Politics of the wharves stoush


Australian Financial Review. Opinion Section. Tuesday February 24, 1998
by John Sutton, the national assistant secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.

The dispute between the MUA and Patrick Stevedores has very little to do with productivity and much more to do with the Howard Government's - especially Peter Reith's - political instincts, insists John Sutton.

Make no mistake: the current waterfront dispute would not be occurring without the conscious involvement of the Federal Government.

We may be six, possibly nine, months away from the next federal election. The Government is desperate to find issues that will resonate with the public and restore its flagging electoral stocks. Howard and company believe that an industrial confrontation is such an issue.

Such an approach has served conservative governments well in the past, both here and abroad. Who can forget the political bounce Margaret Thatcher scored out of crushing the miners in Britain, or Ronald Reagan's successful destruction of the airline traffic controllers in the US?

The approach is to provoke, rather than to settle or avoid a major confrontation with a strong union. After confrontation reaches a fever pitch, the "resolute" Government seeks a mandate from the people based around the slogan of "Who is running the country?"

That Peter Reith, the Minister for Industrial Relations, is not trying to resolve peacefully major pending disputes in the coal mines or the waterfront is obvious. In the coal miners' dispute with Rio Tinto, he has championed the need for the company and the workers at the Hunter Valley mine to fight it out directly without the involvement of the Industrial Relations Commission. He was euphoric when the Full Bench recently overturned an earlier decision indicating the commission should arbitrate the dispute.

Similarly, in relation to the waterfront, Reith is increasingly provocative. He recently told the wharfies to "get back to work" and he said, "It's about time the wharfies did a decent day's work."

None of this, of course, should surprise. Reith has had a chequered run in the industrial relations portfolio. After he put in place the new Workplace Relations Act in 1997, he was widely criticised in employer circles for not going far enough in deregulating industrial relations.

But while all but the HR Nicholls crowd have now shunned their criticism, Reith has run into the hurdle of the Maritime Union of Australia. From the start, the Howard Government has sought to "fix up the waterfront". By allocating this responsibility to Reith, the Liberals believed they had put one of their most shrewd operators on the task.

But the MUA has not proved an easy nut for Reith to crack. He faced the humbling experience of losing round one to the wharfies in Cairns and round two in Dubai. And now the stakes at Melbourne's Webb Dock are very high.

John Howard has a limited shelf life as leader of the party and nation. The two contenders for his job, Peter Costello and Peter Reith, have been positioning themselves for the eventual party room showdown. In this context, Reith simply must not let the MUA off the hook; he needs their scalp just as Costello needs to pilot the GST to fruition.

To add insult to injury, it is increasingly obvious that Peter Reith or his advisors are the common thread running through Dubai, Hong Kong financiers, Patrick and the National Farmers Federation.

For the MUA and the broader union movement, none of this comes as a terrible shock. Reith is trying to draw one of the major unions into a long stoppage. The more difficult decision for the unions is whether to engineer tactical retreats, leaving some of their powder dry, or go for broke and attempt a decisive industrial win.

Many trade union strategists know a "go for broke" strategy by one or more of the major industrially powerful unions can be portrayed very negatively by the Coalition. A nasty industrial dispute interrupting trade can present serious electoral difficulties for Labor. And one thing is for sure - despite the criticism of the previous ALP Government with its stifling accord - the trade unions want the return of an ALP Government. Or put it this way: they can ill afford a second term Liberal-National coalition with a fresh wave of anti-union laws.

The trade union movement can be confident that they have a very tough and disciplined team in John Coombs and the MUA. They will give their assailants - from Peter Reith down - a serious run for their money. In fact, it's far too early to say which of the two Peters will be smiling when the dust finally settles.

The most certain thing about this dispute is that businesses will look anywhere but Chris Corrigan's controversial operations to dispatch goods overseas quickly in the coming period.


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Last Modified : 25 February, 1998