On 22 June, The Australian Institute of Employment Rights presented the inaugural Ron McCallum Debate on the theme ‘Justice at Work’. Featuring a keynote speech by former High Court judge, The Hon Michael Kirby and chaired by Jana Wendt, an audience of over 250 people gathered to recognise the contribution of Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum to our system of industrial relations and labour law and to debate the topic Justice at Work: Have we achieved it? Can the system deliver it?
In his keynote address, Justice Kirby reflected on the three key aspects of Professor McCallum’s life and work; as a teacher both by instruction and by the examples he has set; as an instructor of the judiciary; and in the latest phase of Professor McCallum’s work, as a Chair of the UN Committee for the Convention for Persons with Disabilities, as a pioneer in a new field of international law, and as anadvocate for a more efficient and effective United National human rights system.
When referring to his role as an instructor for the judiciary, Justice Kirby was keen to point out that it was Professor McCallum along with then Victorian Solicitor General Pamela Tate SC that had “led him astray” in the High Court WorkChoices case (NSW & Others v. Commonwealth  52). He referred to Professor McCallum’s submissions on the impact of the move from using the Constitution’s conciliation and arbitration power to utilising the corporations power as the “tipping point” of his own departure from the majority of the Court.
Specifically in the submission referred to, Professor McCallum had made reference to the concern that:
“Laws based upon the corporations power [alone] will be centred around corporations to the detriment of flesh and blood persons who interact with corporation.”
“General labour laws of broad application which would be required to found a national labour regime, which were enacted in reliance upon the corporations power could not for long maintain [the] balance between employers and employees. In the fullness of time, these labour laws will become little more than a sub-set of corporations law because inevitably they will fasten upon the economic needs of corporations and their employees will be viewed as but one aspect of the productive process in our globalised economy.”
Justice Kirby recited this passage from his dissenting judgment, encouraging those in the audience to consider the need for the system to maintain a focus on flesh and blood persons as part of the debate around Justice at Work.
Professor McCallum gave a stirring reply to the remarks of Justice Kirby noting how thrilled he was that the AIER had decided to title this event in perpetuity The Ron McCallum Debate. The detail of this reply is available here.
In what was at sometimes a fiery debate, esteemed journalist Jana Wendt chaired a Q & A style debate between a number of Australia’s leading labour lawyers, barristers, academics and practitioners, including former Justice Paul Munro, Warren Friend SC, Mark Perica (CPSU-SPSF), Professor Joellen Riley, Justine Turnbull (Freehills), Jennifer Hunt (Manpower) and Alison Peters (NCOSS).
Debate panelists were asked their views around a range of topics (some coming directly from the audience) including:
- What does justice look like?
- Does the federal system promote access to justice for employers and workers pursuing their workplace rights?
- Where is the balance between the economic interests of employers and the rights of workers and their representatives?
- What has been the impact of the loss of the system of compulsoryconciliation and arbitration and the reliance on corporations power?
- Does the federal system comply with international labour law and human rights standards?
- What is the system doing to promote a cultural shift towards cooperation, partnership and good faith relationships?
- Does the system provide enough opportunity for the economically and socially disadvantaged?
- Is there enough protection for insecure and impermanent workforce?
- How are issues such as pay inequalities being dealt with?
- Is there an appropriate balance in the law between the legitimate rights of employers to control their workplaces and the privacy rights of individual workers?
The Inaugural Ron McCallum debate kicked of a new major piece of work by AIER around the theme Justice at Work. This new project will see AIER present a series of public discussion and roundtable forums over the next twelve months around the theme Justice at Work, culminating in the publishing of a comprehensive discussion paper. In order to encourage community dialogue on this issue, AIER has taken the unusual step of releasing its internal briefing notes used to prepare for the Ron McCallum Debate to the wider public. Click here to access the briefing notes. AIER will be releasing information on the next steps of its Justice at Work project in the forthcoming months.