Work and Strife in Paradise
* By Shirleene Robinson
Bradley Bowden, Simon Blackwood, Cath Rafferty and Cameron Allan, eds., Work and Strife in Paradise, Federation Press, 2009) , 368pp, pb. $39.95 rrp.
The editors of Work and Strife in Paradise point out that labour relations have shaped Queensland's history. This statement could be expanded to note that labour relations in Queensland have played a pivotal role in shaping wider economic, political and social developments across Australia. In 1891, the Shearers' Strike demonstrated the growing power trade unions. Eight years later, in 1899, the links between the union movement and the political system were reinforced when Queenslanders elected the world's first Labor government. In 1912, the state was the site of a formative industrial dispute with the outbreak of the world's first general strike. Clearly, an investigation of working life and industrial relations in Queensland's past has the potential to shed new light on a significant aspect of Australian history. In this text, a range of authors use new perspectives to explore the 150-year history of labour relations in the state and the changing lives of workers and an evolving industrial system.
Work and Strife in Paradise was commissioned in 2008 by the Director-General of the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations to commemorate Queensland's 2009 Sequicentenary. It is certainly a comprehensive text, with a total of twelve authors contributing thirteen chapters. The book also contains an introduction and a considerable number of appendices, along with 20 pages of pictures. Some contributors consider more traditional labour history topics such as the origins of Queensland's industrial relations system, while others explore subjects that are informed by more recent social history, such as investigations of Aboriginal labour and women's participation in the workforce.
There are several standout chapters in this collection. I felt chapter three, by one of the book's editors, Bradley Bowden, which was entitled "A Peculiar History: Queensland Unions, 1916-2009", was a particularly strong contribution. Much material on trade unions has focused on the earlier period but as Bowden points out, the election of the T.J. Ryan Government in 1915 ushered in an era of radical change and trade unionism in Queensland followed a different trajectory to other Australian states and also developed a different structure.
Chapter eight by Ros Kidd, entitled "Missing in Action: Industrial Relations and Aboriginal Labour" is also an important contribution to our understanding of labour history. Until recently, the vital role Aboriginal workers played in a vast range of Queensland industries had been written out of the history of Queensland work and labour. While authors such as Raymond Evans and Dawn May have helped to explore the valuable contribution of these workers, there is a need for more nuanced research on the system that controlled Indigenous workers. Kidd's chapter, which begins its analysis in the nineteenth century and ends with the present fight for wages that were controlled by the Queensland government, is a very important contribution to this field.
There are some other innovative chapters in this collection. Chapter six, by Richard Johnstone, which provides an historical consideration of occupational health and safety regulation, and chapter ten, by Linda Colley, which explores the "Politics of an Apolitical Public Service", are both thoughtful and original in their framing. With Johnstone's chapter, the contemporary reader is reminded once again of the serious hazards that have historically existed (and indeed still exist) in some occupational categories. Colley's chapter considers the way that the public service in Queensland has balanced being apolitical against the demands of those who would politicise the public service. As Colley points out, Queensland's unicameral system has meant that politicians who would politicise the public service have faced less scrutiny than those who would do so in states with a bicameral system. The depth of research that has informed Barbara Webster's chapter, which is entitled "'The Best Deal for Workers': Rockhampton Unions and the Queensland Arbitration System to 1957" is also impressive.
While the diversity of topics considered in this text is a clear strength and the chapters themselves are well signposted, I felt thematic sections would have helped the overall structure of the book flow a little more smoothly. At times the structure of the book was a little difficult to follow. I would have also liked to have read a little more about the way that race and youth have historically impacted on the Queensland working experience and on industrial relations in the state. However, it is obviously not possible to include every facet of labour relations in a general collection such as this.
Overall, this is a coherent and clear text, providing a comprehensive overview of labour relations in Queensland. As the book ranges over 150 years, it is not as in-depth as some previous studies, with a tighter focus on a smaller historical period or particular aspect of industrial relations, have been. Despite this, the book is well-edited and the information it provides is voluminous. In particular the 24 appendices provide a rich research resource, containing information that ranges from the gender composition of the labour force to the trade union density of the state and the minimum wages Queenslanders have historically been able to command. Most of the appendices compare and contrast Queensland figures and legislation against other Australian figures and legislation, which will be very useful for researchers. The book would serve as a crucial text for those wishing to understand the labour relations system of Queensland and the editors should be commended for their efforts to provide a broad and important overview of this field.
* Dr Shirleene Robinson is an Assistant Professor in Australian Studies at Bond University, Queensland
Published 30 September 2010