Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Untold Story: The ACCC’s role in the Waterfront Dispute - Part 6 - Easter 1998

Part 6 - Easter 1998


One of the most significant events in the entire dispute occurred on the Easter Weekend, which fell in early April 1998. The Australian Endeavour container ship, which was part of ANL, then a government owned shipping company, was to berth at Port Botany on Easter Saturday and be unloaded using non-union labour. This was to be the first time in over 50 years that an Australian container ship was to be unloaded by somebody other than the MUA. Indeed, Corrigan and Peter Reith were very publicly talking up this event as the decisive moment in the whole dispute. It was inevitable that the ACCC would be dragged in, whether we liked it or not.

We were obviously very busy trying to investigate simultaneous pickets in almost every container port in Australia, as well as trying to investigate the overseas conduct by the ITF in organising a global boycott. Accordingly, I had started work at 9am on Good Friday.

I had been working in my office for a few hours when I received a call from a senior manager who floated an idea by me. He explained that the Australian Endeavour was scheduled to arrive in Port Botany the next day, on Easter Saturday, 11 April 1998. He said Professor Fels wanted to get some ACCC officers onto the Australian Endeavour before it arrived at Port Botany so that he could announce that he had officers on the vessel who were safeguarding its passage into Port Botany. The idea was that the two officers would be put on the vessel – namely, me and my Assistant Director - via helicopter.

I carefully considered this proposal for about a nanosecond and politely but firmly refused the assignment. I decided to decline the assignment after carefully weighing up the following factors:
  • the very strong emotions that had been stirred up in the last few days;
  • the significance of the Australian Endeavour making it into Port Botany and being unloaded by non-union labour;
  • the fact that the Australian Endeavour was likely to be crewed by between 15 to 20 people, most of whom would be MUA members; and
  • (the decisive factor) the fact that I was not a very strong swimmer.
I was genuinely concerned that both I and my Assistant Director may end up going over the side of the Australian Endeavour either accidentally or on purpose. I thought our presence would be much too inflammatory for the dozen or so angry MUA crew members on board the vessel.

I subsequently discovered that the ship’s captain was also not very keen on the plan. In addition to having concerns about our safety, he was also concerned that the two ACCC landlubbers would end up getting seasick.

A while later I received another call from this same senior manager who suggested a different and marginally less hair-brained scheme – namely to “embed” both me and my Assistant Director inside the Patrick Port Botany container facility, behind the picket lines. This would allow Professor Fels to say that he had ACCC officers on the wharf. For some reason I agreed to this proposal, mainly because I though it was a much safer option that Plan A.

I started to regret my decision when I received my detailed instructions on how we were supposed to get to Port Botany. We had to meet two of Corrigan’s lawyers, from the Freehills law firm, at the Opera House wharf at midnight on Good Friday and then get on board a high speed charter vessel, which would take us to Port Botany. I seem to recall I may have been provided with a password to use when we met up with the Freehills lawyers. I cannot recall what the password was, but it was probably something like “Rosebud”.

Getting behind the picket lines

Accordingly, we made our way down to the Opera House and met up with the two Freehills lawyers at midnight. We went around behind the Opera House to the wharf and there boarded a high speed charter vessel which was to take us to Port Botany under cover of darkness.

Once we were aboard the charter boat, we met our fellow passengers in addition to the two Freehills lawyers:
  • the captain and his first mate who appeared to me to be quite terrified at the prospect of taking us to Port Botany; 
  • a former British SAS officer who had been hired by Corrigan to provide advice on security issues; and 
  • a cameraman whose role it was to capture video footage of the boycott activity.
We set sail for Port Botany. The former British SAS officer surprisingly decided to take a nap, presumably to prepare himself for the tasks ahead. The Freehills lawyers went up to the deck to keep an eye out for any MUA any vessels which may be trying to intercept us.

Meanwhile I, the cameraman, and the Assistant Director decided to avail ourselves of the hospitality on the charter vessel. After a couple of beers and bourbons, we were summoned onto the deck by the Freehills lawyers. They explained to us that the MUA had set up a makeshift flotilla of small vessels in Port Botany whose role it was to intercept any vessels seeking to get in behind the picket lines from the open sea. I admitted that I could not see any of these MUA vessels because it was so dark. The reason I could not see these vessels was because they had all turned off their lights so they would not be spotted by people like us.

However, the Freehills lawyers had come prepared – they had a pair of night vision binoculars. I was so excited at the prospect trying out a pair of night vision binoculars, that I grabbed the pair from the Freehills lawyer’s neck without first giving him an opportunity to take the strap off. After apologising for accidentally garrotting him, I was able to make out a few small MUA crewed vessels sailing around Port Botany looking for intruders.

I was curious why the people on these vessels appeared unable to see us. The captain explained to me that the reason they could not see us was because he had also decided to leave his lights off. He was worried that his vessel may be identified by the MUA, which may subsequently result in recriminations and reprisals.

Fortunately, the charter vessel we were in was much more powerful and manoeuvrable than the small MUA vessels which were trying to intercept us, so we were able to navigate our way through the flotilla without incident. One vessel was able to get quite close to us, but all the person on board could do was hurl a few insults at us before we left him in our wake.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at Port Botany the captain, in his haste to get away, dropped us off at the wrong location. Instead of letting us off on the Patrick’s wharf, he let us off on a small wharf which was not actually attached to the Patrick’s wharf. Accordingly, we had to get across a fairly large gap between the place where we had been dropped off and the Patrick wharf without falling into a dark hole which appeared to be four or five metres deep. What made our task more difficult was that it at about 1am in the morning and pitch dark.

One of the security guards on the Patrick’s wharf had been expecting us. When he realised we were stranded on the wrong side of the wharf, he went and retrieved a ladder which he put over the gap. The idea was that we would climb across the ladder to get to the correct side of the wharf.

I climbed across quite slowly. When I got to the other side, I thought I should assist the next person to come across by holding down the end of the ladder to make sure it was secure. Foolishly, rather than putting my foot on the ladder where it was resting on the wharf, I put my foot on the ladder at the point where it overhung the wharf. The result was that the ladder shot up in the air just as the former British SAS officer was seeking to cross the ladder. Unfortunately, it struck him between the legs.

Even though I immediately apologised, he did not look very impressed by what I had done. I thought for a moment whether it might be safer for me if he did not actually get across to the Patrick wharf. Accordingly, I gave a fleeting thought to pulling the ladder across to my side and leaving him stranded on the other side. I decided against this strategy as it would no doubt have just have antagonised him even more.

Embedded behind the picket lines

Once we had all made it over to the correct side of the wharf, we travelled to the main office to meet the manager in charge of security. On entering the main office, we noticed that all the offices had been trashed – papers were all over the floor and furniture had been smashed or pushed over. We asked what the Freehills lawyers what had happened. They told us that the MUA staff had trashed most of the offices when they were removed from the premises the previous Tuesday.

We met the manager in charge of security at Port Botany, who explained the safety rules. We were to go nowhere outside the main office without being escorted by at least one security guard and a guard dog. He also advised us that he could not be responsible for our safety if we did not follow this direction.

The site was occupied by about 15 security guards and about half a dozen Doberman or German shepherd guard dogs. I must admit they looked like a very tough lot. Contrary to what I had expected, they did not walk around with balaclavas.

We immediately asked to do a tour of the facility. We left the office with a couple of security guards and guard dog. It must have been about 2am by the time we started inspecting the facility.

The first thing we noticed was that there was a small group of protestors outside the facility. On seeing us, these protestors decided to follow us around the facility from the other side of the fence.

This small band of protesters initially hurled a variety of insults at us, which did not phase us very much. However, when we got a little bit too close to the perimeter fence a hail of rocks of various sizes rained down on us. We quickly retreated to a safer distance.

I noticed that my Assistant Director appeared to be picking up one of the recently launched projectiles. I worked out that it may have been his intent to send the projectile back to its source. I immediately stopped him and explained that while my knowledge of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct was fairly sketchy, I was pretty sure it did not permit us to throw rocks at the picketers, even if they had thrown rocks at us first.

I also noticed a small red light flickering around on our head and torsos. We were quite puzzled at what this red light was. The security guard explained to us that it was the infrared light from a laser pointer. He said that the picketers had brought some of these laser pointers to the docks to try to scare the guards at night into believed that the light was in fact the infrared sight on a high powered rifle.

I had decided before heading to Port Botany not to bother carrying a note book as in pitch darkness and being on the move it would have been impossible to take written notes. Rather I brought a small hand held tape recorder, which I could use to make audio recordings of any observations or potential witness interviews. I decided to tape a few examples of the abuse being hurled at us by protestors so that I would be able to give the staff back at the ACCC some idea of what it was like at the facility.

After doing our tour, we spent some time thinking about the likely course of events later that day when the Australian Endeavour arrived. We knew that there were three possible places where the MUA could take action to impede the Australian Endeavour arriving and being unloaded- either:
(a) the MUA staff on the Australian Endeavour may do something to prevent that vessel coming into Port Botany; 
(b) the MUA staff on the tugboats may refuse to bring the Australian Endeavour into Port Botany; and/or 
(c) the picket line may prevent the buses of non-union labour from getting through the picket lines.
Given that we knew that the Australian Endeavour was owned by the Commonwealth Government, we doubted that the MUA would be able to do much to stop the vessel from coming into the port.

We thought the main risk was that the MUA may withdraw towage services. It was for this reason that we had sent the MUA yet another warning letter the day before cautioning them against withdrawing towage services to the Australian Endeavour.

As morning approached, there was a great degree of anticipation. The picket line at the entrance to the facility had grown so that it was now more than 1000 picketers. The picketers started chanting and hurling insults at anybody they could see inside the facility, including us. It was apparent to us that the picket line was getting to such a size that the few police outside the facility would not be able to do anything to restrain its actions. That was assuming that they had been of a mind to do so, which they clearly were not.

Word got to us that the MUA crews on the tugboats had refused to bring the Australian Endeavour into port. The MUA’s alleged concern had been with safety – namely, that the tugboat crews were at risk from the security guards and guard dogs. Accordingly, the Australian Endeavour had to wait off the coast for a number of hours until a solution could be worked out.

I remember the Managing Director of Adsteam, which owned the tugboats, arriving at the MUA office to try to convince the MUA to change their decision about providing towage services. After a number of hours, he had brokered a deal with the MUA, whereby they agreed to provide the towage services. The MUA would provide towage services on condition that the security personnel and dogs were placed in a secure area well away from the tugboat crew prior to the tugs arriving.

We went out to the loading area of the wharf to await the arrival of the Australian Endeavour. By this time, I had been working for more than 24 hours straight and I was incredibly tired. I had been sitting on the wharf for a short time, when I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds. Before I knew it, I was fast asleep on the middle of the wharf near one of the large cranes. I was woken up by the sound of helicopters above me. I quickly realised that the helicopters were from various televisions networks and that a number of them had cameramen hanging out of the helicopters to film activity (and potentially inactivity) on the wharf.

I realised that it would have been very embarrassing not only for me but also for the ACCC and for Professor Fels if the evening news had featured images of one of the ACCC’s apparently fearless and intrepid investigators lying flat on his back asleep on the wharf. Accordingly, I quickly woke myself up and tried to look as fearless and intrepid as I could.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent story. Very entertaining and funny--especially Part 6. I want to know what happened next.