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Date: Fri, 6 Feb 98 15:36:43 CST
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.apc.org>
Subject: Aussie Conservatives Exploit Docker/Farmer Conflict

Australia govt sees election plus from waterfront

By Jane Nelson, Reuters
4 February 1998

CANBERRA, Feb 4 (Reuters) - A major industrial dispute on the Australian waterfront would suit the conservative government perfectly in the lead-up to an expected election later this year, political analysts said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister John Howard has praised Australia's main farming group for seeking to launch a union-busting stevedore agency, but his government denies allegations of more direct involvement in a conspiracy to break the dockers' union.

Some commentators have questioned why the government would try to provoke a dispute with the powerful Maritime Union of Australia in what is likely to be an election year and with exports already under pressure from the Asian financial crisis.

But political analysts say the Liberal-National government's past experience has shown that major industrial disputes during an election work against the Labor opposition party.

"I think that's the reasoning -- that an industrial dispute will be blamed on the Labor Party even if the government has provoked it," Australian National University political analyst Jim Jupp told Reuters.

Analysts cited the bitter and protracted national pilots' strike in 1989.

The Labor government of the time brought in non-unionised crews to offset increasing public irritation, a strategy that worked with Labor re-elected in 1990. Opinion polls late in 1989 had predicted Labor's defeat, largely because of the strike.

Analysts also cited the 1989 transport workers' strike in southern Victoria state, which the Labor Premier of the time, John Cain, partly blamed for his subsequent political downfall.

"Based on past history, if you can get into an election mode kicking a union, it often has worked," Monash University industrial relations professor Gerry Griffin told Reuters.

Howard has until mid-1999 to call the next election but he has threatened an early poll to break a parliamentary deadlock over legislation affecting Aborigines' land rights.

A newspaper opinion poll on Wednesday showed 60 percent of Australians support the National Farmers' Federation's (NFF) formation of a new non-unionised stevedoring company.

Dockers and supporters have maintained a protest outside the main gate to Melbourne's Webb Dock since January 28, after the NFF announced its new firm, Producers and Consumers Stevedoring, had leased a berth there from stevedoring company Patrick.

Griffin said the government would portray a major waterfront dispute during an election campaign as a positive economic move to boost productivity.

"I would say that the hard-heads in the government would not see this as a loser," he said.

"They could portray it as a recalcitrant trade union preventing exports in a time of crisis in Asia, linked to the ALP (Australian Labor Party), therefore don't vote for the ALP."

However, analysts warned the strategy could seriously backfire if the government could be linked with both the current waterfront dispute and a failed plan last year to train non-union dockers in Dubai.

"If more information starts to come out (about a link) then it's got the potential to blow up for the government," Griffin said. "Then rather than being a public relations coup and an anti-ALP coup, it could be a prickly issue for them."

So far, no government links between the two have been established, although the Maritime Union of Australia claims to have evidence against the government and hopes to prove that Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith has misled parliament.

Such an accusation would direct the heat away from the union firmly on to the government, analysts said. Reith has denied any involvement.

"The unions are very, very keen that the blame should go on the other side and we'll just have to see whether that happens," Jupp said, adding that the union was being extremely cautious in its moves to counteract its traditional militant, violent image.

"The wharfies (dockers) are not terribly popular, but equally uniformed security guards and all that stuff aren't very popular either."

But analysts said even if the traditionally anti-union government had concerns about a dispute's implications for an election later this year, it had no choice but to support the farmers.

"They've all been very, very hostile to unions for years," Jupp said of Prime Minister John Howard, Treasurer Peter Costello and Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith.

Griffin said the government had been angling for a fight on the waterfront since its election in March 1996, publicly emphasising the economic importance of reform at every chance.

"I think from the government's point of view they would want it settled (sooner rather than later), but once the NFF decided to do this, the government just had to come on board," he said.

"It's painted itself into a corner."

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.