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John Hyde, “End is nigh for labour market dinosaurs …,”
The Weekend Australian, December 12-13, 1992, p. 20.

The Australian industrial scene is changing. We can choose how and, to some extent, when change occurs, but we cannot stop it. The dinosaurs of industry and labour will give place to smaller, more adaptable and more robust institutions.

Like the Mesozoic dinosaurs, protected companies, protected unions and protected professions will either adapt so radically that they become new species, or make room for institutions that do. The seemingly heroic reforms set in train by the Hawke government, such as removing tariffs, and set in train by the Kennett Government, such as introducing competition to the labour market, are, in fact, inevitable.

If our more far-sighted politicians don’t change the institutional dinosaurs now, inability to compete in the world, foreign debt, and disgust with falling living standards will kill them off later.

In the meantime, however, people who have learned to coexist with dinosaurs find the prospect of dealing with thousands of industrial mice, each touting for business, demanding individual contracts and offering enterprise agreements, rather daunting. The new order is, therefore, resisted. But the end of the age of the industrial, governmental and union dinosaurs cannot be averted. It is merely delayed and made more traumatic.

Evolution is seldom straightforward. Australia’s fiercest dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus-K, has thrown in his lot with the most cumbersome monster of all — centralised industrial relations. By trying to thwart Premier Kennett’s democratic responsibility to reform the labour market, Keating is promising the equivalent of an extended Mesozoic era.

He can’t stop the world, but he has given false hope to the species most narrowly adapted to life in “meso-industrial” Australia — union officials, regulators, authoritarian managers and some workers in overmanned occupations.

The world that Tyrannosaurus-K is trying to preserve is impersonal, undignified and inefficient, but it gives special places in the sun to the biggest dinosaurs. Other meso-industrial species are easily frightened because, while they have learned to live with dinosaurs, they have no conception of an age of small, warm-blooded, flexible institutions — of workplace teams and informal and changing networks. Professor Richard Blandy’s inaugural address upon taking up the Ronald F. Henderson Chair of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne described the emerging era.

Blandy, along with Alvin Toffler, David Bell and several others including Marx, argues that the industrial civilisation — the time of economies of scale, long factory production lines, sharp distinctions between capital and labour and hierarchical management — is going. But it is not yet gone.

Just as for aeons the still apparently dominant dinosaurs mucked in with the newly evolving warm-blooded species and Tyrannosaurus rex still appeared to rule the world; just as in England between 1750 and 1850 the structures of the agrarian civilisation mucked in with, and seemed to dominate, the more democratic, more productive structures of industrial civilisation; so, today, the dinosaurs of the industrial age are giving room only slowly to the institutions of post-industrial times.

In this changing world, Tyrannosaurus-K, il supremo, the Placido Domingo of politicians, roars and bellows. He is, as always, very impressive. And still, with reason, he strikes terror into the minds of the lesser dinosaurs — the State governments, the big unions and the Industrial Relations Commission. Not without reason he also frightens those of the new small institutions that he can catch.

But he is, nevertheless, an anachronism. Tyrannosaurus-K and his ilk are clumsy and too arrogant to learn, whereas the little warm-bloods are too adaptable, too small and too numerous for the dinosaurs to catch them all. Tyrannosaurus-K may slow down the spread of the new species, but tomorrow is theirs.

Bigness and centralism are being rejected. The western world is becoming one big society, it is true, but it is society in which small groups and even individuals are much more free, in which belonging to small-scale teams is more important than belonging to large organisations, and in which status is no longer as important. As small-scale bargaining becomes normal, the assumptions of the industrial age, including the old conflicts of capital and labour, look increasingly silly.

Some of the small production units, says Blandy, are quasi-autonomous units of large umbrella firms. Some are contract suppliers. Some are downstream distributors. Many are horizontally linked in networks giving them flexibility to undertake small, medium or large tasks. And many more will be all these things.

Trust, he believes, is a key value on which networks depend. It is generally supported by informal, but powerful, social sanctions rather than by formal legal systems. Voluntary networking is allowing social and economic units to become smaller, more personal and less hierarchical without forgoing the benefits of scale.

Involuntary conformity is less a prerequisite of anything important. As compulsion becomes less important and co-operation more so, authoritarian men are losing their comparative advantage over co-operative women. When Keating scuppered Hawke’s new-federalist arrangements with the States he moved against the trend towards co-operative networking. Dying species defy trends.

Times of great change throw up wild experiments. These sometimes prosper for a while before passing for ever into history. The Accord, a deal between the powerful of the old order, is such an aberration. It was designed to manage and to slow down the changes affecting the privileged few of the old order. It was not intended that it also give us the depression we did not have to have.

In the rich western countries, the industrial civilisation has been undermined by its own success. People can now afford to satisfy higher-order needs. There is no such thing as a lumpenproletariat. Instead there are millions of individuals demanding individual expression, individual choice of association and individualised work arrangements. And not even Tyrannosaurus-K will stop their getting them.