It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Charles Copeman AO, one of the Founders of the HR Nicholls Society and the man after whom the Copeman medal is named.
Charles was a great Australian responsible for one of the major victories for industrial relations system in the Robe River case which proved the catalyst towards the movement away from union power and towards a more flexible and productive industrial relations system.
I rise tonight to pay tribute to a distinguished Australian, Charles Copeman AM, who last week was inducted into the mining hall of fame in Western Australia. The Australian Prospectors and Miners Hall of Fame, in partnership with BHP Billiton, hosted a dinner in Perth last Thursday to honour the five inductees, of which Charles Copeman was one.
Charles Copeman was a director and CEO of an Australian mining company, Peko-Wallsend Ltd, which in 1983 took over a public company, Robe River Ltd, which held 35 per cent of the Pilbara based Robe River mining and shipping joint venture. It was one of the largest iron ore producers in the world but was unprofitable as a result of being massively overmanned and dominated by union activism, which resulted in restrictive workplace agreements that Peko assessed would not be endorsed if brought before the Industrial Relations Commission.
Charles Copeman was and is a man of courage who determined to see the company become profitable, and that meant getting rid of 284 restrictive work practices, such as the infamous shortage of ice-cream flavours and, more seriously, not permitting the use of mechanical rope-handling machines for loading ships of up to 250,000 tonnes but instead requiring the ropes to be manhandled. This was both costly and unsafe.
In 1986 Charles Copeman and Peko-Wallsend stood up to the unions and, with great courage, stood fast in an heroic battle to rid the industry of bullyboy union rorts, profit-destroying strikes, unfair Industrial Relations Commission orders and a management intimidated by the unions. A mammoth five-week strike ensued, and the president of the iron ore mining unions association, Mr Jack Marks, claimed publicly that the aim of the strike was to destroy Peko. The strike was finally resolved with no tangible gain to the unions; the mines had continued to operate. At the end of the strike, it became apparent that the strikers did not have a monopoly on the means of production and, of the nine matters taken to the Industrial Relations Commission on appeal to the Western Australian Supreme Court, Peko won eight and could, in Charles Copeman’s words, live with the ninth. Robe River had first doubled and then tripled production.
Other companies in the Pilbara remained nervous and only followed the need to reform slowly. They were fearful of the unions and of negative publicity. But one by one they realised that they could not ignore the need to embrace reform in industrial relations. Rio Tinto’s Hamersley took until 1993 to embrace individual contracts under Richard Court’s state government reforms. BHP took until 1999 to realise that it too had to reform its management and move to individual agreements. Once reform was embraced, profits, productivity and production all rose markedly. The reform process continued until 2008, when the current Labor government turned back the clock and dealt unions back in.
But the legacy of Charles Copeman cannot be wiped out. His stand was a watershed; it toughened management and began the road to reform. To quote Stuart Wood, a Melbourne barrister specialising in industrial relations:
“He carved out a space in which the companies could begin to open the dialogue between management and workers without the interference of the arbitration system and the unions.”
Charles Copeman was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1999 for his achievements in the mining industry. But, for the formal record, Charles Copeman is also a Queensland mining engineer, a Rhodes scholar and a Harvard Business School graduate. His mining executive career has been based in Broken Hill, Sydney, Quebec, London and Iran. He was employed by Rio Tinto, Consolidated Goldfields and Peko-Wallsend, where he was director and chief executive. More recently he has been a non-executive director of QBE, Sims Metal, Mosaic Oil and the Australian Doctors Fund. He has been president of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, president of the labour relations adviser Australian Mines and Metals Association and a vice-president of the Australian Mining Industry Council. He has been a member of the council of the Australian National University. He has, since 1992, been chairman of the Firearm Safety and Training Council, and in 1990 he stood for the Liberal Party for the since dismembered federal seat of Phillip. He is a distinguished Australian who has truly made a difference for the better in this great country, Australia.