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Workplace Relations Minister discusses the current crisis on the waterfront

KERRY O'BRIEN: The man responsible for new laws which have paved the way for the farmers to take this action is Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith; and he joins me now from Melbourne.

Peter Reith, what we're now seeing on the Melbourne wharves, is that what you wanted?

PETER REITH: Well, what we want to see on the Melbourne wharves, as wharves all round the country, is a far more efficient and productive waterfront. The waterfront is the gateway for this country. We've got something like $120 billion worth of goods going across that gateway, and there's no question whatsoever that productivity levels on the Australian waterfront are way below any reasonable international benchmark. We can't even do as well as places like Manila and Mozambique. We certainly can't do better than New Zealand. And of course we have the people and the equipment to have an efficient waterfront and a productive one, but we're a long way short of that mark.

And it's not reliable as well. We have a level of industrial disputation on the Australian waterfront something like 10 times the national average, and it's not even safe for the people who work on it, which again is a consequence of very poor employee relations.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Isn't it also true, when you talk about $120 billion of exports, isn't it true that something like two thirds of those exports are involved with bulk terminals and that in fact they're considered to have world best practice, that in fact it is container shipping that you really should be concerned about?

PETER REITH: There's no doubt, I mean, containers are the big part of the problem. The reason you don't have a lot of problems with the bulk commodity exports is because the MUA is not involved in a lot of those; it's the AWU that's been a lot more reasonable in facilitating change.

No, the MUA and container terminals is the big part of the problem, and that's why you've seen now a new entrant into that field - a new entrant which ought to be supported by the Labor Party because only 10 days ago, Kerry, the Labor Party conference publicly endorsed the right of people and welcomed and encouraged the establishment of new stevedores in Australia and further competition. This is a big test for Kim Beazley, and my question to him tonight is: does he support the very resolution of his own conference 10 days ago, and if he does support it why isn't he out there saying so?

KERRY O'BRIEN: But what is rather puzzling about Patrick Stevedoring involvement in this National Farmers' plan is that he's prepared to go along with this competition but he, as well as PO, were involved in a plan to keep another container operation out of the Melbourne wharves. Now that seems rather inconsistent. That was OOCL from Hong Kong.

PETER REITH: Well, I think the explanation is that they had some understanding with the Victorian Government - I can't give you the details - about not allowing further capital equipment and a further investment in capital equipment in the Port of Melbourne. This is no additional capital equipment, this is the use of existing equipment. But I think in the end ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: It's selective competition?

PETER REITH: In the end the reality is, as Chris Corrigan said in that opening piece ... I mean, he's been talking with the union all through '96 to negotiate an agreement. They then wouldn't stick with the agreement that they negotiated and he had productivity levels 30 per cent below what he had to start with. Now, he faced a commissioner saying that the union ought to agree to a benchmark container lift rate of 22 an hour - which, Kerry, is a very modest figure - and even that was rejected by the union.

It's no wonder the Patricks of this world are exasperated. He's not even allowed by this union to speak to his own employees; he's not even allowed to write to his own employees. His own employees are working less than 30 hours a week; they get five weeks' annual leave; they get 27.5 per cent annual leave loading; they get 27.5 per cent long service leave and they get double the salary of a nurse who at least would put in a decent week's work.

KERRY O'BRIEN: This $70,000 figure that you're throwing around for a 30-hour week, have you yourself seen conclusive proof of that, because the unions ....?

PETER REITH: Yes, I have. I have.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Which wharves does that operate on?

PETER REITH: The National Institute of Labour Studies did a report on this which has been publicly released, which shows an average figure of about $74,000 with salaries up to about $110,000 or $120,000 for the fully-qualified supervisor types. And those conditions I briefly referred to ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: But for a 30-hour week?

PETER REITH: The award, I can show you the award. The award is a 35-hour-a-week base award which includes within it 3.75 hours per week which is paid break time, including 40 minutes a day to walk to and from the smoko, which is a pretty long walk within a pretty small confine.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The only reason I raise it is because the wharfies say that to earn that $70,000 they've got to work 55 hours a week.

PETER REITH: Well, to earn that $70,000 - the reality is most of them are doing better than that - but to earn that the sort of benefits they get is that once you get past a certain time you get on to triple time. And for a lot of these wharfies - and again, the Corrigan figures show this - what happens is they run through a shift, they know that if they don't finish they'll get a second shift and on that second shift they know that when they've finished they'll be entitled to go home, under the award, and be paid for the full time of that shift, regardless of when they finished. Now, that is a racket in the ordinary language.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Let me take you back to a document written for you by a senior official in your department last year which proposed ways to reduce union influence on the wharves. It talks about activating, and I quote:

... well-prepared strategies to dismiss the workforce and replace them with another quickly.

So you've got a senior public servant advising you what in turn to advise the two stevedores who are coming to meet you on ways to sack the workforce. Is that really your role?

PETER REITH: Kerry, I can take you back 10 years to a document which I publicly released which talked about ways in which to improve productivity on the waterfront and the strategy that ought to be adopted. It's no surprise that in a meeting, or in preparation for a meeting between myself and the two major stevedoring companies my department would raise with me all the issues which could be raised in a meeting.

But, I mean, there's no doubt we have had a lot of discussions with a lot of people, including the major stevedores about what could be done, what options were available to them. We've certainly explained to people the changes we made to the Workplace Relations Act as it affected dismissals and a whole lot of those issues so that people were properly informed.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But we're talking about a mindset that seems to emerge quite clearly which is one of confrontation. The paper also talks, that in the process of sacking these workers and replacing them quickly, presumably with non-union labour, that it should replace them:

to limit the prospects of the Industrial Relations Commission ordering the re-instatement of the old workforce ...

In other words, trying to work around the system.

PETER REITH: Kerry, it's not a question of working around the system. I can show you examples today ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, the Commission is a part of the system.

PETER REITH: Yes, but I can show you examples today which no one describes as confrontationist where employers have replaced their existing workforce through labour hire companies now. That might be a surprise to you but I can show you actual examples where that's happened.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. There is another part to this document where it refers to Attachment C to the document which: '... deals with the termination of a workforce'. In other words, the Government is spelling out ....

PETER REITH: That was a matter which was covered in the amendments to the Workplace Relations Act. This is no surprise element. I spent 30 hours sitting down with the ACTU and the ACCI going through the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. I am pleased to be able to tell you that we have changed the law in this country. We, as a government, publicly support and advocate further competition on the waterfront. I have publicly said on numerous occasions, more than I can count, that the monopoly position of the MUA is definitely part the problem.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And you see nothing wrong with urging a private company to sack a workforce?

PETER REITH: We encourage employers to act within the law. Now, in terms of the industry, there's no question that the industry is overmanned, none whatsoever. If there is at any point in future to be some reduction in manning levels, my view is those people ought to be treated fairly and we've said that publicly; I said that before Christmas.

But as at today there are no jobs at risk, there are no jobs being threatened. It's the Labor Party's policy to in fact encourage new entrants so they can hardly complain about the NFF. And in terms of the people that they're going to employ, that simply provides more job opportunities. And we all know that if we could have a more efficient waterfront there'd be a lot more jobs in the Australian economy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Peter Reith, thanks very much for talking with us.

PETER REITH: Thank you.