Bryan Noakes once again

I just wish to come back briefly to Bryan Noakes whose memorial I went along to last Friday. No one has done more for my own professional life than Bryan, if for no other reason than that he allowed me to run my own show in developing our economic perspective on behalf of Australian employers. This for me meant that I was allowed to present and defend a classical perspective on the operation of an economy across every facet of government policy, from the budget to industrial relations. So far as wage cases went, we ran an entirely supply-side perspective, where the very notion that raising wages to increase demand was ultimately seen as so ridiculous that the ACTU even stopped including the argument in their submissions. We were so successful on budget policy that Peter Costello – the bravest person I ever knew in public life – ventured into balanced budgets and zero debt, with only the Chamber of Commerce having provided public support. There’s much more, but for me the ability to experiment with arguments and to push the agenda and the debate in a more economically rational direction, I owe to Bryan. Had I been more brave at the memoriam, I would have mentioned all this, along with letting others knew that he had once been the editor of the University of Sydney’s student newspaper, the Honi Soit – something I imagine he never mentioned to anyone else – so that when he allowed me to found and run our employer newsletter I always knew it was being done not only with a very watchful eye from Bryan, but also by someone who knew a thing or two about putting arguments into print.

Let me finish with the words spoken last Friday by my Chamber colleague, Reg Hamilton, now a Deputy President on the Commission. As he notes in Number 5, everything revolved around policy, nothing was personal. It’s how politics should be, not only in public, but also amongst friends. To meet up with so many former colleagues and close associates at the memoriam reminded me once again that the only kinds of people who can survive in an industrial relations environment – on the employer side particularly – are people of good cheer who have the kind of disposition to get on with anyone without breaking a friendship. These were Reg’s words in saying his own farewell to Bryan.

1. Bryan Noakes was not a flashy man, but was, to use a flashy term, a man for all seasons. As the fallen angel said in the film Bedazzled, ‘I am not omnipotent, just highly manouverable’. Bryan had to be highly manouverable. Change, he said, was something that happens each time you get out of bed. During his long career he was at the centre of policy formation for business and industry on all manner of issues including labour legislation, tribunal test cases, economic developments, equal opportunity, occupational health and safety, and other issues such as immigration. Bryan like all of us was subject to the tyranny of facts and of practicality.
2. He personally wrote the background notes and draft resolutions of ACEF, CAI and ACCI resolutions on these issues for forty years. This is an immense contribution. It was perhaps particularly important in the days of the Accord, 1983 to 1996, when Government policy arose out of a written agreement between trade unions and the ALP.
3. He showed good judgement of proportionality, avoiding the obvious mistakes of appeasement or extremism. However, as James Hacker, the Prime Minister in Yes Minister said, ‘I am a leader, I have to follow the people’. He drafted policy for business and employers which they could accept, and usually did accept. He was then a public spokesman and representative of great influence with Government, trade unions, and others, using these representative policy positions.
4. To do his job he had intellectual depth. One of the last memories I had of him was discussing Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century on the alleged problem of inequality in the West, a book under challenge by others, yet a clearly interesting work about a clearly interesting problem. He was also consistent in his support for free markets within a modern mixed economy.
5. He was generous to others, when many were not. His disagreements were nearly always based on policy, not personal, and he persevered in often a very hostile climate. Governments were not always very receptive, yet he formulated positions and pressed them effectively. He spent a lot of time on the political work of keeping the organisation together, an immense contribution.

I will just add this, told to me by another former colleague, that even after Bryan had had his stoke, and was confined to a single room in an old peoples’ home, his interest in politics and public affairs never went away. Time runs on. It made me remember that there must always be time for old friends. As much as they are important in your life, you are also important in theirs.

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