Research & Information
Announcement - The NSW IRC Celebrates its Centenary 1902-2002

22 April 2002

The Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales celebrated its 100th anniversary on 30 April 2002. To mark the Centenary a Ceremonial Sitting of the Full Commission was held at 9:30am on Tuesday the 30th of April, 2002.

The President of the Commission, the Honourable Justice Lance Wright, spoke about the Centenary on the ABC Radio National programme "Perspective" on Wednesday 1st May 2002.

The following is a transcript of that presentation:



"One hundred years ago this week, the Court of Arbitration of New South Wales came into being.

Now known as the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales, it is the longest continuing industrial court or tribunal in Australia and, although, this may be surprising, it's also the longest continuing industrial court or tribunal in the world.

I am reliably told by the doyen of Australian labour lawyers, Professor Ron McCallum from Sydney University, that the only comparable body anywhere near as old is the National Labour Relations Board of the United States which was founded over thirty years later.

The first President of the Court was the Honourable Mr Justice Henry Cohen. It was his role to get the Court going; effectively setting up a whole new province for law and order in New South Wales.

The first case to be heard by the Court was a dispute between the Newcastle Wharf Labourers' Union and the Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Company.

The Court found the company guilty of an act "in the nature of a lockout". In other words, the reverse of a strike by employees. A lockout occurs where workers are kept from entering the workplace.

The Court ordered that certain union members should be re-employed by the company and the union was ordered to supply the necessary wharf labour for the future, with the company at liberty to make good any deficiency by engaging non-unionists.

Other cases heard in 1902 and 1903 give a flavour of the contemporary world of work. For example, there were cases concerning the Cigar Markers' Union, the Tailoresses' Union, the Saddle and Harness Makers; Union, the NSW Clickers' Union, the Boot Operators' and Rough Stuff Cutters' Union, the Journeymen Coopers' Union and the Trolley Draymen and Carters' Union.

In 1907, however, the Australian work landscape changed significantly with what's now known as the Harvester judgment. It was an important federal case, a landmark judgment establish a new principle of minimum living wage. The Harvester judgment set a minimum wage of two pounds, two shillings a week, but few people realise that the judgment actually followed a similar case in the NSW court; a case involving sawmillers in 1905, two years earlier than the federal decision.
Our Commission's decisions have frequently shaped those of other jurisdictions since that time.

There have been a lot of changes. I would be very surprised if the original members of the Court would see much resemblance between their Court and the present Commission.

Today, the Commission hears most of the serious prosecutions involving occupation health and safety particularly those involving death or serious injury at work.

For the past ten years a large part of our workload has also come from unfair dismissal and unfair contract cases in a way that couldn't be imagined by the Court 100 years ago.

Another feature of the Commission's work which the 1902 Court would not have conceived is women members of the Court, and the hearing of cases concerning equal pay and equal remuneration. An important development in recent years was the Pay Equity Inquiry conducted by Justice Leonie Glynn in 1998.

This was followed by the creation of an Equal Remuneration principle by a Full Bench in the year 2000 and the first case under that principle decided in May this year to focus on public sector librarians. The case raises big issues as to the value of different kinds of work.

Traditionally women's work in professional areas has been more intellectual than physical and this may have been part of the reason for the undervaluation. The Librarian's Case has attracted both praise and criticism in equal measure.

I recall some years ago when a new judge on being sworn in said:

"I feel like a second rower who has been plucked from the scrum, given a whistle and told to referee"

It is not surprising that a sporting analogy would be thought appropriate. In this area, unlike some others, most employers and employees in New South Wales do accept the referee's verdict because they know the Commission has a major role in ensuring fairness at work.

My experience of the Commission is that the people of New South Wales place a high value on fairness in society and fairness in the workplace. They understand that the Commission's role is to implement in a practical way those values of fairness while ensuring productive workplaces and industries."