Lessons from the Waterfront


Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the first act of the Waterfront Dispute of 1998 — the lockout of Patrick’s workforce on the Melbourne docks.

If a week is a long time in politics, 10 years must be an age. But some events continue to have ripple effects, their symbolism speaking to the enduring nature of the conditions that caused them. The Waterfront Dispute is one of these; it is still very much alive in our historical consciousness, as demonstrated by the controversy last year over the ABC’s mini-series, Bastard Boys.

Such was the impact of the Dispute that the Coalition campaign team, last year, thought they had found a smoking gun for their attack ads with footage of Julia Gillard, then an industrial lawyer, assisting the MUA.

In an interview with the Australian Financial Review‘s Steven Scott yesterday, the then Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, claimed ownership of the Dispute as an iconic moment for the Howard Government. Its significance, he argued, went beyond what he described as the need for reform. Reith compared the Dispute to Thatcher’s actions in the coal strike, or Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers’ union. "It was one of those situations where the Government stood firm … Our big dispute was on the waterfront."

The Dispute lives on for the MUA too. The union held a minute’s silence on work sites yesterday, and is commemorating the anniversary with a week-long program that includes a talkfest, a dinner, the unveiling of a mural, and cultural activities.

The MUA has also been seeking to uncover documents which would demonstrate that the Howard Government was an active party to what was judged by the Federal Court as a "conspiracy".

"Conclusive certificates", issued under Freedom of Information laws by the former government prevent the release of the reports in question, and Julia Gillard has invoked the convention that confidential advice to former Cabinets remains closed — even to the current Government. One such report has surfaced — a document prepared for the Howard government entitled Waterfront Strategy – and UNSW historian Christopher Sheil believes that it provides prima facie evidence that "the Howard Government plotted the 1998 confrontation on Australia’s waterfront", as the Sydney Morning Herald report put it.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

It is probable that the evidence won’t be laid out publicly for another two decades, when Cabinet confidentiality expires. Just as the US Democrats eschewed the impeachment of George W Bush, Australian governments don’t like to look too closely into the activities of their predecessors, lest the same happen to them when they’ve been in office long enough to create a record of malfeasance and incompetence. And as the Coalition’s attack on Gillard during the 2007 campaign suggests, the Labor Party of 2008 isn’t keen to be tied too closely to a union whose alleged tactics the Waterfront Strategy report made much of as a possible lever for winning the public relations battle.

Minutiae aside, Reith’s statements this week leave no doubt that the Howard government was happy to claim ownership of the Dispute. That was almost certainly a mistake. Australians were used to governments being arbiters of industrial disputes, not boots-and-all participants. The Coalition temporarily learned its lesson, proceeding by stealth with deunionisation until it was unexpectedly handed a Senate majority in 2004.

That the unions seized the Waterfront moment to try out a dual strategy of community campaigning and legal action, rather than the "war on the wharves" some had hankered after, is ground well covered. But what’s less well understood is that the Waterfront Dispute not only trialled the tactics that would later be used to great effect against WorkChoices, but also demonstrated something enduring about the source of unions’ political and social support in contemporary Australia.

What most struck the public about what transpired on Melbourne’s docks was the sight of employees locked out of their workplace by security guards with balaclavas and dogs. Job security became the enduring theme in public opinion, and the removal of unfair dismissal protections was the reason voters rejected WorkChoices, and the Howard Government with it — not the abrogation of union rights.

Unions are well aware that sentiment for workplace rights now far outweighs the willingness to unionise — hence the ACTU’s Rights At Work campaign. That also explains why the first Labor government in over a decade is now putting some distance between itself and the commemoration of an event which continues to carry a powerful emotional charge for its allies in the labour movement.

That is the enduring historical importance of the Waterfront Dispute. Not only did it prefigure a change in the alignments of the industrial relations battle which endures today, but its symbolism will continue to shape Labor’s industrial relations agenda in government. Despite all the policy detail that was released last year, and the first tranche of legislation this year, there are still significant unanswered questions about how Labor will manage its relationship with organised labour. That’s something scholars of the Waterfront Dispute — and activists on both sides — might profitably ponder.

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