||Issue No. 136||17 May 2002|
Interview: Licking the Wounds
Industrial: The Accidental Tourist
Unions: Stars And Stripes
International: The Un-Promised Land
History: Mate Against Mate
Politics: Reith's Gong
Poetry: You've Got a Friend
Review: War on Terror: Now Showing
Satire: Burmese Regime Makes Genuine Commitment To Pretence Of Change
The Locker Room
Week in Review
More May Day Hate Mail
What Women Want
Chucking a Wobbly
Is Caustic Costello the Despot of Despair?
East Timor: Independent Or Mendicant?
Telecards and children overboard were but a dim memory when Peter Reith recently received an award from right-wing think-tank, the HR Nicholls Society.
In the same week that members of his forgotten army of waterfront strike-breakers walked away with just $15,000 compensation each, Reith was hailed as the best industrial relations minister in the last 50 years by Stuart Wood, vice president of the Society and a Melbourne barrister who represented Patrick Corporation in the dispute.
Patrick's Chris Corrigan and almost 200 of the mercenary labour force at the centre of the 1998 waterfront dispute agreed a secret $8 million out-of-court settlement in mid-March.
The settlement came at a convenient time for Corrigan, whose four-year legal battle could have compromised his new public image as a saviour of the airline industry through his partnership with Richard Branson's Virgin Blue.
It also kept Corrigan, Reith and former National Farmers Federation president Donald McGauchie out of the witness box, thus avoiding a potentially damaging re-examination of the alleged conspiracy by Patrick, the NFF and the Federal
Government to replace union labour on the waterfront.
As news of the settlement broke, Reith was presented with the Charles Copeman Medal for distinguished service in the cause of Australian industrial relations, at the 23rd HR Nicholls Society conference.
The award is named after the Right's hero of the infamous mid-1980s industrial dispute at the North-owned Robe River iron-ore operation in the Pilbara region of WA.
All Australians are in debt to Peter Reith, said former Secretary to the Commonwealth Treasury, Queensland National's senator and founding President of the Society, John Stone as he presented the medal.
His performance in the "great waterfront dispute of 1998" marked a watershed in Australian industrial relations similar to Margaret Thatcher's victory in Britain's great coal strike in the 1980s.
In backing Chris Corrigan, Reith displayed the same qualities of judgment, fortitude and coolness under fire which he had through his political career, said Stone.
Reith and Corrigan had forced the Maritime Union of Australia to sue for peace in the teeth of opposition from a bitterly hostile media, led as usual by the ABC, the trade union movement, Federal Court judges who persistently took it upon themselves to thwart the national interest; and a Victorian police force which largely failed to maintain law and order.
Accepting the award in his first speech in Australia since leaving federal politics, Reith said he would hang the Copeman medal on his wall with pride.
He gave the media a spray, saying he was surprised that the Murdoch press had not been more on side after going through the Wapping dispute in the UK. (Incidentally, the night coincided with the Melbourne Press Club's Quill Awards
just down the road where dozens of journalist received their own medals, including a couple for exposing discredited political liars such as Peter Reith.)
Although he liked the work of some journalists - Andrew Bolt was a later speaker at the conference - he accused many of them of making up "facts" or putting a slant on a story.
"The press expects politicians to apologise or own up to mistakes, but securing an apology from an editor is harder than winning Tatts," he said.
"There is nothing anybody can or should do about it, but it is the reason that many people hold journalists in lower esteem than politicians."
Reith claimed that the central objective behind the government's policy - higher productivity - had been achieved. Based on Patrick figures released in September 1998, the moves per man per shift in Melbourne had increased from 9.3 to 20.5.
He was now playing a bit of golf and the waterfront dispute was a closed chapter.
"It is all history and life has moved on for all the participants," he said.
However, Patrick's current employees and the ex-members of Reith's army don't appear to share that view.
The reforms introduced to achieve the performance figures quoted by Reith are now the subject of criminal proceedings against Patrick's by the MUA.
The company is accused of five counts of criminal disregard of workers' safety because it knowingly made workers drive towering mobile cranes for dangerous lengths of time.
Confidential documents show that Patrick expects workers to drive the cranes for their entire 7½-hour shift, save for one 45-minute break, against expert health and safety advice.
In January 1998, three months before the waterfront dispute, health and safety consultants ReStart Consulting told Patrick that the maximum period employees should be required to drive without a break was 2½ hours. Driving for longer periods could pose serious health risks due to the design of the cranes and the positioning of equipment in their cabins.
In July 1999, ten months after the new work practices were introduced, Patrick received another risk assessment from consultants Noel Arnold and Associates that confirmed ReStart's findings.
Altogether, ten different reports were available to Patrick's warning about the dangers of driving the cranes for extended periods. During the waterfront dispute the MUA had claimed that comparisons of lifting rates with overseas terminals were invalid because of the inefficient design of the equipment on Australian wharfs.
That case is now adjourned until at least September. The ex-members of Reith's army who took Patrick's to court recently told The Sunday Age that they had been betrayed and abandoned when the union-busting exercise went wrong.
Many had given up careers in the armed forces to be trained to operate giant waterfront cranes in Dubai. After international unions forced the Dubai operation's closure, they received further training in Australia.
When Corrigan sacked the Patrick workforce en-masse, their replacements endured constant verbal and physical abuse as they crossed MUA picket lines and were the subject of death-threats to themselves and their families.
Many lost friends when it became known they worked for Patrick's and have been unable to find other employment.
"I'd like to have a few minutes alone with Corrigan," former soldier Ken Caldow told The Sunday Age. "I knew the government had something to do with it because when we first came on board they said it was Peter Reith's baby.
"The government has used us as much as Corrigan. They've got no morals as far as I'm concerned."
In his closing speech to the HR Nicholls Society conference, Stuart Wood invited the faithful to imagine what Reith could have done had the Coalition had control of the Senate.
Some might consider that he's done quite enough, despite the Senate.
This piece was first published in Crikey!
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