Date: Fri, 6 Feb 98 15:36:43 CST
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
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
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.