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Minister discusses outcome of waterfront agreement between Maritime Union and Patrick, the Australian Stevedore; prefers MPs to have a focused view about what needs to be done.

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PETER CAVE: The Minister for Workplace Relations, Peter Reith, has hailed yesterday's agreement between the Maritime Union and Patrick boss, Chris Corrigan, as a vindication of the Government's waterfront reform policy.  The deal, which still hinges on settlement of an action by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission against the union, is described by Mr Reith as a major advance.  But he told Matt Peacock in Canberra, it's unwise to expect sudden price cuts.


PETER REITH:  It's the biggest reform since the introduction of containerisation.  It is true we didn't get absolutely everything we wanted, but I think the door is open now to significant improvements on the waterfront.  They've still got to move across to P&O, they have still got to actually implement all these arrangements at Patrick.


MATT PEACOCK: So you'd like to see this deal stick presumably?


PETER REITH: Well, I don't think there's any question the deal needs to stick from the point of view of both the union and from Patrick. If the deal falls over 1,400 people go, and they don't get any redundancy.  If the deal falls over the Receivers are likely to go into the Patrick organisation - that doesn't suit Patrick;  it certainly doesn't suit the union.


MATT PEACOCK: And presumably, it doesn't suit the public or the Government?


PETER REITH: Well, look, what the Government wants to see is a productivity crane rate of 25 lifts an hour, and both parties have agreed to produce it. 


MATT PEACOCK: Well, that seems to send a very clear message to Allan Fels.  You're saying it would be in the public interest for this deal to stick, and a pre-condition of it is that he drops his action.


PETER REITH: As to how he deals with that action, that is entirely a matter for him.  He initiated that action as an independent operator under the legislation governing the ACCC.  Obviously the ACCC has settled action in the past;  other actions have gone on to court.


MATT PEACOCK: Minister, what about the costs of this dispute?  Apart from the personal costs to the people involved, even including the farmers - those young healthy farmers that Donald McGauchie brought into the action - there's something like, what, $3 million government legal costs, $2 million of the union's legal costs that will be paid.  With those sort of costs, when do you expect that the consumer on the waterfront is going to see any sort of cost savings out of this deal?


PETER REITH: To put the costs in perspective, one of the incredible things about this dispute is that we never actually had a national stoppage, and that's because of the operations of the Trade Practices Act - the secondary boycott provisions.


MATT PEACOCK: So when do you think we'll see cheaper stevedoring charges, and how much?


PETER REITH: We obviously want to keep up the pressure on both the stevedoring companies and the new entrants as well - there's a couple of those floating around.  In terms of looking at increased competitive pressures, the good thing about the deal is that we have now got the companies having some … much greater right, basically, to run their own operations, and if they can run their own operations then it's in their commercial interests to keep up the competitive pressures.


We've had some competitive pressures in the last few years, which is why container prices have been down a bit, but I think we ought to sort of cross out bridges when we get to them.  What we have got to do is….


MATT PEACOCK: You're not putting any dollar figures or time line on this?


PETER REITH: We've never put a dollar figure on it.  What we have said, though, is that we want to set up the arrangements whereby you've got some real competition.


MATT PEACOCK: But you're confident that the prices will come down soon?


PETER REITH: Well, I obviously want to see prices come down, but I think you've got to be realistic.  The fact of the matter is, as at today, even yesterday's deal is not settled, and after that they've got to sit down and negotiate a proper outcome with P&O, and there are signs from the union they don't want to give P&O the same that they gave Corrigan so….


MATT PEACOCK: Your message is:  don't hold your breath?


PETER REITH: Well, my message is that you've got to be realistic in the sense that let's at least get this deal settled down, get the same deal done over at P&O and then you can turn your mind to putting the real pressures on these guys to deliver for consumers.


MATT PEACOCK: Mr Reith, to change the subject.  Yesterday we saw the spectacle of a National Party leadership challenge.  Do you agree with this adage that disunity is death?  And how do you think this sort of thing plays out just before a poll?


PETER REITH: I think Bob Katter was spooked by the One Nation party and, you know, he's got De-Anne Kelly and that's about it within the National Party, and they have been getting a lot of publicity.


MATT PEACOCK: They are not helping the Coalition effort, though, are they?


PETER REITH: Oh, well, obviously we prefer people to take a more focused view about what needs to be done.  I mean, there are concerns in the rural and regional parts of Australia about policy, about change and, clearly, what the Government's got to do is make sure that we have got policies that are actually helping people.


MATT PEACOCK: And Jeffrey Kennett, of course, has had his two bob's worth.  He says you're buckling to One Nation over the wool decision.


PETER REITH: Oh, well, obviously I don't agree with that.


MATT PEACOCK: He's not helping either.


PETER REITH: Well, look, I haven't seen what Jeff's said, quite frankly, about wool.  I know he used to be in the wool business himself but he's not in it now.


But as far as people being spooked in the National Party, I mean, the bottom line is that if they want to get themselves re-elected, which is their real worry, then they've got to make sure they've got a policy which is addressing the real concerns that their constituents have got.  And that's why we have got to get on with the real tasks of government, and that's why the tax package coming up and things like that are very important to delivering a good deal for these people.  When it comes to rural and regional Australia, this package about to be unveiled is an absolute ripper.


PETER CAVE: Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, speaking to Matt Peacock.