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Wednesday, 7 June 1989
Page: 3586

Senator PARER(5.52) —We are debating the statements by the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Willis) entitled Reform of Shipping and the Waterfront and Implementation of Government Business Enterprises: Reforms and Telecommunications Pricing. I intend to concentrate on the waterfront. Initially, I remark on the speech made by Senator Childs. He said that he would be opposed to flags of convenience being used by ships on our coastal shipping routes. Our coastal shipping industry is probably beyond repair. It is used only when there is no other option. We already have what I would call ships of convenience plying in Australia-they are called trucks. It boggles the mind that the cost of moving goods from, say, Melbourne to Brisbane by truck is substantially cheaper than by sea.

Our island continent, which is a major trading nation, is dependent on exports. The efficiency and productivity of our waterfront is vital for the well-being of every Australian. The Inter-State Commission (ISC), as a result of a very intensive and lengthy investigation, made specific recommendations. It is critical to note that in its conclusions, it stated:

. . . the Commission has been obliged to assess the evidence put before it by all parties and then to formulate an appropriate plan. Effective implementation of the plan and the achievement of both efficiency and equity depend on clear recognition that the plan comprises interrelated components. It is of critical importance-

and I stress these words-

for the parties to commit themselves to the total package.

A cursory reference to the Minister's response might lead one to believe that the Government supported all or most of the recommendations. A closer examination, as reflected by the vast majority of press comments, reveals that the Government fooled no-one. Many of the Inter-State Commission's recommendations requiring commitment from the unions have been watered down and are deliberately non-specific, while those requiring commitment from the employers and the Australian taxpayers are specific and costly. I do not think we should be in the position of blaming anyone for our situation. Everyone is at fault. We have to be realistic and look at the situation as it is and tackle it in the way in which the ISC has recommended.

I intend to speak in some detail on areas where the Government has failed to address the Inter-State Commission's conclusions: `It is of critical importance for the parties'-the Government, employers and unions; the parties specified in the ISC's recommendations-`to commit themselves to the total package'. There was not a priority list given by the ISC; there was a total package-take it or leave it. One area in which the Government has failed relates to the Inter-State Commission's recommendation that the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) withdraw from coverage of off-wharf container depots. The reason for that was clearly spelt out. Where the WWF is used off-wharf, compared to where the WWF is not used, in stuffing and unstuffing containers the cost is more than double. The Minister's response to this significant recommendation for cost savings to make us more competitive is merely that the unions must agree to rationalisation of union coverage; a weak response which will achieve nothing. People such as Tas Bull know that quite well. They have been through similar situations a dozen times or more.

A key area for improvement in productivity on the waterfront is the abolition of crippling restrictive work practices and inflexibilities. The only response from the Minister to this recommendation is to refer to `improvements in work organisation'. Senators on both sides of this chamber are aware of what those restrictive work practices are. I have a litany of examples. Some were stated by Senator Stone. There is the `nick system' which everyone knows is alive and well. That occurs where two or more men are rostered to do the same job, or an invented job, and the spare wharfies nick off while they are on full pay. The employment of spare men is a common practice. In Brisbane, where I come from, two additional waterside workers are employed for each vessel. The spare men do no job and are not allowed to be employed even if a job arises during the shift.

Such practices have built up over a long time. Other similar practices include the employment of spare front-end loader drivers who are not used; and the employment of two drivers to operate a derrick crane which is designed to be operated by only one person. If fact, the crane has only one seat. Overmanning is rife. When there is a gang of 15 or more A registered waterfront workers, an amenities man must also be hired, yet he does not do any work because the cleaning up work is done by contractors. One of the most blatant examples is the employment of a first-aid man. This involves a permanent first-aid man who cannot work but who is a member of the Waterside Workers Federation. I could go on and provide other examples. Without the abolition of these archaic work practices-some of which, I would agree, had some relevance before the Second World War, before there was mechanisation-in this modern day and age and in the economic crisis in which we find ourselves, the whole package falls apart.

In the major bulk ports where there are modern installations, there is no need for WWF labour to load coal, iron ore, bauxite, grain and so on. In the majority of those ports, that labour does not exist; I agree with that. However, some superfluous employees remain in some ports, particularly in grain handling installations. The WWF has made it quite clear that it will not leave areas in which it has a foothold. I recommend that senators who have not already visited a grain loading port should do so to look at its operations. The operator sits in a cabin above the hold of the ship. He looks into and fills the ship's hold. Yet, there are ports where five, six or seven waterside workers are employed although they have nothing to do. If honourable senators look at such ports, they will see two men standing on the hold and looking into the hold; two men on the wharf; and a first-aid person who just sits on the wharf. These practices were relevant in the days when ships were loaded by men who hoisted bags of wheat over their shoulders. Today this practice is non-existent.

In regard to the practices surrounding the loading of bulk vessels, the Minister's response is as follows:

Where stevedoring employees are employed in association with the loading and unloading of bulk vessels, employment arrangements will be in accordance with efficient operational requirements.

What a wimpish response to something that is absolutely critical! The National Farmers Federation has stated quite clearly that the employment of these people who are not working represents a cost to its members of about $30m. The Inter-State Commission recommended preservation of no compulsory redundancy for existing employees but not for new recruits. There is another cop out. The Minister's statement binds employers to retain new recruits, at least until the implementation period, which is three years. In view of the sustained high interest rates-a result of the monetary policy employed by this Government-and a possible or probable recession, this is an impossible constraint on employers which does not apply in any other industry in this country that I know about.

The Inter-State Commission called for stand down provisions in awards. The Minister asked the parties to accept that this could be achieved through normal Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) proceedings. This is absolutely true. However, if the Government were genuinely seeking reform it would at least have committed itself as a party to that reform to support an application to the IRC. Yet again the Government has failed when it comes to the acid test. I remind honourable senators that this was a total package, not a priority list.

The Government, in its response, calls for the parties to negotiate a package of reform. I remind honourable senators that, at the instigation of employers, such negotiations were commenced three years ago in 1986. So far there has been no beneficial result whatsoever. Past experience would indicate that because of its entrenched attitude to hanging on to practices that were developed more than 40 or 50 years ago, the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia could not deliver on any agreement. I noted with interest the remarks by Mr Charlie Fitzgibbon, a former general secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation. I quote from his remarks. He said:

The task confronting Australia is to cure the system failures by stopping the archaic placement of labour, reducing the ratio of supervisory labour at the same time as reducing unneeded production labour.

Even the Minister, in the lead-up to his statement, agreed that this had to be done and I notice that speakers from both sides of the Senate have accepted that. Charlie Fitzgibbon continued:

It is true that continual demand for a greater slice of the cake has played its part in the Australian system.

I do not think anyone would disagree with that. He then said:

But the time has passed to think that the cake will always be there.

I think that should be sheeted home to people like Senator Burns who, because of their backgrounds, are genuine in their belief. Senator Burns made the point that the reason for the existence of the unions was to enable everyone to share in the wealth created. No-one disagrees that there should be a sharing of the wealth. But the difference between the case today and that of some 20 or 30 years ago is that we must have a bigger cake to share among a greater number of people; whereas the attitude of those outmoded thinkers seems to be that we should keep the same sized cake, or even a smaller one, and share it among a greater number of people. Mr Fitzgibbon also said:

The dedication to do one's best for a wage hardly exists any longer. We live in a different world, and industry must be tailored to that environment.

There is a sense of urgency about that which must be recognised. We cannot delay for much longer. Mr Fitzgibbon continued:

But the problems there are far from insoluble. It just takes good will.

If only we had that good will. With our continuing current account deficit-it is estimated that it will be a staggering $16 to $17 billion by the end of June-and with our net foreign debt of $103 billion we have an economic crisis on our hands which I believe is of frightening proportions. We need to become more efficient, more productive and more competitive on world markets, in exports and in import replacements. There is no question about the fact that high interest rates will eventually dampen demand for imported goods but that does not solve our inherent structural problem-our inability to compete, particularly in manufactured goods.

Notwithstanding all this, the Government shows no sense of urgency and, after intense negotiations over the past month between all parties on the waterfront, we are told that they were not negotiations at all but discussions. Three months have been set aside for negotiations to reach an agreement in principle and three years have been set aside for its implementation. If this Government's response is to be the basis for the in-principle agreement we will achieve nothing other than a payout by taxpayers of in excess of $150m for the most unproductive workers in Australia to clear out. Those words were used in an editorial in the Australian of 2 June.

Mr Willis has threatened the industry with what he calls `alternative measures' if restructuring is not agreed to within three months. With his unrealistic and quite wimpish response he, and this Government, might as well accept the inevitable and implement those measures immediately. We, in the Opposition, promised this Government bipartisan support if it grasped the nettle and moved to implement the total package of reform-but it had to be the total package. It was a sad day for Australia when the Government did not take up that offer. The Government, yet again, has failed the people of Australia.