The Trouble with Button Plans


John Button showed Australians what they were capable of, inspiring the nation when it was in crisis.

It is due to the work of the former Labor Senator, who died of cancer yesterday, that we have a small but efficient steel industry, a car industry that exports to places as far flung as the Middle East and Taiwan, and a textile and clothing industry that isn’t based on tradable tariffs .

When the last Labor Government came to power in 1983, Australia really was, as Paul Keating put it, an "industrial graveyard".

The car industry, for example, had an effective rate of protection on imported vehicles of somewhere above 200 per cent – meaning that for most Australians, the choice was effectively between a Holden or a Falcon. These days, even highly specialised vehicles are well within the price range of middle income Australians.

Although small, Australia’s steel industry is now rated among the five or six best in the world. Our rag trade has largely moved out of the backyard sweat shops and on from a time when it traded not in clothing, but in tariff quotas.

How did all this happen? The revolutions in Australia’s car, clothing, footwear and steel industries were all based on what became known as "Button plans".

"The trouble with Button plans," the former Industry Minister himself once grumbled, "is that everyone wants one."

All three industries had been characterised by bad relations between workers and their bosses. John Button persuaded all sides in these industries to meet and talk frankly about what could be done to change them. The Government too, provided a little help.

All this was captured in detail in a workplace reform manual, which I helped to write, titled Because No Bastard Ever Asked Me.

The book recorded the story of "Ken", who worked on a production line in Port Kembla making steel bowls for washing machines.

There had been a persistent problem with Ken’s product. Some of the washing machines made with his bowls ran so unevenly that they "walked" around the laundries of the unfortunate customers who bought them.

Engineering consultants, who had tried for years to find out what was going wrong, had failed. That was until Ken, inspired by the then current Button plan, had said, "There’s another bad one." One of the white-coated consultants, standing behind him, took the bait.

"So you can tell, even now, which are the bad ones?" he asked.

"I could if I had some half-way decent lights," Ken replied.

Ken’s boss called him in later to ask this worker why he hadn’t spoken up earlier. Ken’s reply was truculent: "Because no bastard ever asked me."

Two other consultants, who led the highly successful overhaul of the Port Kembla steelworks at that time, made another surprising discovery. They found that one of the most difficult shop stewards at the works – a man with a well-earned, pervasively negative reputation – suddenly became one of the most enthusiastic advocates of reform. There was a simple explanation: this shop steward had previously worked in much more modern steelworks in Britain. He had become bitter because no one at Port Kembla would listen to his ideas.

Recalling those days in yesterday’s Australian, Paul Keating wrote: "In his prime, he was more or less despised by the left and the right. In the swing position, he played corner politics with cunning and élan. Some would say too cunning, others mercurial, while the impartial onlooker might say inspired … I found him, at once, exasperating yet irresistible."

John Button didn’t have all the ideas himself. His genius was collecting the people who did have the ideas, then encouraging them to talk it all through, no matter how frightening that was. He was the most effective Federal politician in post-War Australia.

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