Judge takes parting shot at 'politicised' industrial relations

Australia's industrial relations system has become a political football and too heavily influenced by neo-classical economics, according to a retiring Federal Court judge.

Australia's industrial relations system has become a political football and too heavily influenced by neo-classical economics, according to a retiring Federal Court judge.

And both workers and employers must continue to care about employment conditions, because they determine the nation's living standards.

Formerly Justice Gray of the Federal Court in Melbourne, Peter Gray retired on May 17 after 29 years as a judge specialising in labour laws.

"[Industrial relations] has become very much to do with politicians ... do we go down the road where people get elected by saying 'I will give you a pay rise, I will make your working conditions better'?," Mr Gray said in a recent interview with BusinessDay.

"That seems to me to be an undesirable way to operate in industrial relations, but that is really what we have arrived at. It is problematic."

He said the system was better before the 1990s because the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission would set wages and conditions free of political influence.

It was now disappointing to see so many workers in casual employment or as independent contractors, he said.

"Everybody should care about employment conditions. Business owners should care about employment conditions because they are very important. These are the daily lives of people, how much money you take home determines how you live. The hours that you work determines how much of your family you see."

Mr Gray was one of three Federal Court judges appointed by former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in early 1984 and was surprised to be hand-picked by former Attorney-General, Gareth Evans. At 38, he was then the youngest person to be appointed to the Federal Court since its establishment.

Before the appointment he was a barrister representing trade unions, often in disputes over union rules.

"I think that there was a feeling in the trade union movement that there were not enough judges on the court who understood industrial law and that they wanted some more," Mr Gray said.

Mr Evans, now Chancellor of the Australian University, said: "Peter Gray was appointed entirely on merit, a judgment entirely vindicated by his career since."

He would not comment on whether Mr Gray's appointment was to re-balance the bench in favour of unions.

Despite feeling he was appointed for his union background, Mr Gray has executed his role fairly, according to several sources.

The Director of the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law at Melbourne University's Law School, Associate Professor John Howe, said Mr Gray was one of a few people left at the Federal Court specialising in industrial relations law and "losing someone with his depth of knowledge and background has to have an impact when industrial and employment disputes are going before the Federal Court".

Mr Gray helped set up the centre's advisory board and continues to advise on research and teaching, because "he just loves labour law", Mr Howe added.

Stuart Wood SC, who often represents employers, said Mr Gray was a decent man who did not favour a particular side in disputes, despite his passion for labour law. "[Industrial relations] is always a difficult area - passions run high. But I don't think he did favour one side."

However, barrister Frank Parry SC, who has appeared before Justice Gray several times, said the judge "has handed down a number of significant decisions, particularly in the area of industrial law".

"He had strong views on how cases should be run and some counsel found him challenging to appear before. He also had strong views in the industrial and employment area, some of which, on occasions, were not shared by other judges or the High Court."

Born and raised in Melbourne, Mr Gray decided he wanted to become a lawyer at 15 - though "I knew nothing about the law" - because he enjoyed public speaking.

His interest in industrial law began in his final year at Melbourne University, upon becoming an associate for Commonwealth Industrial Court judge Richard Eggleston.

Mr Gray, the judge to have served at the Federal Court the longest, decided to retire two years before his tenure ended at 70 because he had begun to lose his enthusiasm.

"It's a difficult job to do when you are enthusiastic. It's far more difficult when you're not and you tend to become a bit toxic when you're not enthusiastic," he said

Mr Gray said the workload had increased significantly in recent years, with judges working longer hours.

"I used to go regularly to a gym (but) I haven't been for a very long time. My fitness level's gone down terribly because you get to the end of the day and there's still plenty more to do, so you keep doing it."

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