Light on the Hill: Industrial Relations Reform in Australia
Parliamentary Government or Union Tyranny
The Hon. L H S Thompson, CMG
In 1977 I took the biggest gamble of my political life. The issue was one of tremendous importance for the maintenance of democratic government in the State of Victoria. The stage had been reached where a choice had to be made as to whether the decision of the elected parliament of the people or the demands of a group of left-wing unions prevailed in the final analysis.
Certainly minority groups, including left-wing unions, have a right to express a point of view. They also are entitled to have their arguments evaluated on a scientific basis, where possible, as was the case with the Newport Power Station. However, there comes a time in the planning of public projects when the Government of the day must make a final decision. When the decision has been made to proceed with the construction of a particular project, the Government must ensure that building is completed and not stopped by some militant pressure group taking the law into its own hands. Every time such interference is tolerated and allowed to become effective, our system of democratic government is further undermined.
Where a proposed large-scale project is a controversial one, or becomes such, a government is wise to pause to hear all contrary opinions and have those opinions carefully examined. It is irresponsible to ignore criticism which is soundly based as distinct from personal abuse and the chanting of childish slogans and meaningless phrases. Much of the condemnation a government or a minister receives is in that latter category, but by no means all.
In the case of the Newport Power Station, no public project in Victoria had ever been examined in such depth by so many competent experts at such length. As early as 1966 research began on the most suitable location for a regulatory power station flexible enough to supply electricity for the heavier day-time demands. After a lengthy 5-year period of thorough investigation into such aspects as location, size of station, capital cost and air pollution, the State Electricity Commission (SEC) recommended to the Minister of Fuel and Power, Jim Balfour, that a 1,000 megawatt station be constructed at Newport. Legislation was presented to Parliament later that year to implement the recommendation. The legislation was enthusiastically endorsed on both sides of the House. The local Labor member for Williamstown, which covers the Newport area, the popular Larry Floyd, went so far as to congratulate the Minister and the SEC on three separate occasions for introducing the measure providing for the construction of the large new regulating station.
He went on to say: 'I welcome this proposed station to the Williamstown electorate and I am pleased it is being built at Newport because, with due respect to the newcomers to Williamstown who are more concerned about the balance of nature, conservation and so on, Williamstown is still an industrial suburb and relies to a certain extent on the Newport railway workshops and other industries to allow local businessmen to make a living'. The reference to the newcomers to Williamstown and their conservation interests is highly significant. It was that particular group combined with their friends outside the electorate and militant unionists who were responsible for delaying construction work at Newport for a very lengthy period.
In his speech introducing the Newport Power Station Bill, Jim Balfour had emphasised the importance of the environmental aspect. He stated:
'Plans for the Newport station have been discussed with experts in Australia and overseas and the authorities consulted have confirmed the opinion of the Commission's engineers and scientists that its operation should have no deleterious effects on the environment. The new station will incorporate a chimney 600 feet high, although a chimney half this height would meet existing clean air requirements for a station fuelled by natural gas'
In spite of these categorical assurances, the opposition to the construction of Newport for environmental reasons steadily increased in intensity. The great majority of Victorians tended to be apathetic about the issue only becoming aroused at times of industrial dispute in the Latrobe Valley when they were no longer able to switch on their lights, TV or labour-saving devices. On the other hand, certain left-wing unions and their conservationist allies were well organised and extremely vocal. They tried to give the impression through the media that the mass of thinking Victorians were outraged by the proposal.
Who should be the first to ban the construction of the power station but Norm Gallagher and his BF (Bans Linked with Force). Their ban was imposed when construction work was starting in 1973. When the ban was lifted in 1974 a new shift took over in the form of the then communist, John Halfpenny, leading 5 other left-wing unions. This second ban remained in one form or another despite the efforts of the Premier, the Minister of Fuel and Power, the SEC and even the Executive of the Trades Hall to persuade these militants to see reason and allow the people of Victoria to have adequate day-time supplies of power which Newport would provide.
The Government during the years 1973 and 1977 went to untold lengths of patience and forbearance in listening to arguments of opponents of the scheme and having them objectively tested. After the Act of 1971 had been passed we allowed the environmental protection machinery to be set in motion. In 1973 the Environment Protection Authority, consisting of Messrs Gilpin, Alder and Archer, thoroughly investigated the scheme and gave it the green light.
Then followed the exercise of the right of third parties to appeal to the Third Party Appeals Board. Once again after an exhaustive examination and insistence on certain conditions being observed, approval was given to the Newport project. Then followed a right to appeal to the Environment Protection Appeal Board, which was a totally different body consisting of Mr Opas, QC, Mr Sunderland, an expert engineer, and Mr Clark, an experienced industrial chemist. They called witnesses almost from the four corners of the earth. In total they heard evidence from 35 different witnesses and compiled 1,800 pages of evidence. Their categorical considered decision was that Newport was a safe project and should be constructed as previously planned.
In late 1974, flying in the face of the verdicts of these official scientific appeal boards, the Trades Hall Council placed a ban on the new power station at the behest of the left-wing unions with John Halfpenny as the main ringleader. Then followed two rather wasted years of discussions, deputations, and negotiations. Indeed the latter were about as productive as a Mallee farm run by a commune of dole bludgers after a 3-year drought. A slight temporary ray of light did actually appear in May and October 1976 when the Trades Hall Executive made a deliberate recommendation to the Council to lift the ban. However, on both occasions the motion of the Executive was defeated by narrow margins. When a similar motion met a similar fate for the third time in November, the atmosphere was gloomy, with the prospect of widespread literal gloom developing for the people of Victoria if the SEC were not permitted to build a much needed power station.
At that stage the Government decided to suspend 286 State contracts worth $417m as a retaliation measure. The problem with this strategy was that it would have had the effect of delaying some badly needed public projects in such portfolios as health, education and police. It would also have affected the welfare of people who had played no part whatsoever in imposing the bans on the power station. When the threat appeared unlikely to produce immediate results, a further compromise proposal was considered by the Government. The Labor Party and Trades Hall made a submission for the appointment of yet another panel of experts to make a recommendation to the Government. After some discussion, which produced a minor alteration to the recommended terms of references, the Government somewhat reluctantly gave its seal of approval. Sir Louis Matheson, the Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, was appointed Chairman and the other members were Mr Neil Smith, General Manager of the Gas and Fuel Corporation, Mr Jack Fraser, the Head of the new Environmental Protection Authority and Mr Jack Ellis, a former President of the Trades Hall Council.
Strangely enough neither the Trades Hall Council nor any of its member unions submitted any evidence to this or any of the other independent inquiries into the project. The Matheson panel heard evidence from the SEC, from independent experts, from conservationists and from members of the public. In an interim report presented on 29 March 1977, it made 24 recommendations. It recognised the need for a new regulating station to replace the old, largely worn out thermal stations at Newport, Spencer Street and Richmond, but suggested the new gas-fired station should be half the proposed capacity size, namely 500 megawatts and not 1,000. However, the members of the panel were unable to decide on the evidence available to them whether the station should be built at Newport or in the Latrobe Valley. In an accompanying letter they asked for permission to appoint experts on the environment and a firm of consulting engineers so that a suitable alternative site could be identified and comparative costs assessed.
The Government readily granted permission and the Trades Hall Council determined that the panel should continue its investigations into alternative sites and make recommendations. The final report was presented to the Premier and the Trades Hall Council on 27 April 1977. By a 3 to 1 majority, with Ellis, the Trades Hall representative dissenting, the panel recommended that a 500 megawatt station should be erected at Newport. It had come to the conclusion that the additional cost of constructing the project at Garfield or Trafalgar North in Gippsland would be of the order of $100m. It also expressed the view that any serious pollution problems could be overcome by the station closing down at times of high smog level. This would mean shutdowns on only 15 to 28 days a year. At long last it appeared as if the Newport saga had come to an end, at a time when it was rivalling the ABC series, Blue Hills, for a place in the Guinness Book of Records as this century's longest-running drama. Dick Hamer quickly indicated that the Government would accept the umpire's decision even though it meant scaling down the new power station to half its original size. It seemed that similar acceptance by the ALP and the Trades Hall Council would be a mere formality. However, with an astonishing display of stubbornness, usually only associated with members of the mule family, the Trades Hall Council once again rejected the recommendations of its Executive to proceed with Newport, even in its diluted form. Perhaps even worse than that, the motion to lift the ban and accept the final report of the panel was negated by acceptance of the amendment moved by a Waterside Workers' Federation delegate by the significant margin of 173 votes to 136.
Six months earlier, in October 1976, the Trades Hall Council vote had been tied at 169 all and the vote the following month resulted in a narrow 4 vote margin (179 to 175) for the anti-Newport faction. It was apparent that despite our king-sized display of moderation, reasonableness and compromise, we were making no progress but indeed going backwards. This calamitous decision by the Trades Hall Council indicated that it had no respect for the judgment of its own Executive and no interest in the needs of the people of Victoria for guaranteed supplies of electrical power in the future.
The decision was given on 5 May 1977, and the following morning Dick Hamer was scheduled to leave on a six-week tour to Europe to attract industry to Victoria. When he departed on the fateful Friday, I knew that as Acting Premier I had a first-class fight on my hands. I was firmly convinced that, in agreeing to conferences, discussions and compromises, the Government, like Kansas City, had definitely gone about as far as it could go.
Naturally the major item on the following Monday's Cabinet agenda was the Trades Hall Council's vote, which involved a welshing on the agreement made with the Government when the Matheson panel was appointed. Fortunately, but not surprisingly, fellow Ministers were as displeased as I was and as anxious to see positive action take place. There had been suggestions from various sources that an election should be called or a referendum initiated. However, it was clear from Gallup Polls that a substantial majority of approximately 70 per cent supported the building of the station. It was also obvious that the whole Victorian population of electricity consumers needed the station to avoid running the risk of returning intermittently to the lighting of candles. As for an election, the Government had been returned only 12 months earlier by a record majority and with a strong mandate to govern.
After a discussion on strategies which extended for an hour or two, it was decided that we should take the rather dramatic step of recalling Parliament within 48 hours. The previous year the Government had received Parliamentary sanction for the Vital States Projects legislation. This particular Act, couched in strong terms, provided for fines of up to $50,000 for unions and $10,000 for individuals who boycott declared works. Provision was made for a State project to be declared a Vital State Project by either the Governor-in-Council or by resolution of the Parliament. As it was necessary to amend the original Newport Power Station Act to carry out the Matheson panel's recommendations to halve the size of the power station from 1,000 to 500 megawatts, it was decided to use the Parliamentary rather than the Governor-in-Council method to bring Newport under the vital projects umbrella. This strategy had the added advantage of forcing the Labor Party to declare its position on the floor of the House.
Before announcing our decision to the Press, I telephoned Dick Hamer in Jordan telling him of our intention to recall Parliament and then start building Newport as a Vital State Project. He concurred with the line of action and wished me luck. Telegrams were despatched to all members and the Legislative Assembly met at 2.30 pm on the Wednesday despite the fact that it had adjourned until the spring at 11.30 am on the previous Friday. Because of the urgency of the matter, the debate was guillotined in case the Labor opposition tried to use filibustering tactics. Jim Balfour and I piloted through the necessary procedural motions and the legislation, after a stormy debate lasting 5 hours. The attempts of the Labor speakers to justify their refusal to accept the umpire's decision were prolonged and pathetic. Mind you I would not care to have debated their side of the case. It would have been easier to persuade the local school Mothers' Club to pass a motion declaring parenthood undesirable. Later that night the Bill passed the Legislative Council and received the Royal Assent the following day. The reaction in the news media was somewhat mixed. Some of the pundits welcomed the Pact that at least the Government was doing something. Other more cautious journalists like Claude Forell of 'The Age' saw difficulties and danger ahead. In an article on the editorial opinion page of 'The Age' on 12 May 1977, he said:
'However, the Government now has embarked on a perilous course likely to unite the Labor movement and provoke wider opposition against the sweeping and potentially repressive powers it proposed to assert. The Vital State Projects Act offers no guarantee that Newport will be built, or if it is, that anyone will operate it'
Strangely enough I agreed with his assertion, shared by many others, that the new Act did not guarantee construction of the project. However, the passing of the Act did indicate that we meant business. It also provided us with a legal framework to prevent people hindering others working on the site. Although I did not say so publicly, I knew that it would not be practicable to compel people, who were personally strongly opposed to Newport, to work effectively on the job merely because of the threat of heavy fines and imprisonment. We had won the first round in the new battle, but I knew only too well that the second and decisive round, involving the actual construction of the station, would be a difficult one to win. Certainly it would be no victory if we filled the cells of Pentridge with unionists and still were left without an essential power station.
On the Saturday after the special session of Parliament, I went to the football at the MCG. Although I normally followed the exploits of the Tigers on the field like an air controller watching incoming planes, on this particular day my concentration was on other matters, such as power station construction. After the match I decided to walk the 7 miles home to Glen Iris. A sudden change in the weather for the worse caused me to arrive at the front door looking as if I had stumbled into the local swimming pool. However, the pouring rain helped to cool my head and clarify my thoughts. I came firmly to the conclusion that the only way to build Newport was to use the labour of people who were prepared to work voluntarily and, preferably, enthusiastically on the project.
In coming to this decision, I recalled the time when I found a bus proprietor prepared to run a morning shuttle service from Flinders Street Station to the University during a prolonged tram strike. The move had been successful because the woman who was managing the bus service had been keen to provide the service and reduce the level of inconvenience caused by the strike. Nevertheless, one had to be conscious of the fact that there was a world of difference between running half a dozen buses for a matter of days and building a complex power station involving the employment of a variety of skilled labourers from a multiplicity of unions, some of which were implacably opposed to the new power station. To ask some of the militant leaders of these unions to permit their men to work on the site would have provoked the sort of response one would receive from a devout Hindu who had been requested to shoot a herd of dairy cows. The only possible difference would be the likelihood of a more polite reply from the Hindi man than the union boss.
Although Cabinet was united in the view that some drastic action had to be taken, there were some members who had greater faith in the potential effectiveness of the Vital Projects Act than I had. I believed very firmly that there was a real danger of us merely transferring the battleground from Parliament and the Press into the Courts. What was really needed was action on the Newport site and not further disputation, whether in the Courts or anywhere else.
On the Thursday of the week following the debate in Parliament, I called a meeting in the Cabinet room which was attended by senior ministers and some senior public servants along with the heads of the SEC. The latter were firmly of the view that it was futile to proceed with volunteer labour. They argued that we should place more pressure on the union movement to lift the ban. My retort was that we had been attempting to do that for over 3 years and had finished up Dead End Creek. (There are alternative forms for this expression.)
The senior officers of the SEC informed me that to make a fresh start on construction work, 21 men would be needed. I was reasonably confident that we could find 21 men in the right trades who were prepared to work on the site. The SEC officers doubted whether this would be possible and expressed the opinion that even if it were, action would come to a standstill when there was a need to commence the more advanced work. I replied that there was only one way to find out and that was to take positive steps to commence building work.
I requested that the Minister for Public Works, Roberts Dunstan, be asked to attend the meeting as the SEC officers believed that the use of their men would provoke retaliation and cause blackouts at existing power stations. As he entered the room I said 'Roberts, you and the officers of your Department have been doing a fine job building new schools. In recognition of your achievements I am giving you the task of building the Newport Power Station'. Noted for his dry sense of humour, Roberts replied in typical fashion, 'Thanks very much for the kind gesture. I thought I had been forgotten. But if it's not a rude question, how in the hell are we going to build it?' I told him that it would be necessary to recruit our own labour force. He said once again, 'How in the hell do we do that?' My answer was that we would advertise in the following day's Press for 21 tradesmen in certain defined categories.
Our course was now set. There was no way we could afford to dither, dilly dally or deliberate further. With the assistance of Alan Hunt, Jim Balfour and Roberts Dunstan, along with a small group of backbenchers who had been anxiously waiting outside the Cabinet room, we set about drafting two advertisements. The first was a rather dramatic full-page one addressed to the people of Victoria from the elected Government of Victoria. In large bold print spread right across the page was the caption, 'e will build Newport' The first sentence was 'The time has come when the construction of a new power station at Newport can be delayed no longer'. The remainder of the advertisement set out in large print the history of the project from the early survey work carried out in 1968 to the final report of the Matheson panel. It made it abundantly clear that the Government had been painstakingly patient and compromising in meeting objections raised by militant unionists and conservationists. It also left no doubt in the mind of the reader that we were determined to press full steam ahead with construction of the power station under the legal umbrella of the Vital Projects Act.
The second advertisement, placed in a prominent position in the Melbourne morning papers on 20 May, invited applications from truck drivers, back hoe operators, carpenters, builders' labourers and steel fixers to work on the Newport site. Those interested were asked to apply in person to the Personnel Branch of the Public Works Department (PWD) at 8.30 am that morning. I went home at a late hour after the advertisements had been completed, relieved that the first necessary bold step had been taken but a shade apprehensive about what the morrow might bring.
As a matter of courtesy, I had informed the Trades Hall about the action we had decided to take. Ken Stone, its Secretary and leading spokesman, who had also been a strong advocate for constructing the power station on the original site, confided in me that he did not think we would be able to make much progress with the approach I outlined. As I had always respected his moderate approach and sound commonsense, I was somewhat disturbed by his pessimistic response.
The next 24 hours would be crucial, I knew, in determining the fate of the power station. Somewhat on tenter-hooks, I awoke early next morning wondering what result the day would bring. After following my early morning routine of walking through the Fitzroy Gardens, I decided that I would walk through corridors of the PWD. To my delight I noticed that at 8 am, half an hour before the advertised time for the receipt of applications, there were 20 men assembled outside the office of the employment section. At 9 am I was informed that 50 men had applied and by mid-day the number had grown to well over 100. I then received a call from the head of the PWD asking me what I wanted him to do. I replied, 'Select 21 workers in the appropriate categories, and for preference don't pick 21 secretaries of unions opposed to the building of the power station'.
He rang me back later to tell me the instruction had been carried out to the letter. He also informed me that a check of the applicants had revealed that a significant number of them had records for violence. I thought to myself that may be a bad thing, on the other hand it might at times be helpful. That evening I heard one of the men, who had been engaged, being interviewed on the evening television news. He was asked what he would do if a union official entered the site of the power station and tried to restrain him from working there. Without any hesitation he replied with a belligerent expression on his face 'I'd give him one in the bloody ear'. Clearly we were going to have at least one man who would keep working on the site. Another interesting aspect emanating from the interviews conducted by PWD personnel was that several of the applicants stated that they had applied for the job because they believed that the Newport Power Station should be built.
It now looked as if we could field a team on the site that would make the gloomy hopes and predictions of Norm Gallagher and John Halfpenny turn out to be no more accurate than those of their sacred prophet Karl Marx. For those who prefer reading G K Chesterton or even Lou Richards, Karl Marx predicted that the workers had nothing to lose but their chains and that under capitalism their conditions would steadily deteriorate.
At the conclusion of the debate that I had on Channel 10 with John Halfpenny, the latter stated that he had no objection to me organising a kindergarten-type working bee on the site of Newport to remove a few weeds because that would be as much as I would achieve. Norm Gallagher had spoken in similar vein. On the day the advertisement for power station workers appeared in the Press, the following paragraph appeared in 'The Age':
'Mr Gallagher said it was not just a question of 20 men doing the work. Hundreds of skilled workers would be needed to build Newport. Mr Thompson has apparently got the barrow . . . he'll have to push it. The people they will get will probably be only card carrying members of the Liberal Party' (20 May 1977).
On Monday, 23 May 1977, work recommenced at Newport. Most large projects I suppose have relatively small and humble beginnings. Such certainly was the case with the painful rebirth of our new power station. Sixteen men only were driven to the site in the small PWD bus. The other 5 volunteers who had been chosen apparently had had second thoughts over the weekend about the wisdom of working on a site subject to a large-scale union ban. At 11.51 am precisely, the first sod was turned by a workman who said he was a member of the BF. After frustrating delays extending over four-and-a-half years, and a devastating total ban lasting for a full two-and-a-half years, there was once again activity on the site.
Now that a basic labour force had been recruited, it seemed to me that successful future progress depended on two main factors, namely strong and sensible leadership of the volunteer force and full cooperation from the major contractors. From my personal experience as Minister of Education, in dealing with school building problems of an urgent nature, I had come to know one particular engineer named Hicks, who could always be relied upon to have jobs completed to everyone's satisfaction. I requested that Jim Hicks be sent around to my office. I told him, that I was aware of his capabilities and fine record and that all I wished to know was whether he was personally in favour of building Newport. His immediate answer was: 'Yes. most definitely'. Obviously here was a man to act as a captain and coach on the site in the early days.
When the bus load of workers arrived on the first day they were greeted by a group of Monash University student protesters sitting across the road at the main gate. Eventually they stood up and walked backwards in front of the van singing 'Solidarity Forever'. No doubt this was not a form of welcome the men had experienced before on their first day on a new job . Wisely Jim Hicks called them into his office and counselled them in the following terms; 'I don't see you as strike breakers. You are here because there is a job the people of Victoria want done. I believe in Newport and I make no apologies for that' ('Herald' 23 May 1977).
Mr Hicks told the men that they would start digging and added, 'At 4.30 we will take you back to the place of pick up. For the first few days we will use the bus to make sure you don't get your own property damaged. All I expect is a reasonable day's work'.
These remarks set the tone for steady progress and the men enthusiastically responded. When I visited the site during the first week, I discovered an additional bonus. The SEC senior project engineer stationed at the site proved to be Ken Cook, a person with whom I had served in the second AIF for three-and-a-half years. Indeed for 18 months in New Guinea we had lived in adjacent tents separated by only 5 yards of Kunai grass. I knew him to be a most reliable person, a hard worker and a skilled engineer who would want to complete successfully any job he had commenced.
At the end of the first week's work, Jim Hicks came to report progress. He claimed that the men were working steadily and seemed to be committed to the project. On one particular day a group of demonstrators refused to allow a truck carrying concrete to enter the gate. After much remonstration they moved with the exception of one stubborn character who remained glued to the centre of the gateway. The exasperated truck driver then resorted to direct action. Jumping out of his vehicle, he gave the human impediment standing in his path a Lionel Rose left hook to the jaw which sent him down for the count. His fellow demonstrators carried him off in a semi-conscious state and the truck driver proceeded on his mission, presumably with rather sore left-hand knuckles.
I stressed to Jim Hicks the importance of concentrating on the positive side of construction work and avoiding scuffles as far as possible. He readily concurred and agreement was reached with the men that they would give first priority to the job during working hours. The latter phrase gave some scope for extra-mural activities . For example, some of the demonstrators had erected a small tower so that they could look over the fence and observe what the members of the work force were doing. They also took the opportunity, while perched aloft, to abuse those working on the site and brand them as scabs, with a large measure of repetition. Understandably their tactics annoyed the toilers intensely and, after work ceased one afternoon, they took matters into their own hands. The observation tower was attacked with considerable vigour and torn to the ground never to be erected again.
Apart from demonstrators and observation towers, there were three other problems that arose in the ensuing months. Some of the men working on the site became concerned at the threats of the militant union leaders that, once they had finished at Newport, they would retain the brand of 'scabs' and would be unable to obtain jobs anywhere else. To overcome the worry I decided that they be given an assurance that they could continue to be employed by the PWD if they so desired. This statement seemed to ease their minds.
A little later I was informed by Jim Hicks that certain union leaders were demanding that they be allowed to enter the site to persuade any non-unionists to join their appropriate union. After some thought I decided that the union officials should be allowed to enter and collect fees providing no form of coercion was used. The decision proved to be a wise one because it immediately led to an argument amongst the militant unionists as to whether membership money should be accepted from scabs. As a result the membership drive became as half-hearted as a Communist Party recruiting campaign in Toorak.
The third and final problem was a far more serious one. The firms that had been awarded the big contracts involving the erection of the boiler house and the major power station work were concerned at the prospect of other large contracts in which they were involved being banned. A number of meetings were held with representatives of these firms in the Cabinet room. Their repeated request was for me, on behalf of the Government, to give an unqualified guarantee that their firms would be reimbursed in full for any financial losses suffered through participation in the Newport project. Some of the firms had contracts in other States of Australia and it would have been quite impractical to give such a guarantee. I did assure them, however, that the Government would do everything within its power to ensure that they were not forced out of business if they honoured their Newport contracts. The issue raised its head again on the 23 July 1977, when the anti-Newport Co-ordinating Committee, as part fr a 'Dial a Scab' campaign, published a list of addresses of the 11 companies supplying scabs at Newport. It was also reported that 8 left-wing unions were writing to companies building the power station threatening boycotts for other contracts if they did not stop working on the banned site. Dick Hamer, who had now returned from overseas, wisely pointed to the Vital Projects Act and the possibility of using it against obstructionists. Furthermore, the head of one of the big contracting firms, a man named Zambelli from ASCOM, gave a strong lead to his fellow private enterprise leaders by showing that he was not prepared to be blurred. All along he had been the one man who had been anxious to co-operate with the Government in making a fresh start. The threats of the bullies fortunately were treated with a degree of scorn by media and public and were ignored by the men on site.
Construction progressed steadily and by the end of the year there were about 300 men working on the site. The foundations for the 182-metre chimney and the pipelines for Yarra water to cool the turbines had been partly completed. 'The Sun' reported in these terms on 9 December 1977:
'Newport Power Station could well become the envy of the construction industry. Not a minute has been lost to industrial dispute since the site project began on May 23 this year. The project is proceeding to schedule and the SEC and site management are more than pleased'.
We were also fortunate in the intelligent leadership by the SEC construction engineer, Mr Jeff Savige. His comments at this particular stage are of special interest:
'So far Newport has been trouble free from the industrial relations point of view. It is unique, I think. I've often wondered why and I really don't know. Except I can say that the people working here are just simply working. They're not being driven, they're not being pushed, they've kept going until we have said it is too wet or it is too windy' ('Sun': 9 December 1977).
The fact that the men had to be persuaded to cease work in unfavourable weather conditions indicates that they had developed an interest in the completion of this controversial project. It also reflects great credit on the intelligent site leadership provided by Jim Hicks of the PWD and Jeff Savige and Ken Cook of the SEC. One aspect that probably assisted them in their efforts to maintain continuity of work was that the men working at Newport felt that their first loyalty was to the firm that had employed them rather than the union to whom they owed nothing. In the case of men employed on major power station construction in the Latrobe Valley the position was usually reversed, with loyalty to the union taking precedence.
Despite continued threats made against the major contractors by militant unions, little interference was experienced. At one stage ASCOM had its switchboard completely jammed over a period of some days by an organised group of protesters who wished to put the firm out of business or at the very least make it difficult for it to continue. However, after a relatively short period the disruption ceased. Apparently its perpetrators either had run out of small change or felt that the efforts in the long run would be doomed to failure.
Dick Hamer and I received regular reports from Jim Balfour, our Minister of Fuel and Power, on the progress of the construction work. The three of us agreed that the steady progress being achieved should be treated in a low-key manner and not announced from the top of Parliament House steps or even through regular Press bulletins. It was not so much a case of letting sleeping dogs lie as letting working men continue to work on a banned project free from the publicity spotlight.
Each report we received indicated that the number
of men working on the site was steadily growing. A
maximum number of 1,048 men was reached in the third
year and we knew that only interference of volcanic
eruption proportions would prevent Newport from being
erected. The 182-metre chimney started to loom up like
a lofty sentinel guarding the daytime electricity supplies
of the people of Melbourne. Finally on 7 August 1980,
without any firing of guns or lighting of crackers,
Newport was connected to the electricity supply system
of the SEC. It was only a few weeks behind schedule
from the recommencement date of May 1977. For a complex
power station using natural gas for the first time,
this was indeed something of an achievement. It is
also of more than passing interest to note that, despite
the Matheson panel's prediction that Newport might
have to be closed for pollution reasons for 15 to 20
days a year, it has not been found necessary to take
such action during the whole 6 to 7 years of its operation.
However, the most significant feature of all was that
this project enjoyed almost complete freedom from industrial
strife. Indeed, the record shows that there were no
strikes or disputes of any significance. During the
two following years I made many small aircraft trips
into the country districts of Victoria. The established
route for small aircraft travelling to the landing
ground of Moorabbin was apparently above the Westgate
Bridge to the Melbourne side of the new power station.
Whenever we passed this point I always gave the order
for an eyes right towards Newport in appreciation of
the labours of an intelligently led, dedicated and
public-spirited work force.