Release type: Transcript


Interview - Chris O'Keefe, 2GB Sydney


The Hon Tony Burke MP
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
Minister for the Arts


CHRIS O’KEEFE, HOST: So the dispute between DP World and – which is a Dubai-based logistics company, has container terminals all around the country, including here at Port Botany – and the dispute between DP World and the MUA – the Maritime Union of Australia – it’s nowhere closer to a resolution. Nowhere. It’s hard sometimes I think to separate fact from fiction when you’re trying to wade through industrial disputes. That’s been my experience anyway trying to cover them from the outside in. 

So, DP World, clearly, has an angle that they want to try and bend the workforce the best they can to its will. The MUA on the other hand has an angle, and they’ve got a long history, don’t they, of sort of militant obstinance. And it almost gets to the point with the MUA sometimes it looks like they almost enjoy being merchants of chaos or something. Regardless, this is what’s happening at the moment. 

So, DP World claims the industrial action, which are work bans by the MUA at container terminals in Australia, is causing major delays and costing Australia’s economy $80 million a week. Now, I don’t believe that number - 80 million a week. There is no way of calculating something like that. But what can’t be argued is the terminals where 40 per cent of the country’s containers come through, well, they’re working very sluggishly and goods – well, goods are being delayed. I was speaking to a furniture company just the other day and they’re looking at six-week delays as a result of trying to get their containers through the DP World container terminals. 

Now, the reason the MUA is doing all of this is because the union wants a 16 per cent wage increase over two years, and their justification for that number – which is 8 per cent a year – it would be roughly the same as what rival stevedore, Patrick ended up paying their guys. And wharfies, they get paid around $83,000 but with overtime and penalties and conditions and all the rest of it averages out at about $130,000 a year to work as a wharfie. 

But whatever the case, this seems bad for Australia. It is bad for the economy and surely it can’t continue the way it is. If DP World and the MUA can’t negotiate in good faith – and, let’s be honest, the MUA is not a pleasant organisation nor a friendly organisation to deal with; I’ve had firsthand experience of that – then surely something must give, surely. 

And I would have thought the person who would ensure that something would give would be the Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. And I’m pleased to say he’s on the line. Minister, thanks for your time. 

TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: G’day, Chris. Thanks for that. And can I say, that’s probably the most thorough introduction in terms of the different perspectives and challenges on this issue I’ve heard. 

O’KEEFE: Well, you know what? Call me old fashioned, but don’t you as a Minister, grab -figuratively, one by the scruff of the neck and the other by the scruff of the neck, force them in a room and go, “Sort it out”? 

BURKE: Well, I think that’s what I did yesterday, I’ve got to say. The reality in any of these disputes is the workers and the employers actually ultimately have the same interest. Ultimately the interest is that they want the business to be profitable and they want to be able to reach an agreement. That’s the only way to a pathway for a pay rise for the workers as well and the pathway to ease of business for the company. They’ve got common interests here. 

One of the challenges that had built up over the recent weeks was the company - I think - was working on the basis they had a bit of a raffle ticket that maybe I might ride in and just solve the whole thing so they didn’t have to negotiate the same way. And what I wanted to make clear yesterday was I expect them to do the same as what every other business in Australia does, which is you sit down, everybody has to give a bit and you negotiate and you reach an agreement. And I’ve got to say, in talking to the parties in the meeting yesterday – I don’t carry a view as Minister on each individual claim that they put back and forth – they’re not that far apart. It is possible for them to reach agreement. 

O’KEEFE: So what’s the sticking point? 

BURKE: But I don’t think they were ever going to get there if they were working on the basis that I was about to ride in and intervene over the top. 

O’KEEFE: Well, what’s the sticking point then, if they’re not too far off on your calculation? 

BURKE: Nothing’s resolved until everything’s resolved. I can’t just say it’s this one issue. But – 

O’KEEFE: Is it personality, though? Is it personality? Is it arrogance? What is it? 

BURKE: I think the key challenge has been that they thought there was going to be a ministerial intervention. That’s what I think it was. If you don’t think you’re going to have to end up landing an agreement, if you don’t think you’re going to have to negotiate an outcome with each other, then the standoff continues. 

This is where – yeah, there is a power for ministers to intervene, but that same power is there for the company. It’s the same legal test if the company wants to intervene and ask for it all to be called off. If they actually thought that the premise that was there in the act had already been reached, they would have done it themselves. They haven’t. They’ve been building it up. They’ve been wanting to get a bit of a political outcome to stall things, and I think – and I’ve got a lot of confidence actually after what I’ve seen the company say in the media today – that they are committed now and the union with their public comments as well, to using the process that’s there and getting an outcome, which isn’t just in the common interests of them; it’s in the common interests of the whole of the Australian economy. 

O’KEEFE: Sure. I know you say that they were sort of playing for a ministerial intervention, but if that was the case, they would have known that a ministerial intervention - which is termination of industrial action, comes with the Fair Work Commission, a ruling from the Fair Work Commission. And the ruling from the Fair Work Commission might not have been all that good for DP World. 

So why were they doing that? That doesn’t seem logical to me. 

BURKE: I don’t think it was logical. I don’t know where they were getting their advice from. 

O’KEEFE: Well, they’re a multinational port company. They’ve got a lot more money than you and I do. So I think they pretty well know what they’re doing. Maybe what they’re saying is accurate, Minister? 

BURKE: In terms of, what, that I was going to intervene? 

O’KEEFE: No, if they were betting that you would intervene, what I’m saying is if you’re sitting there as the CEO and you’re making that bet knowing that the Fair Work Commission, the consequence of that is the Fair Work Commission will make a determination on the pay increase one way or the other, and that determination may not well suit DP World. That’s a big risk to take. 

BURKE: I want - as happens in every other business around the country - for the company and the workers to sit down and sort it out and agree. And there are difficult negotiations that happen all the time. It’s been very rare for a business to try to call me in to personally intervene in this way. The one time I have intervened was actually when it was the same CEO who’s now at DP World, and maybe that’s what he’s recalling. But that was when the company that he was in charge of at the time, Svitzer, tried to shut down every single major port in Australia. 

O’KEEFE: Yeah, but that was after a three year dispute and 1,100 industrial actions. It wasn’t just off the back of nothing. 

BURKE: You want to talk damage to the Australian economy, shut down every single – 

O’KEEFE: Yeah, but what is he supposed to do after three years? 

BURKE: Well, I don’t think anyone’s got the right to shut down the Australian economy. 

O’KEEFE: Well, that’s what the MUA’s trying to do, isn’t it? 

BURKE: No. No, no, no. You never would have got permission from the Fair Work Commission for the specific actions they’re taking. What’s happening at the moment – and some of this you covered in your intro, where you questioned the dollar figure that’s out there – there’s no doubt there’s an impact at the moment, but what’s happening at the moment is a lot of the cargo that’s not being unloaded by DP World is going to their competitors, companies like Patrick. 

The other thing that I’m advised is happening is where it’s a 2-hour strike at the beginning of the shift or 2 hours of industrial action at the beginning of the shift, the company is bringing on extra people for the remaining 6 hours. So the total movement, yes, there’s an impact – and you gave one of the examples of that – but it’s nothing like a 25 per cent impact that is otherwise being calculated. It just isn’t. 

O’KEEFE: Do you think that the MUA bosses enjoy this a little bit? 

BURKE: Well, I hope not. I certainly don’t. 

O’KEEFE: Well, you know them. The Australian Labor Party took $4.3 million in donations from the CFMEU. Obviously, you know them very well.

BURKE: Don’t forget here every worker that goes on strike is taking pay cuts when they’re on strike as well. Let’s not pretend that during industrial action there isn’t pain in every direction. There is. And that’s part of the common interest in getting this thing sorted out. 

O’KEEFE: Yeah, but do you think they enjoy it? 

BURKE: I don’t think anyone enjoys having a pay cut. Ever. 

O’KEEFE: Yeah, but the bosses of the Maritime Union of Australia? Do you think they enjoy sort of the chaos of it? 

BURKE: The industrial action only happens if the workers themselves vote for it. You know, they have to have a ballot to be able to take industrial action. 

O’KEEFE: Yeah, but you know how that works. You know how that works. But there’s not going to be anyone put their hands up as a, you know, as a common and garden wharfie and say, “Oh, sorry, fellas, I’m not going to vote for that one.” Doesn’t happen. 

BURKE: Not every decision for stopping work gets up around workforces around Australia. It just doesn’t always. That’s just a fact. 

O’KEEFE: In the MUA it does. I found it strange, though, in your press conference yesterday, you were talking a lot about DP World. Do you have any criticism to level at the MUA at all? 

BURKE: I said in that media conference yesterday that everybody has to give ground to be able to reach an agreement. 

O’KEEFE: Okay, well, from your calculation, what ground does the MUA have to give? 

BURKE: No, no, no. The moment you do that, I’ve effectively given the intervention that I’ve said I wouldn’t give. 

But I’ve been very clear that nobody walks away from a dispute like this saying to their own team - if you want to call it that - that they won everything. There is no outcome in a negotiation without give and take. There’s no outcome in a negotiation without people recognising the common interests between businesses and workers. And there’s no outcome without each side being willing to put forward some concessions that at the start of the negotiations they didn’t think they’d put forward. That’s how you get to an outcome. And I’ve made that very clear in both meetings yesterday – the meeting I had with the company and the meeting I had with the union. 

O’KEEFE: Well, let’s hope that we get somewhere with it because we can’t have the ports paralysed under any circumstance. And I’m not saying that it is, they’re not paralysed; they’re just a little sluggish at the moment as a result of the industrial action. 

Tony Burke, Minister for Workplace Relations, I appreciate your time. Thanks for jumping on. 

BURKE: Great to talk to you, Chris.