One of the greatest political geniuses of Australian history has just today gone to God, aged 100. He was the representative of employers across Australia from the 1950s through until the 1980s, with his great achievement the formation of the Confederation of Australian Industry in 1977. The CAI was intended to be the employer equivalent of the ACTU, providing a forum in which employer organisations from across the spectrum of industries and sectors could come together to discuss strategy and tactics in the face of the tremendous anti-business attitudes that typically prevail among those who believe our wealth and prosperity is a free gift of nature.
It was my good fortune to be hired as the economist for the industrial relations division in 1980 and eventually became the Chief Economist of what is now the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry where I remained for 24 years. But among all of those whom I had the privilege of working with, there was no one who had George’s ability and vision. It was from him I learned most of what I understand about politics and the political process. I am always astonished by those who abandon some political leader because they fail to achieve 100% of what they want. From George I learned the patient art of politicking and the need to think about what is possible and how to achieve ends across large spaces of time.
He was the equal of Bob Hawke in his ability to sit down and negotiate an outcome, but sought none of the limelight and was content to work in the background working the room so to speak to get the things he wanted. He always thought of me as far too much of the economist, too devoted to the market, but I have to say that in many ways I carry within me his own vision of the kind of world I would like to live in, and his desire to ensure we create an industrial environment that is both productive, and dare I say it, fair to both employers and employees.
Having written the above I have had a look at The Oz and The Age to see if there is any mention of George but there is none. The only photo on the net is the one above, taken when he was already a very old man. He left CAI back in 1982 so it is not all that surprising that the world no longer remembers. But I remember, and I am sure Bob Hawke remembers, just as all of us veterans of the ancient world of industrial relations. The ACTU blathers on about fairness and justice, but it was people like George Polites who made such outcomes as near as possible in the real world of sharks and wolves that we inhabit and always will.