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Melbourne: tram strike continues; could cost Federal Government up to five seats in the coming election

CATHERINE JOB: Melbourne commuters face another disrupted peak hour this morning as hundreds of trams still clog the city's central business district. Tramway union members meet again today but, as the dispute continues, concerns are growing that it could cost the Federal Government up to five crucial seats in the forthcoming election. Tramways Union secretary, Lou di Gregorio, told AM's Libby Price, the union not only has the public's support, but also that of the Federal Cabinet Minister, Gerry Hand.

LOU DI GREGORIO: The union members can hold out forever. They're well established in the depots at the moment, they have a three-course meal every day, and all our food is supplied by the local community - local business community - free of charge. We get delivery every day, no charge at all, so we are well set up.

LIBBY PRICE: There is serious concern that this dispute may cause a backlash against the Federal Government, particularly from Federal Minister, Gerry Hand. What sort of discussions have you had with Mr Hand?

LOU DI GREGORIO: I talk to Gerry Hand nearly every day of the week, and Gerry Hand is concerned what's going on, the same as I am. I want my members to go back to work and Gerry ....

LIBBY PRICE: So Gerry Hand speaks to you nearly every day on the telephone?

LOU DI GREGORIO: Gerry Hand speaks to me nearly every day of the week, and he is concerned about having 3,000 people sitting in the depots ready to work, and the Government won't allow them to work.

LIBBY PRICE: Well, what has he said to you about the handling of the dispute by State Transport Minister, Jim Kennan?

LOU DI GREGORIO: Well, he's not too happy. I don't have to tell you. He's publicly said Jim Kennan's not fit to be a Minister for Transport, and I support him - I mean, I support that view - because Jim Kennan .... I've worked in public transport for 25 years, and I've had quite a few Transport Ministers. This man is the worst we've had, the worst by far.

LIBBY PRICE: Well, what has Gerry Hand offered to do to help you?

LOU DI GREGORIO: Well, he's offered whatever he can. You know, he can't get involved in local politics, but federally - and he's a Federal Member of Parliament and he's got a lot of friends in State politics, and he's tried to work that way to sort of get them to come up with something that will benefit the public in general.

LIBBY PRICE: Has he ever suggested to you the possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle, perhaps?

LOU DI GREGORIO: Well, that's on the cards, anyway. Mr Kennan will be removed from public transport on 15 February.

LIBBY PRICE: But do you think Gerry Hand is keen for that to happen?

LOU DI GREGORIO: I suppose he'll be keen, just as much as I am.

LIBBY PRICE: Are you suggesting that after the Thomastown (?) by-election next month there'll be a Cabinet reshuffle?

LOU DI GREGORIO: I don't think the Thomastown election, their government will win that - I think the Government will lose that. and once they lose that, they'll have to do something about it.

CATHERINE JOB: Victorian Tramways Union Secretary, Lou di Gregorio.

Well, a short time ago, Marius Benson spoke to the target of the union's attack, Victorian Transport Minister, Jim Kennan.

MARIUS BENSON: Mr Kennan, the union does say they can last forever. How long do you say the dispute will last?

JIM KENNAN: Well, I don't think I can predict that, but I would hope that increasingly the rank and file will realise that the union claims that 1,200 people were going to get the sack here - which was the basic claim that got them out in the first place - is simply wrong, and we'll be hammering home that message to individual members of the union over the next few days.

MARIUS BENSON: On the personal side, Mr Gregorio says that you yourself are facing a Cabinet reshuffle which might see you out of the Ministry.

JIM KENNAN: I think that's the sort of desperate claim that indicates that he is not prepared to talk about the merits of the dispute and face up to negotiating - which he ought to - the real industrial issues here, which are new classifications, new jobs and higher pay and conditions, but rather as a desperate ploy has obviously resorted to irrelevant allegations.

MARIUS BENSON: He does claim that Gerry Hand supports him in his views, and that Mr Hand believes you're not fit to be a Minister.

JIM KENNAN: Oh, well, Mr Hand can express any view he wants to. It's absolutely of no interest to me.

MARIUS BENSON: What about the federal implications for the electorate? Will it cost Labor seats federally?

JIM KENNAN: Well, I don't believe so. I mean, the Victorian public has understood that we're engaged in serious transport reform. Clearly, there are short-term difficulties, but in the medium and longer term, the public will judge us by the seriousness with which we've undertaken the reforms and the expansion of services, but in a more efficient way, that we have promised. And in addition, time and again, electorates have shown their capacity to judge our governments by their records and distinguish between Federal and State issues.

MARIUS BENSON: But presumably, you'd be hoping to have the trams running on time well before any federal poll?

JIM KENNAN: Well, look, I'd - there is no reason, of course, for the trams not to be running at the moment, except the union has taken up what is really a political position, that they want a conductor on every tram. There is no industrial reason for them to be waging this campaign, because no one gets the sack, and 60 to 70 per cent of them get a wage rise.

CATHERINE JOB: Victorian Transport Minister, Jim Kennan.