When you look back at the last 100 years it’s hard to identify any institution outside Parliament itself which has had a greater impact on Australian society, on our national character and psyche, than the Australian Industrial Relations Commission says Sharan Burrow.

It is an honour to be invited to speak regarding 100 years of conciliation and arbitration in the federal jurisdiction in Australia. We in the union movement are unabashed and enthusiastic supporters of the notion of an independent umpire – an independent arbiter of fairness in the workplace. For 100 years the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its predecessors have served well the interests of all who are touched by it: unions, employees, employers, employer associations and the Australian community as a whole.

There are of course scurrilous rumours that on occasion, perhaps when decisions aren’t quite to our liking, it has been christened the bosses court !

In all seriousness though when you look back at the last 100 years it’s hard to identify any institution outside Parliament itself which has had a greater impact on Australian society, on our national character and psyche, than the Commission. It is a tribute to the foresight of the founders of Australian federation that they understood the importance of ensuring fairness in the workplace, that they understood that industrial disputation should not be determined by might and power but rather by reason and fairness, by conciliation and arbitration. It is testimony to the short sightedness of some that in this the Commission’s 100th year they would advocate abandoning the good sense of the founders of federation and destroying or disabling the Commission.

So what are the achievements of the Commission, what are the defining moments in conciliation and arbitration from a union movement perspective? Well in many respects they are too numerous to mention but just an outline of some of the highlights gives an indication of the importance of the Commission to working people and its critical place in the fabric of Australian society.

On wages, a defining moment was obviously the now famous Harvester judgement in 1907. As virtually everyone in this room knows, Justice Higgins determined that a wage should be set such that “an unskilled labourer could maintain himself and his family in frugal comfort”. Obviously Higgins’s judgement pre-dates the extensive participation of women in the labour market but it has stood as a beacon for the principle that a wage is more than simply a cost of production but more importantly is the means by which people live. As Justice Higgins said:

“Unless great multitudes of people are to be irretrievably injured in themselves or in their families, unless society is to be perpetually in industrial unrest, it is necessary to keep this living wage as a thing sacrosanct, beyond the reach of bargaining.”

Throughout all the different forms of wage fixation, the basic wage and skills margins, the total wage, full indexation, partial indexation, the Accord and more recently the Living Wage and Minimum Wage cases, the Commission has played a critical role in establishing a fair society by maintaining and improving the wages of working people.

On hours of work the Commission has also been active: in 1927, establishing the standard of 44 hours per week, in 1947 the 40-hour standard and in 1983 the 38-hour week. More recently in the Reasonable Hours case the Commission responded to the development of a long-hours culture amongst full-time workers in this country by providing employees with a capacity to refuse unreasonable hours of work.

Many of the working conditions which Australians now regard as standard have been established by the Commission over time. Annual leave has gone from one week to two weeks in 1946 to three weeks in 1963 and to four weeks in 1970. Maternity leave was first established in 1979, Adoption leave in 1985, Parental leave in 1990 and Carer’s leave in 1995. Currently the Commission is hearing a Test Case aimed at allowing workers to better balance their work and family responsibilities.

In 1972, the principle of equal pay for women was finally established and in the 1960s discrimination in rates of pay for Aboriginal workers was ended. In 1984, the Commission established rights in relation to Termination, Change and Redundancy and as recently as this year those rights in relation to Redundancy were extended in a test case.

These were all significant moments for unions and working people but when one looks at the nature of these highlights, at the near universality of the acceptance of these matters as basic standards, it seems impossible not to conclude that they’re not just defining moments for the unions and working people but for the nature of our society.

It is significant that while the Harvester Judgement reflected the principles of a decent society early in the 20th century it may well be the Work and Family test case that reflects the changing nature of society and thus work in the 21st century.

Justice Higgins gave us what I have affectionately labelled our industrial pin-up boy – Harvester Man. You all know and love him – our dads, uncles, granddads. Harvester man went to work, worked an eight hour day, came home to those comfy slippers at the door and tea on the table, a good life really! Now I should be fair, we did expect him to mow the lawns on the weekend!

While he still lurks out there, in fact is still a desired spark in many a man’s eye, with the revolution in women’s participation Harvester Man is officially dead. However, we have not yet seen a universal shift in workplace culture. Wonder woman is not a sustainable model and thus once again we turn to the AIRC to reflect the societal demands for the right balance between the nature of our society and the world of work.

In the current environment employers will increasingly look to women to staff their workplaces and women with caring responsibilities are a major source of underutilised labor. But it is an enormous burden to be both a worker and a carer. It has to be easier or else rational women will choose not to do one of these things. We already see this in our low fertility rates and many predict a dire shortage of carers for the frail, the disabled and older Australians into the future – the care less society as depicted by Barbara Pocock. Good corporate practice is getting the balance right but as always when there is the predicable dispute about rights between employers and employees, then we turn rightly to Australia’s workplace umpire. The AIRC is a significant player in setting the social policy response to the extent of the conditions under which work is performed.

Likewise, as we again face the reality that equal pay remains elusive, that the workforce is still heavily gender-segregated and that much of traditional women’s work remains undervalued, it will be the Commission that weighs up these matters against established principles.

The Commission has historically been the most effective instrument for closing the pay equity gap in this country and indeed internationally. Unfortunately, while this remains true in the award-dependent sector, the award as the safety net framework and the growth in casual work for women has opened up an alarming increase in the gap and principles of equity require a wages system which does not simply render this invisible.

If we were debating expansionary possibilities the issues pertaining to workplace discrimination dealt with as individual cases under HREOC might indeed provide a basis for an argument regarding a closer role between this institution and the AIRC. The capacity for class actions around human rights and discrimination would be a relevant, if provocative, discussion. However, I suspect we would have to construct a parallel universe.

I’ve referred to some of the highlights in the Commission’s tradition of conciliation and arbitration but of course one of the great things about the Commission is its capacity not just to deal with the great issues affecting all workplaces but its demonstrated capacity over the last 100 years to deal sensibly and practically with fairness to all parties in the small disputes which happen day to day in workplaces. In many ways this day to day smaller scale work has made just as much a contribution to fairness and stability and productivity in the workplace as have the bigger more notable cases.

In this context it will come as no surprise that the ACTU and unions are totally opposed to any legislative agenda which attempts to undermine or diminish further the role of the Commission. On 9 October, the Howard government was re-elected and it is now clear re-elected with the control of the Senate. It would be a breach of faith with the Australian people if the Howard government were to use its control of the Senate to maim the Commission by diminishing and limiting its role.

The arguments against the Commission will be run in terms of productivity and employment but those arguments are specious. A hundred years of history have shown us that it’s not always a matter of striking a balance between fairness and efficiency but often a matter of advancing both at the same time.

Where there is a trade-off to be made between fairness and efficiency, equity and productivity, the Commission has shown itself, as an institution, to be a very good judge of that balance. There is no credible empirical evidence to suggest that the Commission acts as an impediment to employment growth or productivity. On the contrary, employment growth in recent years has been strongest in the most heavily award-dependent sectors and those sectors have all enjoyed significant productivity growth at the same time as receiving reasonable increases in minimum wage levels.

We would argue that and indeed the evidence demonstrates that the Commission played a major role in the current economic sunshine. During the early eighties a consensus emerged that significant restructuring of the Australian economy was essential, as was our need to develop export capacity beyond the rural and resources sectors.

The role of the Commission was significant in putting in place the building blocks, through its national wage decisions, for the sustained economic growth we have enjoyed. Award restructuring, which transformed our workplaces from ones with dead-end or career-limiting, rigidly-defined job to ones with genuinely broad-banded, multi-skilled jobs, underpins today’s economic success. Skill-based career paths rewarded employees for the attainment and development of skill and encouraged employers to invest in the human capital of their workforce.

The process of developing industry-wide understandings of the competencies, and the MRA process which aligned wages with work value were important underpinnings and gained worker and employer confidence to radically re-organise work. As such, this process was an essential precursor to workplace-based productivity bargaining.

While at times both sides of the industrial fence disagreed with the pace of change, and at times were disappointed with the outcomes in individual industries, the role of the Commission in strategically laying down in an orderly fashion the foundations for industry restructuring was critical.

That era of reform in the national interest was achieved because of, and not in spite of, our unique industrial system.

Sadly, some of the understandings about the need for long term structural reform have been abandoned. Today in many workplaces the employer focus on flexibility has shifted from investing in the skills of the workforce to ensure an adaptive and responsive source of skilled labour, to buying in skills and labour on an as-needs casual basis, effectively transferring responsibility for workforce development to individual workers. It is an unsustainable model.

In summary, in the post Australia Reconstructed period, the recognition of multi-skilling through skills classification and remuneration underpinned the restructuring of Australian industry. As we face the next wave of productivity demand hindered by the reality of both a skills crisis and a shrinking workforce, I have no doubt that many of the additional stories for the Australian workforce and indeed for Australian industry will be crafted in this place.

If we are not to be victims of traditions that have served us well but need some surgery, or victims of our own demography then our workplaces need to reflect changing demand. Workplace change will only be productive and sustainable if it is reflective of the societal structures on which we depend. We must be confident that this place, with its great economic and great social story will continue to serve us well.

The current argument presented for limitations on the Commission’s role is wrapped up in false appeals to productivity and employment growth but its real agenda is much harsher. This government and its BCA and ACCI cheer squad have at their core a belief in absolute and unfettered managerial prerogatives. Fairness has no place in their workplace, only the managers’ right to do what they want, pay what they want and afford whatever conditions they like. This is not the Australian way and I am certain wise employer heads know, a recipe not for certainty and stability but indeed for great contestation. Our economy and our society need more security that that.

After 100 years of successful conciliation and arbitration, of an independent umpire, of improved working conditions for Australian people, it is to be hoped that the re-election of a Howard government on 9 October does not become the beginning of the Commission’s end.

There are many questions:

  • Will this next minimum wages case be the last?
  • Will awards be merely a handful of minimum conditions (Kennett
  • Will a unitary system destroy state jurisdictions?
  • Will the Commission have the power to deal with emerging workplace issues
    such as casualisation and work and family?
  • The list is potentially endless but the fact is that Australia already sits outside international law in regard even to core labour standards as determined by the International Labour Organisation. A rich nation that treats its people so poorly in terms of fundamental rights is not something we should be proud of and needless to say is not a prescription Australian unions will accept.

    After the last 100 years of conciliation and arbitration we know that it is possible to have fairness in the workplace and economic prosperity; it is possible to have improved working conditions and increasing profits and productivity; it is possible to have decent minimum standards and a flexible, dynamic economy.

    A strong independent Commission has played and should continue to play a vital role in ensuring these things.

    Sackcloth and ashes – humility, repentance, mourning: let’s have none of these.

    Conciliation and arbitration, a hundred years strong – Happy Birthday.