Back to the Waterfront


NR Evans

There are two industries which symbolise, for the Australian people, all that is bad in our industrial relations regime. Those industries are the waterfront and the airports. As air travel has become cheaper, particularly since de-regulation, very many Australians have experienced air-refuellers stoppages, baggage-handlers stopwork meetings, and air traffic control delays. These experiences have undoubtedly contributed to the decline in public support for trade unionism which has become evident in the last decade.

Because the waterfront is remote from most people's experience the abuse of union monopoly power, which has been characteristic of the industry for many decades, is known and understood by relatively few people. But the cost to Australia, cumulated over these years, has been incalculable.

Australia is a small country whose prosperity has always been dependent on exporting commodities to metropolitan markets. The cost of transporting those commodities has, from the earliest days of European settlement, been a crucial determinant of economic success or failure.

  • Despite the economic and strategic importance of our waterfront industry it became one of the most expensive and inefficient in the world. There have been numerous official inquiries into the industry, the most recent being the Inter-State Commission (ISC) Reports of 1988 and 1989. These documents were discussed at the H R Nicholls Conference, 'Legacy of the Hungry Mile', of August 1989.

At the 'Back to the Waterfront' Conference of September 1990, the Society was privileged to have as Guest of Honour, Mr Nicholas Finney, formerly Managing Director of the British Ports Federation. Mr Finney had driven the campaign which culminated in the repeal of the Dock Labour Scheme in Britain by Act of Parliament in 1989. The Dock Labour Scheme had been brought in by the Attlee Government and established a statutory union monopoly for the majority of British Ports. Mr Finney gave an enthralling account of the nature of the British waterfront prior to repeal (it bore a striking resemblance to our Australian experience), of the campaign to bring about repeal, and of the changes which had occurred since repeal.

Other papers on waterfront issues at this conference were given by Peter Barnard and David Trebeck.

The waterfront was not the only matter of concern. Other papers at this conference deal with developments that were topical in 1990, and are of historical interest today. The H R Nicholls Society is pleased that, after regrettable delay, this volume is now available to the public.

N R Evans
President, August 1992