The Origins of the Society
The H R Nicholls Society was established at a seminar which
took place at the CWA Hostel in Toorak, Victoria, on the weekend
of 19th February - 2nd March 1986. The Seminar was organised by
four people, John Stone, then a financial and economic consultant,
Peter Costello, Barrister at Law, Barrie Purvis, industrial advocate,
and Ray Evans, an executive with WMC Ltd.
The purpose of the seminar was to discuss the Report of the
Committee of Review into Australian Industrial Relations Law and
Systems (the "Hancock Report") and the prospects for
Commonwealth legislation based on that Report; the significance
of the Mudginberri dispute; the economic impact of our industrial
relations practices in Australia; and similar matters.
Some forty people attended the seminar. The papers presented
were subsequently published in a volume entitled "Arbitration
in Contempt", which was launched by Professor Geoffrey Blainey,
with considerable publicity, in September 1986. That volume is
now almost out of print.
At the seminar it was agreed to incorporate the Society and
John Stone was elected as the foundation President.
The Society is named after Henry Richard Nicholls who, in 1911,
was the editor of the Hobart "Mercury". He published
an editorial in that paper in which he roundly criticised Henry
Bournes Higgins, then a High Court judge and President of the
Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. Higgins had
trenchantly attacked a barrister, H E Starke QC, who was appearing
before him, and Nicholls, in his turn, took Higgins to task for
behaving in a politically partisan and unjudicial manner.
H B Higgins was outraged by this editorial and persuaded the
Attorney General to have Nicholls charged with contempt of Court.
Proceedings were set in train, and it was only then that Higgins
learned that the editorialist whom he sought to have imprisoned
was 82 years of age and very highly respected in his home town.
The case was duly heard and Nicholls was acquitted unanimously
by a full bench of the High Court. The Court decision was written
by Sir Samuel Griffith, CJ, and is a damning indictment of Higgins'
When the judgment was announced the citizens of Hobart arranged
for a celebration which took place in the Hobart Town Hall. Hundreds
of people attended from every walk of life, and messages of congratulation
from all over Australia were read out. Nicholls gave an extempore
speech which was reprinted in full in the "Mercury",
and in this speech the learning, energy, and good humour of this
remarkable octogenarian is delightfully displayed.
It has been a great satisfaction to the founders of the Society
that, as a result of their efforts, the name of this important
Australian has become, again, a household word.
Since 1986 the H R Nicholls Society has organised six conferences
and published their proceedings. From time to time the President
has commented publicly on industrial relations issues. The powerful
vested interests in Australia which, apparently, greatly resent
the debate and discussion which the Society has generated, have
sought to denigrate its work and its reputation. For example,
Mr John Halfpenny, then Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall
Council, in his Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture of 1986, described
the H R Nicholls Society as
"the Industrial Relations Branch of the Klu (sic)
Legal action ensued and both Mr Halfpenny, and the Melbourne
Age, were eventually obliged to pay damages to two of the founding
members of the Society. In less serious vein, the then Prime Minister,
Mr Hawke, described the members of the Society as "economic
lunatics and political troglodytes."
An unexpected, but very welcome, acknowledgment of the value
of the Society's work came in November 1989, when a report by
two officers of the NSW Labor Council was leaked to the press.
In this report, which comprises a sophisticated analysis of the
problems facing the trade union movement, the authors conclude
that "the H R Nicholls Society is winning the intellectual
and political debate." It was most regrettable that the circumstances
surrounding the leaking of the document to the press led to the
dismissal of one of the authors from his employment.