Tuesday 20th Nov, 2018

1998 Waterfront Dispute: Looking back at the waterfront dispute

Photo: Strategic Marine Group
Photo: Strategic Marine Group

Was there much forewarning that something big was about to break?
For quite a time, there was a sense that something was in the wind. Both stevedores – Patrick and P&O – had expressed frustration about industrial relations and the lack of productivity on the waterfront. Of the two, P&O management had been the more vociferous and I think the general opinion then was that if something were to occur, then it would be P&O who would set it off.

You have got to remember that it was a toxic environment on the Australian waterfront in the mid-late 90s. The arrival of the Howard Coalition government in 1996 was accompanied by a lot of rhetoric around industrial relations, waterfront productivity and costs. When Peter Reith took over the transport portfolio from John Sharp and it was merged with workplace relations, many of us felt the dogs of war were about to be unleashed; though I am sure none of us would have expected it in the literal sense, as was to eventually occur.

What were the first signs that things were happening?
Patrick surprised the market when it announced that it was restructuring its businesses into several separate entities. It was a clear signal that change was on the way, but when?

Even then, in September 1997, there were doubts within the shipping industry that the stevedores had a taste for full-on conflict. Certainly, the government wanted to bloody the MUA’s nose, but everyone recognised the economic consequences for Australia of a lengthy ports’ shutdown were dire.

The presumption had always been that if a waterfront dispute took place, both container stevedores would be involved and there would be a national shutdown. Of course, this turned out not to be the case. The newly installed Workplace Relations Act saw to that and container trade continued through P&O, albeit at a reduced rate.

Also in September, there had been an attempt in Cairns to bypass the use of MUA labour by a stevedoring company called International Purveyors. The MUA, with help from the ITF, fought off that water-testing exercise. But things really started to heat up just before Christmas when the Fynwest/Dubai debacle came to light. Again, this was halted by the MUA and the ITF.

After those little battles, it looked like things would be restricted to legal arguments in the Industrial Relations Commission and the Courts but, by the end of January, events took on a much more intense momentum when the National Farmers Federation entered the fray with its stevedore-training scheme at Webb Dock and the resulting lockout of the MUA workforce. From that point on, it was all out war. And then, of course, there was the Easter uprising.

Was there a sense that the Australian waterfront had to change?
Absolutely. The waterfront was a regular topic on the comedy circuit; whether informed or ill informed, everyone had an opinion on it. In its reports on the waterfront, the Productivity Commission was totally scathing and the regular Waterline reports from Canberra only served to drip feed a general sense of negativity.

Once the dispute started, what kind of access did you get? Did you get to speak with Chris Corrigan, John Coombs, Peter Reith directly?
I think my colleague Kevin Chinnery and I were extremely fortunate in the sense that we were both quite well known to the key parties in the dispute and as such, we tended to get far more access than most other media commentators.

Kevin had developed a good working relationship with Corrigan who was based in Sydney, while I had a number of good contacts within the union in Melbourne, though I had fallen out with Coombs some months earlier when I had called him a “three-time loser” when covering an internal union dispute in Swanson Dock.

We eventually settled our differences, though, and I attended his farewell party in Sydney. Reith was an interesting figure; tall, somewhat aloof and always outspoken, he talked to us regularly during the dispute, as he was very keen to get a message directly to the shipping industry and the shippers. He had a couple of senior advisors – one who I had known socially for some years – so, we never had a problem of access.

There were other important players too, who shouldn’t be ignored – Greg Combet at the ACTU, the lawyer Josh Bornstein, senior Patrick management, many others – all of whom were generous of their time and quite open in their dealings with us.

Were you able to get down to the docks much?
I got down to the picket line on Webb Dock on a few occasions. It was mostly very quiet, like a campsite – men and women walking around with mugs of tea, gentle banter, the occasional snag off the barbie and lots and lots of cigarettes. It was only when the TV cameras were switched on that things got exciting.

Were you able to differentiate your content from that of the mainstream media?
Very much so. Our focus was always on the ships, the cargo, the economic and industrial issues. With the exception of the AFR, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC’s 7.30 Report, the mainstream media tended to focus on the personalities, the politics, the conflict and the violence. They played it like a football match was occurring on the docks.

During the dispute, I became acutely aware of the hopeless inaccuracies in reporting amongst so much of the general media. It was quite confronting to realise that if they are so wrong on subjects you have some knowledge of, how much of what you see and read on other matters is factually correct?

Was there a sense that this was an event of historic proportions?
You know, I don’t think so. Not at the time. But with the benefit of 20 years hindsight, yes it was indeed a historic event in Australian terms.

In the end, which side made best use of the media and why?
The union probably won that battle, but unquestionably Chris Corrigan won the war.

Do you have one abiding memory of the dispute?
Yes. One evening while walking on Brighton Beach with my late wife, I spotted a familiar figure sitting on the seawall looking out over the bay. He looked downcast and quite forlorn. I said hello and we chatted. He was
a senior manager at Patrick and we skirted around talk of the dispute and instead centred on how he was feeling. He talked of the stress he and his family was under, living with security guards at his house 24/7. It was something most of us were not conscious of at the time, but there were many elements to this dispute that will never truly see the light of day.

* Mr Galbraith had moved across to Lloyd’s List Australia a few months prior to the dispute from the old Daily Commercial News where he had been working for seven years. Today, he is a director of the Strategic Marine Group.

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