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’ behaviour.

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) Klux Klan”

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.

Australia, a century ago, was the richest country in the world in per capita terms. In the 21st century, however, we face the prospect of continuing economic decline and a further reduction in our standards of living. The driving force behind the Society’s efforts to raise the standard of debate and public understanding of our industrial relations problems is the knowledge that a major factor, perhaps the major factor, in our economic decline and increasingly gloomy economic future, are our outmoded, straight-jacketing, economically debilitating, industrial relations institutions.

Australia is a country in which political life is carried out through debate and argument. The Society’s ambition is to bring about urgently needed reform, in our industrial relations attitudes and institutions, through the processes of debate and argument. Our aims are

  • To promote discussion about the operation of industrial relations in Australia, including the system of determining wages and other conditions of employment.
  • To support the reform of Australian industrial relations with the aim of promoting the rule of law in respect of employers and employee organisations alike, the right of individuals to freely contract for the supply and engagement of their labour by mutual agreement, and the necessity for labour relations to be conducted in such a way as to promote economic development in Australia.

We invite all Australians, who subscribe to our aims, to join us in this endeavour.