In this speech welcoming two new commissioners to the AIRC ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles recounts the role of the commission in Australia’s history.

Your Honours and Commissioners,

Today is a great day because we welcome two worthy people onto one of the most significant institutions in Australia.

Our country was formed in the aftermath of the worst period of industrial disputes seen on this continent.

But these disputes motivated the founders of our country to have a remarkable idea.

Like America they knew that the class divisions and class warfare of the old world had no place in the new. But unlike America they acknowledged the role and differing interests of both capital and labour in a market economy.

In an attempt to prevent this kind of disputation from ever happing again they built a system which provided for a consensus between capital and labour. A consensus which allowed capital and labour to recognise when their interests were mutual. A consensus which allowed capital and labour to resolve their interests when they differed.

At the heart of that architecture was this place. And no matter what the specific roles and obligations, duties and powers of the Conciliation and Arbitration Court or the Australian Industrial Relations Commission have been over the last hundred years, if this place has been one thing it has been the custodian of the consensus between labour and capital.

That is as true tody as it has ever been – overseeing agreements, setting minimum standards of employment, resolving industrial disputes.

So the consensus between labour and capital and the Commission have been critical to our system of industrial relations. But it goes beyond that. Because both have been the vital pillars which underpin the culture of our people: a culture which is egalitarian, a culture which is compassionate, a culture which is fair. We work together at work but we work together as a people as well.

This culture is evident in our history and in our every day lives.

The recent series on the ABC has reminded us that it was Australians working together in the terrible conditions which prevailed in the prisoner of war camps in Changi which saw Australia have the highest survival rate of any of the nations in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

We see it in our every day life and in the appreciation so many of us have for sport. So you can be a dockhand loading trucks at five o’clock in the morning at Linfox or you can be Lindsay Fox and you’ll both have a firm view about what it means that Brisbane has just won the flag and you’ll both be just starting to pick the horse you are going to place a bet upon on the first Tuesday in November.

And we saw it in the wonderful achievement which was the Olympic Games. In particular in the opening ceremony which obviously highlighted the amazing things about our country: our indigenous people, our incredible sea fauna. But if you remember that scene with the men and women in their work clothes and their work boots using angle grinders sending sparks into the night sky, it also highlighted that ordinary working Australians are extraordinary too.

But for me it all begins and ends in this place. Where representatives of employers and employees, indeed often just employers and employees, stand before you completely equal, with complete faith in the process that they are about to engage in, and with complete faith that while everything that may come from the Bench may not be desirable it will always be fair. Because I believe this forum is egalitarian, this forum is compassionate, this forum is utterly fair.

Deputy President Ives, you bring to the Commission great practical experience of representing employers in the field with some of Australia’s most important companies including Western Mining Corporation and Pratt Industries to mention just a couple. This kind of experience from both employers and unions is so important to the functioning of the Commission.

And Deputy President Hamilton, I think you know the Commission just about as well as anyone. And while the content of the submissions that you have put on behalf of ACCI over the years has always been habitually opposed by representatives of the ACTU, the intelligence, the integrity, the power and the manner of your submissions have always been enormously respected.

You will both make a great contribution to the Commission and on behalf of the Australian Union Movement I welcome you.

I welcome you to the Commission which is so important to our industrial relations system but which is so special to the culture which characterises us as a people: a culture that acknowledges diversity and embraces it, a culture that is freer than Europe’s and fairer than America’s.

And if anyone was ever to try and undermine that culture and undermine the pillars which underpin it, they would not only be changing who we are as a people much for the worse, but they would also be removing from the world our unique contribution to humanity.

Deputy Presidents Ives and Hamilton we wish you all the very best of luck.

This speech was given at the installation of Deputy President Hamilton and Deputy President Ives to Australian Industrial Relations Commission 29 October 2001, Melbourne.