The Eclipse of Mateship: The ‘Wide Comb Dispute’ 1979-85

In the early 1980s the Australian shearing industry was torn apart by the ‘wide comb dispute’. This occupied the Arbitration Commission for over four years, while intimidation of ‘scabs’ and woolshed arson ensured it caught the urban public’s imagination. The rich mythology of the 1890s and the mystery of why shearing equipment aroused such passions seemed related. An intriguing dimension was that the offending combs had been introduced by New Zealanders. The deeper cultural issue was the New Zealanders’ weak unionism. The core dispute, however, was between the newly formed National Farmers Federation, energised by new ideas of how Australian society should be organised, and the Australian Workers Union (AWU). The traditional clash between woolgrowers and the AWU over shearing rates and conditions was camouflage for a much more profound ideological shift in society. ‘New Right’ ideas challenged the ‘Federation settlement’ and the concepts of ‘labourism’ which was the core of the AWU’s raison d’être.

The ‘wide comb dispute’ in the shearing industry is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is celebrated by the ‘new-Right’ as one of its first big wins. The newly formed National Farmers Federation (NFF) was a fountainhead of the emerging radical liberal economics, subsequently labelled (especially by its detractors on the Left) as ‘economic rationalism’. Wide combs exemplified ‘labour flexibility’ and ‘choice’, both central to the bandwagon that ultimately changed the economic order in Australia. Secondly, the dispute was in some ways a competition for ownership of outback myths. The shearing strikes of the 1890s are writ large in the historical imagination, and although union shearers lost on the day they certainly won the longer term struggle for the moral high ground. The Australian Workers Union (AWU), the union that began with shearers, was a powerful influence shaping labour arbitration, the institutionalisation of the ‘Australian fair go’.[1]’Mateship’, as defined by the union, underscored the underdog solidarity required to wrest a fair go from reluctant bosses. It is not hard to see why economic reform zealots thought it so damaging. But they did not need to destroy mateship so much as suggest that it did not really exist — at least the unionist version of it. The outback could be visualised as a place of resilience, initiative and individualism without discarding mateship — the church bazaar and the hospital committee, and voluntary bushfire fighting are examples of communitarian virtue that do not have the despised taint of unionism. The new Right had no quibbles with voluntarism of this kind, although it was suspicious of the related bush-versus-city mindset. Country Party politicians were too inclined to blackmail Canberra for subsidies and drought relief. What mattered most, though, was that unionists not be permitted to maintain their monopoly on outback myth-creation. The NFF was able to exploit perceptions that it was graziers that were terrorised by the AWU, not vice versa. The union said that shearers who wanted wide combs were ‘un-Australian’ but to the NFF that denied a fair go. Thirdly, the hint of a New Zealand-Australia culture clash gave the affair an intriguing dimension. The wide combs (and the subversive anti-unionism they represented) had infiltrated from across the Tasman. The AWU had a well honed xenophobic streak but New Zealand was seen as a land of basically decent people, practically the same as Australians, but inclined to be a little backward.[2] There was no formal organisation of New Zealand shearers in Australia. No Napoleon dictated tactics. They arrived piecemeal, built informal networks and followed word of mouth information. It was a kind of social osmosis that, over time, disturbed the uneasy balance of power that had waxed and waned for a century between grazier organisations and the AWU. However, New Zealanders were not the root cause of the crisis that ultimately erupted, only the catalyst that set it in motion.[3] 

This article sets the affair in the context of fundamental shifts in political ideology that began to be asserted in the 1970s and culminated in dramatic changes to the economic order imposed by the Hawke Labor Government (1983–91), and since consolidated by the Howard Coalition Government. Mateship, as the AWU understood it, was out of step with this emerging ideology. A stubborn defence was mounted but the assumption that this had mass rank-and-file shearer support proved to be a delusion. The historical background to the restriction on wide combs in Australia is examined. Key details of what was a long and complex series of Arbitration Commission cases, beginning in 1980 and ending in 1984, are traced, along with the related shearing strike that occurred in 1983. 

Mateship and the AWU

‘Mateship’ has been central to the AWU ethos. Mark Hearn connects it to the bitter struggle for survival that the union faced in its darkest days after the failure of the 1890s strikes, and before the safety net of a federal award arrived in 1907.[4] Mateship explicitly excluded women, Chinamen and ‘squatters’. Points about the fear of being branded a scab are well made. The fact that ‘many shearers enjoyed the competitive, piece-work nature of shearing'[5] is at least as important, but is an area in which Hearn blurs the distinction between ‘mates and strangers’. The implications of the appearance of the Machine Shearers and Shed Hands Union (MSU) between 1902 and 1906 are not explicitly addressed.[6]z The MSU did not survive, but individualistic, ambitious shearers such as those attracted to it did. Evidence exists that there were sharp distinctions in ability (and attitudes) amongst shearers at this time. For example, at Coombe-Martin station in Queensland in 1904 the overseer called shearing off after four days because ‘only eight [out of 25] of the shearers were any good while the rest were hopeless’. The shearers maintained that the sheep were very difficult. However, the shearing was eventually conducted without any difficulty by a crack team in the employ of J.H. Young and Co., the well known contracting firm. Taunts were aired that could not be laughed off as banter amongst mates.[7]The AWU, Hearn notes, became ‘less confrontational, and more modest in [its] aims’, but ‘remained rhetorically aggressive, an attitude it encouraged in the membership’.[8] This is in broad agreement with John Merritt’s conclusion that the AWU shifted its position sufficiently to embrace the ideological niche that the MSU had occupied. The argument in this paper is that during the wool boom in the 1950s union practice in the sheds again became more closely aligned with its confrontational rhetoric. This was particularly apparent during the 1956 strike and it also shaped the course of the wide comb dispute. 

Roger McDonald links the life experience of shearers to notions of ‘mateship’ in different ways, in a memoir written to mark the centenary of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).[9] On one level images of honest toil in the woolshed and camaraderie in the shearers’ quarters that call to mind the more romantic notions of mateship. Especially evocative are the descriptions of smoko and of the left-overs fried up for breakfast.[10] Certainly this might be connected to a kind of mateship, but has it got anything to do with unionism or the labour movement? Or is it even particularly ‘Australian’?[11] At another level the ‘mate’ is the companion traveller and worker, moving from shed to shed, sharing triumphs, problems and secrets. This touches on aspects of mateship that have a harder edge, and reflects much the same ethos that Mark Hearn describes. ‘The mate is the one to share visions with, to confide in with hope or weakness’. More to the point a man can have ‘a woman as a lover’ or a ‘Chinaman as a friend’, but they ‘won’t be mates in the union sense of the word’. Class struggle — AWU-style — is conducted in the arbitration court rather than through strikes, but this does not diminish the importance or the power of mateship. ‘The worker has no one at court but his mates’, and ‘put all the mates together and test the strain’. Lest the point is missed, it is laid on even thicker:
Mates are the union. Not merely like the union but the union dead stop — the union being the mate writ large, the union being the spirit of mateship copied down.
The passage continues in this fashion before concluding:
the union protects, the union maintains, the union holds the line, the union is strong and transcends prison walls. The union ticket is mateship personified.[12]The AWU had created a mythology about shearers that also justified its existence. This needs to be seen in terms of the labour movement’s authoritarian steak. Bob Hawke, the ALP Prime Minister of the day, rebuffed rank and file unease over his Government’s policies with the assertion that the Government had superior knowledge![13] Yet in full rhetorical mode at Barcaldine, the shrine of the 1891 shearers’ strike, he enthused that it was ‘the birthplace of our great party’ — a shameless appeal to romantic mateship.[14] These observations illuminate McDonald’s interpretation of Labor’s ‘triumphs and tragedies’, but he does not seem to tie down their contradictions. AWU men spoke spoke in the same rasping Australian accents that Bob Hawke did. But at the end of the day some straight talking was needed to deal with ‘shirkers’. Mateship rhetoric was a proven technique for signing up members. An element of shaming, and quite often of threat and open intimidation, accompanied this process. The visit of the AWU organiser during shearing, the ‘show of tickets’, and the accompanying sneering abuse of reluctant takers was as much a part of shearing routines as tucking into the breakfast fry-up. 

Popular writing and folk music depicts shearers as ‘hard cases’ or cheerful larrikins. Australia’s unofficial national anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is centred on an incident from the 1894 strike. Russel Ward’s landmark work, The Australian Legend, builds an argument that the national self-image has been shaped by the folk history of bushworkers — footloose, masculine, and irreverent.[15] Shearers epitomised this ethos of the outback. It matters not whether the picture was indicative of values shearers actually held. Ward himself made it clear that he was not arguing that it was, only that the image shaped a collectivist ideology. Convicts, gold miners and, indeed shearers were seen as downtrodden victims of entrenched powerful interests (which for shearers were ‘the squatters’ who owned sheep stations).[16] 

Rhetorically, the ‘fair go’ was often about opportunity, but in practice it was likely to be about redistribution. Either way it had to be achieved, it was reasoned, collectively. A fair go was denied by the monopolisation of land and wealth, and there had to be a countervailing force, a sort of ‘monopoly of the battlers’. It was called ‘socialism’ in The Worker but it was hardly what Marx would have called it. Nevertheless it was clear that it would not be effective if individuals opted out. Thus the AWU’s notorious head office authoritarianism and penchant for Machiavellian intrigue developed. The fantasy was — and any parallel with the Marxian concept of class consciousness is rather loose — that unity came naturally to working-class battlers and failing soldier-settlers.[17] This is what W.G. Spence had been talking about when he used the much quoted expression that ‘unionism came to the Australian bushman as a religion’.[18] The bonds between men (women didn’t come into it), it was believed, transcended the crudest of materialistic motives, and the term ‘mateship’ was co-opted to represent Labor’s core virtue. 

Culture of Competition and the Wide Comb Ban

Piecework was associated with the most ruthless forms of exploitation the industrial revolution had created, but with shearers it was popular. The more sheep they shore the more money they made, but it was also a kind of sport with honour and prestige at stake. Perhaps this reflected ‘false consciousness’, as Marxists call it, but it certainly had something to do with the nature of the shearing process itself. Shearers themselves regulated the pace of work in the ‘wool factory’. They did not have to all work at exactly the same pace for the shed to function. Piecework did not de-humanise them. Nevertheless, there had always been a faction within the AWU that tried to suppress this ‘speeding up’, as it was called. ‘Speeding up’ was a term imported from American mines and factories via the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a form of militant unionism that was influential in Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century.[19] IWW concepts of frustrating the bosses in order to sabotage capitalism were grafted onto residual bushworker radicalism and circulated widely in shearing sheds in the 1920s and 30s. The Worker followed congressional debates on the Taylor system of ‘scientific management’ in 1916 and mocked ‘so many liberal minded men [who] fail to understand the menace concealed in this plausible plan’.[20]

The presence of a culture antipathetic to gung-ho fast shearing ideas led some unionists to advocate a weekly wage rather than piece rates, and a 44-hour week rather than 48 hours. In 1938 there was a long debate at the AWU Convention about the introduction of ‘the universal tally’ — the idea that there should be a maximum number of sheep that could be shorn by a single shearer on any given day. The concern was that fast shearers would be preferred by contractors, reducing employment for older shearers. Harry Boland, of the Queensland Branch, told the Convention that ‘a universal tally in the pastoral industry was a step in the right direction to prevent the present day speeding up’.[21] Delegates brought motions of this type to the floor year after year, but the AWU leadership (knowing piecework was popular with most shearers) always managed to stall them. Nevertheless, the union disparaged competition shearing and it was ambivalent about shearer training programs. Cultural divisions of this type confounded the meaning of ‘mateship’, because when shearers used the word they were often thinking of the camaraderie and humour that accompanied friendly (and occasionally un-friendly) rivalries, rather than the union ethos of shearer versus grazier, labour versus capital, underdog versus the privileged. Big tallies were not only helping the bosses too much, they made contractors less willing to employ less able shearers — as the example of the Coombe-Martin shearing in 1904 has already demonstrated.

Figure 1
A shearer brandishes an offending wide comb, Dubbo, 1981

Photo: Oliver Strewe

The ‘speeding up’ culture survived under protest in Australia but it had openly flourished in New Zealand, where shearing was also celebrated as a tough occupation that eschews pretentiousness and humbug, but without the same undertone of unionism. Mateship is also recognised but its character is different. In the 1950s Godfrey Bowen, a champion shearer, became a celebrity, rivalling even the famous mountaineer Edmund Hilary. Bowen and his brother Ivan had learned their craft travelling around the small sheds of the North Island in the 1940s. They were astutely analytical of shearing methods and developed what was called ‘the Bowen technique’, an approach that encouraged speed without compromising quality. Godfrey Bowen was a natural showman who was rolled out to entertain the Queen during royal tours and to spruik New Zealand farming products around the world. He espoused petit bourgeois notions of thrift, hard work and self improvement. The New Zealand Wool Board hired him to organise a national shearer training system, which began operating in 1953.[22] The shearers’ union was not even consulted. Shearers were, in effect, co-opted into what was a crusade to boost national development through production from small livestock farms. By and large any deep-rooted animosity between sheep farmers and shearers was not part of New Zealand shearing culture. The Golden Shears competition had, since 1961, given top competition shearers widespread publicity and popularity.[23] New Zealand shearers tended to be quintessential ‘speeding up men’, such as some in the AWU had always thought a subversive influence in the sheds.

Wide combs were adaptations to speed up shearing and attitudes to them were largely governed by the stance taken on fast shearing. Shearers’ first developed the trick of ‘pulling’ combs — fixing them in a vice and applying heat to bend the outer teeth. But this increased skin cuts and impaired the quality of the fleece.[24] Since at least 1910 there had been an AWU rule forbidding ‘broad gauge combs’ ‘unless all the shearers present were using them’.[25] This was intended to curb ‘speeding up’, while implicitly acknowledging that shearers could not help themselves. It was not a pressing issue, however, because broad combs did not become popular in Australia, probably because they were hard to use in merinos with fine wool and awkward skin-folds. When the restriction on the use of wide combs was inserted into the Pastoral Industry Award in 1926, it was the due to Graziers’ Association agitation, not the AWU.[26] Fast shearers who boosted tallies with little regard for the welfare of the sheep had long been considered a problem by woolgrowers. The AWU, possibly concerned at offending ambitious individualists, opposed the 1926 clause and unsuccessfully applied to have it removed in 1927.[27]

Fifty years later attitudes to wide combs were governed by a similar dichotomy of attitudes to fast shearers. A witness giving evidence to the Arbitration Commission in October 1983 was asked what objections shearers could have to an innovation that made the job easier. The longish reply is revealing:
He has got an award that is set on a 2 1/4 inch comb, which he is happy to make his money at; he is making up around $24,000 or $25,000 a year which is putting him into a reasonable income, with his narrow comb. He is quite happy to stay there; he does not want to go out and do it any easier; he does not want to shear more sheep in any given area so that he can get into another shed to beat someone else to that shed; he only wants to make a living. That is what the award is all about; it is for so many people to make a living. It is not for a few guns to make all the money and keep the other people out. It is just for an ordinary honest man to make a living with an honest sized comb.
there was a section working outside the award. That section is the greedy section. Now the greedy section is going to be prepared to go — there is two sections in it, there is the greedy section, and we like a bit of them, because they keep the game going. And there is the old pluggers prepared to go on and shear his own lot. Now the greedy section is going to go through and they are going to shear the better sheep. But they are not going to have any more leisure time. There will not be any more leisure time. What they are going to do, they are going to cut another man out of the job back along the line somewhere. So the person that is going to lose out in this industry, the way it is going now, [is] the person who can ill afford to. This industry has helped those that did not need help with this decision and it has hindered those that need help.[28]The witness was reminded that Robert White, a shearer who was hated by unionists because of his open advocacy of wide combs, had said ‘There is only so many sheep, let us shear them and go home’. White was presumably from the ‘greedy section’. The retort from the witness was that shearers would be out of work and on the dole![29] 

Figure 2
A comparison of wide and narrow combs from exhibits in the Industrial Commission archives

Photograph by Rory O’Malley

The ban on wide combs had not in fact existed unchanged since 1926 as was constantly asserted. The matter came before the arbitration court in both 1936 and 1938, and again the concerns of the Graziers’ Association were to the fore.[30] Nevertheless there were now signs that rank-and-file elements in the AWU supported the ban and even wanted it strengthened. Resolutions were forwarded to the 1938 AWU Annual Convention complaining about the number of shearers that were pulling combs. The Executive Council published announcements in The Worker reminding AWU members that the use of broad gauge combs was against AWU rules (it did not mention the Award). The clause in the award did not take its final form until 1948. The original 1926 clause introduced by the employers had specified that combs wider that 21/2 inches could not be used, unless the employer approved.[31] By 1948 employer discretion had been taken away and wide combs were simply banned.[32]

Competing Attitudes of Grievance

The AWU paraded a ‘them and us’ attitude fertilised by its notions of mateship. This was an ongoing element of woolshed culture throughout the twentieth century. It was most prevalent on large sheep stations west of the Darling River, in the Riverina, and in Queensland, but it coloured shearing industrial relations in most regions where sheep grazed. Resettlement of large properties during the twentieth century, a trend to mixed-enterprise family farms with smaller flocks, the emergence of ‘suburban shearing'[33] as motor vehicle transport and roads improved, and a shift of the sheep population towards the Central West of New South Wales and Victoria all helped to mollify sharp class divisions in rural society. In any case, even in the 1890s the characterisations of ‘squatters’ and ‘bush nomads’ was an oversimplification. But certainly by the 1950s the rural social fabric was losing some of its old polarisation. The AWU, however, continued to talk as if the polarisation had not narrowed at all. There is no sense in which this was a radical ethos — indeed, it was inherently backward looking and conservative. The AWU was ‘moderate’ in its political stance; it had a Machiavellian streak mixed with a strong undertow of nostalgia. The primary critics of the union were, of course, its natural enemies the graziers. But shearers also entertained a variety of points of view that were at odds with the AWU’s rigid viewpoints. However, such was the effectiveness of the woolshed presence of AWU organisers and the influence of diehard AWU traditionalists, tight union control lived on, even though the social conditions that had created it were rapidly disappearing.[34] 

Mateship-based romanticism centred on the traditional antagonism to graziers. It also disparaged shearers reluctant to tow the union line. The culture is epitomised in the 1975 movie Sunday Too Far Away, set in the 1956 shearing strike.[35] In 1972, a soldier settler farmer from Kangaroo Island went to the Supreme Court, in a widely publicised case, to defend his right to employ local shearers who did not wish to join the union. The AWU had ‘black banned’ his wool and the farming community rallied in indignation.[36] A letter published in The Land in 1979 decried union ‘strong arm tactics’. It suggested that ‘fat cats’ of the union ‘travel the country woolsheds’ threatening to black ban sheds employing non-union members. Farmers and the nation would be better off ‘if Idi Amin took over’![37] In one scene in Sunday Too Far Away the grazier Dawson has been banished from the board because the shearers resent him monitoring the quality of work. He is reduced to peering into his own woolshed from the outside through a crack in the weatherboards. In the myth the shearer is the underdog, but by the second half of the twentieth century the tables had been turned.

The militant edge surfaced during the 1956 shearing strike. The decision to support a strike was an aberration from the AWU’s longstanding policy of putting its faith in arbitration, but to explore the reasons for this in depth would be an unhelpful distraction. Suffice to say that there were complex re-alignments in personal loyalties within the broader labour movement that are tied to the split in the ALP of the 1950s. The strike was effective because the AWU, calling on its temporary Left-wing allies in the transport and waterfront unions for support, was able to declare wool shorn at non-union rates ‘black’, and prevent it moving through the ports. After a long struggle, graziers were forced to back down from their attempt to reduce shearing wages in line with a drop in wool prices.[38] The ‘triumph’ of the 1956 strike coloured woolshed relations for many years afterwards. It gave oxygen to the AWU myth that mateship was a powerful force. The union returned to the crutch of the arbitration court, but its diehard loyalists had renewed confidence in the notion that graziers could be confronted. Wool prices were strong and shearers were in short supply, so there was much truth to this. Graziers would ‘pay’ for the sake of ‘peace’. But wool’s strong market position of the 1950s was being steadily eroded by competition from synthetic fibres and cost inflation. Australia’s sheep numbers rose by about 80 per cent in the 1950s, and then declined in the 1970s. With hindsight, the 1950s wool boom was a high-watermark. By the 1970s the problem was deemed serious and given a name — the ‘cost-price squeeze’. From the early 1960s there was a growing feeling that the wool industry faced serious problems. Initially it was thought that had to be fixed from within. Debate initially focussed on marketing and whether a system of compulsory purchase, reserve prices and industry stockpiles would facilitate a more stable market and perhaps higher average prices. In the 1970s the focus shifted. Woolgrowers increasingly saw themselves more as victims of the way Australian society was organised. They became more preoccupied with the value of the exchange rate and the effects of tariffs on their costs. ‘Union power’ in society at large concerned them, not just the manifestation of it that they confronted directly in woolsheds. The AWU showed little sign that it understood wool’s difficulties, and it was certainly resistant to most of the ideas favouring a less regulated economy. Woolgrowers grappling with the forces eating away at their profits resented petty woolshed confrontation. It was one more problem that needed a solution.[39]

Consolidation of the wide comb restriction in 1948 had occurred as shearer militancy was rising. By and large it was taken for granted but it seems that the ban on wide combs was becoming canonised as something more than a regulation with certain economic benefits. There was a lengthy debate about a proposed minor alteration in the relevant clause of the award at the 1961 AWU Convention. The delegates were not unsympathetic to the change, but the tone of the exchange suggested that there was now something sacred about the designated maximum width of 2 1/2 inches. No reasons were advanced but there was general agreement that the limit should not, under any circumstances, be exceeded.[40] Blanche D’Apluget noticed the mystical attachment to narrow combs when she visited shearing sheds in 1987, just after the wide comb ban had been lifted and when feelings were still raw:
From the outset the AWU leadership treated the wide-comb dispute as an argument about values — is it moral? — and not about facts — is it efficient? The narrow comb was made to symbolise Truth, Beauty and the True Shearer, the Archetypal Mate. The wide-comb was described by AWU officials as ‘immoral and repulsive’. It was Satan’s thing.[41]

Grazier views of the wide comb rule had, in the meantime, definitely relaxed. Merinos were less wrinkly. New shearing techniques (with innovation in New Zealand a powerful catalyst) had eliminated many of the original 1926 anxieties. As early as 1967 the NSW Graziers Association applied to have the clause modified, but the arbitration authorities were not yet convinced there was any need to change.[42] The union by now regarded narrow combs as a cornerstone of the Award, extracted with sweat and sacrifice, and not to be compromised. Even so, there was little risk of widespread flouting of the wide comb ban before New Zealanders became a major force in the industry. 

Meanwhile rural politics was also evolving. John McEwen, the crusty protectionist Country Party warrior and deputy Prime Minister who ran trade and industrial policy in the Menzies era, had retired in 1971. In the late-1970s farmer organisations were united for the first time under a national organisation, the NFF. A professional secretariat was established in Canberra to lobby Governments. Manufacturing protection and labour arbitration, it was now argued, bled primary industries that sold in foreign markets. Throughout 1980 considerable effort went into the preparation of a document called Farm Focus, officially launched in early-1981. This firmly positioned the NFF as a bastion of neo-classical orthodoxy. Abandoning industrial arbitration was central to this perspective but as true liberal capitalists, the secretariat’s young economists were also scathing about any schemes interfering with free markets (such as statutory marketing boards). Bitter arguments between the NFF and the Country Party were a feature of the early-1980s. Relations with the Fraser Government, which came to be seen as watery on economics, were also often tense. But there was common ground between the most diehard Country Party fundamentalists and the secretariat’s whiz kids when the NFF attacked the unions.[43] 

Wide Combs Infiltrate Australia

In New Zealand there had never been restrictions on wide combs. Shearers had used 3 1/2 inch combs (86 mm) for as long as anyone could remember. Partly this came about because New Zealand sheep were predominantly coarse-wool breeds with smooth hides. Wide combs permitted faster shearing without serious extra risk of injuring the sheep or damaging the fleece. This was not the case — or that was received opinion — with Australian wrinkly-skinned, fine-wool merinos. But another reason was the different general attitude to shearing gear, and to shearing in general. The influx of New Zealand shearers into Australia had begun in the 1960s in Western Australia where sheep numbers were growing exponentially, contra the national trend. A chronic shortage of shearers emerged. The Pastoral Industry Award was widely ignored. The wide come clause was especially ineffective because it was a curb on tallies which neither shearers nor woolgrowers wanted. This was also facilitated by a peculiarity of award applicability in the west. The federal Award applied, as it did in all states except Queensland, but the absence of a state award tying in all employers as respondents meant the AWU could not prosecute shearers who were not its members. There was accordingly an incentive for New Zealanders and independently minded Australians not to join. A mixture of cultural and complex legal factors made the AWU a toothless tiger. Western Australia became, in effect, an enclave of New Zealand shearing culture.[44]

New Zealand shearers began to be more visible in the eastern states. They were usually quite willing to join the union but showed lukewarm respect for many of its traditions. Woolgrowers were delighted with shearers that could be persuaded to finish off a shed even if it meant working over the weekend. Kiwis did not engage in ‘wet sheep’ theatrics in the way that many Australian gangs did. They were even known to drink beer with growers after the ‘cut out’.[45]

That New Zealanders had difficulty adapting to merinos was widely acknowledged. Bill Richards provides a graphic account of his first experience shearing Australian merinos at ‘Candomine’ station in the 1930s. Neil Ellery, a New Zealand shearing contractor, who was prominent as a strikebreaker during the wide comb dispute, acknowledged that ‘big western wethers’ took a bit of getting used to.[46] But equally, a shearer with an analytical approach could work things out. There were plenty of sceptics that wide combs could succeed in Australia, but converts emerged. Frank Cox was an accomplished shearer working in Western Australia in the 1970s, and had only known narrow gear. At one shed he came across a couple of men (probably New Zealanders) using wide combs and was impressed with their output — the newcomers shore 275 and 276 respectively while he had managed 192. His comments are illuminating:
I worked my guts out, but the others seemed to be blowing the wool off and doing it easy. We were shearing crossbred sheep, so I asked them how the combs would go on merinos and they said ‘OK’. I went home that night and ordered $600 worth of wide gear. When it arrived I asked the contractor if I could use wide gear and he said, ‘A little bloke like you will never push it’. I wasn’t necessarily shearing more sheep with the wide gear, but I found shearing much easier by slowing down my hand movement and filling the wide comb.[47]

The most notable Australian convert was the previously mentioned Robert White. White came from Mount David, near Bathurst, began shearing in 1969, and had been a keen unionist. After spending time in Western Australia and being introduced to wide combs he worked out how to grind the points of the teeth so they would work better in merinos. In the late 1970s he established a contracting business in Mandurama, NSW, and became something of a proselytiser for wide combs. He was quite opposed to the union imposing limits on his output. Subsequently the Sunbeam Corporation, the Sydney-based manufacturer of shearing equipment, exploited White’s expertise to design wide combs suitable for merino sheep. In the past there had been many Australian shearers with White’s outlook. The Victorian, Henry Salter was a champion competition shearer who pioneered shearer training in the 1950s. Kevin Saare, also a Victorian, was another notable champion. He became a personal friend of the New Zealander Godfrey Bowen and helped develop the ‘tally-hi’ shearing technique in the 1960s with Australian Wool Board sponsorship. But such activities were constantly impeded by the AWU. Robert White, who was never much interested in shearing for sport, was possibly the first to openly argue that the AWU had no place dictating what equipment he could use, subject to the proviso that shearing was properly carried out. This was certainly the position of the NFF, which took a close interest in Robert White’s fortunes, especially when he became a target of violence. Vehement opposition to wide combs came from vocal (mainly older) shearers who saw them as a wedge of grazier exploitation. The AWU said that if it was not written in the award it could not be contemplated.[48] 

In 1980 a New South Wales grazier observed that a shearer who was doing 200 a day with wide combs had only been doing about 150 with narrow gear. He considered that the work with wide combs was ‘a lot cleaner’, although he noted that they needed to be ‘used by experienced men’. With more wool coming off he was reducing his average cost of shed hands. These parameters underpinned the grazier push to legalise wide combs. During 1979 it was openly canvassed that well trained New Zealand shearers pouring off the New Zealand Wool Board’s training system might bring badly needed innovation (including wide combs) to Australia. A research report from Western Australia gave weight to these opinions. Professor Keith Campbell of Sydney University suggested that farmers and unions need not be ‘antagonists’, but was realistic enough to note that past wounds were ‘deep’. On the same occasion Ian McLachlan, a prominent grazier and an energetic reformer destined to occupy positions of influence in the NFF, declared that farmers were threatened by the power and size of unions. Ian Cuttler, Secretary of the Riverina Branch of the AWU, stubbornly warned that wide combs were ‘not on’. The Australian Wool Corporation retorted, ‘Times have changed!’ It was claimed that unofficial use of ‘3 1/2 inch combs’ was increasing each season. In Western Australia wide combs were already doing 80 per cent of the shearing. New Zealand shearers were just one more factor that convinced the NFF and its component bodies to confront the AWU.[49] 

A Showdown Looms

Ian McLachlan became chairman of the important Industrial Relations Committee of the NFF. Paul Houlihan, a former unionist and new-Right convert, was appointed Industrial Officer. Press reports of a ‘strike fund’ to fight industrial disputes appeared during 1980. A detailed proposal was discussed by the Executive Committee of the NFF on 18 June. $100,000 would be raised ‘to encourage member organisations and their members to offer resistance in industrial matters which have national implications’. At that stage bans on the export of live sheep had been occupying most of the Industrial Committee’s time, and the constant shearing wage applications. Unionism and arbitration were, in NFF eyes, the real obstacles to a properly flexible labour relations system. Unions were not the only targets of derision. In an ‘Industrial Newsletter’ Houlihan lamented the ‘dumping’ of Ian Viner as Minister for Industrial Relations in the Fraser Government. The replacement, Ian McPhee, had been Executive Director of the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, ‘probably the most rabid protectionists in the country’, with close links to the Confederation of Australian Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)![50]

It seemed timely to modernise the wide comb clause in the award. The Livestock and Grain Producers Association of New South Wales (LGPA) became the vehicle for an application to the arbitration court. Notwithstanding the usual posturing, there seemed grounds for optimism after talks with the union that a negotiated change was possible. The LGPA insisted that it did not want to impose wide combs against the wishes of the AWU. It did not even press directly for wide combs, but adopted the more conciliatory tactic of suggesting trials, conducted with scientific objectivity. How could the AWU object? But even trials were technically a beach of the Award, so a formal application was lodged to make this possible. Simultaneously the union decided on a strategy to ‘clean up’ Western Australia. In January 1980 it lodged a ‘Roping In’ claim aiming to reassert Pastoral Industry Award applicability in Western Australia, including the wide comb prohibition. Both matters came before Commissioner Barnes on 1 July 1980 and a settlement of sorts was reached. The LGPA’s application for wide comb trials was reserved on the understanding that the parties would have further discussions and come back to the Commission with a proposal when they were ready. The Commission said that wide combs in Western Australia were already in common use and it was pointless reintroducing the prohibition. While this was a blow to the union (and a bad omen if, or when, the graziers’ challenge eventuated) it was not yet apparent that the AWU would go to the barricades on wide combs. Woolgrowers were encouraged to believe that delicate management of the issue would soon see wide combs allowed in eastern Australia.[51]

It was not so simple. In January 1980 Dave Hollis, an AWU stalwart from Western Australia, had given a union meeting in Dubbo a spirited account of the ‘Situation in Western Australia practiced by Scab Shearers including New Zealand shearers and assisted by Employers’. He provided Reg Mawbey, the New South Wales Branch Secretary, with an impassioned document entitled ‘How The West Was Lost’, portraying award breaches as a ‘leprosy’ that would spread throughout Australia.[52] 

Further Dubbo meetings concocted fiery resolutions berating the AWU Executive Council for ‘inaction’.[53] Whether this was a spontaneous expression of rank-and-file opinion or had been stirred up by Ernie Ecob is debateable. Ecob quickly became the public face of the anti-wide comb cause. He had recently been promoted to New South Wales Branch Secretary after a long career as an AWU organiser at Coonamble. He was steeped in 1956 folklore and railed about graziers, scabs, and ‘Western Australians and New Zealanders’.[54] All this worried Frank Mitchell, the General Secretary, and poisoned any possibility of a deal, but the NFF was slow to realise it. Accordingly the situation drifted through 1981 without the resolution expected by the Arbitration Commission. The AWU was already set against compromise when Houlihan reported to his Executive Committee:[55]
The Union is as sick of it as we are and if we give them an honourable way out they will accept it. This presupposes that we don’t have any major flare-up over wide combs before we are able to coax the matter into the Commission for them to direct trials to take place. Credit must be given to the LGPA for the way it has managed to keep the issue off boiling point in NSW particularly in light of Charlie Oliver’s frequent calls to arms on this issue.[56]Charlie Oliver, President of the New South Wales Branch, was an AWU powerbroker. His private reassurances to Houlihan were at odds with his militant rhetoric in a speech at Dubbo: ‘You have the law on your side, you have the Trade Union Movement, you have never changed, so don’t change now’.[57]

The flare-up soon occurred. Throughout 1981 there had been friction when AWU officials visited woolsheds at shearing time. If shearers were using wide combs they were usually doing so with the full approval of the property owner and resented AWU intrusion. One case was the focus of an ABCTV ‘Countrywide’ program in May 1981. Properties caught shearing with wide combs had been ‘black banned’ by the AWU and were unable to receive vital supplies of stock-feed (although they said other farmers were assisting). Robert White was often the contractor in these skirmishes. Despite his pariah status he was a union ticket holder. The AWU ‘black banned’ him after an episode at ‘Rockdale’ station. He claimed his shearers were not in breach of the award, as the AWU charged, but the union, reflecting its authoritarian streak, said it was not what he did but what he said that put him in breach of AWU rules. Commissioner McKenzie recognised this was a dubious proposition. The AWU was convinced White was collaborating with the NFF. He was certainly personally known to NFF officials, and they in turn were enraged at the way he was victimised. In November 1981 the Victoria-Riverina and South Australia Branches called a one week strike to indicate the depth of feeling. The AWU Executive Council decided on a 24 hour stoppage (but delayed public announcement while it waited for a tactical opportunity). It was becoming clear that the AWU was implacably opposed, even to trials of the wide comb. The LGPA’s determination accordingly hardened and in November 1981 a revised application was made. If the union would not concede trials woolgrowers would argue the case on the existing evidence. The gloves were off.[58]

Arbitration and Woolshed Confrontation

The arbitration case was tedious and at times farcical. For the benefit of the Commission shearing experiments were conducted in selected woolsheds around the country. To begin proceedings Commissioner McKenzie would formally suspend Clause 32 for the particular shed for one day. Sheep would be shorn with various types of combs, and the shearers would then be extensively questioned and cross-examined before the caravan moved on to another sheep station. The first of these shearing demonstrations was held at the Sydney Showground, on 2 December 1981. Houlihan had invited television cameras but Commissioner McKenzie was irritated by such publicity stunts. The demonstrator was Robert White and this certainly provoked the AWU. Ernie Ecob subsequently refused to cooperate so no further evidence was collected from NSW. On one occasion in Western Australia the preliminary formalities were apparently not correctly conducted and the AWU subsequently initiated prosecutions against the shearers for breaching the Award![59]

While arbitration dragged on during 1982 tension persisted in the regions. Robert White was the victim of a number of violent attacks, and he bought guard dogs and carried firearms. The AWU threatened to ‘black ban’ Sunbeam, the major Australasian manufacturer of shearing equipment. Output from the company’s Campsie plant included wide combs for export to New Zealand. It had long been possible to purchase ‘wide gear’ in Western Australia but Sunbeam protested it did not permit its agents (including its New Zealand distributors) to supply wide combs within Australia. Houlihan told his superiors in the NFF that he was confident the Commission would rule in their favour. This turned out to be justified when the decision was finally handed down on 10 December 1982. In Commissioner McKenzie’s view the extensive use of wide combs in Western Australia could not be ignored. Evidence given by equipment suppliers was ‘strong and compelling’. The decision provoked an immediate crisis within the AWU. When its appeal was rejected by the Full Bench on 23 March 1983 a strike was called.[60]

Arbitration had failed and the dispute was now a test of will. Violence underlined bitter feelings between unionists and ‘scabs’. A Land photograph showed the battered face of Bill Allen, a 50-year-old overseer at ‘Mutaroo’ station in South Australia. McLachlan and Houlihan saw the strike as an opportunity to break ‘compulsory unionism’. Grazcos co-ordinated the supply of strike-breakers, some of them brought in from New Zealand. Security ‘precautions’ were arranged. The AWU used spotter planes to identify sheds where shearing was taking place. Raids on ‘scab sheds’ were as likely to be conceived during drinking sessions as planned assaults. Woolshed arson occurred. Shotguns, iron bars or heavy sticks were used on occasions. There was claim and counter claim as to who was to blame for violence. On balance, though, shearing continued.[61]

The strike was looking shaky when the AWU Executive Council met on 5 May 1983. The Commonwealth Government was pressing for a settlement. While the meeting was in progress a letter from K.J. Crawford, Secretary of the Shearing Contractors’ Association, was hand delivered. The message was brutally frank, despite its quixotic grammar. Headed ‘MOST CONFIDENTIAL URGENT’, it went on: ‘hundreds of members … are willing to defy Union direction and return to work as a mass body’. This was from friends, not NFF propaganda. The letter suggested shearers were now concerned about ‘Hire Purchase, Bank Cards, Housing Loans, etc. High interest rates etc.’ and contained a penetrating appraisal of trends in shearing culture:
At the same time this is 1983, not 1956, in the younger generation of shearers the nostalgia does not last as in the past, reason being Suburban shearing. The traditional yarn around the fire, to keep the pot simmering, like the fire has gone out.[62]A clearer explanation of the disintegration of the loyalty ethos would hardly have been possible. Like almost everyone else in society, shearers too had become consumers. Many, perhaps most, were similar to the ‘New Zealanders and Western Australians’ constantly demonised as ‘scabs’, and they were tired of history lectures from AWU organisers. Many had an open mind regarding wide combs. 

The AWU’s legal advisers had explained that its position was weak.[63] Having stirred up rank-and-file passions, it did not have an exit strategy. McKenzie was also sensitive to grassroots passions, and reluctant to rely on the Commission’s overarching legal power. This was the crutch that enabled the AWU to take the matter back to the Commission for another arbitration marathon.

At the behest of the new Federal Minister for Industrial Relations, Ralph Willis, a conference was held. It was chaired by McKenzie, and attended by officials of the Union, the NFF, the LGPA, and the Minister’s Department. The six point agreement that ended the strike accepted that the risk of shearers’ injury might still be an issue, and the Commission agreed to hear more evidence. It was emphasised that this was not a ‘re-hearing’ but an opportunity to assess aspects not previously considered. The Commissioner was not prepared to restore the wide comb ban while arbitration continued, but, aware of the potential for violence, stipulated that employers were required not to discriminate against shearers who might still want to use narrow combs. Correspondingly, wide comb shearers should not be intimidated by AWU organisers.[64]

Hearings for the next phase of the legal battle began in June 1983, continued until April 1984, and Commissioner McKenzie handed down his final decision on 5 June 1984. Meanwhile, in the ‘court in the bush’, a separate battle raged.[65] At dispersed woolsheds the Commission’s ideal of fair play was not easily implemented. During this period perhaps the worst violence occurred. Both sides accused each other of underhand and divisive practices. According to the NFF the majority of shearers simply accepted the Court’s decision, experimented with wide combs, and found them convenient to use. The comb manufacturers reported that they could not keep up with the demand for wide combs. The union countered that suppliers had flooded the market with wide combs, effectively denying shearers a choice. Furthermore, Grazcos were accused of not employing narrow comb teams. The reality was that an overwhelming majority of shearers had already switched to wide comb use, although some may have done so reluctantly.[66]

A primary fear of the union was that faster shearing would be used by the NFF to delay increases in the shearing rate or even argue for a decrease. For award purposes rates per hundred sheep were based on a fair average weekly wage concept. This was arrived at by dividing the ‘fair wage’ by a benchmark weekly tally that an average shearer could be expected to achieve. This ‘shearing formula’ had been carefully constructed to reconcile the equitable living wage concept with the piece rate tradition (and its association with ‘speeding up’). The divisor in the shearing formula was 480 sheep per week. Implying less than 100 a day, the formula must be seen as protecting mediocre shearers. The AWU’s concern was that wide combs might lead to a higher divisor. NFF assurances that there was no such hidden agenda were, perhaps realistically, not believed. A decade later, when wide combs were universally used, the notional weekly tally had become 500, and there were suggestions that 520 would be more realistic.[67]

That wide combs might be damaging to shearers’ health was another theme that the AWU pressed. It paraded witnesses who complained that wide combs were harder to push, and put extra strain on the shearer’s wrist. However, none of these had had extensive experience with wide combs, as the Commissioner knew. The issue of whether wide combs made the work easier or harder seems to hang on shearing technique. It surprised McKenzie that the union had not been able to assemble a better case, and he wondered why a Commonwealth Government offer to fund occupational health research had not been taken up. In fact the AWU knew it would not help. In March 1983 it had actually commissioned a pilot study by occupational health and safety consultants. A preliminary report was presented in December 1983, months before final arguments were presented to the Commission. But it was decidedly unhelpful and accordingly buried. In early 1984 Ernie Ecob, under increasing pressure from his colleagues to deliver hard evidence, was courting yet another occupational health expert, Professor Fergusson from Melbourne University. The AWU argued that the change in the award be reversed until he had had time to do a study. This was surely disingenuous. The NFF could not have known of the union’s secret occupational health study, but its legal counsel sensed the weakness anyway, and rubbed it in.
It is our opponents who have been saying off and on that wide combs can cause danger and yet it is they who, given the opportunity for an inquiry into that very issue, have chosen not to pursue it.
In the decision of 5 June 1984 the Commissioner wrote:
I am satisfied that the conclusions reached in my decision of 10 December 1982 were correct and to return to the exclusive use of 64mm combs would be against the weight of evidence.
I again stress that this industry cannot remain impervious to technological change.[68]

This was not quite the end of the haggling over combs. In a last ditch stand the AWU argued that if the old narrow comb had to be superseded there was an argument for standardisation — that, echoing the members’ rule that had existed since 1910, in fairness everyone should use the same. Woolgrower representatives were strongly opposed but the Commissioner, uneasy about continuing woolshed disturbances, took it up. He established a committee — essentially consisting of the same representatives of the same organisations who had been at each other’s throats before him for four years — to investigate. So the wide comb dispute as such lost momentum, but the parties continued to bicker. Houlihan’s perspective was that the AWU was internally divided on how to define a standard comb. Shearing machine manufacturers were already producing a variety of combs and shearers were establishing preferences dictated by individual taste, the type of sheep, and the condition of the fleece. Already combs were exceeding 86 mm, but width was only one of many parameters. Regulation was no longer practicable. The committee met spasmodically in the second half of 1984, but the discussion went round in circles and no concrete proposals emerged. The wide comb dispute, per se, had run out of oxygen. But it certainly was not the end of vigorous AWU protest against the workplace regime the NFF was relentlessly promoting. Opposition transmogrified into a campaign against New Zealand shearers that lasted for another decade.[69]

For a union that had built its considerable influence around the arbitration system, the stubborn refusal to accept Commission decisions was out of character to say the least. It did so, apparently, because it believed there was substantial grassroots opposition to wide combs. Ernie Ecob certainly convinced the Executive Council of the AWU that this was the case. Continuing reports of violence gave credence to the view that militant sentiments had been aroused that the union hierarchy could not afford to ignore. But it also alienated unionists from their rural communities, and the gruff threatening tone of AWU rhetoric did not play well on television. Commissioner Ian McKenzie was also very cognisant of violence out in the woolsheds. As early as 1982 he thought the AWU arguments thoroughly unconvincing, but he did not want to expose the arbitration court to a decision that was not enforceable. But while many union members were profoundly uneasy about the implications of wide combs, very few supported a militant approach. The AWU is a large and powerful union operating in many industries, but its heart and soul had been defined by its historic shearing roots. From this perspective the wide comb dispute was disastrous. Shearers of all shades of opinion deserted it over its handling of the issue.


The dispute reflected bigger ideological forces disturbing the political landscape. A fundamental reappraisal of the post-Federation political consensus on how Australia should function was unfolding. Industrial relations were central to this ideological shift. For 70 years ‘White Australia’, protection of manufacturing, and labour arbitration had shaped distribution of the national income. There had not always been agreement on this approach, as the turbulent politics of the 1920s and 1930s had shown. Pastoral and mining industries particularly, because they sold most of their output outside the tariff wall, had habitually complained of having their costs determined inside it by the arbitration court. Nevertheless the system had survived its numerous crises. When costs edged up in the 1960s and then exploded after the 1970s ‘oil shocks’, the coalition of interests committed to the ‘Federation settlement’ began to fracture. Its disintegration was aided and abetted by baby-boomer graduates indoctrinated in neo-classical economics inhabiting Canberra bureaucracies. What came to be known as ‘economic rationalism’ was taking root. The Whitlam Government’s 25 per cent cut in tariffs in 1973 was an early sign, although the same Government’s use of ‘wage indexation’ was taken from a different manifesto. After the retirement of ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, rural interests’ natural opposition to the crumbling system consolidated. They were especially concerned about ‘union power’. The Hawke Labor Government swept into office at the very moment that the wide comb matter erupted into open conflict.[70] The new government did not want the success of its ‘Economic Summit’ compromised by inconvenient associations with ‘old’ unionism. While it maintained a touching faith in arbitration through what it called ‘The Accord’, it liberalised financial controls and slashed tariffs, accelerating the exit of the old economic order. There is no more poignant indicator of the predicament that confronted the AWU in 1983 and 1984.

Resistance to wide combs was driven by deep emotion as much as by reason. Mateship had mystical status as the expression of loyalty between shearers. The union purported to represent (and define) shearers’ interests, but its mythology did not fit comfortably with emerging realities. In the wide comb dispute the AWU was reacting to, and to some extent stirring up, feelings running though the gruff sentimentalists in its ranks. This group romanticised mateship but the most obvious manifestation of this was a surly, and sometimes thuggish attitude to outsiders. This is conveniently represented by the movie Sunday Too Far Away but actual examples of boorish unionism in the 1960s and 70s are not hard to find. There was a strong sense that the 1956 strike had proved that union strength could be asserted if the arbitration court got things ‘wrong’. Thus the AWU’s steadfast faith in the arbitration system was not absolute. There had been militant shearers who defied the AWU’s adherence to arbitration in the 1930s. The diehards of the 1980s may have drawn something from this tradition, although it was stripped of any hint of outside radical influences. They were instead the inheritors of the mateship tradition that had been created in the late-nineteenth century. The culture was antagonistic to graziers and hostile to non-unionists. Over and over again the mantra was repeated that concessions to graziers, whatever they might be, amounted to an erosion of conditions that had been achieved through years of struggle and group solidarity. That wide combs might benefit shearers — an increasingly widespread opinion — was rejected out of hand. The graziers wanted the rule changed. Ipso facto they had an ulterior motive. The hard-nosed strategists in the NFF did indeed have an ‘agenda’. But it was doing them less than justice to suggest that this was primarily aimed at returning shearers’ conditions to the equivalent of slavery. 

The union hierarchy seemed unable to accommodate other opinions amongst shearers. It was particularly insensitive to the faction with an individualistic outlook that was only mildly interested in the union’s noble history (epitomised by Robert White and influenced by New Zealand shearing culture). But its biggest mistake was that it also offended the many solid unionists who lived by the AWU’s own historical mantra of arbitration. These shearers lived in the rural towns of NSW and Victoria, and were deeply conscious of the extent to which direct action in woolsheds alienated them from rural communities. They were on the whole not attracted to wide combs, but knew that the battle to keep them out had to be won in the arbitration court, or not at all. For them direct action had been a reckless adventure resulting in lost wages, criticism in the rural press, and diluted employment options. Many of these resigned from the union because of the inept manner in which the dispute was handled. 

The unambiguous conclusion is that mateship in shearing sheds, as practiced and promoted by the AWU since its earliest days, was eclipsed. Basically it was a concept of brotherhood that, even for shearers, belied the individualist mindset prevalent in the 1980s. This brought to the surface a shearers’ culture that had always existed as an undercurrent — and could also be labelled ‘mateship’ if that was required. The present conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who flouts ‘labour market reform’ as his trademark political achievement, is another champion of mateship, even to the point of promoting (unsuccessfully) an amendment to the Constitution embracing it. Whatever he thinks it means, it can be safely assumed that it has little in common with the AWU conception of it. The AWU’s version was relegated to history. That said, the union’s capacity for survival was as tenacious as ever. Shearers carried more mythological than numerical weight in AWU affairs, and it has probably adapted to the new era of economic rationalism as effectively as any other major union. The new-Right’s cockiness is justified, but it goes too far in claiming that it has won over all hearts and minds within the shearing labour force to its individualistic ideology. The most skilful shearers have benefited enormously from the new environment. For average performers, though, opportunities have slipped. For woolgrowers the end of petty disruption during shearing has not been a panacea for broader problems. The national flock has now dropped below 100 million, almost half what it was during the decisive fight over ‘union power’, yet a chronic shortage of shearers has re-emerged. Wool industry leaders are still hoping someone might invent a robot capable of doing the job. 

Rory O’Malley studied at Lincoln College, Christchurch New Zealand, completing an MAgrSci in 1971 in econometric modelling and macroeconomics. He occupied research positions in Wellington, coming to Sydney in 1988 to pursue economic consultancy work. He began studies in history at the University of New England in 1997 doing initial research on the wide comb dispute. He is currently enrolled as a postgraduate at the University of Sydney where he is doing further social/cultural work on shearers.
<[email protected]></[email protected]>


*This paper has been peer-reviewed by two anonymous referees for Labour History. The author acknowledges with thanks the support of Dr Frank Bongiorno at the University of New England who supervised his honours thesis.

1. The Pastoral Industry Award of 1907 was the first case heard by the new Commonwealth Arbitration Court. It even preceded the famous Higgins Harvester Judgment of November 1907.

2. The famous racial exclusion clause in AWU rules had explicitly exempted the Maori. It had always been axiomatic that Pakehas were admissible.

3. Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: Power, Politics & Business in Australia, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW, revised edition, 1994 (first published 1992), pp. 113, 255; Braham Dabscheck, ‘New Right or Old Wrong? Ideology and Industrial Relations’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 29, no. 4, December 1987, pp. 425–429.

4. Mark Hearn, ‘Mates and Strangers: The Ethos of the Australian Workers Union’, in David Palmer, Ross Shanahan & Martin Shanahan (eds), Australian Labour History Reconsidered, Australian Humanities Press, Unley, SA, 1999, pp. 18–37.

5.Ibid., p. 23.

6. John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 297–338; Mark Hearn & Harry Knowles, One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886–1994, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Melbourne, 1996, pp. 95–100.

7.The Shearer (Machine Shearers and Shed Hands Union newspaper), 10/9/1904, p. 2; 17/9/1904, p. 2.

8. Hearn, ‘Mates and Strangers’, p. 22.

9. Roger McDonald, Reflecting Labor: Images of Myth and Origin Over 100 Years, National Library of Australia, Evatt Foundation, Canberra, 1991.

10.Ibid., p. 2.

11. Such fare could be found on dairy farms and hill country sheep farms in New Zealand. For a description of shearers meals in the 1940s see Jane Dare, Rouseabout Jane: a Land Girl in New Zealand, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd., 1956, p. 16. These were places where attitudes to unions were ambivalent, and sometimes hostile. McDonald’s knowledge of woolshed tucker is not to be questioned, given his experience as a shearers’ cook. It might be noted, though, that he worked with Maori shearers whose notions of mateship differed markedly from the AWU ethos. Roger McDonald, Shearers Motel, Picador, Chippendale, NSW, 1992.

12. McDonald, Reflecting Labor, p. 16.

13.Ibid., p. 2.

14.Ibid., p. 10.

15. Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, paperback edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1966 (first published 1958).

16. Russel Ward, ‘The Australian Legend Revisited’, Historical Studies, vol. 18, no. 71, October 1978, pp. 171–190.

17. Many writers have debated the ‘class consciousness’ of the Australian labour movement. An especially pungent analysis can be found in Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism, revised edition, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978 (first edition 1970).

18. Ward, Legend, p. 214.

19.The Worker, 3/8/1910, p. 4; 15/2/1917, p. 13.

20.The Worker, 12/8/1916, p. 12; 7/9/1916, p. 12; 23/8/1917, p. 19.

21.The Worker, 13/4/1938, p. 17.

22. Bill Carter and John MacGibbon, Wool: A History of New Zealand’s Wool Industry, Ngaio Press, Wellington, 2003, pp. 155–166; Shearing (a monthly magazine for shearers published in New Zealand), vol. 10, no. 1, March 1994, pp. 4–6; vol. 14, no. 1, March 1998, pp. 18–19; New Zealand Herald, 30/1/1983, Section 2, p. 1; National Library of New Zealand, Oral History Collection, Ivan Bowen Interview OHInt-0509/02; Des Williams, Top Class Wool Cutters: The World of Shearers and Shearing, Shearing Heritage Publications, Hamilton (NZ), 1996, pp. 144–146.

23. Des Williams and Margaret Way, Last Side to Glory: The Golden Shears Open Championship, 1961–1990, Hazard Press, Christchurch, NZ, 1991.

24. E.L. Barnes claims to have invented a wide comb during a trip to New Zealand in 1904, but it was not commercially produced. Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves, State Library of Victoria, H17273, Box125/1, 1949, p 305; there are advertisements for a Cooper Wide Cut 13-tooth comb in The Worker, 1/1/1908, p 18; Jim Donaldson provided the author with information on early 13-tooth combs.

25. Rule Books of Australian Workers Union, AWU collection, Butlin Archives, E154/2; emphasis added.

26. Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (hereafter, CAR), 1926, p. 458. In Queensland, where the federal Pastoral Industry Award did not apply, the Queensland Shearing Award had a similar ban on wide combs.

27. CAR, 1927, p. 660.

28. Arbitration Commission, Cases 3105 & 3221 of 1980, Transcript of Proceedings, 12/10/1983, p. 1931.

29.Ibid., p. 1934.

30. CAR, 1938, p. 632; see also Julia E. Gibson ‘Aspects of the Use of Wide Combs in the Australian Wool Industry’, Farm Management Report No. 16, Department of Agricultural Economics and Business Management, University of New England, 1982, pp. 11–18.

31. Emphasis added.

32. CAR, 1948, p. 279; Gibson, Use of Wide Combs, pp. 11–18; The Worker, 21/12/1982, p. 1; CAR, 1982, Print F1367.

33. ‘Suburban shearing’ refers to the practice of shearers living at home rather than in shearers’ quarters at the station.

34. Merritt, Making of the AWU, p. 43; Hearn & Knowles, One Big Union, p. 66; Clyde Cameron (as told to Daniel Connell), The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913–1990, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Crows Nest, NSW, 1990, ch. 4, ‘Surviving the AWU’, pp. 33–48.

35. John Dingwall, Sunday Too Far Away! (movie screenplay), Australian Theatre Workshop, Richmond, Vic., 1978.

36. Bill Kelly, ‘The History of the Black Ban applied to Farmers on Kangaroo Island 1972’, (accessed from on 11/1/2003), 1991; Helen Plaschke, ‘The “Woolley” Wool Ban’, unpublished account written by granddaughter of the farmer, [Brisbane] 2005.

37.The Land, 22/2/1979, p. 6.

38. For the 1956 shearing strike: Joy Guyatt, ‘The Labor Government and the Queensland Shearers Strike of 1956’, Labour History, no. 33, November 1977, pp. 53–64; Hearn and Knowles, One Big Union, pp. 237–257; Kosmas Tsokhas, ‘Concessions, Conflicts and Collusion: Graziers and Shearing Workers, 1946–1956′, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, vol. XIV, no. 7, May 1991, pp. 289–304; Ruth S. Kerr, Resolute and Rugged : A History of the Warrego Graziers’ Association, Warrego Graziers’ Association (Union of Employers), Charleville (Qld), 1991, pp. 37–41; Ruth S. Kerr, Freedom of Contract: A History of the United Graziers’ Association of Queensland, United Graziers Association (Union of Employers), Brisbane, 1990, pp. 164–172; Neil Byron, All Among the Wool Boys!, Gorman House Arts Centre, undated, pp. 39–52; Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh, Great Australian Shearing Stories, ABC Books, Sydney, 2001, pp. 149–156.

39. Ronald Anderson, On The Sheep’s Back, Rigby, Adelaide, 1966; Ronald Anderson, Crisis on the Land, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1972; Peter Robinson The Crisis in Australian Capitalism, VCTA Publishing with The National Times, Melbourne, 1978; Bureau of Agricultural Economics, The Australian Sheep Industry Survey 1970–71 to 1972–73, Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra, 1976; Owen Thomson, The Wool Crisis: A National Survey of the Australian Wool Industry, Australia News House, Sydney, 1971; Land: 9/4/1970, p. 3; 16/4/1970, pp. 3–11.

40.The Worker, 1/3/1961, p. 12.

41. Blanche D’Alpuget and Oliver Strewe, The Workers, Collins Australia, 1987, p. 116.

42. CAR, 1967, p. 457.

43. D.B. Trebeck, ‘Farmer Organisations’, ch. 9 of D.B. Williams (ed.), Agriculture in the Australian Economy, Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, revised and enlarged third edition, 1990, pp. 138–141; Braham Dabscheck ‘New Right or Old Wrong?’, pp. 425–429; Butlin Archives, NFF collection (hereafter NFF), N143/327; Land, 14/8/1980, p. 9; The Australian: 19/1/1982, pp. 1, 32; 23–24/1/1982, p. 4.

44. Rory O’Malley, Shearers from New Zealand in the Australian Wool Industry (circa 1955 to 1995), Hons Thesis, University of New England, 2003, pp. 40–53; Butcher to Keenan, 20/5/1985, AWU N117/380.

45. Commonwealth of Australia Senate, Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, Inquiry into the Employment of Visitors to Australia in the Shearing Industry, 1992, 1993, Official Hansard Reports (hereafter Senate Inquiry), p. 1105.

46. Bill Richards, Off the Sheep’s Back, Lindon Publishing, Auckland West, 1986, pp. 114–115; Land, 3/11/1983, Magazine Lift Out, p. 2.

47.Ibid., 5/5/83, p. 4.

48. Paul Houlihan, A Brief History of the Wide Comb Dispute in the Pastoral Industry Award, Part of the Proceedings of a Conference of the H.R. Nicholls Society at Lorne, 5–7 August 1988; Ian Day, Quick Go The Shears: The Life and Times of Henry Salter MBE, Lola & Michelle Day, PLACE, 1993; Margaret O’Brien & Louise Ross, In the Pursuit of Excellence: The Life and Career of Shearing Legend Kevin Sarre, Lockington & District Living Heritage Complex, Lockington, Victoria, 2002; Countrywide, 1/5/1981, ABC TV Archives, Accession number 334973; The Land, 17/12/1981, p. 4.

49.The Land, 30/10/80, p. 13; 1/3/1979, p. 11; 3/5/1979, p. 14; 31/5/1979, p. 8; R.J. Lightfoot, A.M. Ingleton, R.A. Mills, N.M. Marney, & M. D’Antuono, A Preliminary Investigation of Shearing Merino Sheep With Combs of Varying Width and Design, Western Australian Department of Agriculture, 1978.

50. NFF: N143/9; N143/7; Circular No. 111/80, 4/8/1980; N143/8; N143/201 The Land, 1/2/1979, p.32; 4/4/1980, p. 15; 1/2/1979, p.3.

51. Gibson, Use of Wide Combs, pp. 11–18; NFF, N143/8.

52. Mawbey to Mitchell, 23/6/1980, Hollis to Mawbey, 1/7/1980, AWU, N117/357(a).

53. Mawbey to Mitchell, 31/3/1980, AWU N117/357(a); Minutes of Pastoral Committee, 8/12/1980, AWU N117/358(a); The Land: 26/6/1980, p. 11; 31/7/1980, p. 6; 31/8/1980, p. 9; 30/10/1980, p. 13.

54. For biographical details on Ernie Ecob: Sydney Morning Herald, 6/9/2000, p. 39; Coonamble Times, 30/8/2000, p. 7; Mawbey to Mitchell, 24/6/1980; Mawbey to Mitchell, 25/6/1980, AWU N117/357(a); Mawbey to Mitchell, 31/3/1980, AWU N117/357(a); Ecob to Mitchell, 2/6/1981, AWU N117/361(a), Minutes of meeting of Pastoral Workers, 1/11/1981, AWU N117/362; Mitchell to McIntosh, 4/8/1982, AWU N117/365(b); Minutes of Pastoral Workers Meeting, 26/4/1983, AWU N117/368(b).

55. Mawbey to Mitchell, 31/3/1980, AWU, N117/357(a); N117/381(b).

56. Industrial Committee report, 19/10/1981, NFF, N143/12.

57. Telephone conversation with Paul Houlihan, July 2003; Minutes of Pastoral Workers Meeting, 1/11/1981, AWU, N117/362.

58.Countrywide, 1/5/1981, ABC TV Archives, Accession number 334973; Gibson, Use of Wide Combs, p. 16; LGPA Press Releases, 29/9/1981, 8/10/1981, AWU, N117/362; Arbitration Commission, Transcript of Proceedings, 28/9/1981, 7/10/1981 (copies held in AWU, N117/362); N117/365(b).

59. Houlihan, Brief History; The Land, 17/12/1981, p. 4.

60.The Land, 16/12/1982, p. 7; Houlihan to McKenzie 16/11/82, Arbitration Commission, Wide Comb File; Executive Council Resolution, 23/7/1982; Allen to Ecob, 10/5/1982, Allen to Mitchell, 4/5/1982, AWU N117/365(b); Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, 10/12/1982, Cases 3105 of 1980, and 3221 of 1980, Print F1367, pp. 198, 200.

61. Conversation with Chris McClelland, Hay, August 2003; Conversation with Ian McLachlan, Tupra Station, August 2003; Account of Meeting at Dubbo, 26/4/1983, AWU, N117/368(b); Sunday Telegraph, 24/4/1983, p. 28; The Age, 22/4/1983, p. 5; The Land: 24/3/1983, p.5; 7/4/1983, p. 5; 14/4/1983, p. 3; 21/4/1983, p. 7; 5/5/1983, pp.3–4; 12/5/1983, p. 3; 9/6/1983; Australian Penthouse, September 1984, pp. 35–41, 160.

62. Crawford to Mitchell, 5/5/1983, AWU, N117/368(b).

63. File note, AWU, N117/368(b); Commins & Co. to Mitchell, 28/3/1983, N117/367(a).

64. Arbitration Commission, 5/6/1984, Print F5655, pp. 3–4.

65. The expression was used by a witness at the Commission. Arbitration Commission, Transcript of Proceedings, 12/10/1983, p. 1899.

66.The Land, 9/6/1983, 30/6/1983, p. 10; 19/4/1984, p. 4; ABCTV Countrywide, 14/3/1984, Accession No. 4910; South West News Pictorial (Young) 7/5/1984, p. 1;14/5/1985, p. 1; 16/5/1984, pp. 1,3; 18/5/1984, pp. 2, 5; 23/5/1984, p. 5; 8/6/1984, p. 5; Canberra Times, 11/5/1984, p. 3; 12/5/1984, p. 1; 11/6/84, p. 3; The Advertiser, 13/6/1984; Australian Penthouse, September 1984, pp. 35–41, 160.; The Australian Worker, 29/2/84, p. 1, Presented to Arbitration Commission as Exhibit W2; Arbitration Commission, Transcript of Proceedings, 14/9/1983, pp. 1701–1707, 1731–1737; Arbitration Commission, Wide Comb File: Nankervis to Manning, 21/2/1984; McAfee to Mackenzie (sic), 7/3/1984; Alan to Manning, 24/2/1984.

67. Jim Doyle, ‘Some Comments on the Present Pastoral Dispute’, 6/4/1983. AWU , N117/368(a); Senate Inquiry, p. 119. These concerns did not originate in the wide comb dispute. Indeed they were integral to the whole arbitration process. Every single award case since 1907 had involved detailed argument about what the average tally should be. Over 80 years the number applied to the shearing formula had steadily increased, due to improvements in shearing technique, and other factors. It never fell. It is fanciful to argue that, over the long term, increases in the average tally were used as a vehicle to reduce shearers’ incomes.

68. CAR, Print F5655, pp. 85, 86.

69. O’Malley, Shearers from New Zealand, pp. 66–86.

70. The federal election was on 13 March 1983. The appeal decision which led to the strike was announced on 23 March 1983.