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Hidden costs of the maritime dispute

PETER THOMPSON: It may be back to work and full steam ahead for the seamen of ANL, but the political backwash is likely to be felt for some time yet. Pru Goward counts the hidden costs of the latest maritime dispute.

PRU GOWARD: The extraordinary settlement won by the Maritime Union, this week, seems to have also cost the Government an important friendship. According to the union, it has damaged the partnership between the Labor Government and the ACTU. It began when the union convinced the Labor Party, for good or ill, that selling off ANL was not acceptable. The Government was forced to publicly declare ANL off limits for privatisation. That might have been the end of the matter, but then, the Minister for Means Justifying Ends, Laurie Brereton, started saying you couldn't give it away, got rid of the board, and wheeled in two prominent merchant bankers to work out what could be done with it.

Bells began to ring for the Maritime Union. They weren't the peals of privatisation; they were the chimes of closing down. When ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty - not the Minister -finally told the union that the Government wanted to sell off its share in Australian Stevedores, the union smelt a very large, rotting rat and took the country out. Finally, union met Government, with the ACTU there in the middle. Union official, John Coombs, says they had their suspicions confirmed.

JOHN COOMBS: ... following the comments of Minister Brereton that it couldn't be given away, that the privatisation was certainly no longer a threat but it was going to be liquidated. And so ....

PRU GOWARD: But was that your paranoia or did you have real evidence that the Government was going to liquidate the line?

JOHN COOMBS: Well, it certainly wasn't our paranoia, but there was a number of clear indications in respect of, firstly, the sale of the Australian Stevedores' shareholding, and I have to say that our views were expressed very clearly as to what we believe was the plan, and they didn't very adequately reject it.

PRU GOWARD: At the meeting, the Government had one choice. It could scuttle the whole line or it could give in to union demands. Basically, they gave in, and they paid a high price. Sure, the threat of a national stoppage which had the potential to wreak terrible damage on the country's trade future was one thing, but according to John Coombs, it was ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, so often the Government's partner, who won them the day.

JOHN COOMBS: Without the support of the ACTU and, in particular, the personal commitment of Bill Kelty, I think the results on Monday night may well have been different. Bill made a personal commitment and I suspect that the relationship between himself and the Government may never be quite the same again.

PRU GOWARD: Why do you suspect that?

JOHN COOMBS: Well, I was there and, as I said before, there isn't any half measures with Bill Kelty, and it's my assessment - and I don't think he would disagree with me -that things in the future might not be quite the same as a result of Monday night's proceedings, and I think that possibly there's a cost to be borne.

PRU GOWARD: You're saying that Kelty and the Government had a stoush on Monday night?

JOHN COOMBS: I'm saying that in Bill Kelty articulating his support for the union, he did not hold back in any way, shape or form in respect of what his commitment was and what side he was going to come down on.

PRU GOWARD: Kelty and his president, Martin Ferguson, had no choice about sides. As the union saw it, the Government had ratted on party policy and ratted on the union. They'd failed to consult and, instead, had misled. Whilst Bill Kelty's reform instincts might have taken him to a quite different position if Laurie and Paul had gone through the right motions, under these circumstances, the self-respect of the union movement was at stake and its future as an influence on government. The ACTU leaders were as angry as the mariners. John Coombs and his maritime union are grateful.

JOHN COOMBS: It was an extraordinary commitment and one that I will never forget.

PETER THOMPSON: John Coombs of the Maritime Union.