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4 Treasury Place, Melbourne, 4 February 1998: transcript of doorstop interview [Webb Dock dispute]

EOE

REITH: ... The farmers' new business venture down at the Webb dock has had such overwhelming public support, as shown in a poll in the Sydney Morning Herald, it was pretty substantial poll. And what was interesting too was that within that figure there is also pretty substantial support - 41% - of Labor voters who think that the farmers are perfectly entitled to set up a non-MUA or non-union stevedoring operation.

It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody because the reality is that the rorts and inefficiencies on the Australian waterfront have been going on for far too long. I think most Australians reckon that enough is enough. Certainly the strong reaction I've had is that it's about time, it's about time that someone finally took up these issues, exposed the fact that there are Australian wharfies who are very well paid, well paid above community standards, working certainly well less than the average week for the average Australian family worker and who in return for that can't even achieve a reasonable productivity benchmark in terms of crane lifts or other standards which are relevant to assessing their performance.

So it is a very strong endorsement for the farmers' new venture. It is of course also a strong endorsement of the Government's continuing support of the right of the farmers to get a new organisation going and to put some real competitive pressures into the business of providing stevedoring services on the Australian waterfront.

I think it also now creates some additional pressure on the Labor Party. Kim Beazley yesterday on AM was a truly pathetic figure, unable to even support the basic right of a new entrant to go onto the Australian waterfront - even though it was part of his own conference policy, what, only two weeks earlier. The Labor Party is all over the place on this basic issue because they are coming under a lot of heavy pressure from the MUA basically not to say anything which would upset the propaganda campaign being run by the MUA in support of their atrocious rorts and inefficiencies.

So, a lot of pressure, I think, therefore on Mr Beazley as a result of that poll. In terms of the Government's position - of course, we continue to support the right of the farmers to go about their business and I wish them luck getting on with it.

JOURNALIST: Mr Reith, what's your reaction that the unions say they'll stay put. they're not actually on strike, but they've got the right to a political protest (inaudible)?

REITH: Well, look I don't say anything about the particular conduct. Ultimately that's presumably going to be a matter for the Commission. People certainly have a right to political activity, no one's denying the unions that. I gather they're all going to meet up at Dallas Brooks Hall in a while and they'll all be breathing fire and brimstone I suppose about the exploitative employers.

I think it'll be a challenge to see if Kim Beazley turns up to the Dallas Brooks Hall and lines up with the MUA and reads the script given to him by the MUA.

I think it's a challenge for the Shadow Minister for Baby Boomers to see whether she's going to front up to the Dallas Brooks Hall. Where is she standing on the political campaign on the MUA. Are we going to have Cheryl on one side of John Coombs saying gee it's great this new Trade Practices Act Legislation with Kim Beazley on the other saying we are determined to repeal any part of the Trade Practices Act that the MUA doesn't like.

So people are entitled to political activity. What they are not entitled to do is to breach either the Trade Practices Act or the Workplace Relations Act and if there are breaches of those legislative provisions, the aggrieved parties can take the remedies available to them.

JOURNALIST: Mr Reith, when did you find out that Patrick Stevedores was behind the Dubai operation?

REITH: Well, the first time that I knew about Dubai was when I was asked a question about it in the Federal Parliament. In terms of what Mr Corrigan said last night in his TV performance, I must say when I heard him at 7-30 was the first time I'd heard what he then had to say. I had some indication an hour or so earlier that he'd pre-taped the interview, but what he revealed last night as to his involvement quite frankly was the first time I'd heard of it.

JOURNALIST: What was your reaction to it?

REITH: My reaction was that, I mean there'd been a lot of speculation about what his role had been. You know, quite frankly, it's all very interesting but ultimately my reaction is we've still got to have an efficient waterfront, we still have a problem on the waterfront. You know, people can focus on Dubai and I know there'll be a lot of questions about it, but ultimately, you know for the average person. what are they looking for - they're looking to see the cost of goods going across the wharves reduced so that they pay less in the supermarket. so that we can boost our export income.

I mean it's, and again I don't want to deny anybody the right to ask me any questions and I'm quite happy to accept any questions about it, but ultimately so what.

I mean, the reality is Australia's productivity on the waterfront is shockingly low. It's an appalling productivity rate, we have a lot of rorts and inefficiencies which most Australians I think do appreciate, which is why they support the farmers getting in there and having a go, and Dubai's all very interesting but it doesn't go to the real issue.

I mean the real issues are, what is the policy framework which allows people to set up a new business on the waterfront? at the political level, who's going to support that policy framework? Well we put it in place, we support it. The Labor Party is publicly committed to repealing sections of the Trade Practices Act and Kim Beazley, as Richo said the other day, has been sort of stunningly embarrassed and silenced on this whole issue. Now, that is sort of the ultimate position and it was obviously a very interesting interview that Mr Corrigan gave.

I'd also say that I understand his frustration about dealing with the wharfies. The fact is, they're on a good wicket and they're not going to give it up. That is their basic attitude. I don't think it makes sense on their part because I think ultimately, and I've said this to John Coombs to his face, John this is not a sustainable operation, you know people don't like being ripped off and you just ultimately are going to accept that a fair deal is what ought to be the end result on the waterfront and we ought to have a leap forward in the reform process for the waterfront. Now, he was saying before Christmas to us reform is not an issue. He walked out of it as we discussed it. So those are the real issues and they're not going to go away.

JOURNALIST: Surely the Dubai link threatens the positive public perception that you've just been talking about?

REITH: I don't think so. I mean I've obviously followed this pretty carefully. I mean the sort of reactions I've had from people is that they're a bit bemused, they're not quite sure what it was, not quite sure how it happened, but in the end they still know that they're basically being ripped off and they've had a gutful of being ripped off.

People would know that the wharfies have been intractable, they've been totally opposed to any reasonable reform, that they've been on a very good wicket, they've had a lot of taxpayers money and the final result of all that is still a lot of inefficiencies and rorts.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) Mr Corrigan (inaudible) ...behind Dubai?

REITH: Well I don't know what he's going to do quite frankly and whether he does or he doesn't, again, from my point of view, so what.

JOURNALIST: Patricks has gone to the IRC to force the unions back to work, to try and get the wharfies back to work, what's your reaction to (inaudible)?

REITH: Well the company, as other companies have in the past, have been entitled to go down to the Commission for a Section 127 order if that's what they're seeking, that's a matter tor the Commission.

JOURNALIST: Has Mr Corrigan also misled yourself or anyone in the Department about his involvement Dubai previously?

REITH: I've already said what he said to me at the time. I think that's all on the public record. The point I would make is that look, Chris Corrigan is a business person who's got responsibilities for $450 million of assets and last year he lost money and he's now under attack because he's tried to sublease part of his property to stem his losses. Now, whatever he's done or he hasn't done, I mean you can understand it's pretty hard dealing with the MUA and I give him credit because quite frankly, there have not been a lot of employers in this country who have been prepared to stand up and say enough is enough and they're going to do something about it.

Now, that is the fact of it and I was also interested in his reported remarks in The Australian about the military, that he himself didn't know about it. Now, again, I just don't know the ins and outs of the whole thing.

But my point is to make, if you look at the Dubai operation, the public relations mistake was the involvement of those persons. I mean, I've said that before and I think that's obvious to anybody who looks at it. But I mean there's been no illegality or impropriety or otherwise and as far as I'm concerned we need people who are prepared to acknowledge that there s a real problem.

JOURNALIST: So you're supporting his right to cover up previously because (inaudible)?

REITH: Quite frankly, in the end what I'm supporting is the right of employers to take on this issue and see if they can deliver a more competitive product and, you know, for heavens sakes we need it.

JOURNALIST: Mr Reith you told Parliament that you had spoken to the main stevedoring firms.

REITH: Yep, I did.

JOURNALIST: Did Mr Corrigan lie to you at that time?

REITH: I gave a doorstop that night that I was asked the question and I said then in a few words what it was that both the stevedores had said to me. Now, I don't have anything to add to it. Any other questions?

JOURNALIST: Have you asked ANL to use the new operation?

REITH: What we did on that was I simply said to some one in my office can we make an inquiry from ANL, which is a company owned by the Commonwealth, which is a shipping company, you know, what are the ins and outs of conference arrangements, the capacity to use alternative stevedores and basically to get some industry advice from them on that issue. We haven't put any propositions to them or they haven't put any to us or otherwise, so...

JOURNALIST: Why did you do that?

REITH: Because it's a matter of public interest as to the likelihood or the prospects of the use of those facilities by shipping companies.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) pressure on them to use the NFF wharf?

REITH: No, no, no. I mean we have, how they run their operation is a commercial matter for them. But I mean there's nothing wrong with asking...

JOURNALIST: Doesn't it look like the Government's trying to give PCS a leg up by getting ANL involved?

REITH: Well, we're not trying to give anybody a leg up. I mean it's quite reasonable for me to ask advice about industry matters from the Government's own shipping company. Does anybody suggest that I shouldn't.

JOURNALIST: So you're leaving it open then?

REITH: Well I haven't opened it. I mean I just asked for some advice at the Departmental level. There's nothing wrong with that.

JOURNALIST: Have you had any advice from them?

REITH: We had some advice about how the conference arrangements work, yes, some technical advice about conference arrangements.

JOURNALIST: Have they said yes or no to you using the dock?

REITH: Well they haven't been asked. So, quite frankly, it was an inquiry which I initiated by saying to somebody find out what the conference arrangements are and whether shipping companies can use different wharves. I don't think there's much more to it than that.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) the advice that there is a lot of flexibility to switch their custom or there isn't....(inaudible).

REITH: My impression was that there was some limits on their flexibility but it didn't really, quite frankly, go any further than that. It certainly didn't answer the matter in any precise way quite frankly.

JOURNALIST: As a share holder would you like to see them use the non-union wharf?

REITH: What we'd like to do with ANL is sell it and, you know, we've had, John Fahey is responsible for the selling of it which invites me to make the point that the last time somebody tried to sell it the unions brought the country to a halt. The reason they haven't been able to bring it to a halt this time is because there are very effective secondary boycott provisions in place which Cheryl and I agreed on would be a good idea. And it just goes to show you that the provisions that we put in place are effective remedies and discourage unreasonable, unlawful action.

JOURNALIST: Do you encourage ANL to use the docks?

REITH: Look, quite frankly, it's sort of not an issue. I made a preliminary inquiry and it hasn't gone any further than that. I mean I'm quite happy to talk to you about it and we can talk to them about it some more I suppose. I don't know, I don't have any intentions to that affect.

JOURNALIST: PCS is only a small operator so why would you even be interested in whether ANL uses their berth or not?

REITH: Well look, it's as simple as this, there have been a lot of stories and speculation about who might use Webb Dock and so I made a general inquiry like who might use it. There's no more to it than that.