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Government believed to have offered to retain a share in ANL in a bid to prevent a national strike over its proposed sale

ELLEN FANNING: The Federal Government is believed to be offering to retain a share of the Australian National Shipping Line in a bid to avert a national waterfront strike. The Government is keen to sell ANL, which is currently losing almost $2 million a month, and PO is the only bidder. But the shipping unions want ANL to be restructured and not sold. They've threatened a national strike if it's taken over by PO, saying the British-owned company has a reputation for employing international labour at under-award rates, and leaving locals out of work.

Well, the unions will meet with the Prime Minister and others, today, to try to resolve the problem. A short time ago, A.M.'s Fran Kelly spoke to the Joint National Secretary of the Maritime Unions of Australia, John Coombs. She asked him about reports that the Government will retain a 15 per cent share of ANL.

JOHN COOMBS: Well, what the Government has put to us is that they were prepared to take certain conditions to PO, and it wasn't 15 per cent; in fact, it was 25.

FRAN KELLY: And would that make the sale to the shipping line any more acceptable to you?

JOHN COOMBS: Well, these weren't conditions that we recommended be taken to PO. Our position has been constant that we don't support the sale to PO, and what we support is a restructure .. a management restructuring.

FRAN KELLY: Is there any room in that, though, for compromise on your part?

JOHN COOMBS: Well, we met with the management last night, and I have to say came away even more convinced that the management restructuring proposals can work, and, in fact, were given a lot of facts that had been denied us over the last 12 months. It's the first time we've met with management; it's the first time management has been allowed to talk to us in the 12 months period since last September, and there isn't any doubt that the figures that management gave us were vastly different than ones that we've been given of late. You know, let's just take a couple of comments: unless we sell the assets or sell to PO, we won't be able to pay the wages by Christmas. But I mean, that was ridiculed last night as an outrageous statement. Secondly, that there is absolutely no funds, and there's a $100 million injection of capital needed, that was also put to bed last night. In fact, there's still $18 million left of the proceeds of the sale of the stevedoring arm of ANL to Jamieson Equity.

FRAN KELLY: So, are you saying you've been lied to through this process?

JOHN COOMBS: Oh no, I'd say that when one puts a position that one wants to push home, sometimes it gets embellished.

FRAN KELLY: Well, the Government led by the Prime Minister clearly does want to sell ANL to PO. There's all sorts of compromise offers being put, like the Government retaining some share in ANL, like the Government retaining board positions, and also PO guaranteeing Australian crews on ANL domestic shipping routes, while those routes remain viable. Would any of those conditions satisfy you?

JOHN COOMBS: Yes, well, I don't see anything in this morning's press reports from PO, and presumably that's why I'm still in Canberra that PO's responses will come back to what the Government has put to them. I see nothing about any confirmation of continuation of Australian .. of the Government's ownership of a percentage of the ownership of ANL. I also see a reference to, you know, the sole commitment we're going to get from PO in respect of Australian crews while it remains viable. There's not too much comfort in that statement. Governments have a habit of changing, don't they, and everyone is aware of what the alternative government suggests they should do with the Australian coast, and that's to put foreign crews on it. So, it's fundamental, isn't it?

FRAN KELLY: Well, PO, though, is guaranteeing to keep ANL ships under the Australian flag, with Australian crews on certain routes, and paying award conditions. That seems to go quite a way to addressing your concerns. Is there anything that would make PO acceptable to the unions?

JOHN COOMBS: Look, you know, I don't have a death wish. The fact of the matter is I've made the union's position abundantly clear. There are stop-work meetings of every member of the union around the country this morning, and there's little doubt they'll endorse unanimously our position. It will take some sort of rather dramatic change from what we understand to be the PO position for us to change that. But anyhow, let's see what happens as the day unfolds.

FRAN KELLY: So, you're saying that a national waterfront strike could possibly be averted, even if PO ends up with ANL?

JOHN COOMBS: I'm not saying that at all. You know, we remain committed to the restructuring proposal. We remain even more committed this morning after having the opportunity for the first time in 12 months to talk to the General Manager of ANL, last night, and have the true position outlined to us as to what's available in a restructuring proposal. Now, I would think it's going to take something to beat that actually, today, but let's see what happens.

ELLEN FANNING: John Coombs, the Joint National Secretary of the Maritime Unions of Australian, with out chief political correspondent, Fran Kelly.