Sunday 18th Nov, 2018

1998 Waterfront Dispute: Schedule reliability boost from ‘reforms’

Photo: Shipping Australia
Photo: Shipping Australia

GREATER schedule reliability for shipowners was a key outcome of the peace agreement that followed the great waterfront dispute Llew Russell says.

At the time Mr Russell was chief executive of Liner Shipping Services Ltd one of the entities that later merged to form Shipping Australia.

He tells DCN about some of the issues plaguing shipowners at the time and why they backed waterfront ‘reform’, albeit while keeping a low profile.

“What was so important for the shipowners was reliability of schedules,” Mr Russell says.

“If ships missed a berth because of bad weather or poor productivity in one port, say at Brisbane, that would then make them late in Sydney.

“So shipowners wanted to know that by the time they got to Fremantle they would be back on schedule.

“But before ’98 it was so bad a lot of shipowners had no idea when they even were going to leave the Australian coast. It was very unreliable and costly and disruptive and there were many disputes.”

Mr Russell says it was clear “something had to give”.

“During the dispute we just sort of rolled with it and reacted to circumstances. But we were very much in support of reform of the waterfront and had been for many years,” he recalls.

“It was going from bad to worse and we desperately needed reform and agreements that would stick rather than just being a joke.

“I had been involved with quite a few inquiries into the waterfront and I know of agreements being reached between employers and employees and the next few days they were being breached by the Union.

“So it was a very bad situation and we did publicly support reform.”

Stevedore levy
Mr Russell notes some of the legacies of the dispute were redundancies and the stevedoring levy.

This was a levy on every container lift to be paid to the Commonwealth government ($6 per vehicle and $12 per container) in order to recover money leant by the federal government to the stevedores for redundancies.

There was an enhanced role for the Trade Practices Commission (now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) in monitoring the performance of the stevedoring sector.

Regular DCN readers will be familiar with an annual report by the ACCC into Australian stevedoring published towards the end of the calendar year.

“So that started in that period as the government wanted to ensure what was promised would be delivered so that there would be an improvement,” Mr Russell says.

“That has continued to this day.”

Waterfront productivity
Mr Russell emphasises the significance of the changes on productivity noting “nothing else since containerisation had there been such massive reform of the stevedoring industry”.

“I remember John Coombs saying ‘you’d never get over 14 lifts an hour’, it was impossible,” he says.

“But now it’s 21 or 22 and they were doing 18 within a very short time after the end of the dispute.

“So productivity did go up which obviously was in the interests of the ship owners. After this massive ’98 dispute there was quite a period of peace on the waterfront.

“I will leave it to others to comment on the current industrial situation given I retired five years ago from full time employment.”

He notes there was a human impact.

“But although it was costly in human terms, which was very regrettable, if Australia was to become globally competitive, such reform was desperately needed,” he says.

“Overall it resulted in more reliable sailing schedules and higher productivity on the waterfront. There were retraining systems schemes put in place from redundancy money trying to help them find other jobs.

“But although it was costly in human terms, it was desperately needed so far as Australia was concerned. I think overall it achieved certainly the purpose of what the shipowners wanted.”

Mr Russell plays a straight bat in relation to Patrick tactics, notably the use of dogs and balaclava-clad security guards.

“Shipowners did not condone these tactics but that was how Chris Corrigan decided it was the only way such reform could be achieved.”

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