No Ticket, No Start---No More!

The Live Sheep Dispute---Some Personal Reminiscences

Ian McLachlan

In my remarks today I wish to summarise the lessons we learned during this dispute, because there is no point in doing all these things if there aren't some lessons.

The live sheep dispute, which had then gone some eleven years, really signalled a change in the resolve of a number of people. It certainly signalled a change in the resolve of the farming community. Up until that point we, like everybody else, thought about the problems of handling the union movement in our own individual circumstances, in wool sheds and other places, in wool stores, and we couldn't work out how to handle it. It was there and it was just too tough; the opposition was too well organised. Luckily for all of us, this dispute which, as David Trebeck said, took a while to build up (at least a year or two or even a little longer), got us backed into a corner. We were so much backed into a corner there was virtually no alternative for us but to stand and fight.

There were a couple of helpful things. For instance the AMIEU got involved in this dispute at the end of autumn, when all our live sheep had gone, most of the fat sheep had gone and really all we had left was a few wethers and ewes for breeding purposes. So we really had nothing to lose. We could stand there and just wait for it to rain which, luckily, it did. So they chose a very bad time and that was a great help.

We had also done a lot of preliminary work on this thing. We'd been to see Hawke at the ACTU. Sam Burston and I took him down a paper with a number of points on it and we said, 'Look, we think this is the logic of letting these animals go, we think it is to everybody's benefit, how about you taking it back to your fellows and see if you can knock some holes in the logic'.

Well he didn't and they couldn't. But that didn't deter the AMIEU. I think it is a very fortunate thing that it didn't deter the AMIEU because the live sheep dispute was certainly catalytic in changing farmers' attitudes as to what they could and couldn't do industrially.

In the early days of this dispute it didn't look as if the AMIEU had made a mistake, because there were lots of things to be tested; Section 45D, our resolve, amongst other things.

Stupid things came to our help like the South Australian Road Traffic Act. I remember having a tremendous battle with the Commissioner of Police, the man who was put in to replace Harold Salisbury, the Commissioner who was sacked by Mr Dunstan. This battle was over the fact that he insisted that if we got sheep int trucks that they wouldn't necessarily flow freely along the highway and byways. I think the discussions that I had with him, every two days or so, took about ten days and a number of legal opinions before we were able to persuade him that if we did get sheep out on the road his police would then ensure that they could travel wherever. They went because we needed that to happen.

Another thing I learned came out of Mr Dunstan's attitude. Mr Dunstan had just had his dispute with Commissioner Harold Salisbury, and had just sacked him, and the next thing that happened was the live sheep dispute. As chairman of the committee I sent him a telegram saying how bad this prohibition of sheep, and picketing, was and we were going to make a stand.

I was, in effect, appraising him that we weren't going to lie down. He was ultimately the responsible minister and I said that I thought there was going to be a big disappointment and he should contemplate that. I asked if I could see him and a couple of days later he said I could do that. I went to his office, where he kept me waiting about twenty minutes. He came in and sat very close to me---dangerously close in retrospect---and he absolutely lit into me.

I wasn't very versed at talking to senior politicians and I flushed a bit and I didn't know quite how to handle it. I didn't quite know how to handle his proximity, either, but luckily for me he went on for five or eight minutes and I managed to cool off. I explained our situation and went through the logic of the whole thing again and away he went again for another six or eight minutes and got quite abusive, abusive about me and abusive about graziers and abusive about farmers and so on. And what I learned was that if you let them go on long enough finally you will get a bright idea. So I just asked him whether he would mind if I told the media everything he had just said to me. Well, he said he didn't think that would be a very good idea and I knew then that I wouldn't have any more trouble with Mr Dunstan. His performance in the previous fifteen minutes had suggested to me that the Salisbury affair had unhinged him, and, as time was to prove, it wasn't too long before he left office for some reason associated with that. And so I did learn 'let them talk', because it can help.

During the whole of this dispute we were, as I said, under enormous pressure from the Prime Minister through Tony Street and Bob Hawke---the Industrial Relations Bureau I think it was called---which they had set up in Canberra to handle all these things. One of their operatives who came down to this dispute not too much later had a nervous breakdown. The PM, the Minister, Hawke, and senior businessmen such as the Chairman of SAMCOR, which had been the biggest meat killing works in the southern hemisphere not long before that, were all saying,

    'You just don't understand what the name of the game is.'

Well that was the sort of attitude we had to overcome and our own feelings were that there may have been some merit in that. All these people that had been around during the previous twenty years, they really hadn't been able to handle it. Maybe it was impossible to handle maybe it was unreasonable but luckily we were backed into a corner where we didn't have too much to lose. And so the advice from the professionals did not prevail.

But we did get to a situation one weekend where I was rung up, I think at two in the morning, by Tony Street and again by Hawke and somebody else, and our other people around Australia were rung up and efforts were made to persuade us that it would be in our interest to come to a meeting and have an inquiry. Just to a meeting. Just to get together and talk.

Now I have to confess that I was thinking, 'God, you get tired after two and a half weeks of these things' and you start to think, 'well maybe we will' and Sam Burston rang and said 'I'm thinking about it and I am going home to think about it---going back to the hills of Casterton.'

So I rang a fellow called Jim Samson who was in charge of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association in Western Australia and before I had opened my mouth on the telephone he said,

    'If you bastards think you are going to a negotiation with Hawke and those fellows' he said 'we'll cut ourselves off from the organisation'.

I said 'Thanks, you've just made a decision for me---terrific.'

So that night Sam Burston rang me and said 'I have walked the hills of Casterton---I got a good bit of clean air into me---and I'm thinking straighter---and we are not going to meet with Hawke'. From that moment on, with all of those diversions out of our thoughts, we started to think about winning. Prior to that too much of our time was taken up with other people interfering with the idea, and the prospects, of winning.

That lesson certainly stood me in good stead later on at Mudginberri. Twice in the Mudginberri dispute we were very nicely asked by the Prime Minister, to go down to a negotiation which he would chair. It would have been totally unbiased chairmanship, and thank goodness we knocked it back.

I think that in those days there was so much interference from government bureaucracies, organisational bureaucracies, the business bureaucracy that it required a great effort of will to shrug off all this well meaning advice. Today, it would be easier, but then nobody was using the legal processes and that brings me to the next point.

What we really did, I suppose, in the live sheep dispute was achieve an avoidance of physical confrontation. We spent weeks trying to work out how we could get these sheep away without having the fisticuffs which plenty of our people wanted with the picketers. With a confrontation we would have been in the same situation that they were in and we just couldn't work it out. Luckily, again, some of these sheep started to die, and they died because they had as strange internal parasite from New England called fluke, and those sheep started to die when it started to get cold.

Ken Dingwell, who ran Metro, said to me one Sunday night

    'I want you to come out to the feedlot tomorrow, I have a big decision to make. You've been trying to persuade me to move a ship to Wallaroo for ten days and I am told we are losing a lot of sheep now with this rain'.

We went out there and although it has been played down I reckon there was three thousand dead sheep around that place. So he really had to decision to make and he said to me 'Can you get to Wallaroo wharf with some people on it by 3 o'clock this afternoon---because if you can do that I can move the ship'.

I rang the fellow, the president of the Wool Council of Australia, Chip Sawers, and Chip is a peace loving fellow. He knew that I might ring him sometime in the next few days but we weren't able to persuade anybody to move. I rang him, I remember very well at 10:05 in the morning, and I said

    'Chip, we spoke about you putting thirty people on the wharf at Wallaroo. There will be 500 there by six o'clock but you have to put thirty people there somehow by two to three o'clock.'

That was a good hour and a quarter, two hour drive away, and there was a deathly hush on the other end of the phone. He took a deep breath and said 'OK'.

He is a peace loving fellow and I have great admiration for the people who found it very tough to make those sort of decisions. Somehow he persuaded thirty blokes to get there in a hurry and of course the rest all turned up because their organisations got them there and we had occupation of the wharf.

That was the most important point because we had found out in all our approaches to the lawyers that if you tackle somebody who is picketing you will be up for assault, so we had to think up how we could put them in a position where they couldn't tackle us. The sheep went from Adelaide to Wallaroo and away they went.

I think there are one or two other short and interesting lessons that I would like to briefly share with you. One is if you have no logic in your argument, which the AMIEU didn't, you have a real battle if someone wants to stand up to you and stands up long enough. As I said they picketed at the wrong time of the year when we had nothing financial to lose.

They made another classical mistake, the first picket was against Elders and they had the Metro people free to export and while that was happening they had us in real trouble because Elders were the bad boys. They could pick up all sorts of reasons why Elders were bad boys and there was a lot of public sympathy. They had everything going for them but one morning at breakfast I heard that they had put a picket on the Metro sheep and I thought 'we're in', we've got a chance because the whole industry will now be against them. That was an important lesson for us. The mistakes they made. From that point of view, or from our point of view, I think it was a first for us and that's why it took a long time for us to have enough resolve to move.

We had to have the public relations battle won, we had to have the public sympathetic. We felt we had to have the public sympathetic. I don't think we would take that view today but back in 1978 I think we had to feel that we were in the right and that people thought we were in the right. I think we also felt that a lot of our farmers were quite apathetic about it in the first ten days and it took a while for them to feel angry enough to be determined.

So that's why the whole thing took so long and we got tremendous criticism from some for dallying, and other criticism from other people for being 'right wing nuts'. It was one of the first efforts where 45D was used and we did get an interim injunction. Interestingly I think that interim injunction is still in place, I'm not sure about the technicalities of that but it is quite an interesting point eleven years later.

We learnt that future prime ministers have very defective memories. That's one thing, because there is no doubt that Mr Hawke's recollection from the D'Alpuget biography that David told you about is absolutely incorrect. Somebody said earlier you have to make sure you do your own PR, otherwise somebody will do it for you and they'll get it wrong. The real fact was that Hawke was trying to persuade the AMIEU, all the time, to give in and he couldn't and finally when we went round their pickets we did a deal where we would agree that there would be no future court actions if they all went home.

And, all this nonsense about iron bars and guns and what-have-you, I mean there might have been one or two around but it wasn't obvious and I mean at no stage did I know that any pickets or farmers were in direct confrontation at all.

The most important thing for us I suppose, we learned that if you have enough resolve and you do enough work and you have right on your side you can win. Never go to an inquiry. If you're winning, the losing side always wants to talk. To me that was a big lesson, if you're winning, never go near them because you have a chance of being whiffled away.

I think the other thing is that I hadn't realised how unbelievably weak big employers were until that time. I suppose it was summed up in some respect by Jack Sutter, the assistant secretary of the AMIEU in South Australia, and at the end of it all he was sitting in his car, by himself, outside the loading yards where the fellows were loading sheep. I saw him sitting there and I said to him 'Jack it's all over'.

He said, 'yeah, we got talked into this by those bastards in Sydney'.

I said, 'Well, it serves you right, you shouldn't have taken any notice of them'.

He said, 'yeah, we were bloody fools', and drove off.

And from that moment on there hasn't been any problem with live sheep. I think the most important consequence of all was that it led to the amalgamation of the organisations in South Australia. It made the formation, as David said, of NFF miles easier. We learned that if you weren't together you were still going to get beaten. If we hadn't formed NFF we wouldn't have had any dispute over wide combs; we wouldn't have had voluntary unionism in the shearing industry; and we wouldn't have had Mudginberri with all its ramifications; and we would have no fighting fund; and we wouldn't have been able to afford all the industrial things that we have been doing over the last two or three years or four years; and we wouldn't have the ability to put on a show when justice and reason desert the opposition.

I suppose the last thing that came out of all this was that it was just the start for a few of us to realise that the law of the land will serve you better than all the arbitration nonsense because we finish up, at very best, in that circumstance with a 50% result. The real law can usually look after you if you can persuade anybody to use it.

I suppose all these things have stemmed from a little win in a little dispute. But it was one of the first and it has led and is going to lead to a lot of industrial action by the NFF and a lot of other people, including people in this room. I understand there is more to come, especially on the waterfront---watch the papers.