Bryan Noakes (1930-2020)

The less anyone notices the workings of the Industrial Relations system, the better it is actually working. Bryan Noakes passed away yesterday and this is in memoriam. I will just add that no one has had more influence on my professional life than Bryan who employed me at the Confederation of Australian Industry in 1980 where I continued as its Chief Economist until 2004. And as a personal memory, it is Bryan sitting across the table from Bob Hawke negotiating some agreement. You need a phlegmatic personality and a cast-iron constitution to sit through such moments – which I do not have – without getting angry but just get back into it for hours on end. Bryan did enormous amounts on behalf of this country that no one outside a small group within the “Industrial Relations Club” will ever have the slightest idea about.

One of Australia’s leading employer advocates both nationally and internationally, Bryan Noakes, died on Tuesday at the age of 89 after years of ill-health.

Noakes served in leading and senior positions with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and its predecessors from the 1960s through to the early 2000s.

In 2001, when he retired as ACCI’s director-general (industrial), he said the highlights of his career had been the achievement of labour market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s and steering the Confederation of Australian Industry’s 1991 landmark policy shift away from support for a centralised IR system.

His ACCI successor Peter Anderson, now a Fair Work Commission deputy president, said Noakes’ contribution to the national IR system had been formidable.

Even after his retirement he had continued to be a source of counsel to many, “myself included”.

“He was a serious man but did not take himself too seriously,” Anderson said.

“With his passing, and that of Bob Hawke and George Polites in the same 12-month-period, it is the end of an era of three industrial relations giants of our past generation.”

Bryan Noakes joined the Australian Council of Employers’ Federations (ACEF) in the early 1960s as an IR advisor on major construction projects, after cutting his teeth on the Snowy Mountains hydroelectricity project.

He eventually became the director-general of the Confederation of Australian Industry (which succeeded the ACEF) after the retirement of George Polites in 1983 and continued in a leading role with the formation of ACCI in 1992.

In a statement this week, ACCI described Noakes as a “significant, respected and well-liked figure across the political and industrial divide”.

He had worked “tirelessly” to represent the business community over a period of profound challenges in Australian industrial relations and resulting legislative reform under the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments.

Another FWC member and ACCI colleague, Deputy President Reg Hamilton, said Noakes’ advocacy had played a major role in tribunal decisions and the major legislative changes of 1988, 1993 and 1996.

“He was able to judge proportionality well and avoided the obvious mistakes of appeasement or extremism.

“He also had good personal relationships with nearly everyone.”

While Noakes retired from ACCI in 2001, he completed his term (in 2004) as a member of the governing body of the International Labour Organisation, representing Asia-Pacific employers.

Deputy President Anderson said it was in the international arena where Noakes’ “star shined most brightly” and his “patient but firm advocacy” prompted governments to improve law and practice on industrial issues.

In its statement ACCI said Noakes won recognition for his significant work protecting the fundamental rights of both employers and trade unionists throughout the world through the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) and had been instrumental in the creation of an employer voice for the Asia Pacific region, through the Confederation of Asia Pacific Employers (CAPE).

ACCI workplace relations director Scott Barklamb said the perspectives Noakes developed from four decades at the peak of Australian and global IR continued to inform the work of ACCI.

“Union and employer colleagues throughout the world ask after Bryan to this day and express their profound respect and appreciation for his work, particularly as a leading figure in the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA).”

In 2003 Noakes became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his “service to industrial relations in Australia and overseas through policy development, fostering improved relations between employers and employees and as an expert in the area of international labour law” (see Related Article).

In February last year he attended a memorial celebration following the death of his former colleague and leader George Polites who he described as an influential figure who “always had a solution and it always worked”.

Just three months later he was paying tribute to another contemporary, former Prime Minister and ACTU secretary Bob Hawke.

“It is a cause for pause and reflection that two of our nation’s greatest industrial figures, Bob Hawke and George Polites respected differences, found common interest and have now passed at grand ages within months of each other,” he said in a personal statement following Hawke’s death.

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