On Wednesday night I received this email from a trade unionist friend: “I assume you know by now that you got a mention in Sally McManus’s National Press Club address today. You don’t get blamed for everything, just for starting it all.”

As it turned out, I didn’t watch the ACTU secretary’s talk to the NPC. Most of these lunchtime events, shown on ABC TV, are dreary affairs where the question/discussion period is invariably dominated by members of the Canberra press gallery. However, I did read the talk and later followed up on the question time period on ABC iview.

My friend was correct. McManus complained about the (alleged) “anti-union stance of the new Opposition Leader” Peter Dutton. She claimed this was “not new and certainly not original” and added “this hyper-aggression towards and demonising of unions had its genesis in 1983”.

McManus went on: “In that year, Gerard Henderson, a soon-to-be staffer to John Howard, wrote an article attacking the system of co-operation between employers and unions, and called for the dismantling of bodies that fostered agreements and regulated the different interests of workers and employers.”

McManus did not cite specific sources for her claims, so it’s impossible for most people reading her address to check her quotes. The article to which she referred in relation to me was titled “The Industrial Relations Club” and was published in the September 1983 edition of Quadrant magazine.

It was written in mid-1983 when I was a middle-level officer in the Melbourne office of the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations. I held this position between 1980 and 1983. It was at the time of the 1982-83 recession when inflation and interest rates were high and unemployment peaked at more than 10 per cent.

From inside the IR system, I came to the view that Australia’s (then) highly centralised industrial relations system was having a deleterious effect on the economy in general and employment in particular.

It seemed to me that what I termed the IR club – then consisting of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, the ACTU, the Confederation of Australian Industry and the DEIR itself – was more concerned with the continuation of the existing system than with reducing high levels of unemployment, inflation and interest rates.

The article was written in an irreverent, even disrespectful, style. But the point was serious. One example illustrates the point. Like all recessions, the impact of the 1982-83 one was mixed. Some companies were doing relatively well while others were performing poorly. The same was true of medium and small businesses.

Likewise with geography. Some areas of Australia were performing OK, yet others were struggling. The problem was that the highly centralised industrial relations system did not, and could not, cope with this reality. Hence the need for greater flexibility.

Contrary to McManus’s undocumented assertions – carried live by the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster – I did not call for the dismantling of registered employer or employee organisations or for what is now termed the Industrial Relations Commission. In any event, such an outcome could not have been achieved.

But I did advocate greater flexibility for employees, whether unionised or not, to negotiate wages and conditions with employers if they saw fit as a means of protecting employment or negotiating wages and conditions.

I was not alone at the time in calling for industrial relations reform. It seems that McManus holds the view that whenever two or three advocates of such a cause are gathered together, some kind of conspiracy is involved. Hence her claim about the Toorak Four.

According to the ACTU secretary, the HR Nicholls Society, which advocated industrial relations reform, was established in Toorak in February 1986. The organisers were Ray Evans, Peter Costello, Barrie Purvis and John Stone. McManus also referred to “four men in Toorak” and “Toorak men”.

The implication was that this quartet could not have had the interests of Australians at heart or else they would not have met in such a posh Melbourne suburb as Toorak. In fact, the society was not formed in Toorak. That’s where the inaugural conference was held. The papers delivered at the event were published subsequently in the edited collection Arbitration in Contempt and are available for all to read.

Toorak was the location for the conference, which was held at Umina, the Melbourne base of the Country Women’s Association of Victoria. Accommodation rates at Umina were quite reasonable then – as now. According to the CWA’s website, even today the cost for a single room per night for non-members is a reasonable $90. How posh is that? It’s not clear that ACTU officials pay less than $90 for overnight accommodation while on work-related travel.

McManus believes the society began a “30-year war” to change Australia’s industrial relations system.

Sure, its members had some influence on the policies of both the Coalition and Labor. But the first substantial reform of Australia’s centralised industrial relations system occurred when Paul Keating’s Labor government allowed for workplace disputes to be settled by enterprise bargaining.

Needless to say, this reform was supported by the Coalition. Howard had called for change in this area since late 1983, shortly after the defeat of Malcolm Fraser’s government, but was not in government again until 1996.

In 2006, the Howard government introduced Work Choices designed to further reform the system. This proved unpopular with the electorate and contributed to the defeat of the Coalition, after four terms in office, in November 2007. Work Choices was junked by the Labor government, led by Kevin Rudd, and its Fair Work Act began in July 2009. This continued in place during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership.

There has been little industrial relations change since. None was attempted by Coalition prime ministers Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison. None of Keating, Rudd or Gillard were mentioned in McManus’s NPC speech that attacked Dutton.

The ACTU secretary overlooks the fact there were real wage increases during much of the Howard, Rudd-Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull governments. McManus has recognised that Labor’s Fair Work Act requires repair. But it’s absolute tosh to somehow blame the Toorak Four and me for this.