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