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Significant changes and efficiencies have been achieved in the stevedoring area of Australia's waterfront

PETER THOMPSON: In a demonstration of the new harmony on the waterfront, the Executive Director of the Association of Employers of Waterside Labour, Col Coventry, concurs with Senator Cook's optimism. Michael O'Regan asked Mr Coventry if the Australian waterfront now ranks with ports like Singapore and Rotterdam.

COLIN COVENTRY: Given the nature of Australia's ports and the volume of trade which we handle in Australia compared with some of those countries that you've mentioned - yes, the comparisons stand up.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: If we look closer to home, there has been considerable criticism of the Australian costs in trans-Tasman shipping. Has that been rectified?

COLIN COVENTRY: Well, shipping is an area that I don't want to comment on; there are others more qualified to comment in that area than I can. But certainly, so far as the stevedoring content - and I'm talking about the stevedoring sector, the loading and unloading of cargo - yes, there've been significant changes in that area.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: So if we look at specific indicators like crane-handling rates we would be as efficient as New Zealand ports in the number of containers that we handle per hour, per man?

COLIN COVENTRY: The New Zealanders would say 'No'. We can point to quite significant strides. In fact, container handling rates are up at least 50 per cent, and more in many cases.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: So in all, the micro-economic reform agenda that the Federal Labor Government has pursued, would you go in to bat to say that this has been one of the successes - perhaps understated - but one of the definite successes of the Federal Government's micro-economic reform?

COLIN COVENTRY: I would. I'd say it's definitely understated. People tend to forget some of the massive and unseen improvements - for instance, multiskilling of remaining work force. At the start of this program, the work force was almost 9,000; at the end of this month, it will be down to 3,990. Now, that's a massive reduction and combined with the reflection of the other improvements that we've discussed, yes, it does point to the success of at least that part of the Government's program.

MICHAEL O'REGAN: If I can take you up on one specific point that Senator Cook raised, he actually suggested, at one point, that perhaps the full benefit of the improved efficiency wasn't being passed along because, in some instances, shipping companies were pocketing the gains from that greater efficiency, and he referred to a Prices Surveillance Authority report. Would you agree with that?

COLIN COVENTRY: Well, the only comment I'd make on that is that, so far as the stevedoring companies are concerned - they are the people that employ the labour that load and discharge the ships - they are passing on the substantial gains to their clients. What happens from there is a matter that you'd need to direct to the shipping companies.

PETER THOMPSON: Col Coventry of the Association of Employers of Waterside Labour.