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Released cabinet papers show major waterfront dispute a government set up

03 Jan 2019
The latest release in Australia of Cabinet documents from 1996 and 1997 shows that the government of the time was planning a major industrial clash with waterfront unions, despite their protestations of innocence, something the High Court later found to be a probable conspiracy against the union and its members.

The major dispute broke out in 1998 when the stevedoring company, Patrick, locked out its entire union workforce and bussed in balaclava-wearing strike-breakers previously trained in Dubai specifically for the purpose.

“The Cabinet documents demonstrate unequivocally that in April 1998, Patrick Stevedores, with support from the Howard Government, sacked its entire workforce, locking them outside the gates of their legal workplace,” said International Transport Workers' Federation President and CFMMEU MUA division National Secretary Paddy Crumlin.

For two decades, former Prime Minister John Howard has denied his government instigated the 1998 waterfront dispute saying the company Patrick was behind the plan.

The documents released by the National Archives of Australia show the Government had carefully held off on the restructuring of ANL, the government-owned shipping line, until it could enact its legislation, which resulted in one of the most fundamental disputes in the history of Australian industrial relations.

The Government, in seeking to privatise the shipping line, wanted to sell off two of its Trans-Tasman vessels. But in a cabinet submission in June 1996, Transport Minister John Sharp noted that ANL had been advised by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) that if it sold the vessels there would be a major dispute.

Industrial Relations Minister Peter Reith advised that after the Government’s industrial legislation had been enacted, a dispute, particularly on the waterfront, would be far more “manageable”.

“The 1998 dispute is the clearest indicator of the disgraceful attitude of Coalition governments to workers in unions, all the way through to the current mob,” said Crumlin.

“Guards with attack dogs removing MUA wharfies and balaclava-clad scab labour being bussed into union worksites are permanently etched into the memories of many Australians as a prime example of how governments and big business must not be allowed to treat Australian workers,” he said.

“From day one, this had Howard and Reith’s fingerprints all over it and they have been lying about it ever since,” said Crumlin.

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