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Thursday, 11 October 1984
Page: 2115

Mr O'NEIL(11.07) —I support the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee Amendment Bill and oppose the Opposition's second reading amendment. I am extremely disappointed that the honourable member for Balaclava (Mr Macphee) has seen fit to introduce that amendment because it is patently obvious, with a Federal election some seven weeks away and the Opposition looking for some issue on which to attack the Government-one has only to look at the Bulletin poll this week to see how rough the Opposition is going-that the Opposition wants to put industrial disputation into the minds of the Australian public. I make it perfectly clear that the industrial disputation that has occurred under this Government's positive policies, compared with that which occurred under the policies of the previous Fraser Government, is virtually non-existent. The honourable member for Balaclava, in talking about industrial disputation and section 45D of the Trade Practices Act, appears to be living in fantasyland. It is a pity that he has not been more positive in his approach to this Bill, but of course I understand that he has to do what he is directed to do by his lack- lustre Leader.

I want to make some positive statements on this Bill, particularly because I have had a long association with the stevedoring industry. I have many friends indeed amongst the ranks of the stevedoring workers. It is with pleasure that I say some positive things about those workers. The amendments in this Bill are part of a process of progressive functional change being put into effect as the need for them is identified. When we discuss the stevedoring industry, it is inevitable that we discuss waterside workers in general. No one romanticises about waterside workers. On the contrary, they get a very bad Press; even Labor historians have neglected them. Wharfies, like shearers, have worked on the frontiers of the nation in a hard and dangerous occupation. They too have a heroic past and legends and heroes such as Charlie Fitzgibbon, Jim Healy, Morrie Wallington, Norm Docker and Roy Hunter. I could go on for a very long time listing some of the people who have led this very progressive industry.

Wharfies also have a tradition of mateship which is close and fierce. The great advantage of the gang system is that it removed the competition and consequently allowed comradeship to flourish. The gang could help its members. This comradeship is coupled with the fact that the wharfies' generosity towards good causes is legendary. A recent example of this was the response of the Waterside Workers Federation to the appeal made by Father Brian Gore. That direct appeal for support of the oppressed brought an immediate Federation protest by cable to President Marcos. The ultimate result was that Father Gore was cleared of all charges. This was really positive.

Mrs Darling —Excellent.

Mr O'NEIL —As my friend and colleague the honourable member for Lilley interjected, it was excellent. Above all, wharfies have a continuing tradition of class struggle, of active, militant and successful unionism, of internationalism and political action. Their solidarity is expressed not only in their attitudes towards each other and to other unionists, but also in their stand against their employers, the great shipowners who have long dominated so much of Australian life.

The nation's favourite coconut shy is the wharfie. Most people classify the wharfie as someone who collects his pay but does no work. They think of wharfies as being always on strike, putting up the price of transport and blocking materials and goods from going out. In fact, the opposite is the truth. It is about time they were applauded for their mateship and involvement with mankind. Excellent examples of the Waterside Workers Federation's involvement are illustrated on Labor Day when the wharfies organise a fun day of events for the ordinary family. Within their own network they hold an annual show for their children. Functions are organised as a benefit for a sick or injured member's family.

Federation members throughout Australia have also assisted British coal miners by voluntary levies. The money from the levies has been used to help the wives and children of miners whose welfare payments have been reduced or disallowed by the British Government. Wharfies have received unwarranted criticism and condemnation. Let us put the record straight: Wharfies are progressive and determined to maintain good working conditions, which are, of course, the right of all men and women. Their progressiveness is illustrated by the historic aluminium agreement made on 16 May 1984. This agreement was negotiated between the Transport Workers Union, the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, the New South Wales Road Transport Association and the Waterside Workers Federation. The agreement was on the packing of aluminium into containers for Tomago Aluminium Co. Pty Ltd. This increased the work opportunities for transport workers and members of the Federation, culminating finally in rendering the port of Newcastle more viable, thus decreasing a certain amount of idle time which was being experienced in the industry.

Mechanisation has transformed the industry as it has many other industries, continually reducing the need for men. But wharfies are not thrown on the industrial scrapheap, although they may take voluntary redundancy and retire early. Major Federation branches have overwhelmingly endorsed the 1984 national contract. The principle of no compulsory redundancy was reaffirmed in the contract. Federation tradesmen and shipping clerks have been brought within the no compulsory redundancy provision. The main significance of the early retirement scheme changes is that the qualifying age has been reduced from 62 to 60.

The national economy has improved dramatically over the last 19 months under this Federal Labor Government. However, the legacy of the disastrous Fraser Government years is still being felt throughout the stevedoring industry. Thus, it has been a time of consolidation throughout the industry and the gains made are the best available in the present economic climate. The early retirement scheme has been extended to cover all Federation members. Another important feature of the 1984 contract is the 15 per cent increase in the stevedoring employees' retirement fund pension benefits.

Wharfies shift more cargo than ever before, but increasingly they see themselves as a vanishing race. The introduction of containerisation represented a period of serious threat to the Federation. Last decade the introduction of new cargo handling methods on the Australian waterfront seriously threatened the negotiating and industrial base of the WWF. With ample manual labour and shortages of investment capital, China has not pushed containerisation at the same speed as other trading nations. Consequently, specialists from the International Cargo Handling Co-ordination Association, of which the WWF has been a member for nine years, have been visiting China for the last three weeks to assist the Chinese in the development process of moving goods more efficiently and economically by the use of specialised service technology. This program seeks to promote international co-operation and understanding.

While technological change may render certain skills obsolete, it can also create demands for different skills and lead to the emergence of new occupations . Technological advance has dealt its heaviest blow to semi-skilled and unskilled workers. With the mechanisation of the terminals, specialised servicing and mechanical work have become more critical to the operations of stevedoring. Waterside workers are now required to handle cargo cranes capable of lifting 500 tonnes. They also are required to drive sophisticated machinery such as straddle trucks and 50-tonne forklifts. They are also expected to handle electric winches and hoists and to stow cargo in order to obtain the best possible loading result. Waterside workers are trained to handle the new equipment in the industry at a central training school established in Melbourne where all recruits to the industry attend a five-week induction course. Training and retraining is also carried out in all capital and main ports.

It would be extremely difficult to give a full history of the strikes and stoppages that the Waterside Workers Federation has been forced to engage in. The major strikes have been over the question of wages and conditions. They included struggles against discriminatory tactics by shipowners and in support of the right of the individual waterside worker to a share in the work that was offered. It needs to be appreciated that until 1967 every port in Australia worked under a system of casual employment. Therefore, waterside workers worked and received pay only when ships were in port. This system left itself open to abuse by shipowners, who played one waterside worker against another in a competition to obtain work. This system was known as the bull system.

Observers have described other strikes as political. The refusal by waterside workers to load pig-iron on ships destined for Japan when that country was attacking China and was shortly thereafter to attack Australia was one such action. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Federation members refused to load Dutch ships carrying arms and other supplies for use against the Indonesians, who were fighting for independence. In the 1960s Federation members similarly refused to load arms consigned to the French troops in Indo-China, where the French were endeavouring to repossess their colonial empire. Later, as the Vietnam war changed its character with the state of South Vietnam being declared, the United States of America, Australia and others joined in support of South Vietnam against North Vietnam. Waterside workers again refused to load arms and supplies for use in the conflict. Federation members believed that the Vietnamese had the right to determine the form of government in their own country without interference. Direct action has also been taken against French ships and cargoes in protest at the French Government's testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. There have also been bans on Polish, South African and Israeli ships-in support of Solidarity, in protest against apartheid and in protest against the invasion of Lebanon respectively.

The Federation is affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. As such, it has been very supportive of the prices and incomes accord which has been the basis for Australia's economic recovery. The development of the Waterside Workers Federation since 1902 has been one of definite progression and positiveness. In an effort to better the conditions of the wharfies there has developed on both sides an appreciation of the other's problems and attitudes. Generally speaking, there has been an attempt by employers to meet and understand the needs of the workers. This has certainly been fostered by this Government. There has been a tremendous improvement since the days of casual employment and the bull system. The redundancy payments are necessary to reduce the number of waterside workers. Fewer are required because of technological change within the industry. It is pleasing to see that this is being achieved on a voluntary basis. I sincerely hope that all workers who are accepting voluntary retirement enjoy long and happy retirements. They are retiring from a very proud industry with conditions that were achieved through long and harsh struggles over many years. Waterside workers in this country have every reason to walk tall as they have been at the forefront of progressive unionism in Australia for many years. It gives me great pleasure to commend this Bill to the House.