Jeffrey William (Jeff) Shaw, 10 October 1949-10 May 2010

By Wright, Lance | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Jeffrey William (Jeff) Shaw, 10 October 1949-10 May 2010


Wright, Lance, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


This is one of the five tributes for Jeff Shaw being published in this issue of Labour History; there were also many articles published in the press at the time Jeff died (although a number of those were rather undignified and sometimes shabby 'backhanders'). I will, therefore, concentrate on the following aspects of his life and work: first, Jeff's unique contribution to public life in Australia; second, his contribution to the welfare of his fellow men and women; third, Jeff the intellectual; and last, Jeff the man (the first and second areas overlap considerably).

Jeff Shaw was a truly remarkable man: at the time of his election to the New South Wales Parliament he was undoubtedly the best industrial barrister in the country. As Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations between 1995 and 2000, he was probably the most professionally and technically qualified person for the role to hold ministerial office in New South Wales at least since World War II. And there were so many other fields where his skill and uniqueness shone.

Thus, no one in our time was as well qualified as was Jeff Shaw to perform the public roles he had or to achieve the goals he set himself. One would have to go back to Alfred Deakin or Henry Bournes Higgins to find politicians with anything like the articulated vision of the law, industrial relations and their interrelationship. And, of course, these fields were dramatically more complex and technical than in the days of Deakin and Higgins.

He could have used his skills purely for personal and professional gain like the overwhelming majority of the Australian legal profession. But he didn't. The significance of that should not be lost. Not too many years ago it was commonplace for senior members of the Bar, often out of a desire to serve, to enter political life. That practice had ceased by the time Jeff entered politics and that fact shows the significance of his contribution to public life and gives real insight into the nature and extent of his altruism.

The detail of his contribution, however, also warrants attention. By the enactment of the Industrial Relations Act 1996, he rewrote the industrial laws of New South Wales, thereby overturning the Liberal Party's 1991 degrading of the state's industrial laws. These laws had previously worked well for many decades and provided the most effective industrial relations system in the country, as well as one that, by and large, avoided the extremes of industrial misconduct that plagued other states. That statute also wrought major changes in the law on pay equity, paving the way for unions to mount cases to achieve true equal pay.

A major rewrite of the occupation health and safety law was enacted towards the end of Jeff's ministerial career. It involved a qualitative upgrade of the statute and ensured New South Wales continued to lead the way in the area.

In both of these areas, Jeff had the foresight and wisdom to recruit Professor Ron McCallum to either assist or chair the various working parties set up to undertake the detailed work of the revamps required. Although Ron was undoubtedly the doyen of Australian academic labour lawyers, when Jeff first called on him he had only been in Sydney for a few years and was seen by some in New South Wales as an unknown quantity. But not to Jeff, whose ability to discern and harness Ron's skills and learning was a major factor in the quality and success of the resulting legislation. Ron was subsequently invited by a number of other state governments to play similar roles for them.

Jeff's skills as a Minister were not limited to his specialist area of industrial or labour law. He was that relatively unusual lawyer these days, a good all-round lawyer. To hear him interviewed on radio, as he often was, on one of the government's proposals for legal change or legal reform was a treat. He was always 'on top of the brief', succinct and sure footed, explaining often difficult legalisation in a way so simple that even the interviewer could understand. …

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Jeffrey William (Jeff) Shaw, 10 October 1949-10 May 2010
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