Alarm bells ringing on the waterfront (again)
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Alarm bells ringing on the waterfront (again)

In the throes of a four-month waterfront dispute featuring the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) and Emirati global logistics firm DP World, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s hands-off approach to policy reform sees his leadership again in the spotlight.

With his vision to transform himself into a pro-enterprise PM, Albanese previously lauded former prime minister John Howard’s mantra for economic growth and prosperity.

Markedly different from Howard’s decisive actions when facing a similar waterfront skirmish, this contrast not only highlights a shift in Albanese’s political strategy but underscores the need to borrow a page or two from Howard’s playbook to steer a resolution.

The Australian waterfront is a critical artery for the nation’s economy, where the efficient movement of goods is essential for maintaining and growing economic wealth.

With the current dispute said to be the biggest industrial action in a decade costing the country tens of million dollars a week, Albanese needs to act — now.

The pursuit of operational efficiency has been a flashpoint in our nation’s history with the notorious 1997 Patrick’s waterfront dispute remaining vivid to this day.

In government, Howard, along with his formidable Cabinet minister Peter Reith, worked in tandem driving waterfront reform.

Howard’s memoir Lazarus Rising, dedicates an entire chapter to the waterfront; describing it as one of the most fiercely contested domestic issues during his tenure.

This dispute centring on the Howard government’s career-long ambition for productivity at our ports — namely increased crane lift rates — was to be achieved through a non-union workforce and the introduction of modernised work practices.

Howard speaks in depth of the political courage shown by Reith, who notably reached out to officials from the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to foster negotiation from the start. The union movement was not for turning.

Howard was unyielding in his commitment to reform. With the levers of government at his disposal, he was confident in his position; buoyed by the belief that “the ordinary men and women of Australia know that the waterfront has been rorted for years.”

Nothing less than Australia’s trade reputation hinged on the outcome.

Patrick stevedores sacked its 2000 workers and replaced them with non-union labour. For the MUA, this was a step too far.

The waterfront was transformed into a tense battleground: balaclava-clad security guards and their dogs regularly patrolled the docks. Record numbers of workers stood defiantly at picket lines, futures uncertain.

The campaign targeted outdated work practices, resulting in job losses, major corporate shake-ups, and legal dramas. It was an all-out war that was played out publicly and politically for months.

Despite the messy battle and protracted period of negotiation a resolution was secured.

Under Howard’s leadership, the MUA agreed to several concessions; namely, smaller crew numbers working longer shifts in return for faster loading bonuses.

The outcome: a notable surge in efficiency at the Australian waterfront, achieving standards that not only met, but exceeded, international benchmarks — surpassing even our close neighbour, New Zealand.

This accomplishment did more than just highlight the effectiveness of Howard’s reforms. It also represented a major milestone in the evolution of Australia’s maritime industry.

Fast forward to today’s dispute between the CMFEU and DP World, and the enduring complexity of waterfront operations is starkly evident.

This conflict symbolises the latest chapter in an extensive history of battles for control, efficiency, and rights within one of Australia’s key economic sectors.

For DP World, the crux of this dispute revolves around issues crucial to their business model and operational efficiency. On the other hand, for the CFMEU (which encompasses the maritime union), the dispute is anchored in their demand for a 16 per cent pay rise over two years and claims of modern slavery.

Small business owners are reportedly anxious about the possibility of having to close their businesses if the current issue is not resolved.

Given the looming possibility of lockouts, the meeting this week between Minister Tony Burke and representatives from DP World is expected to be fraught.

After all, this dispute holds significant implications for Australian trade and our global reputation for doing business.

Considering the likelihood of further industrial disputes as the next federal election approaches, Albanese may consider looking towards Howard’s pragmatic approach as a potential roadmap.

Known for his readiness to roll up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, Howard could offer Albanese an insight for steering through these turbulent times.

Albanese stands at a pivotal juncture to redefine Australia’s waterfront future; he must either succeed in enhancing productivity and labour relations, or risk setting the stage for Dutton’s ascent.

As American baseball catcher Yogi Berra is famous for saying, ‘It’s like déjà vu all over again.’

Andrew Blyth is the John Howard Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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