The system of industrial conciliation and arbitration was, for most of the 20th century, a distinctive feature of the Australian economy and society. It was hailed by some as a source of equity and a mechanism of economic management; by others, it was condemned as a market friction and a brake on economic progress. In the 1990s, the system was relegated to a diminished role, partly because of a shift of opinion toward the latter perception and partly because the trade union movement, frustrated by restraints on the exercise of its power, withdrew its support for the traditional system. Though no one can foresee with certainty future industrial relations arrangements, the revival of a system of centralised regulation seems improbable.
Australian society is, nevertheless, a product of its history, and is better understood if we do not lose sight of that history. This study describes a small part of it. It is confined to the period between the inception of conciliation and arbitration and World War II. If, as I believe, the history of the system is worth telling, the study needs to be carried forward for the remainder of the 20th century. I hope that there are scholars who will take on that task.
In addition to the time limitation, there is one of scope. My focus is the regulation of the terms of employment, the attitudes and goals underlying it, the economic settings in which it occurred and the economic consequences.