The Retirement of Justice John Cahill, Vice-President of the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales

Jeff Shaw QC, NSW Attorney General

Text of an address delivered in 1999 by the Hon Jeff Shaw to mark the retirement of Justice Cahill from the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales.

I rise to speak at the farewell ceremony for the Vice-President of the Industrial Relations Commission of NSW, Justice J.J. Cahill, with a mind fully seized of the significance of the occasion, appreciative of the substantial contribution which your Honour has made to public life in this state and to the fair treatment of its citizens, and to the loss which your Honour’s retirement will mean for this vital institution (the Industrial Relations Commission) and the employers and trade union movement of New South Wales.

As the most long-serving judge in this State, Justice Cahill has a formidable reputation as a judicial officer. I know this arising from my own experience of appearing before your Honour in many cases in the jurisdiction and my personal knowledge of your Honour’s capacity, integrity, compassion, sense of fairness and justice. From time to time, my submissions found favour with your Honour. Sometimes they did not. I accepted that with equanimity; after all, error is endemic in the human condition.

To speak of Justice Cahill’s background is to inevitably remember his father, The Honourable Joe Cahill, the Premier of New South Wales from 1952 to 1959. Sydney owes Joe Cahill a great debt because it was he who took up the idea of an opera house for the city and decided that it should be placed on Bennelong Point. Others are remembered in the plethora of plaques and foundation stones at the Opera House, but without Joe Cahill’s vision and political skills we would not now be able to take pride in one of the wonders of world twentieth century architecture. Tactical skills were crucial. When Cahill put the proposition in 1957 there was savage opposition in Caucus and the outcome rested on a handful of votes, but Joe Cahill shrewdly transferred the issue to the state conference where he won hands down.

Being the offspring of prominent people is not always easy. Any man or woman has to work even harder to prove that their achievements are won on their own merits. John Cahill, has made his own way and in his life time has made his own special contribution to the state of New South Wales. I might note that his appointment to the bench was made by a government of different political complexion from his father’s.

John Cahill came from Marrickville, then very much the traditional inner city suburb, with its heavy quota of Irish Australians. He was educated at De La Salle College there. He was active in debating, swimming and athletics and reached that school boy ambition, the first XI. Marrickville was a small school, and the future judge was younger than many of his opponents, so he had some very tough matches, battered by the big men from Marist Brothers Kogarah on their way to play for St. George.

In those days the degree courses for the professions tended to be dominated by the children of the middle class, but for Irish Australians the public service provided an opportunity to work and study part-time. In 1944 John Cahill began in the Registrar General’s Office, an institution through which many prominent public servants passed on the way up, to name only two, Mr Justice Mahony, President of the Court of Appeal and Norman Oakes, former NSW Treasury Secretary. John Cahill took his Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Sydney and transferred to the Department of Labour and Industry in 1952, becoming Deputy Industrial Registrar in 1959, then Senior Conciliation Commissioner in 1962.

The NSW arbitration system in which John Cahill has spent most of his working life is almost as old as this century. In the wake of the great strikes of 1890 and 1891, the newly formed Labor Party went into Parliament with compulsory arbitration as part of its platform. Two Premiers eager to gain broader support tried to push legislation through, but they were blocked by – should we be surprised – the Legislative Council. Only in 1901 was a NSW Arbitration Court established, the first in Australia, and which was to provide the model for the Commonwealth’s Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904.

In NSW, Conciliation Committees played a vital role, with representatives from both sides presided over by independent commissioners. Being the Senior Conciliation Commissioner called not only for skills as a negotiator, but also considerable administrative skills, burdens which Senior Commissioner Cahill carried ably for nine years until his appointment to the bench of the Industrial Commission of NSW in 1971, and promotion to Deputy President in 1987. Legislative changes have meant that since 1996 the office title has been Vice-President of the Industrial Relations Commission of NSW.

The past decade has seen an unceasing stream of attacks on arbitration, many from people who seem to want to turn the clock back to 1890 or ‘91. I believe that the arbitration systems over the years have served the public interest. In a civilised community there should be the right of recourse to arbitration to resolve intractable disputes.

It is not just a matter of individual or industry disputes. The New South Wales Government believes that arbitration has a role in setting conditions and work standards. The decisions of the commission benches on which Justice Cahill has sat have had considerable impact on the life of working men and women in this state, cases like annual state wage decisions, equal pay cases, family leave and the personal carer leave case. In 1977 his Honour delivered a landmark judgement demarking employment after the introduction of new technology in the newspaper industry. Another responsibility was for the Broken Hill mines, a task requiring tact and versatility. These are only a few highlights from a long and distinguished career.

Soon after your Honour’s appointment as a judge you were sitting on important Full Bench test cases: in September 1971, the building industry accident pay case, in November 1971, the BHP bonus payments case, in 1974 the annual holidays case extending the standard annual leave from 3 to 4 weeks per annum.

I have already alluded to your Honour’s pivotal role in the newspaper demarcation dispute of the mid-1970s. The Cahill ruling grappled with the radically new computerised technology and set a national accepted standard for the allocation of work between printers and journalists. Your Honour’s grasp of the technical minutiae of the tally system in the meat processing industry and the intricacies of rotating shift rosters is awesome.

In another area of the law, John Cahill made good use of his experience as a life-time attender of the race track, when he sat at the Racing Appeals Tribunal and the Trotting, later Harness Racing Tribunal.

Justice John Cahill has lived a life of public service, in the best sense of these words. The functioning of a just and fair society depends on the work of thousands of public servants, who make it happen. John Cahill has served the people and the state of New South Wales with distinction and has well and truly earned the deep respect of the industrial and wider community in this State.