Commissioner balanced dignity of labour with importance of capital

Vincent Joseph Connell, a long-time Sutherland Shire resident who was a commissioner with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, has died aged 90.

Over 15 years from 1977, he made decisions and resolved disputes largely in the uranium and aluminium industries but also in the metal trades, painters and dockers, glass manufacturing and wine making industries.

He also sat on a number of full benches, when decisions likely to have a significant impact on workers and the economy were to be made. 

During the 1980s, when rapid inflation was eroding real wages, he participated in four National Wage Cases.

The long-running 1986 National Wage Case granted a 2.3 per cent pay increase to award workers following a 4.3 per cent increase in the CPI over the previous six months. 

This decision was reached after taking into account an unemployment rate near 9 per cent and hearing from unions, business groups and government representatives.

Connell saw the commission’s role as critical not only in establishing and maintaining industry harmony but also in promoting equity in the Australian community.

Before joining the commission he worked in industrial relations for the oil company Amoco Australia where, it was said, "he became adept at pouring water on troubled oil".

Connell’s interest in industrial relations began when he was in his early twenties and worked as a clerk for the Australian Workers' Union. There he developed a deep appreciation of the role of unions and the importance of centralised employment conditions. He later moved onto the NSW Department of Labour and Industry and established a balanced perspective that would become useful when he joined the commission.

Vincent Joseph Connell was born at home in Hurstville Grove on November 21, 1927, to Teresa and Vincent Aloysius Connell. Soon after his birth his mother was told “don’t expect this one to live”. That was just the first of his challenges.

Connell had four loves: family, faith, work and sport. 

He attended school at St Declan’s Penshurst, Marist Brothers Kogarah and, later, Marist Brothers High School in Darlinghurst.

From a young age Connell loved all sorts of sports. As a boy he was once separated from his dad at the cricket after patting Don Bradman on the back following his century, and had to walk home alone.

He was a member of Cronulla Sharks Rugby League Club from its inception. 

The family home he built at Caringbah with his wife, Joan, was not far from Shark Park (or Endeavour Field, as he insisted on calling it). He would often walk to a game with his father, who was, unfortunately, a Tigers fan.

He loved a backyard barbecue followed by a game of cricket that deployed the garbage bins as wickets. He would swim in the ocean at Oak Park, Cronulla (sometimes daily, even in his late 70s) and enjoyed holidays with the extended family in Kiama.

Connell was also a foundation member of the local church. He helped build the church and school buildings at Caringbah as many young families moved into the Sutherland Shire during the 1950s.

As a commissioner, Connell was able to bring together his background in both unions and employer organisations, as well as his faith, to carve a reputation as a fair man. He said on his retirement from the commission that it was always critical to take proper regard for the dignity of labour while respecting the importance of capital.

During his time at the commission, working on the uranium industry, he spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory, with frequent trips to Arnhem Land, Jabiru, Tennant Creek and Gove. He embraced the natural beauty and the cultural heritage of that land.

As commissioner he also contributed to the establishment of the 38-hour week and compulsory superannuation. He was a humble man, but he has made a lasting impression on many lives.

Connell’s love for his wife of 65 years, Joan, was clearly evident in the way he cared for her at home so thoroughly and tenderly for more than 10 years after she developed Alzheimer’s disease. 

He was fiercely independent. Only one week before he died did he concede he might just need a little bit of help himself.

Connell is survived by his wife, Joan, sister Norma, brother Johnny, four daughters and 10 grandchildren.

  • Anne Glover, Barbara Long