coat of arms

Centenary of Federation and the Court/Commission

While legislation to establish the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was not passed until 1904, discussion of the need for a federal conciliation and arbitration power in the Constitution was a key issue in the Federation debates. A Conciliation and Arbitration Bill was one of the first bills introduced in the first federal Parliament.

History of the Court/Commission

The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was established following the enactment of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904. The first President of the Court was Justice O'Connor, a High Court judge.

Since 1904 the institution's name has changed three times. The most significant structural change was in 1956 following the Boilermakers decision in the High Court. The arbitral and judicial powers of the Court were separated and the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission was created along with the Commonwealth Industrial Court.

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

Over the years legislation has altered and expanded the role of the Court and Commission, but the the primary functions are:

In recent times the Commission's responsibility to encourage agreement making has been widened and it has acquired jurisdiction to hear unfair dismissal cases. As always, Members are required to determine cases based on "equity, good conscience and the substantial merits of the case".

The timeline on the next page seeks to illustrate the work of the Court/Commission over the century following Federation. The events and issues highlighted are a selection only.


1904 - Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act commences.

1907 - Justice Higgins sets first "living wage" in 1907 Harvester judgment. Other key wage decisions over century involve total wage, wage indexation, enterprise bargaining.

1930 - Working week 48-hours in 1904. Court approves 44-hours in 1930, 40-hours in 1947. No further uniform reduction, but 38-hours becomes norm in 1980s.

1931 - Wages reduced 10 per cent during Depression.

1940 - Court empowered during WWII to hear wider range of disputes in interests of industrial peace and national security.

1965 - Equal pay awarded to Aboriginal stockmen.

1969 - Women workers win equal pay in two key cases - 1969 and 1972.

1973 - Justice Evatt - first woman appointed to Commission, 1973. First female Full Bench constituted 1989, first female President, Justice O'Connor, appointed 1994.

1979 - Maternity leave rights granted. Parental leave rights extended to men in 1990.

1984 - Full Bench in Termination, Change & Redundancy Case introduces award provisions regarding redundancy pay and dismissal. Commission acquires unfair dismissal jurisdiction in 1994.

1994 - Family Leave and Personal/Carer's Leave test cases, 1994 and 1995, result in introduction of greater flexibility for workers combining work and family responsibilities.

2001 - Parental leave introduced for casuals following test case.