The Origins of Compulsory Arbitration in Western Australia

David Plowman, G. Calkin

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4 Citations (Scopus)


Western Australia was the first of the Australian states to legislate for compulsory arbitration. It did so in 1900. The paper presented here examines the paradox of this legislation. It was passed through an Upper House in which employers, who opposed the Bill, decided not to kill the legislation as had happened in other states. Instead, they so amended the Bill that the resultant Act proved inoperable. This Westralian legislation challenges some of the explanations offered for the introduction of compulsory arbitration in other states. Sweating was not an issue in Western Australia—at least not for those who were the intended beneficiaries of the Act. Voluntary arbitration had been tried, and unlike the experience in other parts of Australia, it had proved successful. This would suggest that there was no need to bypass the ad hoc, informal and voluntary dispute settlement system that had been employed. Employers, claimed by some as the architects of compulsion in the eastern states, did not initiate the Westralian legislation and opposed it. In contrast, unions, also claimed as the source of arbitration legislation, were in their embryonic stage and did not have the capacity to directly affect legislation. The same could be said of labour’s political wing. There was only one Labor member of the Lower House when the legislation was passed. Thus, Labor had little scope to support the legislation or to affect its form. The role of ‘liberals’, which has been seen as an important ingredient in arbitration in other states, was small and insufficient to affect outcomes in the Western Australian parliament. It is contended that a conflux of local factors explains the origins of compulsory arbitration legislation in WA. The first was political expediency that enabled Western Australia’s long-time premier to maintain office and thus secure a role in the first Australian parliament. The second was the need to modernise the state’s employment laws to take account of the collective activities that had increasingly accompanied employment relations since the early 1890s. The third factor was employers’ capacity to reduce the effectiveness of the compulsory elements of the legislation and to use it to chloroform unions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-83
JournalJournal of Industrial Relations
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2004


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