No Ticket, No Start---No More!
The Industrial Significance of the 1978 Live Sheep Export Dispute
'Industrial relations were once considered complex
until we simplified them somewhat.'
Ian McLachlan, as NFF President, 1988.
'Good luck, and when we're 95 per cent sure you're
going to win, we'll be right behind you.'
Government backbencher's good wishes to me at Canberra
airport at the outset of the dispute, March 1978.
'I sympathize with the farmers about the export of
live sheep. The Government of South Australia has always
been in favour of the export of live sheep and we have
been endeavouring to encourage the trade. But there
are two sides to the question and they need to be settled
by the reasonable people. It is the extremists that
have been taking the decisions... The Government hasn't
failed in its duty in any way. What we have been endeavouring
to do has been to conciliate this dispute. The fact
is the people on both sides have been thoroughly unreasonable.'
Don Dunstan, South Australian Premier,April 978.
The 1978 live sheep export dispute marked the turning-point
in the handling of industrial matters in Australia
after the decline which followed the O'Shea case in
the late 1960s. In that sense, its importance as a
precursor to many of the major industrial battles waged
over the subsequent decade is difficult to overstate.
It was important in the economic sense of safeguarding
an emerging export industry which has earned Australia
many hundreds of millions of dollars since. It was
important in providing a major fillip to farm organisation
amalgamation, leading to the formation of NFF in the
following year. It was important in that it brought
to the fore the leadership talents of Ian McLachlan,
later to be President of NFF. And it was important
in that in so many ways it revealed the shortcomings
of government and Governments.
For all these reasons, the story of the live sheep
export dispute needs to be told---appropriately in
the forum provided by the H R Nicholls Society. While
a great deal of media interest was generated at the
time, little authoritative analysis has been undertaken
since, to my knowledge. This task should be completed
before the memories of those centrally involved fade
too much, and lest any attempts by some to rewrite
history gain credence. A decade after the event seems
a more than adequate interval.
- At the time of the live sheep dispute, I was Executive
Officer of the Australian Woolgrowers' and Graziers'
Council (one of the predecessors of the National Farmers'
Federation) and was thus a 'bit' player in what occurred,
albeit with the benefit of a ringside view. This paper
would not have been written without the assistance
and active encouragement of Ian McLachlan (then Chairman
of the Combined Livestock Committee in South Australia),
Sir Samuel Burston (then President of AWGC), Jim Samson
(then President of AWGC's Western Australian affiliate,
the Pastoralists and Graziers Association), Max Cameron
(then Chairman of the Western Australian Livestock
Export Committee) and Ted Cole (then Industrial Director
of AWGC), all of whom were far more involved than I.
Development of Live Sheep Export Trade
Live sheep were first exported from Australia to Middle
East countries in 1960. From an initial volume of 2,500
head in that year, numbers exported to the Middle East
rose progressively to 800,000 head by 1973. Relatively
minor quantities were also exported to other countries,
including Singapore, Malaysia and Mauritius. The principal
exporting State was Western Australia, with exports
from South Australia---including sheep originally from
Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria---becoming
increasingly important from the mid-1970s.
The type of sheep being exported at that time were
almost entirely aged merino wethers---well beyond their
prime as woolcutters and of little or no value to the
mutton trade in Australia. In other words, they were
sheep which were otherwise close to being worthless.
Following the increased spending-power offered by
higher oil prices, the numbers of live sheep exported
rose steeply from 1974 to reach 4.8m by 1978. Kuwait
was the principal customer during the 1960s; Iran took
over this role in the (pre-Ayatollah) 1970s and exports
to Saudi Arabia also grew in importance. Libya entered
the scene as a major player somewhat later.
Middle East people are traditional sheepmeat eaters.
Moreover---and of vital importance in the current context---they prefer fresh meat to chilled meat which is in
turn preferred to frozen meat. This preference reflects
both taste considerations and traditional customs,
as well as the practical matter of no refrigeration
in many areas remote from the unloading ports. Live
sheep were often simply walked from the port to more
distant settlements where they were to be consumed.
'Storage' was thus relatively easy in the form of live
animals. Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of the
rise in oil prices, there was massive congestion in
most ports which also meant that live animals were
more flexible and less vulnerable than a perishable
product. Another factor is that live sheep are required
at particular times of the year for religious slaughter
Australia is by no means the only supplier of live
sheep to the region. Other traditional sources---involving
different and often higher priced (fat-tailed) breeds
include Rumania, Bulgaria, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey and
even South America. Competition also comes from carcase
meat---mutton and lamb, chilled and frozen---as well
as poultry and beef. The total market is---and was
a decade ago---highly competitive. Each product has
its place and prices are sensitive to changing conditions.
The main group responsible for opening up the market
for Australian live sheep was the Danish Clausen shipping
group. It converted surplus oil tankers into specialist
sheep carriers---enormous vessels, some of which are
capable of carrying over 100,000 sheep per voyage.
Other groups entered the trade later, especially following
the OPEC oil price hike. The requirements and husbandry
skills for feeding, watering, ventilation and the hygiene
of these large numbers of animals are clearly not to
In the early and mid 1970s, the Australian sheep and
wool industry was undergoing its most turbulent period
ever. In 1970, when sheep numbers peaked at 180m,
some sages were suggesting that the sheep was about
to go the way of the silkworm---a permanent victim
of the march of synthetic fibres. As a result of the
wool recession, sheep numbers declined by 40m by 1974.
They recovered to just over 150m the next year---there
had been a brief, if spectacular, commodity boom in
1973-74---before dropping further to 135m in 1978.
Variable seasonal conditions added another uncertain
element. As a result, sheep slaughterings fluctuated
widely and hence the demand for abattoir employees
With the live sheep export industry expanding at the
time, it was perhaps not surprising that the abattoir
workers' union, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees'
Union (AMIEU), saw the sheep exports as the 'cause'
of this fluctuating abattoir employment, even if other
factors were actually responsible.
The AMIEU first became concerned in about 1973 when
it had the temerity to impose a 'ban' on all live sheep
exports. The then Federal Minister, Senator Wriedt,
responded in the way that politicians find most natural---by setting up a committee. It was headed by the Chairman
of the Australian Meat Board, Col. McArthur, and the
outcome was a weight restriction on the type of sheep
which could be exported live.
The weight limit was dropped in the following year
and the AMIEU then sought industry and individual company
agreement to the proposition that for every sheep exported
live, two or three should be exported in carcase form
(the ratio sought varied over time and between different
States). This became known as the '2 for l' or '3 for
l' ratio. Some live sheep exporters ignored these demands
while others endeavoured to abide by them, mainly because
they did not exert any great impact. However, as numbers
of live sheep exported continued to rise, these ratios
'bit' and began to influence market behaviour.
The AMIEU focused its attention on live sheep exporters
who were also meat processors and exporters---that
is, the employers of its members. Producers and their
organisations are not closely involved at this stage.
Indeed, some meat exporters shared the union's concern
at the impact of live sheep exports on abattoir throughput
and employment. The exporters' organisation---the Australian
Meat Exporters' Federal Council---managed to convince
Col. McArthur that some restraints were required. Fortunately
the Meat Board had no power over livestock exports
and so was able to come to the 'help' of the industry!
By the time the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation
replaced the Meat Board (in July 1977), producers were
sufficiently active to prevent the new Corporation---with expanded powers that did include livestock exports---taking any ill-advised action.
From the start, my organisation, the Australian Woolgrowers'
and Graziers' Council (AWGC), was totally opposed to
any restrictions being imposed on livestock exports.
The following AWGC policy resolution on the issue is
'That this Council does not accept any interference
in the free export of live sheep for slaughter. Further,
that it does not recognise any so-called agreements
or arrangements made between labour organisations and/or
other interested parties which may have the effect
of interfering with this freedom.'
This view was conveyed to the Primary Industry Minister,
Ian Sinclair, by an AWGC delegation in February 1976---that is, shortly after the election of the Fraser
Unfortunately, the policy position of the other Federal
organisation at the time--- the Australian Wool and
Meat Producers' Federation (AWMPF)---was more equivocal.
One of its leaders, John Kerin (no relation to the
present Minister), President of the AWMPF affiliate
the United Farmers' and Graziers' of South Australia,
occasionally acting President of AWMPF, and AMB producer
Board member, actually moved a resolution at a State
tripartite meeting in South Australia in June 1977
supporting a 2 for 1 ratio. Others attending that meeting
were Departmental officers, meat exporters, live sheep
exporters, union representatives and other producers
(two each representing the South Australian affiliates
of AWGC and AWMPF). The resolution was passed 11 to
4, with 4 abstentions. The next day, the AWGC representatives
telexed Mr Sinclair and others, stating their total
opposition to the resolution and that under no circumstances
would they be bound by it.
The tempo escalated in 1977. The AMIEU's Federal Management
Committee took over the handling of the issue and,
shortly thereafter, it announced that live sheep exports
from Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania were
'banned' and that stock movements from Southern Queensland
and New South Wales into South Australia for export
would be blocked.
It stated that the 'current ratios' in Western Australia
were working well but that it was 'worried' by the
situation in South Australia.
The union announced that it was giving the entire
industry until 1 March the following year to implement
an effective system of ratios, failing which national
industrial action would be taken. It sought from every
exporter, details of sheep and sheepmeat exports to
Senior office-bearers of the AMIEU must have fancied
the chances of their policies being adopted, the rhetoric
of opposition notwithstanding. Some live sheep exporters
were supporting ratios (especially the relative newcomers
such as AustIran/Meridian Livestock) some meat exporters
were uneasy at what was occurring, Col. McArthur was
known to be sympathetic, not all producer groups appeared
resolute and even the Federal Government had not developed
an industrial reputation which would have caused AMIEU
officials to lose much sleep.
However, the Government had recently passed amendments
to the Trade Practices Act following a review by the
Swanston Committee. The amendments included the secondary
boycott provisions at Section 45D. In late 1977, these
provisions had not been widely tested and there was
very little, if any, case law to go on.
The AMIEU threats were being taken sufficiently seriously
that in September 1977 Elder Smith Goldsborough Mort
(Elders GM)---now Elders Pastoral---obtained a preliminary
opinion by senior counsel to assess the options which
might be open to deal with any attempted blockage of
the movement of live sheep to a vessel. It appeared
fairly clear that S45D was designed with such an eventuality
Another initiative at this time was the formation
in South Australia of a Livestock Exporter Industry
Association. Its sponsor was Ian McLachlan, via AWGC's
affiliate, the Stockowners' Association of South Australia,
and it was designed to ensure a more robust and united
view on the livestock export issue by all producer
groups and livestock exporters (some of whom were also
major meat exporters). AWGC also became more active
in a co-ordinating role at this time.
By the second half of 1977 headlines in the rural
press were forecasting a major industrial 'blow-up'.
Because of a shortage of sheep for slaughter---largely
the result of seasonal conditions---abattoir employment
was falling, the AMIEU and its members were becoming
more restive, and live sheep exports---the convenient
scapegoat---were continuing to rise. The union made
the fanciful claim that 16,000 abattoir jobs had been
lost over the previous twelve months, by implication
most due to live sheep exports.
The issue was the main item of business at a meeting
on 2 August 1977 of the ACTU-Farm Organisations Liaison
Committee. Credit for the formation of this Committee
was claimed by the then President of the ACTU, Mr Hawke.1
It met infrequently and was a forum largely for farmers
to ventilate concerns with the actions of unions. Not
surprisingly, it achieved little and later fell into
This particular meeting did at least acquaint Mr Hawke
with the knowledge that farmers felt very strongly
on the live sheep export issue.2 Debate was led by
Ian McLachlan, who was a Vice-President of AWGC and
who had a keen interest in, and had quickly developed
a grasp of, industrial affairs.3 Later in 1977, Burston
and McLachlan met Hawke and presented him with a paper
outlining the farmer position and the reasons for it.
Hawke and his ACTU colleagues were unable to fault
the arguments contained in the paper.
A further formal meeting of the Liaison Committee
took place on 13 March 1978 when the farm organisations
flatly told the ACTU and AMIEU that no ratio would
be acceptable under any circumstances. The AMIEU was
again requested to provide substantive analysis of
the impact of live sheep exports on abattoir employment,
but it did not do so. Farmer representatives offered
full co-operation in any approaches to the Government
concerning demonstrated welfare problems in the industry
or in seeking expansion of freezing and chilling and
other facilities enabling development of carcase exports
to the Middle East, without the use of bans and limitations.
The AMIEU rejected this offer and the meeting broke
As for the AMIEU's policy, it was hard to visualise
in practice how the mechanics of a ratio policy might
operate, especially at the individual firm level. Producers
endeavoured to explain to the AMIEU that any restraints
would be detrimental, not only to their own, but also
to meatworkers', long-term interests.
This argument turned on the substitutability of sheepmeat
for live sheep. As noted earlier, consumer preference
was clearly for fresh meat (hence live sheep); forcing
the market to absorb more meat than it wanted would
have been counter-productive---lower prices and reduced
market share.4 Over and above these practical matters
were the questions of principle: should Australia seek
to dictate to its customers the form in which a product
should be purchased? And, should not Australian producers
have the unrestricted right to sell their product on
world markets (especially at a time when most other
rural commodity prices were at unremunerative levels)?
Other issues relevant to an overall perspective included:
- abattoir awards already recognised the somewhat
variable nature of employment in the industry by containing
a loading to compensate for times when employees may
be temporarily out of work;
- the numbers of sheep which died each year on farm
from 'normal causes' substantially exceeded the numbers
being exported live; and
- the union's record of industrial militancy did not
suggest an abiding care for maximum employment; in
1977 industrial disputes in the meat industry cost
262,000 man days of work sufficient to provide full-time
employment for 1,000 people.
Battle Lines are Drawn
None of this cut much ice with the AMIEU. The union's
Assistant Federal Secretary, Mr Jack O'Toole, announced
that, as industry meetings had broken down, it would
henceforth deal directly with shippers and would consider
the use of pickets to achieve its objectives.
Accordingly, on Sunday 19 March 1978, the AMIEU imposed
a picket designed to prevent the movement of 30,000
sheep owned by Elders G, which were being held at sheep
yards at 'The Levels', Cavan, on the outskirts of Adelaide.
These sheep were to be loaded on a Clausen vessel
---the Iran Cremona---for export to the Middle East.
Similar pickets were imposed in Western Australia (see
On the same day, the two grower organisations---the
United Farmers and Graziers of SA and the Stockowners'
Association of SA---met and formed a Combined Livestock
Committee, under the chairmanship of Ian McLachlan.
The Committee was given total responsibility to handle
the dispute. In reiterating its unequivocal opposition
to any ratios, the Committee pledged itself to take
lawful action only and to seek action by the SA Government
to remove the picket forthwith so that the sheep could
be loaded. The Committee also decided that:
- if livestock shipments from SA ports were impeded,
it would arrange for the withholding of all stock for
slaughter from SA abattoirs;
- no livestock from interstate should be slaughtered
in SA abattoirs in these circumstances; and
- relevant State and Federal Ministers should seek
injunctions against the AMIEU if they prevented the
free flow of live sheep exports.
A number of actions took place over the next couple
- pickets were extended to cover an additional 70,000
or so sheep owned by Metro Meat awaiting loading on
two vessels berthing in Adelaide; this was a great
relief to the Combined Livestock Committee because
it avoided the possibility of a split in the exporters'
- the SA Minister for Labour and Industry, in a meeting
with grower, shipper and union representatives, proposed
a one month's moratorium during which all bans would
be lifted, in return for exporters agreeing to a 2
for 1 ratio; not surprisingly, this 'initiative' was
- discussions were held between AWGC and the Trade
Practices Commission in Canberra to explore options
for the TPC initiating action under S45D (as it was
empowered to do);
- various legal options which might be taken by the
owners of the sheep (Elders GM) were assessed---involving,
inter alia, S45D, the Crimes Act, the SA Road Traffic
Act, the Trespassing on Land Act and common law; and
- the President of AWGC, Sir Samuel Burston, approached
the Prime Minister requesting the Government, through
the Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, to
take out an injunction seeking to restrain continuing
breaches of S45D by the AMIEU.
Role of S45D
It is appropriate to note the relevant words of S45D.
At that time, it stated that:
'S45D(1) ...a person shall not, in concert with another
person, engage in conduct that hinders or presents
the supply of goods or services by a third person to
a corporation ... where the conduct is engaged in for
the purpose, and would have or be likely to have the
effect, of causing:
(a) substantial loss or damage to the business of
the corporation..., or
(b) a substantial lessening of competition in any
market in which the corporation supplies or acquires
goods or services.'
The persons acting in concert were clearly the AMIEU,
its office-bearers and/or members; the third person
was Elders GM, which had a contract to supply goods
(sheep) to a corporation (Clausen).
While S45D had only recently appeared on the statutes,
the AMIEU was already familiar with it, being the defendant
in the successful Tillman's butchery case in late 1977
(in fact a further hearing on that case was set down
for 11 April).
It seemed clear that Elders GM could take action under
S45D, the only uncertainty being whether the union
might be able to argue that its conduct was not engaged
in for the purpose of causing loss or damage (both
purpose and effect having to be established). It also
seemed possible that a grower might be able to succeed
with action under S45D (1)(b) and that Clausen could
have a common law action against the AMIEU for causing
breach of contract.
Federal Cabinet considered the request for its intervention
on Wednesday 22 March and replied that it was 'urgently
considering the proposition'.
Elders GM first attempted to move the picketed sheep
on Tuesday 21 March. The attempt was unsuccessful and
affidavits were prepared describing what had occurred.
This led Elders to launch proceedings in the Federal
Court on Thursday 23 March (before Fisher J.) seeking
an injunction under S45D. Interestingly, one of the
Elders affidavits recorded a conversation with the
SA State Secretary of the AMIEU, Mr Arthur Tonkin.
In it, Mr Tonkin was quoted as saying:
'I am acting on instructions from my Federal body.
I am told what I am to do. The phone rings four times
a day. I am under Federal instructions.'
So much for democracy. These observations were hardly
a stinging endorsement of the AMIEU's actions from
those in the front line.
The full hearing for the application of an interim
injunction took place the following Wednesday (29 March).
By this time the Commonwealth Government had decided
to join the proceedings in support of Elders. The AMIEU
was represented by its Federal Secretary (Mr Fred Hall)
who rejected the claim, saying that the respondents
were acting within union policy as they were bound
to do. He added that the union was planning to challenge
the constitutional validity of S45D before the High
Court. The Elders application for an interim injunction
was granted, with the date for the hearing concerning
a permanent injunction being set for 26 April. The
stakes were rising: continued picketing would place
the union in contempt of court.
Meanwhile, the Combined Livestock Committee was itself
stepping up the pressure. At a meeting on Thursday
23 March, it passed the following resolution:
'That all primary producers in South Australia be
advised that they should market no livestock for handling
by any South Australian export abattoir as from and
including Tuesday 28 March because, due to industrial
interference, the market place does not represent the
true value of their produce.'
This was a carefully worded resolution---that it could
not itself be caught by S45D---but the intent was clear:
if there were no livestock marketed, there would be
no work for AMIEU members, who would therefore be liable
for stand down. After some frank discussions with one
or two sceptics, the resolution was successfully implemented.
By the middle of the second week it was apparent that
the live sheep dispute was no minor tiff. Behind-the-scenes
negotiations were commencing and Hawke, for example,
was suggesting to the AMIEU that it might have bitten
off more than it could chew.
More worryingly, Sir Samuel Burston, President of
AWGC, was being pressured to back off by a number of
senior Ministers, suggesting that a Cabinet decision
to this effect had been taken. However, by this stage,
farmers around the country were uniting behind the
actions of the Combined Livestock Committee like never
before. Therefore, even if he wanted to--- which of
course, he didn't---Sir Samuel was in no position to
accede to this pressure. However, the fact that it
was being applied was a sad reflection on the instincts,
priorities and resolve of the Government, especially
given its electoral mandates from 1975 and 1977.
Pressure was also applied by members of the Industrial
Relations Club---employer associations and the Arbitration
Commission itself---to the effect that conciliation
and arbitration was the only answer. Ted Cole, with
his lengthy day-to-day experience of dealing with such
people, was very firm in his advice that AWGC should
keep the dispute well away from the Commission. He
was being continually approached to 'get his people
to be reasonable'.
On Friday 31 March, another grower initiative took
place. A motorcade of about 100 cars and trucks drove
slowly through the streets of Adelaide in an endeavour
to draw further attention to the farmers' position.
In a press statement, Ian McLachlan said that this
was just the start'. In fact it was a trial run for
a much larger invasion which was being planned for
the following Tuesday.
The Federal Government was searching for a means of
settling the dispute. The Minister for Employment and
Industrial Relations---Mr Tony Street---and Mr Hawke
held meetings on 31 March at which a proposal was
developed for all bans to be lifted in return for an
inquiry into the live sheep export industry. This proposal
was put to Sir Samuel Burston who rejected it. Mr Street
even wanted the AWGC Executive and the AMIEU Executive
to consider the proposal simultaneously and to record
their decisions in sealed envelopes---a rather Gilbertian
touch. The AMIEU did not think much of this plan either,
considering it too vague.
The recognition of the futility of inquiries as the
basis for 'solutions' to these types of disputes was
absolutely critical. Sir Samuel Burston came to this
conclusion while walking around the hills of his Casterton
property, and Jim Samson from Western Australia was
also firmly of this view. The experience was later
recalled during the Mudginberri dispute.
From the farmer perspective there was clearly nothing
to be gained. The issue was one of principle on which
no compromise was possible, farmer action to counter
the pickets was so far quite effective, the media generally
had become quite sympathetic and the AMIEU, on past
performance, was not certain to abide by any umpire's
verdict. At the Adelaide livestock markets that week,
84 sheep and 28 cattle were on offer, compared with
normal yardings of 18,000 and 3,000 respectively. This
was an unprecedented display of farmer unity and determination.
The SA Government had the power to act, principally
by instructing the police to remove the pickets. It
did not do so. Nor was McLachlan able to convince the
Chief of Police that, if he was able to move the sheep
onto the main road, the police had a responsibility
to keep the highways and byways clear (under the SA
Road Traffic Act).
However, as Mr Dunstan's comments, quoted at the beginning,
indicate, the Government was trying to 'conciliate'
and it was worried about 'reasonable people' versus
'extremists'. In fact the South Australian Government
played a comparatively minor, and largely ineffective,
role. This was perhaps fortunate---because one of the
briefing papers prepared for the Agriculture Minister
'No permanent solution can be generated until a formula
is derived which provides an assurance to all parties.
One can appreciate the view that 'we produce the stock
and should be able to sell to whom we like'.
Nevertheless, industrially, it must be prudent to
negotiate on a formula which safeguards the interests
of all parties.'
The then Chairman of SAMCOR---the government-owned
authority which ran the Gepps Cross abattoir in Adelaide---held a similar view. He told McLachlan during the
Tuesday 4 April was a momentous day and, if there
were any lingering doubts about the farmers' resolve,
they were completely swept aside. An enormous motorcade,
of 4,000 cars and trucks, assembled at dawn at eight
strategic locations around the city outskirts and proceeded,
in groups of 25-30, to drive slowly towards the centre
of the city at less than 20 kph. The traffic of Adelaide
was brought to a virtual standstill. The police were
forewarned and, far from being critical, co-operated
to the hilt. Members of the general public stood and
cheered and sought information leaflets which were
available. Extra television and radio news bulletins
were broadcast and the newspapers ran special supplements
on the procession. One Adelaide resident wrote to Ian
McLachlan in terms which seemed to sum up the prevailing
'Your demonstration managed to delay me today; I
got to work a little late. However, I write not to
complain but to congratulate you on your efforts. For
too long we have had stupid industrial action which
has really cost Australia dearly in so many ways.'
The farmers' cars and trucks were liberally festooned
with posters which demonstrated that, despite the seriousness
of the situation, bush humour was alive and well. It
is a great pity they have not all been recorded. Here
are a few examples:
'Pick a peck of picketers and pack them in the poop.'
'Load the sheep and let them float; send Don and
pray he don't.'
'Dear Don: get off you Arts and do something.'
'Bar the bastards who bar our baas.'
'Sheep go or Dunstan go; prefer both.'
By this time there was naturally widespread discussion
as to whether direct farmer involvement might be needed
to move and load the sheep. The thousands of farmers
who descended on Adelaide that day were therefore doing
more than just showing solidarity---they were potentially
on standby. Farmers came not just from all parts of
South Australia but from further afield as well. A
charter plane load of 200 Queenslanders was present
and there were far more volunteers for this trip than
places available. The Queenslanders successfully generated
extensive media coverage while in Adelaide demanding
that the sheep be loaded---and managed well and truly
to get up the nostrils of Mr Dunstan.
Significantly also, there were several carloads of
(non-AMIEU) unionists present especially shearer members
of the AWU. The State Secretary of the AWU issued a
statement highly critical of the actions of the AMIEU---which had led to the standing down of some of his
members (e.g. 80 shearers employed by Metro Meat to
shear sheep just prior to export). The AWU could see
the employment-creating effects of the trade for its
members and at no time supported the position of the
One of the more important but lesser known activities
which occurred while the 'drive-slow' was in progress,
was a series of no fewer than four telephone calls
between Ian McLachlan, Sam Burston and the Prime Minister
which led ultimately to an unequivocal statement of
support from the Commonwealth Government. These discussions
were at times quite testy as to whether the Government
was or was not supporting the farmers and whether the
farmers were or were not being reasonable. Initially,
a metre-long telex arrived which was verbose and evasive.
The Prime Minister was bluntly told that he would be
held up to ridicule and the reader booed or laughed
off the stage were it read out at the rally. Mr Fraser's
final telex---which was largely drafted by McLachlan
'The Federal Government has already supported action
taken under S45D of the Trade Practices Act in relation
to the live sheep export trade, and in the face of
bans remaining in force will continue to do so. The
law is there for a purpose in this instance the free
movement of trade and commerce into and out of Australia.
This law will be upheld.'
This statement was read out to the lunch time rally
at Victoria Square which was the culmination of the
'drive-slow'. It was attended by between 6,000 and
10,000 people---including many city residents. The
Board of Elders interrupted its meeting and marched
the few blocks to the rally behind Managing Director,
Charles Schmidt. The rally served as a massive display
of support for the actions taken. Later, Ian McLachlan
responded to Mr Fraser in these terms:
'My thanks for the firm telex which vas read to a
meeting of many thousands of farmers and public in
Adelaide today. Had I received any less positive a
message from you, it would have been received by the
gathering with suspicion and the orderly departure
of farmers would have been doubtful.'
At the end of the day, a keg was despatched to Police
Headquarters as a token of farmer appreciation for
police co-operation and good humour. Media support
for the farmers' cause was virtually unanimous. The
Advertiser's editorial the day after the rally
said, in part:
'The farmers who rallied from far and wide to converge
on Adelaide yesterday made their point in no uncertain
terms. It was unfortunate, perhaps, that they chose
so disruptive a means of doing so. They managed nevertheless
to get across a message that would have struck a responsive
chord not only in city dwellers here but in other people
The message transcended the immediate issue of the
right of primary producers to find and exploit markets
of their own choice. It was, in essence, that an intolerable
situation has been reached if the law is not to be
enforced and if elected governments are to behave in
a manner subservient to union pressure. It has been
left to the farmers who, in their own words, 'have
had a gutful', to spell it out with such clarity.
Despite the widespread traffic jams, yesterday's
demonstration was no less impressive for the restraint
shown by its leaders. The appeal was to reason rather
than emotion: it was emphasised, in particular, that
violence towards the pickets who have several times
frustrated efforts to load the sheep for export should
Meanwhile, Elders had made further attempts to test
the pickets. They remained in force; and so on Thursday
6 April (the day before Good Friday), Elders served
contempt notices on union officials, returnable in
the Federal Court the following Tuesday (11th).
The Assistant Secretary of the local TLC made constructive
entry to the debate by calling for the live sheep export
industry to be nationalised. His plea fell on deaf
ears! More positively, Senator Peter Walsh, who was
then the Opposition's spokesman on Agriculture, issued
a paper strongly critical of the AMIEU and fully supportive
of the unrestricted export of live sheep.
And so the dispute entered its fourth and decisive
week. Before describing these events, the scene in
Western Australia should be recorded.
Western Australian Connection
While Adelaide may have been the main focus of events
during the four-week dispute, there was no shortage
of activity in Western Australia. As already noted,
Western Australia had a lengthier history of live sheep
exports than any other State and this had already been
reflected in a change in the sheep flock structure,
with a higher proportion of ewes to wethers (the wether
portion only being required for export).
The AMIEU action, when it commenced on 19 March, was
intended to be nationwide. Accordingly, pickets were
threatened the following day at both Bunbury and Albany.
At Bunbury the waterside workers erected a barricade
to keep the pickets out and stated that they would
load the sheep. At Albany, the waterside workers were
initially undecided but eventually agreed to load sheep
when told that if they refused the ship would merely
be moved to another port where the waterside workers
were prepared to load.
The Bunbury ship was eventually loaded after the AMIEU
picketers, who had got around the waterside barricade
and on to the ship, were removed by police. The Albany
ship---the Farid Fares, which was loading 41,000 sheep
for Metro Meat remained picketed and so Metro Meat
gave all its WA AMIEU employees one week's notice before
being stood down, as required by the WA State Award.
As in South Australia growers were advised to withhold
livestock from sale, on the grounds that the industrial
interference was preventing the true market value being
reflected in the saleyard. Metro also sought a S45D
interim injunction against the picketing at Albany
and this was granted by Fisher J. sitting in chambers,
in Adelaide. Pickets were also imposed on vessels loading
at Esperance, Fremantle and Geraldton.
However, unlike South Australia, the WA Government,
under Sir Charles Court, was more active. On 30 March
the Government issued an Executive Council order giving
port authorities power to call in police. It also instructed
the WA Meat Commission---a statutory authority which
operated the Robbs Jetty abattoir in Perth---to apply
to the State Industrial Commission to seek the removal
from the award of the AMlEU's right of entry at abattoirs
and an employment preference clause for AMIEU members.
On 10 April growers decided that they would take over
the loading of sheep. A number were made temporary
port authority employees for this purpose (in some
of the outer ports) and loading was carried out at
Albany and Esperance with farmer assistance. The Waterside
Workers' Federation responded to this use of 'scab'
labour by calling a 24 hour national waterfront strike
for 12 April. A total of 62 picketers were arrested
by police for being on port authority land, which also
provoked a (four day) national abattoir strike.
By this time, events had also moved ahead decisively
Over the Easter weekend, the weather intervened for
the first time as a cold change passed through Adelaide.
This not only made the overcrowded sheep-holding yards
extremely muddy and unpleasant, but also exposed the
newly shorn sheep to wet and windy conditions from
which some stock died and more were likely to follow.
There were by now over 90,000 sheep blocked by pickets
in Adelaide and feed was beginning to run short.
Ian McLachlan announced categorically that the sheep
were going to be moved during the coming week. A plan
which had been devised over the weekend, and which
was given the title Operation Sheeplift, was put into
effect. It consisted of a few engagingly simple ideas,
some lateral thinking and meticulous planning.
Metro Meat's Managing Director, Ken Dingwall, announced
that the vessel Aries Chief, not being able to load
in Adelaide, was being diverted to Western Australia.
In fact once clear of Outer Harbour, the Aries Chief
sailed not for the west, but around to Spencer Gulf
and to the small port of Wallaroo. Wallaroo was chosen
because it was close to Adelaide, because there were
no pickets present, and also importantly because the
vessel could manoeuvre into and out of the berth without
the necessity for tugs---and therefore free from potential
blackbanning by tug operators. The idea of Wallaroo
was first suggested a few weeks previously by Ernest
Mills, a Tasmanian farmer, live sheep exporter and
wartime friend of Sir Samuel Burston. Mills held the
lease for all the wharf facilities at Wallaroo and
offered them to the farmers should they be of interest.
The idea was converted into a specific plan by Ian
Meanwhile, a small group of farmers---about 30---were
sent to Wallaroo to guard the entrance to the port
and prevent any AMlEU pickets from intervening. Several
hundred later gathered there---a portion of those
who had remained in Adelaide after the rally on 'roster'.
As an extra precaution---indicative of the careful
planning---all participating farmers were issued with
coloured armbands for identification. The main organiser
of this part of the operation was Stockowners' Association
executive member, John Riggs, who had earlier supervised
planning of the 'drive slow' through Adelaide.
The third element was the movement of the sheep from
the holding yards. Again a simple solution was devised.
Rather than take them directly past or through the
pickets, they were loaded onto semi-trailers at the
rear of the holding yards and taken out via the back
door, so to speak. A convoy of semi-trailers then proceeded
the 150 or so kilometres to the now protected port
of Wallaroo. The Commissioner of Police had by now
recognised his responsibilities under the Road Traffic
Act and helped to ensure that the roads were clear.
The picket had been out-flanked---and outthought.
On Tuesday 11 April---after the berthing of the Aries
Chief was delayed by adverse tides and strong winds---loading commenced at Wallaroo, with the aid of some
of the farmers. On the previous day, as already noted,
loading commenced in Western Australia, also involving
direct farmer assistance.
With the picket effectively defeated, an agreement
was reached between the Government (Mr Street), the
ACTU and AWGC that involved:
- the lifting of all bans and removal of all pickets;
- the resumption of normal loading;
- the temporary suspension of legal proceedings; and
- an understanding that, for the immediate future,
neither side would publicly press its position regarding
When they realised what was happening, some AMIEU
picketers travelled by car to Wallaroo. However, they
soon realised that discretion was the better part of
valour and they did not seek to disrupt loading. The
question of how close matters came to physical violence,
even bloodshed, has been frequently discussed, especially
by Mr Hawke and other union representatives. In fact
it was one of the only 'beat-ups' of the entire dispute.
Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly exaggerated
or misinformation in the heat of the moment, but there
was also an element of pique, not to mention aggrandisement,
Here are three accounts:
'700 farmers converged on the small town of Cavan
[sic], most of them armed with some implement (including
iron bars and hose pipes loaded with lead). Union officials
compared the actions of these armed farmers with the
mugs and hooligans who supported Adolf Hitler and fascism
'We had potentially the most violent industrial dispute
in my recollection. If farmers and meat workers had
physically confronted each other, particularly at Wallaroo,
it is just as likely as not that deaths would have
ensued. It is not overdramatic to suggest that we were
not very far away from that.'7
'The dispute had abruptly shifted towards flash-point.
In South Australia a convoy of sheep trucks had already
set out and was only a few hours away from arriving
at the wharves; both the picketers and the farmers
were carrying weapons. Hawke recalled,
I got to Tony (Street's) office and he told me what
the position was: we had only a couple of hours. The
situation was appalling---the union blokes and the
farmers were armed, and when the trucks arrived at
the wharves that was going to be it. We got on the
telephones and managed to get a message to Ian McLachlan,
who was the leader of the farmers' group in South Australia.
McLachlan is a very able bloke and one of the toughest
I've ever had to deal with in negotiations. Finally,
we were able to talk to him in a telephone box at Wallaroo.
I had a very tough conversation with him---I pleaded
then demanded that he had to call his people off because
otherwise there would be bloodshed, maybe death, and
if that happened then there was no way the thing could
be unravelled, and at any rate, it was just too horrible
to contemplate that people might be killing each other.
He was very tough---his side undeniably had a case:
the farmers were really scratching financially and
were fighting for their livelihood---but to his credit
he responded. He called his men off. That was just
the first step.
The next was to try to resolve the conflict. He,
Street, I and [Sir] Sam Burston, who was magnificent
in his co-operation, then had to work something out.
We set up an inquiry.
A senior government official, who requested anonymity,
said later that Hawke's handling of the dispute had
averted not just a brawl on a wharf in South Australia
but the development of a widespread violent confrontation.
Both sides had access to weapons---the farmers were
carrying iron clubs and batons gnarled with barbed
wire, and are rifle owners while the meat workers could
lay their hands upon a murderous variety of skinning
and boning knives. The live sheep dispute is generally
regarded in industrial relations circles as the most
potentially dangerous since the Depression. Sir Richard
Kirby commented 'The only dispute that I remember being
anything like as serious was the Rothbury Disaster
of 1929. I think for the country as a whole, we had
a very lucky escape in 1978.''8
Mr Hawke may well have believed these comments, but
the reality was quite different. Certainly, individual
farmers may have welcomed the opportunity for a 'stoush'
and were not intending to retreat if challenged. But
apart from the several factual errors in these accounts,
the reality was that the farmers' leaders were totally
in control at all times (the editorial in the Advertiser
quoted earlier commented on the fact). The whole point
of the Wallaroo operation was to avoid direct physical
confrontation with the meatworkers, not provoke it---to out-think and out-flank the union pickets. If
individual unionists were going to be silly enough
to travel 150 kilometres in order to walk into the
lion's den, then that would have been their look-out.
In the end, they had enough commonsense not to do so.
There was no suggestion of 'McLachlan calling his men
off' at Wallaroo; they were there first for precisely
the reason to prevent a confrontation.
As for farmers' weapons, virtually the most 'dangerous'
pieces of equipment on hand were lengths of PVC pipe
which farmers regularly use as prodders when handling
stock in their yards. How on earth any union official
could have seen they were filled with lead is intriguing.
Ms d'Alpuget's anonymous Government official---who
could see it all from Canberra---was clearly finding
the atmosphere too heady. Ms d'Alpuget's own amplification
(rifles and knives) makes her seem somewhat gullible,
while the observations of Sir Richard Kirby---of all
people---are in the best arbitral traditions of Henry
In fact, Mr Hawke's role in the dispute was far more
limited than he and some other people have since made
out. He was in the unusual position of facing people
who were tough, determined and correct and he had little
choice in the end but to try to assist the AMIEU save
some face, a task made more difficult by the fact (as
he himself has admitted) that he was not widely admired
by some senior AMIEU office-bearers.
Hawke had already capitulated by the time he spoke
to McLachlan at Wallaroo, having earlier spoken to
Burston and offered to call off all union action in
return for discussions. Burston responded that he would
not even convey this proposal to the South Australians
unless the assurances that all bans would be lifted,
all pickets removed and normal loading resumed, were
ironclad. Hawke gave this undertaking, whereupon Burston
rang McLachlan---that is, well before Hawke did so.
At this stage, there was no negotiation---let alone
pleading---with McLachlan at all.
On 19 April, a week after the dispute ended, Mr Street
chaired a meeting of interested parties to attempt
to pick up the pieces. This meeting agreed that:
- there should be an examination of the employment
implications of the live sheep export trade, conducted
over the following three weeks by Mr Geoff Miller,
then Director of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics;
- to encourage a further expansion in the carcase
meat trade to the Middle East, and despite a recent
examination conducted by Government officials, a 'tripartite
fact-finding mission' would be sent to the Middle East;
- pending these examinations, the status quo should
remain---that is, no bans, no change in the volume
of livestock exports, and no action on the S45D matters.
AWGC made a 44 page submission to the Miller Inquiry
on 24 April. It contained detailed assessments of the
additional jobs created by the live sheep export trade
(roughly 1,600 throughout Australia) and demonstrated
that, at maximum, 200-300 abattoir jobs may have been
displaced but, more likely, no jobs at all would have
The Miller Report was eventually completed in August
(partly because the AMIEU's submission, although required
by 1 May, was not received until 23 May), coinciding
with the report of the findings of the Middle East
mission. Both reports were considered at a further
tripartite meeting chaired by Mr Street on 19 August,
a meeting which AMIEU representatives declined to attend,
although earlier demanding that it be deferred from
The Miller Report came down unequivocally in favour
of the continued unrestricted export of live sheep.
The AMIEU rejected the Report, and so AWGC arranged
to have 30,000 copies printed of its findings, and
also those of the Middle East mission, which were distributed
to meat workers throughout the country.
In subsequent years, there have been periodic flare-ups
of the live sheep dispute, especially at Portland which
later became a shipment port. The Victorian Secretary
of the union, Mr Wally Curran, maintained his enthusiasm
for ratios and the odd dispute (an industrially plagued
abattoir located at Portland was a contributing factor).
However, on each occasion, farmers indicated that they,
too, had lost none of their enthusiasm to maintain
the unrestricted trade and these various flare-ups
were effectively dealt with.10
First and foremost, the live sheep export dispute
demonstrated graphically that, on a matter of fundamental
principle, farmers and their organisations were not
prepared to compromise. Moreover, they demonstrated
that they were capable of counter-attacking in an effective
and innovative manner so as to avoid any direct and
This determination was so novel in Australian industrial
relations behaviour that it earned farmers the title
of extremists by some politicians, while others---and
their advisers---who, of course, were wiser in such
matters, knew that sooner or later, 'an industrially
realistic position, acceptable to all sides would be
thrashed out by negotiation and consultation'.
The performance of the Federal Government, especially
the initial attempts to 'talk reason' to the farmer
leaders, has already been noted. Bert Kelly was typically
astute in his assessment:
'Many of the farmers felt that there was too much
tame acceptance by the Government and that the best
thing for them to do was to keep their heads down.
Sometimes indeed the Government seemed to be almost
irritated with the farmers because they were determined
to go ahead with the struggle, even without Government
If this is indeed so, it shows that the Government
is losing contact with the rural sector. But, far more
important, it shows a willingness on the part of the
Government to compromise on matters in which there
is no room for compromise.'11
Conversely, there was no mistaking the views of the
general public---farmers and non-farmers alike. The
media treatment also was massive and, almost without
exception, sympathetic. During and after the dispute,
hundreds of letters, telegrams and phone calls poured
in to Ian McLachlan's office and to the rural organisations.
Here is a small sample of them:
'I am a wheat, sheep and cattle farmer in the Riverina
and l want to personally thank you and your colleagues
for the part you took on behalf of all Australians,
indeed of all Australia, in defeating an illegal union
picket. I am thrilled to hear of your brilliant victory.'
'I wanted to let you know what a marvellous job you
and all your supporters have done over the last few
difficult weeks. The main thing was that you consistently
argued for the maintenance of law and order---without
that we are in trouble.'
'I saw and heard Dunstan on TV last night and was
astonished and disgusted. I've written him a note and
told him so. Also that you were not the extremist,
but the pickets blocking the free use of a public road.
I believe there is no such thing as compromise with
the type of people these unions represent. Being 91,
I'm not much good at putting a letter together.'
'As primary producers in the fishing industry, we
fully support your stand in the live sheep dispute
and we wish you every success in obtaining free export
rights for your sheep.'
One of the important ingredients in the success achieved
was the availability of S45D. For the first time this
provided a lever to the employer side of a dispute
which could be invoked and so restore some balance
against unjustified trade union activities. Unlike
the arbitral proceedings it was a 'real' law and it
was heard in a real court---the Federal Court. Injunctive
relief could be obtained promptly and a union which
continued in defiance of a Court order was in contempt,
for which the penalties could become very steep very
quickly. On several occasions the Arbitration Commission
---via its President sought to become involved. This
'help' was consistently and effectively resisted by
The S45D action did not proceed to its logical conclusion.
Some said it was better that way---to keep the provisions
untested, using them merely as negotiating coin. However,
inevitably that bluff would be called and a preparedness
to see matters through was obviously called for sooner
or later. Subsequent cases have made further progress
and any doubts about the efficacy of the legislation
In a related way the dispute also put paid to the
view---which during the dispute continued to be espoused
by at least one senior Government Minister---that legislation
never solved industrial disputes. For a Minister, whose
Government introduced the legislation, to make such
a claim seems ironical to put it mildly. This particular
legislation did materially help to resolve the dispute,
as it has done repeatedly since.
A flaw in the wording of S45D was discovered and this
was drawn to the Government's attention. As a result,
a new clause S45D(l)(A) was inserted to remove any
ambiguity or difficulty. As a sidelight it is appropriate
to recall the observations of that well-known legal
commentator, George Negus. Writing in the Weekend Australian,
immediately following the dispute, he said:
'S45D is a curious piece of law, shrouded in vagueness
and constitutionally dubious. Weighty legal opinion
is that this highly doubtful law might not stand any
real High Court test.'
Ten years on, it is still in place and George's weighty
lawyers have not been able to convince the High Court
to strike it down. Incidentally, the AMIEU's threatened
High Court challenge never proceeded.
For the victors the dispute was, apart from anything
else, a massive morale booster. It greatly smoothed
the path to NFF---and obviously the United Farmers
and Stockowners of SA, which, within 18 months, merged
the United Farmers and Graziers and the Stockowners
Association. It also gave farmers a renewed sense of
self-esteem in the community, which they have substantially
built on since. And it encouraged them---and subsequently
others---to continue to act resolutely in the major
industrial battles which arose later.
Ian McLachlan's role was, of course, enormous. The
pressure and the hours over that four-week period were
unrelenting. In such an environment, there is so much
happening, so many well-meaning opinions being offered,
so many media demands, and so much paper flying about,
that it is extraordinarily difficult to remain cool,
level-headed and to be able to keep thinking, rather
than just reacting. It is a gift given to only a few
As for the vanquished, AMIEU members suffered financially
for the poor advice and leadership they received from
their office-bearers. They certainly won nothing for
their efforts. The experience proved too much for some
and, within a short time, the Federal, South Australian
and Western Australian Secretaries had either retired
or resigned. Mr O'Toole battled on, becoming Federal
Secretary, in which capacity he was to meet his destiny
some years later, also involving Ian McLachlan, at
a place called Mudginberri.
1 Mr Hawke later claimed that this group brought the
then disparate farm organisations together for the
first time, which in turn facilitated amalgamation
discussions leading to the formation of NFF. In other
words, Mr Hawke claimed some credit for the formation
of NFF. As they say, success has a thousand fathers!
In fact the separate farm organisations had met jointly
on numerous occasions previously. The prior President
of AWGC, Peter Roberts, had been particularly instrumental
in arranging these meetings, especially to ensure that
a common approach was being put before the Government
on such matters as pre-budget submissions
2 Sir Samuel Burston and Mr Hawke were, at the time,
fellow board members of the Reserve Bank. In their
frequent discussions at that forum Sir Samuel was unable
to reinforce farmer determination on the subject of
live sheep exports.
3 The cricket-loving Bob Hawke had been sufficiently
impressed to have asked AWGC's Industrial Director
Ted Cole on an earlier occasion whether this was the
same Ian McLachlan who had played cricket for South
4 Some months previously, a BAE paper had quantified
these effects: a decline in live sheep exports by 56
per cent and prices by 45 per cent. See L D Cornell
and P G Horne, 'Impact of the Middle East Market on
the Supply Response of Live Sheep and Sheepmeat in
the Australian Sheep Industry', paper presented to
the 22nd Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural
Economics Society, Sydney, February 1978.
5 En route to the rally, Sir Samuel Burston
hitched a ride in an old truck. The three tough looking
customers in its cab said: 'Are you a bushie? OK, hop
in.' They said: 'We're not farmers, we're shearers
but we're so mad with the ... meaties that we've driven
150 miles this morning to join in with you lot to show
them what we think of them doing us out of our shearing
contracts for the live sheep trade. You blokes make
sure you flatten them...'
6 AMIEU Queensland Branch, Newsletter, May 1978.
7 Bob Hawke, quoted in the National Farmer,
20 April 1978.
8 Blanch d'Alpuget, Robert J Hawke---A Biography,
Schwartz 1982. pp 347-8
9 This estimate needs to be set against the figure
of an equivalent 1,100 abattoir jobs lost in 1977 as
a result of AMIEU industrial disputes, which was quoted
10 On one occasion farmers engaged trucks to break
AMIEU picket lines and subsequently ensured that union
attempts to black ban the drivers involved were unsuccessful.
This in turn led to the celebrated Gibbins case, so
eloquently described by Barrie Purvis in the IPA
Review, See 'Arbitration and Human Rights', IPA
Review, February 1987, pp 18-19.
11 Hon C R Kelly (Modest Member), Australian Financial
Review, 12 May 1978.