Marx said that history runs the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Actually I am not a fan of Marx and I prefer Edmund Burke “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” The piece of history that needs to be recalled is the case of the NT stockworkers who were granted “equal pay” in 1966 by the very distant Arbitration Commission. This was written up in a paper by Sir John Kerr at the first conference of the HR Nicholls Society.
Gerard Henderson has attacked the decision in his article ‘How to create unemployment: The Arbitration Commission and the Aborigines’ (published in Wages Wasteland, edited by Hyde and Nurick, 1985) saying it was ‘staggeringly irresponsible” (page 106). I would not myself use those actual words. I would use different words. I would simply say that it was in my opinion wrong. The Commission in weighing the difficulties involved made a serious mistake. The pastoralists’ case was in my view not only unanswerable but no attempt was made to answer it. I summed it up in our final submission towards the end of my address when I said:
‘It seems to the pastoralists to be nonsense to say that men are better off, unemployed in thousands, but maintained in settlements in growing degrees of comfort when they could work in the real world with growing degrees of efficiency and growing economic reward.’
Henderson examined material arising following the judgment which showed that ‘almost from the date of the Commission’s decision there was a dramatic decline in Aboriginal employment on cattle stations in the Northern Territory and Western Australia—with devastating social consequences for the former employees and their dependants’. (pages 108-109)
Many aborigines, having been disemployed, moved into government settlements. Skilled aboriginal workers often wished to stay with those in their tribal group who became unemployed as a result of the decision. They decided to leave the cattle properties with the disemployed members of the tribe and go to settlements. This was predicted in evidence.
The second part of the paper described the trade union challenge to the Rule of Law in the 1960s. We need to learn a lesson from that as well!