Release type: Speech


Maritime Union of Australia: National Conference

Maritime Union of Australia: National Conference Sydney

Thank you Paddy for your welcome.

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Eora people.

It’s terrific to be here, not as a spokesperson for the opposition, but as Deputy Prime Minister of a new Labor Government.

As you know, less than five months ago, the Australian people elected the Rudd Government with a solid mandate for change.

There were a lot of reasons for that victory.

Across so many areas of our national life, the Howard Government had lost touch.

It didn’t share the central Australian values of fairness and opportunity.

But of all the areas in which the Howard Government had lost touch one thing stood out above all the others: the unpopularity of Work Choices.

It’s an interesting question: why Work Choices?

  • Because it offended the Australian people’s sense of justice – making our workplace relations system too one-sided, totally lacking in balance, and putting employees at risk of loss of their pay and conditions without compensation.
  • Because it became an emblem of no longer understanding the needs of working families. The Australian people rightly concluded that a government which didn’t understand working families relied on basic conditions like overtime pay, penalty rates and public holidays, didn’t understand anything about their lives – their battle to pay the mortgage, their focus on educating their children, their need for a quality health system.
  • And because it symbolised that the Coalition was stuck in the past, fighting yesterday’s battles against the enemies John Howard chose in the 1960s. Especially the union movement.

What the last election proved beyond doubt was that the overwhelming majority of Australians did not share the Liberal Party belief that unions are the enemy, that employees should have no real safety net at work to rely on and that employees have no say or choice in the basic matters that shape their working lives.

Australians simply wanted a fair system that balanced everyone’s rights and obligations.

Of course, the MUA knows all about John Howard’s past vendetta against the unions.

We all remember the events of 1998.

Especially the slogan: “MUA here to stay.”

I make the simple observation looking around the room today: the MUA’s obviously still here… but John Howard isn’t.

During the recent federal election campaign the Coalition tried to embarrass Labor by showing TV footage of me helping my good friend Josh Bornstein by handing out copies of court documents from the MUA’s ultimately successful legal case.

I have to say, the only embarrassing thing about seeing those old images was my unforgivable choice of sunglasses.

Because supporting the MUA’s fight for working families against the Howard Government’s industrial relations extremism was correct in principle. And because it was correct in principle, it was popular.

It was supported not just by the union movement but by a broad coalition of people concerned about who was next – mums and dads, professionals, church groups and young people.

In fact, I believe the waterfront dispute of 1998 helped pave the way for the Howard Government’s eventual defeat -- because after seeing the lengths to which the Coalition would go to defeat the MUA, people could never trust its assurances that its Work Choices intentions were benign.

We should never go back to those days of confrontation.

And we should never go back to those days when the Prime Minister and Howard Government Ministers celebrated mass sackings with high fives and backslapping.

We should never go back to those days when working people were meant to be terrified into submission by men in balaclavas and snarling attack dogs.

The 1998 MUA dispute is now part of this nation’s history and it will continue to be studied and discussed for years to come.

I understand the concern of those who worry that the full history is not yet known, because the Howard Government engaged in a cover up.

The previous Government's practice of issuing conclusive certificates under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 was a practice that the Australian Labor Party objected to at the time and it is a practice we oppose now.

Our policy is to end their use in FOI applications, and we will deliver on that promise.

Prohibiting access to documents under the FOI system should not be left to the whim of a Minister. Rigorous and independent decision making within our public institutions is critical for an effective FOI system.

The previous Government, with the flick of a pen, put documents out of reach and out of access - without any form of appeal. The Rudd Government is committed to ensuring that no FOI decisions will be quarantined from procedures for review.

No decisions have yet been made on how our changes to the FOI laws, which will prevent conclusive certificates being issued in the future, should deal with conclusive certificates issued in the past. That issue needs to be considered as part of our changes to the legal framework.

But the history of the MUA dispute is clear enough for us to conclude that the confrontational approach of the Howard Government created too many bad laws – like Work Choices – and too much division. It also left too many important nation-building tasks undone.

As a result:

  • Our transport infrastructure, including our ports, has been neglected.
  • Maritime skill shortages have emerged.
  • And despite the hard work of so many, export bottlenecks have developed that are holding back national productivity and economic growth, checking the spectacular success of our resources boom.

We should never go back to the days of division. We must go forward to a future marked by co-operation.

This means there’s a lot of work to be done:

  • To make our industrial relations system fair and balanced;
  • To modernise Australia’s transport infrastructure;
  • To train a new generation of maritime employees; and
  • To make our ports and shipping strong safe and secure.

Building a fair and balanced workplace relations system

The initial steps to a fair and balanced workplace relations system have already been taken with the passage last month of theWorkplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act 2008.

From the commencement of that Act on 28 March 2008 no new Australian Workplace Agreements can be made.

We now know from data obtained from the Workplace Authority that:

  • 70 per cent of AWAs removed shift work loadings;
  • 68 per cent removed annual leave loadings;
  • 65 per cent removed penalty rates;
  • 49 per cent removed overtime loadings; and
  • 25 per cent removed declared public holidays.

The list goes on.

These agreements, which stripped away the pay and conditions of so many hard-working Australians, will never return under a Labor Government.

And from 1 January 2010, once our transition arrangements have been completed, it will not be possible to make any form of individual statutory agreement.

In the place of one-sided individual statutory agreements, employees will be free to bargain collectively with their employer, in good faith, without excessive government rules and regulations to tilt the balance against one or the other side.

We’re doing this because we believe enterprise-based collective bargaining offers the best way for employers and employees to increase the productivity of their workplaces.

Good faith bargaining obligations will ensure that an employer cannot simply refuse to talk to its employees when the majority of them want to reach a collective agreement.

Good faith bargaining obligations will be simple and effective, and ensure that the parties focus on the matters that need to be addressed in order to reach agreement, rather than on extraneous and irrelevant disputes.

When the Government’s new system is fully operational from 1 January 2010, all employees will have the benefit of a strong safety net, which can’t be stripped away.

10 National Employment Standards will protect important conditions like hours of work, public holidays, redundancy entitlements as well as annual, personal, parental and long service leave.

Employees earning $100,000 or less will have the benefit of modern simple awards that will contain ten minimum conditions, covering minimum wages, hours worked, overtime, penalty rates superannuation and rights to consultation.

And under the Government’s new workplace relations system, when a collective agreement is made, it will only be approved if it at least meets and the standards set by the NES and leaves the employees under the agreement “better off overall” when compared with the modern award.

Employees who choose not to collectively bargain will able to have common law agreements that build on the safety net.

There will be strong protections for freedom of association under the Rudd Government to ensure that every employee has a real right to join or not to join a union and to ensure employees are fully protected from discrimination and other unlawful behaviour when they exercise that choice.

And while restrictions will remain on unprotected industrial action and secondary boycotts, industrial action will be protected when approved through a democratic secret ballot of employees in connection with bargaining for a collective enterprise agreement.

Labor’s policy isn’t about union rights. It’s about the rights of working people.

Unions that listen to their members’ wishes have nothing to fear from such arrangements.

I’m not pretending that the Government’s new workplace relations framework contains everything that the union movement might wish for. It doesn’t and nor should it. But there is a profound difference between our approach and Work Choices.

While Work Choices was specifically designed to tilt the balance against unions and employees, the Rudd Government’s new laws have been designed to restore the balance so employers, employees and their representatives can work together within a stable, fair and balanced framework that promotes productivity and secures employment.

We want the workplace relations system to promote cooperation, not conflict, which is the best way to raise productivity and make our prosperity sustainable.

And because we believe in co-operation, we also believe in consultation. Some have criticised the consultative approach we are taking to developing our substantive workplace relations bill. I reject this criticism.

We will deliver our policy but we know that we will best deliver it by working with business, unions, and the voluntary sector that does so much to support low paid employees.

Recognising the contribution of Australia’s maritime industries

That emphasis on cooperation will be a strong feature of the new Government’s approach to improving the career prospects, health and safety concerns and retirement security of the maritime workforce itself.

The Rudd Government is totally committed to the ongoing existence of an Australian shipping industry.

For reasons of border security, defence and environmental protection, it is important that Australia has a shipping industry that maintains its reputation for quality, reliability, safety, seaworthiness and the skills of its seafarers.

I find the previous government’s desire to run the industry down quite bewildering.

After all, shipping has played a major and largely under-recognised role in Australia’s national development.

Before the train, car and aeroplane, it was shipping that helped build Australia by overcoming the tyranny of distance between our colonies and between Australia and the rest of the world.

Our seafaring history is something we should be proud of.

We also shouldn’t forget that our merchant seamen played such a heroic role in the first and second world wars.

There’s been a huge public interest in maritime history since the discovery of the wreck of the HMAS Sydney off the coast of Western Australia last month.

What few probably realise is that the vessel that sank the Sydney, with such tragic loss of life, was there because she was hunting Australian merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean.

If the Sydney hadn’t caught her, many more Australian merchant seamen would have been either drowned or taken prisoner – which highlights the heroic commitment to Australia of our merchant seamen over the decades.

It’s worth recalling that, at best estimate, nearly 400 members of the Seamen’s Union lost their lives as the result of enemy action in the Second World War alone. Many were captured, and some died in prisoner of war camps.

That’s 8.5 percent of all members – which is a higher average casualty rate than in our other fighting services.

It was merchant seamen who rescued Australian women and children from the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the face of the Japanese advance in 1941 and 1942 – one of the great unsung Australian achievements of the Second World War.

They did it out of a sense of duty and professionalism.

What this says is that it’s time governments stopped talking down Australia’s maritime workforce and started recognising its central contribution to our defence, national development and economic prosperity.

And that is why the the Rudd Government has started the process for the Governor-General to proclaim the third of September each year as Merchant Navy Day.

We are commited to declaring a national day of observance for those Australians who served on our merchant ships. It will result in greater recognition and community awareness of their contributions to our freedoms.

It is important the community recognises and honours Australia's merchant mariners who served in the two world wars and the Vietnam War.

The date for Merchant Navy Day has been chosen to mark the loss of the first Allied merchant ship in the Second World War, which occurred on the day war broke out. The day will not be a public holiday but will be a day of remembrance for those seamen who died serving our nation.

The maritime workforce’s contribution to Australia continues today.

  • 99 percent of our exports travel by ship.
  • And container movements are projected to increase by 5.4 percent per year for the next 20 years, and bulk trade by 3.8 percent per year.

This means we simply have to ship goods overseas and interstate faster and at a competitive price if we are to meet domestic and international demand for our goods.

The previous government used to say that we’re a “shipper nation” not a “shipping nation”.

In my view, this is an irrelevant distinction.

Because the fact is, we an exporting nation – and one with a long coastline that still requires an efficient coastal fleet.

Ensuring Australian shipping can compete – while upholding community standards—is therefore an important economic policy objective.

The Australian people understand this imperative. And they expect the Commonwealth Government to do all it can to help the industry modernise and become competitive while respecting the serious safety and security issues involved.

That’s what we intend to do.

The industry has moved with the times.

The quality, reliability and safety of Australian-flagged vessels are now high by world standards.

But there are some outstanding issues that need to be addressed after a decade of neglect.

Addressing industry concerns

The largest is of course the ongoing issue of how to improve Australia’s coastal shipping.

The previous Government’s policies – including its enthusiasm for issuing single and continuing voyage permits like confetti – led it to ignore important objectives relating to the nation’s shipping policy.

It’s time we had a fresh overview as the basis for new policy.

Before the election Labor committed to reviewing coastal shipping policy and regulations. And I’m well aware that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, who is also speaking today, has already set about implementing those commitments.

I am sure he will talk in more detail about this. But the Review will need to address the crucial issue of skills.

The Government is already undertaking major policy initiatives to address skill shortages throughout the economy, including a commitment to 450,000 new training places – with the majority at certificate III and IV levels.

20,000 training places have already started to be rolled out.

We want to make sure that these places are allocated to the needs of industry, starting with industries with the gravest skill shortages.

And for that reason we will be taking advice on their allocation from the new Skills Australia and our strengthened Industry Skills Councils.

I can’t pre-empt the expert advice these bodies will give, but with the stevedoring and shipping industries experiencing considerable skills shortages, common sense dictates that additional training opportunities will be available in this area.

We must ensure maritime workers are protected from work-related dangers.

This means the maritime industry needs a properly regulated system of occupational health and safety.

The Government has committed to harmonising occupational health and safety regulations nationwide – a goal recently supported by the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council – which will be conducting a national review for the purpose of making recommendations on the optimal structure and content of a model OHS Act to apply nationally.

A national code of practice and set of regulations for stevedores is now being developed by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, and will be based on WorkSafe Victoria’s Waterfront Safety Project, which is due for completion soon.

And an independent review of National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority’s operational effectiveness will be expected to report this year. The purpose of that review has been to ensure that offshore oil and gas industries in our coastal zone conform to high national health and safety standards.

And if people are injured, we have to ensure Seacare is up to the job of rehabilitating and compensating them.

To ensure this is the case, I have asked my Department for a thorough briefing to determine whether a major review of the Seacare Scheme is required.

If it is, it will be conducted in consultation with all the affected parties.

Let me reassure you that worker’s compensation and occupational health and safety coverage under Seacare will remain under federal laws.

I know that my colleague the Minister for Infrastructure will talk about improving port infrastructure. But I just want to say improving our infrastructure will help improve our productivity.


For too long, our ports and maritime industry have been seen as a problem, not a positive, for Australia.

This has resulted in bad, negative and confrontational policy from governments.

The Rudd Labor Government wants to end all that.

Ports, ships and the people who load and sail them have helped make Australia what it is today – in wartime and in peace.

For the future, the contribution of maritime employees is set to increase in importance even more as international commerce continues to grow.

We will invest in their infrastructure and skills; we will ensure their pay, conditions and safety meet exacting community standards; and we will ensure cooperative relations between employers and employees.

The Rudd Labor Government is committed to a positive future for our maritime industry as part of the positive future for our nation.

Thank you.