Back to Basics


NR Evans

When the conference conducted by the H R Nicholls Society at Mooloolaba, In July 1987, (see The Light On The Hill for the proceedings) was drawing to a close, members of the Society from Newcastle urged that the next conference should be held in their home town. This invitation the Society accepted with pleasure.

This volume of proceedings contains almost all of the papers given at the H R Nicholls Society's conference, conducted at Newcastle, on the weekend of 19th---21st February 1988. The conference was entitled 'Back to Basics', a tide reflecting the view that Australia's labour market and industrial relations problems are so deep seated that it is only through the most searching and radical analysis that any progress can be made towards effective reform.

The conferences run by the Society have now developed a tradition of vigorous debate, animated conversation, and a social camaraderie much valued and enjoyed by the members, supporters and journalists who attend.

The Newcastle conference was very much part of this tradition. A wide range of Australian industrial life was canvassed. The shipping and stevedoring industry, the steel industry, the coal industry, the hospital and medical services industry, as well as the broad range of institutional and political problems bearing on the labour market, were discussed, in depth, by people with particular authority in their fields. It is not necessary to summarise these papers in this introduction.

It is reassuring to note the changes in perception and thinking that are discussed in The Hon Ian Viner's keynote paper, Reflections of a former Minister for Industrial Relations. Ian Viner was the difficult Minister, against whom the IR Club schemed and plotted, and whose downfall the Club finally accomplished early in 1982. As the paper given by shadow minister, the Hon Fred Chaney, demonstrates Opposition thinking has improved greatly since Ian Viner was sacked.

The Society invited David Clark, columnist for the 'Australian Financial Review', to respond to Senator Chaney's paper. However much improvement has occurred in the Opposition's thinking, it is still not enough for Dr Clark who discussed Senator Chaney's paper in critical terms. The essence of his remarks was published in the 'Financial Review' three days later and we publish a facsimile of that column on pages 33 and 34.

On the Labor side of politics the Federal Treasurer, Paul Keating, nominated labour market reform 'as the last great area of change to be accomplished' in an address to the National Press Club on May 26th 1988, not long after this H R Nicholls conference took place. Doubtless the Treasurer would deny any connection between the two events. But his comment demonstrates that whilst the Government has maintained an outward show of satisfaction with existing institutions and arrangements, inwardly, concern is mounting as economic problems manifested by growing debt, uncompetitive exchange rates, crippling interest rates, erode the confidence and self esteem of key government ministers.

Labour market reform is now moving to the centre of political debate, and the role of the H R Nicholls Society, in promoting debate and argument, increases in importance as this occurs. This volume of proceedings is a valuable contribution to this vital debate.