Interview: Court's in Session
Industrial: Whose Choices?
Politics: Peter's Principles
Environment: TINA or Greener?
History: Its Not Just Handshakes and Aprons
International: US Locks out Jose' Bove
Education: No AWA - No Job
Culture: Jesus was a Long-Grass Man
Review: Charlie the Serf
The Locker Room
Belated Merry Whatmas?
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
I Think Therefore I Scam
A Taxing Answer
Leslie John Turner
Twenty years ago, high above Melbourne's bustling streetscape, an ambitious lawyer was burning the midnight oil.
His rooms, in Owen Dixon Chambers, had long been home to members of the southern capital's elite - high flyers who would go on to become cabinet ministers and, at least one, a Governor General.
But Peter Costello was a radical, some would say a revolutionary, who wanted to tear up the social contract that set his country apart, so American-style individualism could blow through every workplace in the land.
The Carey Grammar Old Boy was an odd radical, at least by the standards of the day. He didn't sacrifice personal comforts, challenge wealth or privilege, and he certainly didn't look like Che Guevara.
But, back in the 1980s, Costello was labouring on the New Right's grand project.
If successful, he and his backers would redraw Australia in the image of corporate America. They would strip workers of a century of rights to act together to protect their interests, and usher in the complete dominance of big business.
Their plan would destroy the arbitration and conciliation system that, for generations, had protected working families from unfettered market forces; and, collective bargaining.
To achieve these goals, they knew, they would have to eliminate, or at the very least neuter, trade unions.
The intellectual core of their argument was old, reaching back centuries to the days when "masters", owned and disposed of "servants" as they pleased.
Costello and Co chorused "freedom of contract", arguing, Australian workers were nothing special. That they were parties to contracts, like any corporation, with the same powers, rights and responsibilities. The IRC, arbitration and conciliation, therefore, were not recognitions of unequal bargaining positions but "privileges" that undermined the "rule of law".
Ditto for collective bargaining. Their ideology held that business should freely contract for services at the lowest possible price, with the fewest conditions attached.
To change Australian values, Costello and his associates adopted strategies from the classic revolutionary handbook.
Costello had sharpened his political teeth in the cut and thrust of university debate. So effective was his group, including future Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger, that it transformed Monash into the first overtly right wing campus in Australia.
Next, he formed a front organisation, the HR Nicholls Society, to bring together Right Wing activists and co-ordinate the spread of their ideas through political parties, pressure groups and, importantly, the media.
Costello was a co-founder of the Society and drafted its constitution. He presented a paper at its first gathering.
Among fellow travellers at that Toorak meeting were millionaires, senior civil servants, chief executive officers, legal luminaries and key political advisers.
They hatched a long-term plan to influence the Liberal Party and win Opposition Leader, John Howard, to their vision.
Business Review Weekly exposed the HR Nicholls Society in its issue of December 5, 1986.
"As John Howard denies being led by the New Right, he is allowing its members to draft a new industrial relations strategy," award-winning journalist, Pamela Williams, wrote.
"Unbeknown to most Liberal MPs, members of the H.R. Nicholls Society are quietly drafting the policy which includes radical measures to redirect the Arbitration Commission, undermine trade unions, and reshape the way in which Australians are hired and fired."
The young barrister told Williams how his group operated.
"We are looking to influence the debate as much as possible," Costello said. "There are not many of us, so the ideas keep coming from the same people. Basically, we come up with ideas. The Liberals and others say: 'Oh no, that's too radical for us. We have to get re-elected.' So we put them out into the public debate, writing articles and so on and the newspapers publish them and gradually people begin to talk about the ideas.
"Then the Liberals suddenly say, 'This sounds like a good idea. Who can we get to help us on this?' And the natural choice is one of us."
Williams' article is extraordinary. In assessing the ideas of Costello and the New Right she outlines legislation that will be passed 19 years later. She also trips across the double talk that will be used to sell it.
Although their 1986 dream bill allowed for a minimum wage, one HR Nicholls Society member confided this was a ploy to give "wets" the impression minimums would be set.
"The policy's hidden agenda is really the scale of deregulation which will be possible," he admitted.
But, Costello the lawyer, was doing more than talking.
He was at the centre of the fray plenty whenever the courtroom could be used to hold down wages or limit job security.
He made his name from the Dollar Sweets dispute where a Melbourne company won damages against the small Confectionery Workers Union and several rank and file members. At one point, it sought individual judgements against people, already sacked, that would have cost them their family homes.
Costello also held briefs for operators of the Seymour Abattoir, the Wagga Wagga Abattoir and mining giant Peko-Wallsend. He cheered from the sideline as future HR Nicholls Society buddy, Paul Houlihan, ran meatworkers to ground at Mudginberri in the Northern Territory.
Costello also appeared for Odco Troubleshooters who argued workers it supplied to construction jobs didn't have an employer.
BWIU efforts to stop this ruse undermining safety and living standards were fought in the court of commercial law with the union eventually having to write out a cheque for $1.3 million. Hawke Government attempts to subject the Troubleshooters model to workplace law were beaten off by Costello's supporters in the Senate.
Many of these "iconic" 1980s disputes had a certain symmetry.
First and foremost, they followed the HR Nicholls line by brushing industrial forums. Costello, and Houlihan, directed clients into formal courts rather than less-expensive, less-formal industrial relations commissions.
If their clients did go before an industrial forum and the decision went against them, as with Peko-Wallsend, they just ignored it.
Secondly, through skilful use of the media and contacts in farmers and business groups, they politicised their cases and tried to transform clients into class heroes.
Their HR Nicholls Society even struck a medal in honour of Peko boss, Charles Copeman, after he ignored an IRC recommendation, sacked 1100 Australians and locked the gates.
They used the media, and their own publications, to eulogise Mudginberri owner Jay Pendarvis, Dollar Sweets boss Fred Stauder, and Seymour Abattoirs' Bill Matthews as "heroes".
But whenever the workplace revolutionaries tired of their champions, they seemed to go bust.
Mudginberri shut its doors within two seasons, Stauder lost the business his father built up to Malaysian interests, and Matthews tried to cheer himself up with a stint in the funeral industry.
But they weren't the issue for Costello or his comrades.
They wrote and spoke, often, of their loathing for the 1907 Harvester decision which held that a business operator unable to meet wages "which should properly be paid to his employees would be better to abandon the enterprise".
The Toorak Conspiracy
The HR Nicholls Society was born on February 28, 1986, amongst the mansions of Toorak.
A couple of dozen people attended the inaugural conference but any lack of numbers was more than made up for by wealth, power and influence.
Amongst those who joined up-and-coming barrister, Peter Costello, were:
John Stone: Stock broker and former Treasury secretary. Stone would go on to become Society president.
Hugh Morgan: Mining millionaire and future head of the Business Council of Australia (BCA). Morgan came to the Society as a fundamentalist Christian who had written a paper that contended the "divine right" of miners trumped any claims of Aboriginal spirituality.
Ray Evans: Western Mining executive who claims unions, strikes and the industrial relations "edifice" stem from Marxist theory that "legitimises trade union violence". Evans is the current HR Nicholls Society president.
Charles Copeman: Peko-Wallsend CEO who cut his business teeth with Rio Tinto in London. Railed against the willingness of Australian companies to "go along with unions" and served three years as president of the Australian Mines and Metals Association. Copeman orchestrated the Robe River dispute. His aggressive brand of anti-unionism is commemorated by the Society in its annual presentation of the Charles Copeman Medal.
David Trebeck: A "consultant" to multi-national ACIL and lobbyist for the National Farmers Federation (NFF). Trebeck would play a lead role in the 1998 bid to sack Australian wharfies and give their jobs to recruits from the defence forces.
Geoff Carmody: A "senior consultant" to ACIL, Carmody had been an official with Treasury, and the International Monetary Fund. He went on to to found Access Economics and, in 2004, joined the board of Patrick Corporation.
Sir John Kerr: Former IR lawyer, judge, governor general and Melbourne Cup raconteur.
Wayne Gilbert: Master-minded Joe Bjelke-Petersen's victory over the ETU in a dispute that led to the mass sacking of unionised workers and the privatisation of electricity in southern Queensland. Gilbert would take his cost-cutting talents to Auckland's Mercury Energy in time for that city to join Brisbane in a series of power blackouts.
Paul Houlihan: NFF activist. Feted as a key strategist in the Mudginberri dispute. Houlihan, also, would have a central role in the 1998 waterfront dispute.
Ian MacLachlan: NFF president, and boss of his family's pastoral empire who moonlighted as a director of several public companies, including Elders IXL. MacLachlan subsequently joined Costello in the Howard ministry.
Dr Gerard Henderson: Senior adviser to then Opposition Leader, John Howard. A disciple of BA Santamaria who progressed through the ranks of the National Civic Council. Henderson still runs the Sydney Institute and his contributions to various newspapers have earned him a reputation as one of Australia's most boring columnists.
John Hyde: Director of the Australian Institute of Public Policy. Was a large-scale wheat farmer in WA before spending nine years in federal parliament.
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