastle is a 'push-over' industrially, or that it fits a convenient stereotype.

The industrial systems evolving here are unique: they are embraced by employers and respected by unions. They are a Newcastle solution to a Newcastle problem, and their application elsewhere is, I submit, an innovative alternative to both the formulas of the 'industrial relations club' and the prescriptions of your Society.

There is no room in Newcastle for division and confrontation.

That said, I will conclude by saying that although I disagree with most of what your reputation suggests you stand for, I formally welcome you to Newcastle. In declaring your Conference open, I trust that it may draw some positive contemporary comfort from its being held in a city of industrial innovation, co-operative spirit and proven industrial relations achievements.

I formally declare this Conference open.

Why HR Nicholls?

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