Australia : Retired WA Chief Commissioner reflects on 40 years of working for better industrial relations
Updated August 11, 2016 16:04:32
Retired West Australian chief industrial relations commissioner Anthony Beech has had a career dedicated to industrial relations on both sides of the bench.
Mr Beech who retired in May this after 28 years at the Commission, including the past 12 years as Chief Commissioner, is visiting Bunbury this week to speak at a business breakfast.
Before joining the Commission in 1988, he spent 15 years appearing before the Commission as a union advocate.
One of the most memorable moments of his career was the day, sometime in the 1980s, that he fronted a room full of bearded blokes in Kalgoorlie.
Despite sporting a beard himself, the sight did not afford Mr Beech much comfort.
The dispute he was adjudicating began when the WA government railways of the time, Westrail, determined that certain train drivers could not have a beard.
One of Westrail's contracts involved hauling ore from North West mine sites to the local port and the mining company introduced a new safety policy which required all contractors to the site to wear gas masks in case of dangerous leakage.
Mr Beech took up the story:
"In order for the masks to seal correctly, you had to be clean shaven.
"A number of train drivers had beards. The dispute kept bubbling along and no answer could be found until one day a (Westrail) ruling was made that any drivers on that shift had to shave.
"I think somebody who had a beard for that shift wouldn't shave if off and was stood down and that led to a strike."
Mr Beech recollects that the dispute was held in the Kalgoorlie Council Chambers.
"Lo and behold, the representative from the railways union in Perth also had a beard. There were an awful lot of people with beards in the hearing as we tried to resolve this."
Mr Beech ruled that the mine site had the right under its duty of care to determine appropriate safety measures. Westrail had no control over this and the drivers would have to shave.
Asked whether he thought he might have been accused of bias as a bearded bloke himself, Mr Beech chuckled.
"It occurred to me, would it have been a similar suspicion of bias if I'd been a clean shaven person?
"I was told after the case that at least two people resigned because they would rather lose their job than their beard."
One of few university-educated union officials
Despite involvement in workplace matters from 1973 until this year, Mr Beech did not gain a law degree until 1978 when he began appearing in before the IRC.
Instead, he graduated from University of Western Australia with an economics degree which in the early 1960s was the pre-requisite to study industrial relations.
Mr Beech did not have to spend long looking for work.
His father Les was a plumber and a member of the Trades and Labour Council where he was held in "reasonably high respect".
The young man was head hunted by the unions who gambled on the father's reputation as most officials at that time came up through the rank and file.
"In the 1970s, I would have been only one of three or four people with a university background working in the union movement," Mr Beech said.
He said an economics background was useful as an advocate when arguing the state wage case and assessing minimum wages,.
"As a commissioner, I ended up deciding what the state wage should be."
Sometimes when you're in the middle of an industrial dispute about pay and conditions ... a lot of work experience and commonsense is better than a law degree.
Frustrations for the Commissioner
The vast majority of Australian workplaces are covered by national industrial laws and there have been calls to end duplication in WA.
There, the State allows the Industrial Commission to mediate even in national employment disputes.
This is a system that Mr Beech believes should continue.
He said mediation was "a very desirable way of having people have ownership the outcome of their own disputes".
One of the changes during his tenure with the IRC was to allow individuals to bring matters before the commission without the need for representation.
"The issue that tried my patience most was in a hearing trying to find out what the real issues and problems were," Mr Beech said.
"Unrepresented parties or even some advocates were not presenting the case in the way that I had thought they would present it."
He said a Commissioners' knowledge of a case was limited to the paperwork filed by the parties.
"Inexperienced people would sometimes leave out important background details in what might be an unfair dismissal suit or an argument about correct wages.
"You end up having to decide according to the case that's presented," he said.
Humour is great attribute for advocates
In the early days, one of the men Mr Beech admired most was Jack Marks.
Marks worked at the Midland railway workshops northeast of Perth.
Later, he became state president of a manufacturing workers union and Mayor of Perth.
Jack Marks described himself as mellowing "from rough red to a nice smooth one on the palate".
The monarchy he likened to "medieval mummery," and royals as "about as relevant as elastic-sided boots and bustles".
An ASIO secret report pegged Marks as "one of the weakest links on the state Communist party. He likes beer, betting and women."
Commissioner Beech admired Marks' skill as an orator and raconteur.
"You've just got to laugh at some of the odd situations that people get into. I miss people like Jack Marks for the humour that they would inject into their submissions.
"It was an education to just go and listen to people like this speaking … to bring people to you by laughter: such a gift."
Mr Beech will be speaking at a business breakfast in Bunbury this Friday.
Quotes from Mr Marks were taken from Marksy: the life of Jack Marks by Jolly Read with permission from the AMWU in WA.
First posted August 11, 2016 16:01:41