Back to the Future: Unions and the Building Industry Then and Now

This is an edited version of an address to the HR Nicholls Society XXXIV Conference in Brisbane on 17 May 2014 by Roger Gyles AO QC:

1988 was the year of the Bi-Centennial. Nick Greiner was elected Premier of New South Wales. The building industry rorts during construction of the Darling Harbour project were fresh in the public mind. Nick Greiner received many complaints that New South Wales building costs were too high compared with the other States, particularly Victoria, and concluded that New South Wales was losing business as a result. That was the catalyst for my appointment as Royal Commissioner into Productivity in the New South Wales Building Industry in 1990.

Published material from quantity surveyors bore out the fact that New South Wales building costs for major projects were greater than those in the other States. The Commission looked closely at the situation in Queensland. The published material showed that Queensland building costs were 90% of New South Wales’ costs in 1983 and 74% in 1991. The Commission studies confirmed that from 1983 onwards non-residential building costs in Sydney were significantly higher than Brisbane and the gap continued to widen. The difference in cost was not reflected in cottage building or civil construction. There was virtually no union involvement in cottage building and no Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) involvement in civil construction. It was concluded that the difference lay in labour costs, principally due to lost time caused by adverse industrial relations conditions in New South Wales compared with Queensland. This in turn was due to a difference in attitude of the two unionised workforces resulting from the different approaches which the building trade union organisers and officials took in the two States. Read more

ALRC Inquiry Into Workplace Laws

Workplace Express reports:

Attorney-General George Brandis has singled out workplace relations as one of three areas warranting special attention in a review of laws that encroach on rights and freedoms.


Senator Brandis today released a final terms of reference for an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into laws that might “encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges”.


Workplace relations laws, along with environmental regulation, and commercial and corporate laws, are three legislative areas specifically nominated by Senator Brandis as warranting investigation, although the inquiry can range more broadly.


“For too long we have seen freedoms of the individual diminish and become devalued,” Senator Brandis said. “The Coalition Government will strive to protect and restore them.”


HR Nicholls Society Conference Report

The highlight of the Brisbane conference of the HR Nicholls Society last Saturday was the dinner address by Queensland Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Jarrod Bleijie, followed by his proficient answering of questions for a considerable period, and the response by leading barrister Stuart Wood. While Bleijie spoke about various major problems which the Newman government has faced since acquiring office in 2012 (including the large net government sector debt left by Labor), he also outlined the government’s actions to  reduce disruptive activities on businesses by unions and bikie gangs. This includes legislation (just operative) designed to  prevent the fabrication of non-existent safety issues used to extort employers. It  removes the right of immediate entry by unions to work sites and the power of unions to direct workers to stop working because of an alleged unsafe situation.Most importantly, both Bleijie and Wood emphasised the need for a State to maintain law and order. In my question to Bleijie I suggested that, given the reluctance of the Abbott government to initiate proposals for major workplace relations reform, the States might be able to help by adopting policies specifically designed to protect property rights.

The need for law and order to be applied was also emphasised by former Royal Commissioner in NSW, Roger Gyles, who reported to the Greiner government in 1992. That government established a body to ensure the law was applied in the NSW building industry. Of particular importance was the direct involvement of police in the operation of that body (police forces are generally reluctant to prevent disruptive action by unions). The Greiner body, however, succeeded in moving NSW building costs down below those in other states – until, that is, Carr became Premier and dissolved the body. Read more

Stopping the decline – A year of Lost Opportunity

The following is a paper presented by Theresa Moltoni to the 2014 HR Nicholls Society Annual Conference.

Stopping the decline – A year of Lost Opportunity


Since our last conference we have continued to see further labour market reform, however it hasn’t been going in the direction that was so desperately needed, indeed it has continued to go backwards. Much of this has been due to the implementation of Bill Kelty’s espoused Plan B[1] by the former Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government. Let’s review the year that was….

In what appeared to be a desperate bid to shore up as many layers of Plan B as possible, we saw change after change pushed through Parliament with no slowing down as the last opportunities to do so arose before the election. The polls painted a clear picture that Labor were heading for opposition and in a defiant refusal to accept the will of the people, the Government reacted by pushing through changes that had no mandate whatsoever, changes that were not designed to have a positive effect on employment, productivity or the broader economy, changes that were instead designed to bolster Plan B. Unfortunately as Margaret Thatcher once said (and Australians are now finding), “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money”.

The last minute amendments to the Fair Work Act included: Read more

Media Release: Australia needs urgent labour market reform, not an inquiry

The Abbott Government should abandon its tedious and lengthy Productivity Commission inquiry into Australia’s industrial relations settings, and instead move urgently to free up the labour market in order to stimulate the economy.

Australian and international experts will outline the case for urgent liberalisation of Australia’s labour market at the HR Nicholls Society’s annual conference, to be held in Brisbane next week.

The slowing economy, job-sapping union militancy and the developed world’s highest labour unit costs will be on the agenda for discussion at the conference on May 17. Read more

Australia at risk from unsustainable union pay claims, international expert warns

Unsustainable union demands around pay and conditions are driving international investment away from developed economies such as Australia, one of the world’s leading business “turnaround” experts has warned.

US business recovery specialist Greg Rayburn made the comments ahead of the 34th annual conference of the HR Nicholls Society, which will be held in Brisbane next month.

Mr Rayburn will detail his experiences with American bakery company Hostess Brands, which was forced into liquidation in 2012 as a result of nation-wide strike action after management was unable to reach a new pay and benefits deal with workers. Read more