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The Sir Richard Kirby Archives: Celebrating Ten Years

Professor Joseph Isaac AO

26 October 2012

I am greatly honoured and overwhelmed to be included as one of the items in your archives. I am relieved, however, to be designated as a ‘living’ entity in the collection. You know, of course, that the great British 19th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, apart from his pursuit of gender equality and welfare economics, also believed that corpses should be freely available for dissection in medical schools. He set an example by providing in his will this destination for his body. Because of his long association with University College, London, his corpse was acquired by the College which had a distinguished medical school. In due course, his skeleton, suitably padded, was dressed in his best suit, his head was preserved, and both placed in a glass case to be wheeled out at graduations and Council meetings even to this day.

Without in any sense placing myself at a level anywhere close to Bentham, as I say, I am relieved that as a ‘living’ entity in the archival collection, I will not be wheeled out in future celebrations of the Richard Kirby Archives.

Thank you also for the honour and pleasure of opening this celebration of the first ten years of the Sir Richard Kirby Archives.

Ten years ago, I had the honour of opening the Sir Richard Kirby Archives. In congratulating the then President of the AIRC, His Honour Justice Geoff Giudice, for giving life to the concept, I pointed out that while the Commission had had an excellent library for many years, its archives would have a different purpose. I said then that archives:

are more selective and narrowly focused in their collection and more active in their dedication to filling the gaps in it. In this case, although located within earshot of the Commission's library, they identify themselves as a specialised collection, devoted to preserving documents, books, photographs and other memorabilia together in one place, and attempting to give as complete an account as possible, of the life of a unique institution. Most archives are secreted in basements or warehouses, away from the public gaze. These archives are different; they are more like a museum, although, I hasten to add, not of an institution long gone, but a continuing lively body. I then also justified the existence of archives for a public institution like the Commission—they provide a memory bank for the enlightenment of the changing personnel of the institution, for to truly understand the present, one needs to look at the past. The archives are also an educational resource for scholars, students and the community at large; they represents a celebration of the institution itself, in this case an internationally unique institution—unique in its industrial, social, economic and legal aspects—recording also frequent changes in these aspects.

And now, ten years later, I have been given the honour and pleasure again of saying a few words at the celebration of the first decade of its existence. Apart from photographs, documents, personal papers and oral history interviews, the Archives have collected: [1]

  1. Various memorabilia—which include 12 Volumes of Justice Giudice’s handwritten notes from 1997 to 1999, Justice Ross’ Welcome Speech, the Menu from Fair Work Australia Dinner 31 January 2009, and the Memorandum to all female Registry Staff, 1974, discussing what constitutes suitable office attire for female workers of the Registry staff. This last item may seem like a frivolous acquisition but it is an interesting piece of social history. Then, the appointment of women to the Commission was in its infancy and appearances of women even in minor cases were rare. How different the role of women in industrial relations is today.
  2. A record of various exhibitions including the Centenary Exhibition, featuring an outstanding time-line display, ‘The Journey’, an excellent teaching aid, showing the important industrial cases in the context of the presidents of the tribunal, the changes in the structure and name of the tribunal, its underlying legislation, contemporary issues such wars, depression, the size of the population, the prime ministers etc.

    This Exhibition included the launching of The New Province for Law and Order, another Centenary initiative of Justice Giudice, containing the contributions of authorities on the historically important developments of various features of our industrial relations system.

    Other Exhibitions featured ‘A day in the life of the Commission’, and ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution and the AIRC’.

  3. A list of historic High Court and tribunal cases going back to the Harvester Case, with summaries and decisions. A most helpful source for researchers.
  4. The publication of a book, Waltzing Matilda and the Sunshine Harvester Factory, authored by Deputy President Reg Hamilton, an account of the salient features of the history of our industrial relations system, richly illustrated with photo images giving life to the text. This book has been supplemented by a film enactment, printed in CD, of some of the material covered in the book. Together with the ‘Journey’ I mentioned earlier, these are excellent teaching aids which I hope will be widely used by schools in their history classes.

This summary of the Archives’ acquisitions so far shows that it is well on the way to becoming a significant repository of material relevant to our industrial relations history; and the Foundation Members of the Archives Committee and those who have taken the places of the retiring members are to be congratulated for this achievement.[2]

It should be noted that the collection has not been accumulating dust in storage but has been accessed by various groups:

  • Overseas delegations
  • Visiting dignitaries
  • Visitors from registered organizations, including union delegate training
  • School groups
  • HR professional and law-firm groups.

What of the next 10 years?

I hope that the Archives will in time become a comprehensive research resource for those working on industrial relations issues—academics, HR professionals as well as members of the tribunal and also, I hope, the media for a more enlightened view of our system. For this purpose, in addition to memorabilia and the other items acquired so far, I hope also that the Archives will store tribunal decisions, classified by subject matter, journal articles and government reports dealing with industrial relations issues in Australia as well as newspaper items dealing with industrial relations issues, all classified by subject matter.

The electronic system provides a comparatively simple and physically minimal means for storing all such material for easy access to the user. All this will, of course, cost money and I can see by the frown on the President’s face that there may be problems associated with funds. I hope, however, that the importance of the availability of such research material and the enlightenment it will generate will provide persuasive grounds for the necessary expenditure, part of which could be recovered from fees for the supply of such material.

Finally, another suggestion. When I began my term with the Commission in 1974, I decided to keep a diary of significant cases in which I was involved. Unfortunately, after a few months, I found the task difficult to maintain. It took up time and energy, and I foolishly decided that by referring to the decisions in which I had participated, I should be able to recall the main features of those cases. The lapse of time proved me wrong. I over-rated the retrieval capacity of an ageing brain. Fortunately, in the early indexation cases, I did keep some notes of the issues that were being debated. And recently, I had the opportunity to use them in a lecture at the University of Melbourne in order to correct the misapprehensions of some academics in their analyses of the Commission’s reasons for introducing and later abandoning the indexation package. In light of my experience, I would urge members of the tribunal to keep notes on the issues and the personalities, at least on important cases, and to submit them to the Archives, if necessary with an embargo on their availability to the publicly.

In conclusion, I wish the Sir Richard Kirby Archives continued success and I thank you, Senior Deputy President Ian Watson for inviting me to welcome the next decade, and to all who have honoured me by their presence at this celebration.

[1] I am indebted Helen Coulson and to Clare O’Dwyer for assistance in obtaining details of acquisitions and activities of the tribunal.

[2] The Foundation Members of the Archives Committee are SDP Brian Lacy, Commissioner (now DP) Greg Smith, Commissioner Di Foggo, Media Liaison Officer Judy Hughes, and national Librarian Peter O’Rourke. Since then, a number of this Committee have been replaced and the present Committee are: Senior Deputy President Ian Watson, Deputy President Greg Smith, Commissioner Michael Gay, Commissioner Helen Cargill, Commissioner Barbara Deegan, Commissioner David Gregory, National Librarian Clare O’Dwyer.