WATERFRONT WAR WAGED ON TWO FRONTS by David Thompson
On Target, 24th April 1998
The Liberal Party leadership aspirations of Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith must be firmly on the line, and perhaps even jeopardised as the waterfront crisis continues. Success for Reith, Howard and the Government depends upon a short campaign with an emphatic victory over the Maritime Union.
If the crisis goes against Patrick and the Government, it would appear that not only Reith's leadership aspirations would be dashed, but his tenure as a Minister curtailed. This would be unjust, since it is clear that the waterfront crisis is not an industrial dispute, but a political dispute brought on not by Patrick Stevedores alone, not by Mr. Reith alone, but in collusion with the Howard Government. Without the Government's support, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Corrigan of Patricks would have embarked upon such a high-risk confrontation.
Mr. Howard and Mr. Reith need to win more than just the waterfront war. Since a Federal Election is looming, they need to win the public relations war just as convincingly as the war with the MUA.
So far it would appear that whatever the chances of defeating the union; the public relations war is being lost by Mr. Howard. In public relations, as in election campaigns, perceptions are everything, and facts only incidental. Whatever the courts rule on the facts of the matter, the clear perception is that there has been collusion between the Government and Patricks to smash the MUA. And the history of bloody-mindedness of the Maritime Union tends to be neglected in the face of television images of families without incomes through no apparent fault of their breadwinner.
While the issue has been cleverly "managed" by the press, there is no dismissing Mr. Howard's assertion that the Patrick employees were sacked not because they were on strike (at the time, they were not), but because they were unionists. Just how this sits with Mr. Reith's new Workplace Relations Act (which was passed with Cheryl Kernot's collusion as Democrat leader) has not been adequately explained.
Similarly, the perception is that while some of the more outrageous union rorts in the bigger ports of Sydney and Melbourne deserved industrial retribution, other sacked waterside workers were highly efficient, relatively untroublesome, and as innocent of industrial thuggery as waterside workers have ever been. For example, the case of Launceston and Townsville waterside efficiencies are well reported. It is not reported that in Townsville most ship loading is in bulk, not containers, and therefore handled not by the MUA, but by the Australian Workers' Union.
Perhaps the greatest threat to whatever victory Mr. Reith is able to claim from the waterfront crisis is the way Patricks (with Government approval, presumably) have gone about it.
In the new age of vast industrial technology, it is crystal clear that the importance of wage rates is becoming secondary to long-term job security. If companies like Patricks are able to off-load their employees by dumping them into an insolvent subsidiary without their knowledge, and then sacking them with relative impunity, then the way is left open for the ALP to stump the country in an election campaign on job security. Such a campaign could have devastating consequences for the Coalition.
The National Party is as culpable in this as the Liberals, since they are closely identified with the NFF in this issue. Whatever our politics, Australians facing the reality of unemployment in "the global market" become extremely nervous, and more likely to vote to protect our incomes than to appease our ideology. The recent cases like that of miners in Cobar being sacked by an insolvent subsidiary of a wealthy multinational company, and being denied their entitlements with no means of recourse only make us more nervous still.
The resources available to the Government suggest an (eventual) victory over the MUA, but the question of a public relations victory in advance of an election campaign is another matter.