IRSV/ALERA Vale George Polites

Vale George Polites AC CMG MBE, 1918-2019

The first part of this tribute was written by the founding president of the Industrial Relations Society of Victoria (IRSV) the Hon. Joe Isaac, AO, FASSA, Emeritus Professor, Monash and Melbourne Universities. The next part is reproduced with kind permission from Unless attributed to others, the tributes in Workplace Express were written by Judy Hughes, formerly of the Fair Work Commission.

When in his late 90s, George Polites had kindly agreed to be interviewed by Greg Bamber, Professor, Monash University. George then made insightful contributions to a research team’s project on Effective Ways to Prevent and Settle Workplace Disputes. (IRSV asked Greg to supply this tribute to George Polites.)

“For some twenty years or more, from the early 1960s, George Polites was Mr Industrial Relations in Australia. He was constantly in the news and his face featured frequently in the daily press. He had sharp mind laced with sense of humour. His wide knowledge and good judgment on economic, industrial and political matters were appreciated by governments of different political leanings who sought his advice and appointed him to many important committees of inquiry. The honours conferred on him – AC CMG MBE – reflected his public contributions.

“During my academic career, I drew on his generosity to speak to my undergraduate and graduate classes on current industrial relations issues. On many occasions, a senior representative of the unions would also participate in these sessions. Although differences would inevitably arise between them, they were expressed with humour and mutual respect. “George was one of the initiators of what is sometimes referred to, disdainfully in some quarters, as the ‘industrial relations club’. For many years, he and his wife Edna and two sons, Colin and Geoffrey, both also actively involved in IR, would host a Christmas party at their home to which many Victorian industrial relations luminaries, including union officials, would be invited. George saw the ‘Club’ as the venue for employers and their representatives, union officials and practitioners to meet and exchange wide-ranging views in a friendly setting free from immediate industrial pressures. It was in this context that the IRSV was established in 1963 with George Polites as one of its leading promoters.

“George outlived most of his contemporaries, leaving many of the more recent generations lacking in appreciation of the contributions of this legendary figure. His life and work should provide ample material for a postgraduate dissertation.”

Joe Isaac

George Polites Remembered

From Workplace Express, 13 February 2019:

George Polites, one of the nation's longest-serving and most prominent advocates for Australian industry, has passed away peacefully at his home in Melbourne, aged 100.

Respected on both sides of the IR divide, Polites played a pivotal role in bringing disparate employer organisations together to form a single national body, the Confederation of Australian Industry (CAI) – predecessor to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – in the late 1970s.

He is also well remembered as the employer opposite number to Bob Hawke when he was ACTU president in the 1970s.

In 1984, having already received an MBE and CMG, he was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for service to industrial relations in what was the Hawke Labor Government's first Australia Day honours list.

In an oral history interview for the Kirby Archives in 2007 (see excerpt here at 5:56), Polites attributed the need for a "single mouthpiece" for employers as the key factor driving his pursuit of a merger of employer bodies.

"The unions were coming to the Commission with a single view," he recalled.

"You'd have the employers come out with a view from the manufacturers, from the retailers, from the farmers.

"It split us and it was a sort of divide and conquer approach."

"When George talked, people listened"

Organisations and individuals this week paid tribute to both Polites the man and his legacy, describing him as a "legend", "a driving force for employer unity" and a "leading employer voice" internationally during the Cold War.

ACCI, which he led from 1978 to 1983, remembered him as a "seminal figure in the history of the Australian Chamber movement, and in Australian industrial relations during the 1950s, 1960s and particularly the challenging 1970s and into the 1980s".

"Mr Polites was a formidable adversary of the trade union leaders of his time, including then ACTU leader Bob Hawke.

"However, he was equally a successful negotiator and consensus builder who could work with trade unions, governments and the then conciliation and arbitration system."


Former AIRC President Geoffrey Giudice said that "when George talked, people listened".

"He believed very strongly in freedom of association, dialogue and an outcome which everyone could live with.

"At his 99th birthday Bob Hawke proposed the toast.

"At his 100th it was John Howard.

"That says it all."


Former colleague, economist Steve Kates, said it was a privilege to work with Polites, who he admired for his political nous, his vision and his negotiation skills.

"He always thought of me as far too much of the economist, too devoted to the market, but I have to say that in many ways I carry within me his own vision of the kind of world I would like to live in, and his desire to ensure we create an industrial environment that is both productive, and dare I say it, fair to both employers and employees."


FWC President, Justice Iain Ross, said Polites was a key figure in industrial relations in Australia and would be "greatly missed".

"He was a great contributor to the Commission's Archives program, providing invaluable background from his time as Head of the Confederation of Australian Industry when he participated in national wage decisions and other significant cases."


First Great Depression job unpaid

Polites was the executive director of the Australian Council of Employer Federations from 1959 to 1977, director of the Central Industrial Secretariat ACEF-ACMA, and director-general of Confederation of Australian Industry Industrial Council from 1978 to 1983.

He was also a member of the Hancock Committee that reviewed IR law and systems, which reported in 1985.

Born in 1918, his first job was as an unpaid junior clerk in the Victorian Railways.

It was during the Depression and he viewed the opportunity as "lucky", since it led to a permanent job with the Board of Works in 1957.

This in turn led him into work in the construction sector and eventually to the Victorian Employers Federation and a life-long career as an employer advocate.

He was famously identified as a member of the "IR Club", a term coined by IR commentator Gerard Henderson, and one he found objectionable.

"I would have thought that it was proper that people should talk to each other about their issues and that they should seek to find a solution to them," he said.

"If doing that with somebody is forming a club, well, then be it a club.

"What does it matter?

"The simple fact is that nobody in those days in my experience ever sold out on his own constituency, ever did anything that was improper to the community at large and did it openly and in an absolutely transparent way."

Polites' two sons, Colin and Geoff, who also had high-flying careers, pre-deceased him.

Colin, a presidential member of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, died in 2003 (see Related Article), and Geoff, a former Ford Australia president, died in 2008.

A memorial celebration for Polites was held at the Athenaeum Club, Melbourne on 14/2/19.


From Workplace Express, 15 February 2019

A gathering in Melbourne yesterday to celebrate the life of employer advocate George Polites heard tributes from IR Minister Kelly O'Dwyer and Hancock committee chair Keith Hancock.

Family, friends and colleagues of Polites who attended the Athenaeum Club in Melbourne included his long-time friend economist and academic Professor Joe Isaac, his successor as director general of the Confederation of Australian Industry, Bryan Noakes, former President of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and Fair Work Australia, Geoffrey Giudice, and former Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chiefs Ian Spicer and Peter Anderson.

Polites' grandsons Brent and Christo Polites led the memorial celebration, which featured colourful stories of a larger than life, plain-speaking character devoted to friendship and fairness, consensus building and clear thinking.


Ian Spicer recalled he met Polites in about 1961 when he had just been appointed the first executive director of the Australian Council of Employer Federations.

"He had no office, no staff, very little money and a momentous job to undertake.

"For the first two years he ran the employers' federation out of the boot of his car."

At 97 Joe Isaac is only a few years younger than George Polites who died at the age of 100 earlier this month.

He said their friendship went back to the early 1950s and in recent years they had enjoyed regular lunches together.


Brent Polites read statements from several people who could not attend including federal IR Minister Kelly O'Dwyer and Professor Keith Hancock, who chaired a review…of Australian industrial relations with Polites from 1983 to 1985.


O'Dwyer paid tribute to the significant contribution of Polites in Australian industrial relations and described him as the "ultimate consensus builder".


Hancock said Polites was a "man of integrity, high intellect and general wisdom", who he had worked with over many years in advisory roles and in major wage cases.

"When in 1983 I was invited to chair the Committee of Industrial Relations Law and Systems, I was delighted to learn that George would be a member of the committee," he said.

"The unanimous report, subscribed to by George, Charlie Fitzgibbon and me, owed much to his sage advice.

"Our deliberations were much enlightened and enlivened by his keen sense of humour."


Noakes said Polites had been an influential figure consulted widely by ministers and prime ministers.

"He always had a solution and it always worked," he said.

George Polites served in leading roles in national employer representative bodies from the late 1950s until the mid-1980s.

Professor Greg Bamber Co-Director, International Consortium for Research in Employment and Work (iCREW), Monash University, Melbourne


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