Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Untold Story: The ACCC’s role in the Waterfront Dispute


Part 7 - Easter 1998 - Continued

Violence on the picket lines
By about 11am the picket line was becoming very agitated. They were shaking the gates at the entrance to the facility and it looked like they were going to break through.  We knew if this happened, we would be in a great deal of trouble.  We believed that it was fairly certain that if the picketers got through the gate they would beat up everybody on the wrong side of the picket line.

I remember I turned to my colleague when it looked like the fence was going to collapse and the picketers were going to swarm into the facility, to ask him what he thought we should do if that happened.  We both decided that we were too tired to run away and anyway there wouldn’t be anywhere on the dock to hide from the 1000 plus picketers.  We were also quite certain at the time that if the gates came down the fact we were ACCC officers would not matter to the picketers. Accordingly, we decided that our only option was to stand our ground and try to fight our way out. I know this sounds very dramatic, but that is what we had resolved to do at the time.

The manager of security came across to us and told us that we had to go inside. He explained that as part of the deal with the MUA, all the security guards and guard dogs had had to be “secured” in a room so they would not threaten the safety of the tugboat crews.  Apparently, some picketers had seen me and my colleague outside and had complained to Patrick that we had not been “secured”. 

At the time, I thought this was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard.  On the one side of the picket line, there were about 15 security guards, six guard dogs, one former British SAS officer, 2 Freehills lawyers, 1 cameraman and two ACCC officers. On the other side, there were at least 1000 picketers shouting out at the top of their voices that they were going to kill us.  And the MUA had the gall to claim that we posed a threat to them?

Anyway, we agreed to the manager’s request and went inside the building near the entrance to the container facility. This way we would be out of the sight of the picketers.  On entering this building, we were struck by how the entire inside of the building had been destroyed by the MUA workers when they were removed from the premises on the previous Tuesday.  All the filing cabinets had been opened and the documents strewn all over the floors, every piece of furniture which could be pushed over had been pushed over, property such as computers and other electrical equipment had been smashed, cabling had been pulled out of the walls, and the windows had been smashed. Obviously, the MUA had not gone quietly!

We were inside this building when the tugboats brought in the Australian Endeavour.  Once the vessel had berthed and been tied up, we were able to leave the building to watch the unloading. 

Fortunately, for us the gates did not collapse. I cannot remember precisely what distracted the mob, but it may have been the arrival of the bus with the non-union labour force. 

I remember watching as the bus of non-union workers approached the picket line. The picketers were hurling abuse at the occupants of the bus and throwing rocks.  As soon as the bus was close to the picket line it was swarmed upon by the picketers, who proceeded punch, kick and spit on the bus, and to hit the bus various makeshift clubs.  As far as I could see, the police who were in attendance did nothing to stop the wholesale destruction of the bus.

The bus finally made it inside the fence. I immediately went up to the bus to examine the damage.

Most of the windows had been smashed and there were hundreds of dents on every side of the bus. There was great deal of saliva on the side of the bus from where all the picketers had spat on it.  I suspect that the bus was so badly damaged that it had to be written off - every panel and almost every window would have had to be replaced.

The non-union labour force had obviously been expecting this less than friendly reception and had taken some precautions. They had brought mattresses on the bus, which they pushed up against the windows to protect the occupants from being assaulted or struck with projectiles. Even though the picketers were able to smash the windows, they were unable to assault any of the non-union workers inside because of the mattresses. Unfortunately, this was not the case at some other sites where non-union workers were assaulted by picketers.[1]

When the non-unionists got off the bus, they were visibly shaken.  I remember some of the workers looked as white as sheets when they got off the bus. 

This whole episode made me very angry.  These non-union workers were being used by both sides as the proverbial pawns in the entire Patrick – MUA game. 

First, I could not believe the barbarism of the picketers. I have no doubt that if the picketers had been able to get their hands on the occupants of the bus that they would have seriously injured or even killed these people.

Second, it seemed to me that it would have been very easy for Patrick to bring these workers in by boat or even by helicopter rather than requiring them to run the gauntlet of the picket line. I suspected then and still suspect now that these workers were sent through the picket line by Patrick for the cynical purpose of provoking the picketers into violence which Patrick could later use to try to turn public opinion against the MUA.

Arrival of the Australian Endeavour
Some time after the Australian Endeavour arrived at Port Botany, the non-union labourers started unloading the vessel. It was at this time that Corrigan arrived via helicopter.  He was followed by a steady stream of helicopters carrying journalists from every major news agency.  Corrigan had planned to helicopter in the reporters and then to hold a press conference. 

Once all the reporters had arrived, Corrigan gave a short speech during which he declared that today was a momentous day. He said that it was the first time in 50 years that a container ship had been loaded in Australia using non-MUA labour.  It was obvious to all that this was the story which Corrigan wanted all the reporters to report. 

Having worked with Professor Fels for a few years, I had learnt a great deal about dealing with the media. I knew immediately that 30 journalists were not going to write 30 stories with the same angle at the request of Corrigan. Each one of these journalists would be looking for their own individual angle on the day’s events. 

As soon as Corrigan opened the press conference for questions, he was hammered with questions from a multitude of different angles - very few of which adopted the line which Corrigan wanted them to report. I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing Corrigan’s discomfort at the questions which he was being asked. He was becoming more and more exasperated and angry at the media’s questioning.

When the press conference was over, the helicopters started shuttling the reporters and Patrick’s management out of Port Botany.  At one stage Patrick’s then Company Secretary, who had also been shuttled in with Corrigan, saw me amongst the crowd. He immediately came across to me for the sole purpose of telling me off because the ACCC had not yet commenced legal proceedings against the MUA. 

At this stage, I had been working for 31 hours straight and was in no mood to stand there and listen to abuse from anybody, much less somebody employed by Patrick. I must admit that at the time I gave some serious thought to just punching him in the head.  I thought that while this person was probably sitting at his local yacht club sipping a latte, approximately 30 non-union workers were taking their lives in their hands by trying to get through a 1000-strong mob.

I hate to say it but the APS Code of Conduct did not play a part in my decision not to punch him in the head.  Rather, the main reason I didn’t punch him in the head was because I was so exhausted – I am sure it would not have been much of a punch! Instead, I decided to walk away.

Extraction
After the press conference, the Assistant Director and I decided that it was time to leave.

The problem was that we had not worked out how we were going to get out.  It seemed that there was no option but to catch a helicopter ride out of Port Botany, as trying to walk out the front gate would have been suicide. By this time, the picket line was even more incensed as the non-union workers had started unloading the vessel. 

I should add that even to our untrained eyes, the non-union workers did not seem to very adept at unloading containers. They were going very slowly and we witnessed a few near mishaps.  However, given what these workers had just been through I think it was only fair to give them the benefit of the doubt.  I doubt I would be able to focus on my job properly either, if I had just been attacked by a mob of 1000 people.  

I realised that by this stage my Assistant Director was well and truly over the whole Port Botany experience. Indeed, I recalled an earlier warning sign that he was at the end of his tether and needed to go home.

A few hours before we had been wandering around the container facility by ourselves without the mandatory security guard and guard dog.  A security guard had approached us to tell us off for not following the security protocols.  My Assistant Director immediately turned to this security guard (who by the way must have 6 foot 6, a gym-junkie and armed with what appeared to be a extendable baton) and started to berate him at the top of his voice for 5 minutes about how the entire security arrangements were a joke and that one measly guard and a guard dog were not going to protect us from 1000 picketers.  The security guard just listened patiently to my Assistant Director's tirade and then simply said “okay” before walking away.

There were also a few signs that I was losing it as well.  For example, I remember going up to one of the security guards at one stage and asking him if I could pat his guard dog.  He looked at me as if I was mad and said “Yea, if you want to lose a hand!”

When the opportunity came for us to hitch a helicopter ride, I made sure my Assistant Director got on one of the first helicopters out.

I was forced to wait until the very last helicopter.  Despite the fact that I had been working over 30 hours by this stage, I soon discovered the futility of trying to push in front of a journalist for a seat on a helicopter when they are facing an Easter Saturday deadline.

I eventually got onto the very last helicopter ride out of Port Botany.  I strapped in, and tried to avoid eye contact with my fellow passengers.

I had a nervous moment when the person immediately next to me in the helicopter asked me, when we were in the air, whether I was one of the “Freehills lawyers”.  When I replied that I wasn’t a Freehills lawyer but rather was an ACCC officer I thought from the look on the guy's face that he was going to push me out of the helicopter.  Fortunately for me, Corrigan just shook his head and turned away with a slightly miffed look on his face. 

When we landed over at Mascot, I asked Corrigan’s bodyguard whether I could get a lift with them back to the city.  His bodyguard refused so I asked Corrigan directly. He agreed quite unenthusiastically. 

As we drove back to the city in Corrigan’s security van, he discussed with a colleague his frustration with the media and how they didn’t seem to want to run the story he wanted them to run. I thought to myself “This guy really needs some media training from Professor Fels”.  

I felt like telling him that he couldn’t expect 30 journalists to run a story about the days events from exactly the same angle – rather he should have tried to give the story exclusively to one paper and one television network. In this way, he may have been successful in getting somebody to run his preferred spin on the story.  However, I decided against giving Corrigan any media advice partly because I was bumming a ride and partly because I could see Corrigan was in a very bad mood. He has started the day believing that it would be his crowning glory– but it was now rapidly turning into a media fiasco.

When I got back to work, I jumped in a cab and went home.  By the time I got home, it was about 7pm. It dawned on me that I had been working continuously for 34 hours except for a five-minute nap on the wharf earlier that day.  I fell asleep as soon as I got home and woke up 17 hours later.

When I woke up, I asked myself whether our trip to Port Botany had been worthwhile?

It was clear that the entire escapade had been extremely dangerous for both of us – we had been chased by boats on Port Botany, stranded on a wharf at 1am, forced to climb over a deep pit in pitch darkness, had rocks thrown at us and had come perilously close to having to fight our way out of the container facility with our fists.  Add to that the fact that we had obtained virtually no evidence and you could hardly call it a red-letter day.

However, we did gain one important bit of intelligence from the whole Port Botany experience - we now knew unequivocally that both sides of the dispute hated us. It was apparent that Patrick hated us because they thought we were not sufficiently involved in the dispute, while the MUA hated us because they thought we were too involved in the dispute!



[1] “Attack on bus leaves four injured”, SHM, 16 April 1998, p. 16.

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