Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
The introduction of competition on to the waterfront: February Council Meeting of the National Farmers' Federation, National Convention Centre, Canberra, 17 February 1998: notes for an address.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure for me to open the NFF February Council meeting.

It is a momentous time for the NFF and for microeconomic reform for Australia as a whole.

Never before has Australia - and Australian farmers and exporters in particular - had such an opportunity to overcome the intractable problems of the poor productivity and unreliability of the waterfront.

I want to start by congratulating the NFF for taking the initiative.

PCS have taken on a significant challenge - but it is in the interests of your members and of the public at large. Your President is a person of courage and commitment who has been a most effective voice for sensible reform. Likewise, James Ferguson and Paul Houlihan bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the task.

There should also be public recognition of the importance of the role being taken by Mr Chris Corrigan. He is the first major stevedore employer to take a stand and say what the public have known for years, namely `enough is enough'. He once challenged and forced the stockbrokers to abandon their privileged fixed commission rates. He is now tackling another area of entrenched privilege. I believe history will treat Mr Corrigan well. He started life on a subsistence farm in Mittagong. That probably qualifies him for membership of the NFF.

The recent entrance of P C Stevedores on to Australia's waterfront at no. 5 Webb Dock presents an opportunity that Australia must grasp. I do not underestimate the difficulty of the task - it will require stamina and determination - but to let this chance go by would be a set back to all those who are seeking reform of the waterfront.

It is quite appropriate that P C Stevedores has a connection with the NFF. Not only do farmers stand to gain significantly from improvements in efficiency and reliability on the waterfront, but your organisation, and its predecessors, have been very successful confronting and overcoming the illegitimate intrusion of unions into your business.

Almost 20 years ago, in 1979, my colleague and your past President, the Hon Ian McLachlan MP, Minister for Defence, explained to an ALP conference on rural policy why farmers were hostile to trade unionists. He said:

Because his livelihood is export- oriented, the farmer regards as sacrosanct the right to export free and unhindered what he has produced to whatever he wants... having produced a commodity, and in some cases having taken four or five years to do so, the farmer finds it untenable that someone else should interfere with the export of it.

I doubt Mr McLachlan would accept an invitation to such a union conference these days, but his message is as true today as it was then.

That area of greatest concern, where union interference and union control is at its worst, is the same now as it was then, the waterfront.

Within a few short years of its formation, the NFF was the advocate of change, fighting against outmoded and inefficient industrial practices, in a number of seminal industrial disputes where union activity directly threatened the livelihood of Australian farmers.

. In 1980 Sydney woolstores were hit by an 11 week strike by members of the Storemen and Packers Union who refused to handle export wool.

. In 1983, the wide comb issue came to a head with a 10 week strike by shearers, after farming groups successfully persuaded the Arbitration Commission to vary the award to allow the use of wide combs.

. Soon thereafter, in perhaps one of the most significant industrial confrontations this country has ever seen, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees' Association imposed a picket on the small export meat processing abattoir in Mudginberri in the Northern Territory.

. Then in 1992 the NFF supported Troubleshooters Available in their successful fight to allow contract labour into shearing sheds.

Resisting the illegitimate attempts by unions seeking to impose restrictions and imposts on production and trade of produce, for the benefit of a select band of members, is not new to farmers and farming organisations. Farmers were doing this well before the formation of the NFF.

In the 1978 live sheep export dispute, the grazier's old friend, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees' Association sought to curtail the export of live sheep because of what they saw as a threat to their jobs. Here was a legitimate export industry, that was doing quite nicely and the AMIEU attempted to cut it off at the knees, purportedly to save notoriously inefficient jobs. When the truth of the matter is that the live sheep and slaughtered meat markets are quite distinct. Restricting the trade in live sheep was bloody minded and not directly relevant to the jobs of meat processors.

Illegitimate and unlawful union tactics have been directed at farmers as long ago as last century. Farmers first demonstrated their resourcefulness and determination to resist such bully tactics in the original shearers' strike of 1890.

The 1890 shearers' strike also taught farmers the benefit of standing united.

The shearers' dispute was a result of the attempt by the Amalgamated Shearers' Union to impose compulsory unionism; all sheds were to be union sheds.

There were bans imposed on shearing in some sheds, on the handling and shipment of wool shorn by non-union labour and by wool classers. There was even a classic, by today's standards. secondary boycott by the waterside workers who refused to handle any wool coming from non- - union sheds.

There are marked similarities between the 1890 shearers' strike and the dispute centred on Webb Dock in Melbourne. In both disputes the unions' concern is to entrench their position of power and influence over industry; it has little to do with a union's legitimate role acting as the collective bargaining agent for employees in relation to their terms and conditions and it certainly has absolutely nothing to do with public interest.

The shearers' wanted to establish a monopoly, today the wharfies want to maintain a monopoly.

They think nothing of putting their hands around the throat of a viable business and seeking to bring it to its knees for the benefit of a few. It was nothing to the union to jeopardise Australia's export of live sheep for a dubious motive.

Thankfully, the shearers were not allowed to succeed or our shearing sheds may have the same appalling records as our wharves - low productivity, poor safety and a reputation for unreliability.

An understanding of history is important. There are 2 aspects worth noting. In recent years, the MUA has never been challenged except by the farmers and that is why in the MUA Sussex Street office in a glass case is a bale hook and on the case engraved are the words for all MUA members to remember `Never Fight with the Farmers'.

The other aspect to remember is that the union movement formed the ALP after the Shearers' strike. The Labor Party is still a creature of the unions. It its 13 years in office Labor never fixed up the waterfront because the ALP can never afford to offend the union bosses. Behind closed doors Keating called the wharfies `bludgers' and a Labor Cabinet talked about putting troops on the wharves. Even today Labor knows that waterfront rorts and inefficiencies cost jobs, but Labor leaders like Kim Beazley are too weak to challenge the vested interests of the MUA.

Let me focus on what P C Stevedores are proposing. They are proposing to start a new business. Pure and simple.

In any other industry this would be unexceptional, indeed should be welcomed by unions.

But not on the waterfront.

P C Stevedores represents the possibility of real competition on the waterfront, and the MUA cannot afford that. To do so would threaten the inefficiencies and featherbedding they have managed to introduce into the industry.

New stevedoring operations have opened in the past. For instance, Strang opened a third container terminal in Brisbane. But without exception, the price for the new entrant has been to deal with the devil. Mr Coombs would say, "you can start a new business, but on my terms". Invariably, the new entrant would be required to deal with the MUA and employ MUA members on terms and conditions set by the MUA.

The only competition on the waterfront until how has been that allowed by the MUA. A quick glance at the conditions they have managed to extort through their monopoly position shows why the MUA is so resistant to change. For example, at Patricks:

. if overtime on day shift exceeds 1.5 hours such overtime has to be paid as if a doubleheader was worked for a full 7.5 hours at 2.5 times the rate of pay.

. MUA members get ten days sick leave annually which accumulates and can be cashed out as if it were holiday pay. Even that is not unusual except that its' sick leave credits are used up, a sickness benefits scheme funded by the company makes up the difference between social security benefits and normal pay.

. members are paid to attend federal conferences of the MUA (five days per employee per year).

. the MUA forces the company to pay for approximately eight employees each month to spend a day at the union formulating an industrial position to defend and enhance their conditions.

. another two employees per month are paid to attend branch committee meetings.

. a total of 25 man days a year are paid to employees to attend trade union training courses.

. of course, these all come on top of the five weeks annual leave with a loading of 27.5%, long service leave with a 27.5% loading, along with a wage of $80,000 plus a year for maintaining a featherbedded job.

No wonder the MUA feels threatened by P C Stevedores because for the first time a new entrant is planning to tram its own workforce. P C Stevedores will end up with a normal workforce, one that can think and act for itself and one which does not owe its first allegiance to the MUA.

Under the law, P C Stevedores employees will be free to join or not to join a union. I have no doubt P C Stevedores will protect their employees' basic rights while eliminating the rorting and inefficiencies that dedevil our waterfront. The company has the Government's support in seeking to do that.

If the MUA does such a good job for its members it should have nothing to fear. P C Stevedores employees should come knocking on the MUA's door.

Until recently, prescriptive union preference clauses have operated in the industry. This, coupled with the fact that there has been no significant recruiting in the recent past and that many employees have a history in the stevedoring industry going back as far as industry employment (which ended with the WIRA process in 1989/1992) means that many employees still owe their first allegiance to the union.

And it shows.

The Chairman of Patrick, Mr Chris Corrigan, who has finally had enough of MUA interference in his business, has recently given a number of examples of union rorts and inefficiencies. Just to give you a few examples:

. Mr Corrigan estimates his managers spend 80% of time dealing with industrial issues (the MUA has an endless capacity to stop and delay work, including over matters such as the condition of the felt on the billiards table in the amenities room);

. because of the prevailing overtime culture, which has been officially recognised by the AIRC, the pace of work is determined by the opportunity for overtime. For instance, productivity doubles if employees are told they can go home after handling a set number of containers in a shift.

. the union, not management, determines manning levels and workplace practices.

Until now, you have not been able to get a job without training, and the only training is on the job training and to make matters worse, you had to be a union member to get the job in the first place. A classic catch 22. The MUA has been very effective in their bid to control the supply of labour on the wharves.

That is why they will fight so hard to defeat the P C Stevedores initiative, and that is why they must be required to observe the law like everybody else.

The Government supports the normalisation of employment practices on the waterfront and it will act to ensure those who would defeat the initiative do not breach the law with impunity in seeking to do so. The union accuses me of working with the employers to urge reform. Two weeks ago John Coombs said that within 48 hours he'd reveal my central role in a diabolical plan to reform the waterfront. I'm still waiting - today I give him an extension of time. And I give him a clue to my role. I've been up to my neck in advising, urging, promoting, advocating and discussing waterfront reform. But there is more. At one stage, I even researched every option (except the use of the military) which was employed by the Hawke Government in defeating the pilots union to see whether or not such options could also be available to a Howard Government to deal with industrial action by the MUA.

The stakes are high, but the potential for gain is tremendous.

This is not about union busting, it is about creating a more efficient waterfront for the good of the whole country.

In the shearers' dispute of the 1890s Amalgamated Shearers' Union organisers were imprisoned for conspiracy and the union was brought to its knees financially. While I hope the arrival of PC Stevedores onto number 5 Webb Dock will not result in such divisive legal battles, I want to emphasise the resolve of the Government to see the introduction of true competition on the waterfront and the Government's willingness to take whatever steps are required to ensure that the actions of the protagonists are strictly within the law.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me say in conclusion, the waterfront needs an injection of competition, the creation of a new culture that is focussed on developing a reliable, efficient and rort free workplace that will benefit all Australians not just a handful of highly paid elites.

Given the history of the NFF, I am sure that the venture embarked upon will have that effect.

Thank you.