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Minister for Shipping is satisfied with progress made on reform of the Australian waterfront

PRU GOWARD: While Federal Ministers squabble privately and publicly, over the contents of the March industry statement, you will notice that not much is being said about the down side, the entrenched industry problems that the Government has so far been unable to solve. Take waterfront reform, for example. Industry leaders continue to squeal about conditions, while the Government's blueprints for reform over the years, appear to have remained just that - blueprints. On the line now is Federal Shipping Minister, Senator Bob Collins, to discuss the vexed question of the waterfront, and what can be done.

Well, it's a very hard area to tackle and there is mounting criticism, I think you'd agree, that the pace of change has been too slow. What do you say to those critics?

BOB COLLINS: Well, I can't say anything in fact, more substantive than what was said in the last two days by a delegation representing both employers - that is shipping companies and stevedoring companies - and the stevedoring employees themselves, from Rotterdam, and the relevance of that is that Rotterdam is in fact the most efficient port in Europe. The comment they made was that they had moved their productivity in that port, from the situation ten years ago, where they were handling some 20,000 containers a year, with 12,000 employees, to a position now where they are handling 60 million a year with half that number. The comment they made was that it had taken them over ten years to achieve that; seven years to negotiate just getting the numbers down; and then a further three years to implement the qualitative changes, that is changes in work practice. Their comment was yes, you need to do it, but we are amazed that you think you can do it in three years.

PRU GOWARD: Well, the New Zealanders argue that they have done it.

BOB COLLINS: Different situation completely, and those comparisons always need to be very carefully analysed, I might add, including the Rotterdam one, because of the great differences in the volume of trade going into the ports, and the work practices and industrial situations. Now New Zealand is a classic example. It is much quoted, but the facts are that at the beginning of the reform program, the productivity levels in New Zealand were so abysmally low that they were half that, half the productivity of the existing conditions in Australia, so they started from a much lower base than we did.

PRU GOWARD: And yet we've seen the New Zealanders retrench their work force there and pay them much less than we are talking about. I think it's 35,000 Australian, compared with 100,000 a worker here.

BOB COLLINS: Again, it's an irrelevant comparison because the situation in both countries is so different. We have got 12,000 miles of coast line; six State Governments, which of course the New Zealand Government doesn't have the problem of; and much of course, of the productivity and associated improvements on the waterfront is very much in the hands of State Governments in Australia, who control the port authorities. So you've got a whole stack of widely dispersed ports around 12,000 miles of coast line, a national scheme of employment. I mean, the situation we started from here is just so completely different from that in New Zealand, it's really not a valid comparison.

PRU GOWARD: Now, we've had .. the aim is 3,000 in three years. So far it's been 300 - there's talk now of that number going up a bit more, in Melbourne. Why do you think it's been slower than I am sure you would have expected?

BOB COLLINS: I don't think it has been slower in considering that we are now one year into the program, or in fact, not yet - one year in March this year, into the program - and the hold-up, as I always anticipated it would be, has been with the Conaust agreement. Can I say, all of the perceptions of the program bogging down are very much associated with the difficulties in negotiating the Conaust agreement. Last year we succeeded in negotiating an agreement with National Terminals, a very significant agreement in both Sydney and Melbourne, but the other big employer - and there are only two very large employers of waterfront labour in Australia - are Conaust, which is owned by the PO Company. Now again, we were in a situation where in a very complex negotiation, some ten to twelve issues were agreed in the first few weeks of that negotiation. Over the last six months, the company and the union have succeeded in reaching agreement on a further twenty, and we now are in a situation where there are six - in fact, probably realistically, about five - substantive outstanding issues to resolve. Now, that's in front of the commission, which is there for the use of the parties, under the agreement. Conaust have chosen to use it and the matter is in fact being heard by Commissioner Sweeney on 5 March, that is Tuesday of next week.

PRU GOWARD: Minister, you at the beginning of taking on this job, said if there is not improvement, my job is on the line.

BOB COLLINS: Yes, indeed it is.

PRU GOWARD: Now, when are you going to make up your mind whether your job is worth keeping?

BOB COLLINS: Look, what I'd invite you to do is to have a look at what I in fact, said. It's been very widely misquoted, usually by the Opposition, but you should have a look at it. Look, with the Paul Lyneham piece in which I made that statement, it still reads pretty well today, I must say, having had a look at it in recent times. What I said was that there had to be some significant productivity increase in twelve months, otherwise I knew we would not be able to achieve the targets set in the three year program.

PRU GOWARD: Well, that means you will be one of the big movers and shakers in this March 12 statement.

BOB COLLINS: What I .. no, I don't imagine .. in fact, I've also said this publicly at least twice in the last two weeks. There are going to be no major new initiatives announced in the March 12 statement in respect of the waterfront. I've said that a couple of times now. I mean, there will be a progress report but what I said was, and I described it at the time as a modest target, was one substantive enterprise agreement in the ports of Sydney and Melbourne, that is, where 80 percent of the entire trade in Australia is conducted. Now that's already been achieved. We've not only had that agreement consummated last year, but it is now in the well advanced process of being implemented, and somewhere between 200 and 300 workers will in fact leave National Terminals at the beginning of next month.

PRU GOWARD: So you are satisfied that 300 .. retrenchments of 300 so far, maybe 700 towards the end of the year, is enough progress for you?

BOB COLLINS: No, the target set for this year is in fact 1500, not 700, it's double that number, and yes, I am confident it will be achieved.

PRU GOWARD: Minister, thank you for your time this morning.

BOB COLLINS: I hope you realise it is quarter past six ...

PRU GOWARD: I do, I know you have done a lot for us. Senator Bob Collins, Minister for Shipping, joining us from the Northern Territory where, as he reminds us, it is only a quarter past six.