Peter Reith’s medal from the HR Nicholls Society overlooks a number of lamentable aspects about his character as Stuart Mackenzie reports. And further down we have an eyewitness account of the speech from David Vincent.

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 7-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 2 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.

Feedback to Stuart Mackenzie at [email protected]

How the Reith speech was covered

Stephen, I was on the spot for the speech and churned out the following article for our Workplace Express news service.

Regards, David Vincent

Workplace Express

Reith urges BCA to advocate change

Former WR Minister Peter Reith has called on the BCA to resume its advocacy of labour market change and revealed that he has no regrets about his role in the 1998 waterfront dispute.

In his first domestic speech since he retired from politics at last November’s federal election, Reith told the HR Nicholls Society’s conference (listen to his comments – see below) in Melbourne on Friday evening that the business community had a vital role to play in moderating Labor’s IR policy, but the BCA had dropped the ball.

In a scathing assessment, he said that compared to NZ’s Business Roundtable, “the BCA does not have an activist record”.

For example, he said, when the BCA outlined its priorities for the year ahead, it omitted workplace relations.

He looked at the BCA’s website under new directions and was disappointed to find “a paltry five generalities”.

Not to be deterred, Reith turned to the page on workplace relations, but found that no member chief executive of the BCA was prepared to chair the committee.

Even worse, he said, the BCA could find no WR issue in 2001, despite raging debates, that was important enough that it felt compelled to “issue a press release, make a submission or publish a paper”.

He contrasted the BCA unfavourably with AWU secretary Bill Shorten, “a more progressive union leader”, who was advocating a national IR system.

The unions, he said, were at least thinking about the issues.

While Reith was grateful for the BCA’s interest in his discussion paper on the use of the corporations power [the BCA held a conference to advance the idea], “it needs to do a lot more”.

He said that despite the Democrats being able to block change and being difficult to deal with, “a genuine effort needs to be made and the BCA should be taking a lead instead of pretending that workplace relations is not relevant to members of the Council”.

No regrets about docks decisions

In his review of the waterfront dispute, Reith told the gathering that if he had his time over again, “there is very little I would do differently”.

“It is easy to be wise after the event but as I think back to the issues I faced at the time I have no regrets about any of the decisions I took then.

The MUA had maintained productivity was as good as it gets and had never been fair dinkum in negotiations with stevedores over boosting it.

He said the Government had one central objective in the dispute: to boost productivity.

After the dispute, productivity improvements came quickly, he said, with efficiency on the Melbourne docks burgeoning by 120% and 140% in Sydney.

No room for complacency on docks

But even though the central productivity objective had been achieved, “no-one should rest on their laurels”.

“There is still a duopoly, employers are entitled to act rationally and the union will always try to claw back the reforms.

“I also think that in the past P&O were part of the problem so I don’t think the Government should take its eye off the waterfront”.

He said none of the accusations brought against him and the Government in the courts had got anywhere and directed a veiled spray at Federal Court Justice Tony North, who made the crucial ruling that undermined Patrick’s strategy to put a replacement workforce in place.

Reith also:

* Responded to a question about why he allowed waterfront workers to be “bought out” of the industry by the substantial redundancy deals on offer, saying he didn’t think it was worth picking a fight over the “incredibly generous” redundancy packages that had already been agreed. It was “a disgrace” that P&O had agreed to the packages before the dispute.

* Advocated that the Government commission Des Moore of the Institute for Private Enterprise to update the paper he prepared for the Labour Ministers Council on developing a more flexible labour market. He said putting the issues in the paper back into the public debate could be accompanied by a series of public meetings and opportunities for public consultation.

* Showed that he has left the Telecard affair far enough behind him to joke about it. He quipped that now that he was no longer a politician, “I check my own telephone accounts”.

* Repeated what he believed was the best slogan of the waterfront dispute, which came from Jeannie Ferris: “If a wharfie can be a farmer, why can’t a farmer be a wharfie?”.