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.

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.