Browse Entries

Government Agency entry Commonwealth Conciliation & Arbitration Commission (1956 - 1973)

Regulatory Body


The machinery of Commonwealth conciliation and arbitration underwent a fundamental change in 1956 following the decision of the High Court in the Boilermakers case (R v. Kirby and others; ex parte the Boilermakers' Society of Australia, 1955-1956).

The High Court held that it was unconstitutional for the Arbitration Court to be vested with both arbitral and judicial powers because of the acceptance in the Constitution of the separation of legislative and judicial powers. As a result, the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 was amended to establish two separate bodies, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to exercise the conciliation and arbitration power and the Commonwealth Industrial Court to exercise judicial power.

The Commission consisted of a President, Deputy Presidents, a Senior Commissioner, Commissioners and (non-member) Conciliators. The presidential members had to be either judges of the old Court or lawyers of five years' standing. No formal
qualifications were required for commissioners and conciliators. It was envisaged that day-to-day work within the Commission would be the function of commissioners and conciliators, leaving the presidential members to deal with matters of larger importance.

The President allocated industries or disputes to members. The Commission sat in presidential sessions with at least three members to determine the basic wages of both males and females, hours of work and paid long service leave. A combined Bench of presidential and non-presidential members could hear appeals or matters referred "in the public interest".

In 1972 a number of changes were made to the structure and operation of the Commission. Panels were created and made responsible for specified industries / sectors of employment, consisting of commissioners and headed by presidential members who organized and allocated its work. The Full Bench composition was standardized so that in all cases it consisted of three or more members with at least two presidential members. Only the position of President of the Commission now required legal qualifications and the positions of Senior Commissioner and Conciliator were abolished.

In 1983 the newly-elected Hawke Government announced the first comprehensive review of the federal system of industrial relations since the original Conciliation and Arbitration Act was passed in 1904. The subsequent report recommended the retention of the conciliation and arbitration system but accepted that it needed revision and efforts made to improve its operation.


 1904 - 1956 Commonwealth Court of Conciliation & Arbitration
       1956 - 1973 Commonwealth Conciliation & Arbitration Commission
             1973 - 1988 Australian Conciliation & Arbitration Commission
                   1988 - Australian Industrial Relations Commission

Ross G. Elford