2001 ASSLH conference – The Tait inquiry and the 1956 Stevedoring Industry Act

Tom Sheridan
University of Adelaide


In the 1950s stevedoring took over from coalmining as the strategic flashpoint in national industrial relations. November 1954 saw a successful national strike against legislation which threatened the WWF’s dearly gained pre-entry closed shop. As some offset to unions’ indignation, a wide-ranging inquiry into the industry was announced. As well as closer control over wharfies, the shipowners urged the Inquiry to abolish the federal regulatory agency, the Stevedoring Industry Board. The Tait Committee’s findings were released in the aftermath of another, longer, national strike over wages. This time the ACTU retracted initial support, forcing wharfies back to work. The lobbying surrounding implementation of the Report revealed much about power and political process as well as the dynamics of the union movement in the wake of the ALP split.


The inquiry

Although the establishment of the Tait Inquiry in December 1954 was at first seen largely as a sop to angry ACTU and ALP complaints of precipitate amendments to the Stevedoring Industry Act, their subsequent embarrassing defeat left Harold Holt and his permanent head, Harry Bland, resolved to have the full weight of this formal Committee of Inquiry behind their next attempt to “sort out” the waterfront. Anxiety to retrieve their reputation after the 1954 setback made the duo impatient with the slow progress of the Inquiry. Similar impatience was even more marked among those conservatives who believed that the solution to the waterfront was both obvious and simple: end the Kremlin’s influence in the WWF. Shipowners, conservative politicians and newspaper proprietors all concurred. Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph spoke for many such when it asserted that:

the hold-ups on our wharves are mostly Communist frameups. We say further, that Red-inspired industrial troubles in this country—whether on the wharves or elsewhere—are not staged for the good of the workers but to disrupt the country. They are part of a world-wide campaign, inspired in Moscow, and directed against the welfare of non-Communist countries. And there is more than a strong presumption that industrial upheavals led by Reds in this country are partially financed from Moscow.1

At the time of the Tait Committee’s formation, Holt had directed it to make its report “with as little delay as possible” and, “if practicable” before the end of March.2 Yet in mid-February a Sydney Morning Herald editorial entitled “Slow Motion Inquiry on Stevedoring” was complaining of legal nit-picking by Tait’s committee and reminding the government both of its “ill-starred legislation” of 1954 and its earlier surprising failure to do anything about the 1952 Basten Report.3 In fact, slow progress was inevitable. Anyone either with knowledge of the old, break-bulk stevedoring of pre-container days or who cares to read the dense, closely printed, 308 page Report of the Tait Inquiry—let alone the more than 14,000 foolscap pages of the Inquiry transcript and the equally bulky Inquiry submissions and exhibits—will appreciate the gargantuan task which simply understanding this antique and complex industry presented to Messrs Tait, Gibson and Shortell. To this must be added the complexities, interruptions and delays presented by the 21 counsel, lawyers and lay advocates representing the major interested parties. By way of comparison, the official inquiry into the much smaller New Zealand industry had taken two years while Judge Ashburner reportedly confessed in mid-1956 that “he still didn’t know the industry after two years [as arbitrator]”.

Hearings proper began on 15 January 1955. Between then and 6 April the Inquiry managed 48 sitting days. Nevertheless, criticism of the Committee mounted swiftly. By mid-April Tait was responding to “please explain” letters from Holt in terms, inter alia, of the failure of shipping lines and stevedores to furnish requisite financial details. The Minister’s response upon learning that no report was yet in sight was to “suggest” that the Committee should now put matters such as freight rates and stevedoring profits to one side and focus its attention on certain “priority” issues. These included whether there should be a regulatory authority, who should recruit labour, how “flushes” of demand might be covered, how to improve workforce discipline and how to reduce needless stoppages of work. If this course was adopted, said Holt, then an interim report on these prime issues could be finished by 30 June and a final report encompassing secondary matters could be forthcoming by 31 August. While the Committee was so “very touchy” about criticism that Bland warned Holt to be particularly discreet when commenting in Parliament, Tait on 17 May did publicly set out future Inquiry procedures which prioritised investigations along the lines suggested by the Minister. This did not prevent Liberal South Australian Premier, Tom Playford, from sounding off at the June Premiers’ Conference about the inactivity of the federal government over the “deplorable state of affairs” on the waterfront and the “fabulously costly” nature of shipping services.

The Committee was forced to impose time limits on counsel submissions but Menzies in August indirectly suggested consideration of limiting proceedings by a short amending bill empowering Holt to list specific points to be addressed and fixing a time limit for the provision of answers. This notion foundered on Bland’s fears that “tinkering” with the process at this stage might well force Jim Shortell, the ACTU nominee, to withdraw from the Committee—particularly since a major factor retarding progress was the reluctance of employers to provide answers about their financial affairs. Shortell’s withdrawal would, of course, torpedo all hopes of separating the ACTU from the WWF when the government enacted legislation based on Tait’s eventual report. Given this reluctance the Inquiry continued at its own pace for the remainder of 1955, still retarded by the shipowners’ refusal to provide it with relevant financial information.

In a series of memoranda to Greg Gowans QC, the counsel representing the government, Bland savaged employers’ sagacity, tenacity and veracity. In his view, “the primary responsibility for making the waterfront work must rest with the employers” yet they continually shied away from it through a combination of short-sighted stupidity and cowardice. They refused to sit down with WWF leaders on the grounds they were communist yet seemed unaware that Jim Healy was running rings round them in every relevant public forum. The employers’ attitude in constantly rejecting conciliation in favour of legalistic arbitration was totally “negative and defeatist”. They always wanted the Arbitration Court, the ASIB or the government to do their dirty work but all too often shrank from the consequences. When the government provided them with custom-made legal weapons shipowners refused to use them. When the chief executive of the national line, MStJ Larkins, and his Shipping Minister, George McLeay, expressed simplistic views akin to those of the shipowners, Bland dismissed them contemptuously:

Criticism of [Larkins’ statement] would be superfluous beyond saying that the ideas are as uncritical as [Adelaide Steamships] Mr Haddy’s evidence…

At the risk of being charged with lese majeste, my comment would be that you would find in [McLeay’s letter] internal evidence of even less understanding and more inconsistency.5

Bland’s views on the union in no way matched the asperity of those on the shipowners. Typically, he personified the WWF in terms of its leader, Jim Healy, and his criticisms were usually couched in terms which showed respect for a cunning but able foe who was all too often disingenuous in his advocacy before Tait. Indeed, Bland overrated Healy’s powers, as he did the influence of the Maritime Worker’s “baleful propaganda” among wharfies. Elsewhere, however, Bland was more than ready to give the Federation credit for fulfilling its agreement to maintain port quotas, even in North Queensland where he acknowledged that the 1953 events in Bowen had been “an exception”.6

The interim report

The three week national waterfront strike at the beginning of 1956 lent new urgency to Holt’s and Bland’s desire for the Committee rapidly to produce an interim report on waterfront labour issues. During the dispute the Tait Committee privately revealed its willingness to submit its findings in two parts. Following a consequent formal request on 8 February from Holt, its 18,000 word Interim Report, dealing with labour matters, was handed to the Minister on 1 March and tabled in Parliament two weeks later. The Committee’s recommendations were grouped into five. First and foremost, a regulatory body such as the ASIB was deemed essential to handle the casual work force in such a markedly fluctuating labour market. It was needed to operate the bureau system and to supervise port quota fixation, registration and equitable allocation of labour. In future, it should play a more decisive role in labour quota maintenance including the power to recruit employees if necessary. Also, there should be joint conferences held at the port level to advise the authority on requisite quota levels.

On specific factors affecting efficiency of operations, the Committee basically agreed with shipowner claims on extended overtime, transfers, pick-ups and beams and hatches. Work losses through rain—which at least equalled the time lost through disputes—should be tackled by provision of protective clothing and further close investigation by the regulatory authority. Similarly, the authority should have power to investigate and then speedily reduce the far greater work losses caused by the “unproductive time” largely arising from poor management coordination of men and cargoes. Here, the “cost-plus” nature of the standard stevedoring contract gave little incentive for stevedores to be efficient.

On discipline, the Committee largely concentrated on employees. It pointed to the known drawbacks to using suspension as a disciplinary tool for wharfies and advocated some provision be made for fines—with the power to deregister being retained as a last resort. Employee perceptions of bias should be removed by suitably amending the Act to counter the effects of the 1953 High Court decision in the Melbourne Stevedoring Co case and allow the ASIB’s successor to fine, suspend or deregister firms for not properly and adequately controlling and supervising their allotted workers.

Under the fourth heading of “disputes and stoppages” the Committee reported that it was still investigating the problem. Nevertheless, in offering its conclusions so far, it clearly implied that wharfies and their union were largely to blame. It made no reference here to the bitter history of the waterfront. Nor did it touch on the major reason for the disputatious nature of the break-bulk industry—the virtual uniqueness of each cargo-mix to be handled. The Committee did, however, stress the lamentable failure of the Arbitration Court to settle the parties’ long outstanding logs of claims. In its opinion “an authoritative body in close touch with conditions from day to day at the port level”7 was needed to make prompt decisions on local issues in dispute. Here, the appointment in most ports of ASIB Local Representatives as the Board of Reference was noted approvingly. The conciliatory functions of port inspectors was also praised but their precise authority should be clearly defined so as to prevent them from in any way eroding the authority of management.

Finally, on “regulation and control”, while arguing that there must be no interference with the managerial prerogatives of individual employers, the Committee again stressed the need for a regulatory agency such as the ASIB. It felt that consideration should be given to the advisability of vesting in the statutory authority an arbitral as well as an administrative function. If so, the chairman should be an arbitration judge or commissioner. If not, “a man of wide general experience and proven administrative capacity”8 who had an intimate knowledge of the industry was needed. The other members (two minimum) should be drawn, not from stevedoring itself, but equally from the general ranks of employers and the trade union movement.


The media reception of the Interim Report was generally favourable. The Age editorialist read it as “a formidable indictment of archaic rules, ill-defined powers, statutory defects, cross purposes and antagonisms at work [on the waterfront]”.9 The newspaper’s “Canberra Correspondent” agreed, seeing it as very unlikely that this report would suffer the same neglect as had Basten’s in 1952, particularly since the ACTU could be expected to back recommendations made over the signature of so prominent a member of the ACTU Executive and NSW labour movement as Jim Shortell. The condemnation of the Interim Report, made “rather half-heartedly” by Jim Healy on behalf of the WWF, was only to be expected. This reference to the tenor of the WWF’s protests was justified inasmuch as the union had already steeled itself for the worst and its subsequent campaign against the report was, in truth, severely hobbled from the outset by the reluctance of the ACTU to commit itself fully to principles it had enunciated at the time of the Inquiry’s birth in December, 1954.

As Holt and the government well appreciated, the timing of the Interim Report was not good for the union whose members and leaders were greatly distracted by key developments on a number of fronts. It was issued, of course, in the immediate aftermath of the industry’s biggest postwar strike. The reluctant return to work took place amid considerable rank and file rancour readily vented first against perceived management pin-pricks and later against controversial arbitration hearings and decisions. In addition, the WWF’s personnel and financial resources were under considerable strain. In October 1956 Healy estimated that extra costs to the union of the Inquiry had by then amounted to £4,000 (approx $82,000 in 2000 prices). This figure did not, however, take into account the vital question of time necessarily spent by WWF officers in preparation for, and appearances at, the lengthy Inquiry. Healy himself was placed under enormous pressure. As he put it, competing with no less than eight Counsel and two Solicitors, all of whose clients were strongly critical of the union, “had the effect of taking me away from the actual work of the Federation and isolating me in a room involved, in many cases, in useless legal argument for 4 days a week”.10 Initially, arbitration officer, Norm Docker, provided assistance. A sudden illness not merely ended his input to the WWF’s case before the Inquiry but also forced Healy to take over Docker’s brief in the various hearings before the Arbitration Court. As the bargaining continued and the confrontation mounted, Sydney Branch Secretary, Tom Nelson, was brought in to assist Healy. When Healy’s absence at the crucial Ashburner hearings necessitated it, Nelson was left alone to represent the WWF before the Inquiry.

On the Interim Report, the union took the consistent line that no legislation could be contemplated until the Inquiry had fully completed its investigations into all aspects of the industry, including profitability, costing and the level of freight rates. This had been the ACTU’s position from the creation of the Inquiry and, throughout 1955, Jim Shortell had reassured the WWF that he would not countenance an Interim Report. Ever anxious to avoid a rift with the ACTU, Healy’s criticism of Shortell’s U-turn was greatly muted.11 Nevertheless, the Committee had clearly departed from its own declared procedure as set out in its statement of 17 May 1955. In the WWF’s view all issues to go before the Inquiry were interconnected. Those not yet reported upon by the Committee—largely because the shipowners were withholding financial data—had a crucial bearing on industrial relations.

As for the Interim Report’s specific recommendations, a major WWF complaint was that they often concerned issues which had not been discussed before the Inquiry at all or on which as yet only partial evidence had been presented. This was particularly the case concerning efficient practices. In fact, Healy felt sure that these recommendations were only included because they had been the focus of negotiations surrounding the national strike which was in progress when Holt wrote to the Committee asking urgently for an Interim Report. Throughout those negotiations—which involved Holt and Bland as well as the ACTU and the major waterfront parties—the WWF had been explicitly given to believe that all discussions were “without prejudice”. Yet here was the Committee, without having heard the wharfies’ side of the argument, plumping for the assertions which employers had made during the bargaining sessions. For the rest, the union agreed on the need for a regulatory authority. Preferably, it should be given arbitral powers and have a WWF member in its ranks. In addition, the keynote to any legislation should not be one-sided sanctions against employees but, rather, the promotion of contact and cooperation between management and labour. The best way to begin was to activate the still-born 1949 Waterfront Employment Committees.

The foremen’s spokesman, Frank Tayler, also challenged the Committee for making recommendations without first hearing any relevant evidence. Tayler’s main concern was the need for stevedoring industry insiders to be appointed to any new regulatory agency. In particular, he urged Holt to retain the inestimable services of Reggie Reed of James Patrick Stevedoring. He also favoured the re-appointment of Joe Hewitt as Chairman.12 Hewitt himself took very great personal satisfaction from the Inquiry’s vindicatory recommendation to retain a statutory authority—but opposed the idea of it being granted any arbitral power. A clear definition of respective powers was needed but the Court should be left to determine “wages, rates and remuneration and such conditions of work as are not settled by regulation by the Statutory Authority.”13 Otherwise Hewitt saw the Interim Report as incorporating “every fundamental submission” which the ASIB had put to the Committee.

The final major vested interest was, of course, the shipowners. RL Gilbert, their Counsel at the Inquiry, felt that,

the Committee has followed its assisting Counsel in adopting the criticisms of the ASIB and WWF put forward by the owners, making no real criticism of the employers, and making no suggestion or implication of inefficient practices by employers or owners; and, indeed, by implication approving many of the proposals put forward on behalf of employers.14

Two main dangers were noted. One was the possibility of a resurrection of much feared joint consultation committees through the proposed port conferences on quotas. Counsel’s major target was, however, the regulatory and arbitral power recommended for the statutory authority. The idea that it should be granted clear power to discipline employers “can only be described as outrageous.” To Gilbert, “it is clear that practically the whole field of industrial conditions in the stevedoring industry is intended to be withdrawn from the general arbitration system…and subjected to direct regulation [by the authority].”

On 10 March, Holt and Bland made their formal submission to Cabinet.15 In it they called for speedy action to give “full effect” to the Interim Report findings. The ACTU could hardly disown a unanimous report signed by Shortell—while any WWF reaction must be influenced “by the time that lapses between the last [ie. national] strike and the appearance of our legislation.” Holt accepted the need to eliminate the overlap of regulatory functions of the Arbitration Court and the ASIB. The former should deal with wages, hours, leave, attendance money and any appeals against the new authority’s disciplinary action. The new three-man authority—which should devote greater attention to industrial safety—must have full regulatory powers, against which no appeal should be allowed. He also advocated adoption of provisions “to cope with the continued intransigence of the [WWF].” These included avoiding specific references to the WWF in the new legislation, instead authorising the Minister to determine the relevant “Union” for each port. In the first instance this would be the WWF—but if it were deregistered some other union “could be declared to be the Union for that port.” Also, some conditions should be attached to the payment of attendance money16 along the lines of absenteeism penalties in coal mining awards. The holding of unauthorised stopwork meetings should be heavily penalised. On 23 March Cabinet authorised the Minister to proceed immediately with preparation of a bill along the proposed lines.17 Two months later, after discussions with all interested parties, Holt submitted his detailed recommendations to Cabinet. These revealed that, undoubtedly, the shipowners had proved to be the most effective lobbyists.

After consideration of legal opinion and after mutual consultation, the three shipowner associations formally advised the Minister of their joint views, listed under six heads:-

1.    Despite their arguments for deregulation before the Inquiry shipowners would cooperate fully with a new authority.
2.    Hewitt, who had been “hampered” in administering the ASIB, should be retained as Chairman of the new authority which should be restricted to three members.
3.    Port Committees were totally opposed.
4.    There must be no provision for suspension of employers.
5.    The Authority must have no power to regulate or control stevedoring operations or methods of work.
6.    The authority “should be quite unfettered by Departmental or Ministerial interference”18

By far “the most serious concern” naturally surrounded the regulatory power proposal which was seen as “quite inconsistent with freedom of enterprise, and opposed to Liberal [Party] policy”.19 During negotiations they reminded Holt of his and Menzies’ strong opposition to the regulation and control provisions of Chifley’s 1947 Act. Their lobbying was intensive and saw them gain increasing satisfaction as the proposed regulation and control powers of the authority were whittled away. By 2 May Bland was reassuring employers that the authority would not be able to tell them how to “run the job” and the Court would be left to deal with all key industrial issues.

The legislation

The influence of the shipowners’ non-stop lobbying of Ministers and backbenchers was clear throughout the original draft of the bill.20 To begin with, the new Stevedoring Industry Authority (ASIA) was to have more limited powers than its predecessor. The power to control the performance of stevedoring operations would be totally eliminated and the power to regulate would be limited “so that its exercise would avoid as far as possible impinging upon employers’ control of their labour and their methods of working”. ASIA’s functions would be clearly distinguished from those of the new Arbitration Commission and were obviously aimed at restraining the market power of the WWF. ASIA was able to make orders as to the manner of performance of stevedoring operations—but, since it could not transgress managerial prerogatives, this was a largely one-sided weapon aimed at wharfies. Any breaches of orders would not only be offences against the Act but be punishable by the contempt process before the new Industrial Court. Another sanction available against employees was suspension of attendance money by the Commission upon the Authority reporting “concerted stoppages” at a port. ASIA would have the power to recruit labour up to quota if the union failed to do so.

More surprisingly, it also was given the responsibility to organise for the use of supplementary labour in the evenings and weekends if union labour was insufficient to meet abnormal flushes of demand or “unpredictable labour shortages after bad weather, strikes etc.” In compensation, regular wharfies would be guaranteed a minimum wage for the four weeks succeeding the use of supplementary labour. The Bill would also allow for short term registration of wharfies to deal with seasonal demand in the Hobart fruit and Queensland sugar seasons. The WWF would have to accept as members any watersider recruited by ASIA and those registered for short periods. Efforts by the union or its allies to boycott such workers were prohibited by provisions based on the Crimes Act. The spokesman for the coastal shipping cartel had advanced similar supplementary labour proposals before the Inquiry21 but Tait’s Interim Report had given them but guarded approval and the shipowners had placed no emphasis on them in their negotiations with Holt and Bland. Their surprising inclusion in the legislation was quite abhorrent to the WWF and other unions and undoubtedly weakened the government’s case in the arena of public opinion. The only concession to the ACTU was that the clause allowing for supplementary labour could not be operated before 1 January 1957 and then only if the Minister had it proclaimed in the Gazette.

Specific references to the WWF in the old Act were replaced by the useful phrase, “the Union”, thus allowing for possible future replacement of the WWF by another body. More immediately, and of considerable long run import, the Bill barred waterside workers from the handling of loose bulk cargo where they were not handling such cargo in bulk at the date of commencement of the Act. ASIA could also grant exemptions from the need to use WWF members where an enterprise wished to use its own employees to handle commodities at wharves which formed part of the enterprise. Some such exemptions were longstanding—as for some BHP activities and for the Electrolytic Zinc Co at Risdon. Now, however, BHP was anxious to use its own employees when the new Inner Harbour at Port Kembla was constructed while the CSR Co and the Aluminium Commission had respectively made strong representations for non- WWF men to be used in future on North Queensland bulk sugar and Bell Bay ore.22 The only sop offered to the union was a decision not to make allowance for specialist non-rostered gangs. This, however, was more than outweighed by Holt’s acceptance of the shipowners’ vehement arguments against any kind of joint committees at port level.

Holt’s submission to Cabinet explicitly noted that the WWF was totally opposed to supplementary and short period labour and to any breach of its de facto recruitment rights. Consequently, “the possibility of a general stoppage cannot be dismissed.” This eventuality was canvassed in Cabinet but the only significant Cabinet amendment to Holt’s proposal was that, in deference to ACTU principles, the explicit power of the Minister to declare some other body than the WWF to be “the Union” should be deleted—although the possibility of ASIA declaring another organisation to be “the Union” or of another union appearing in future new ports was retained.23 Another change gave ASIA direct authority to suspend attendance money, leaving the union the right to appeal to the Arbitration Commission.

Reactions to the Stevedoring Industry Bill

The union’s response to the government’s proposals was predictable. The mood was captured in Maritime Worker’s first headline: “This Bill is Intolerable”.24 The overwhelming hostility of wharfies from top to bottom of the WWF was unmistakable. It dominated three issues of Maritime Worker which carried pages of alarmed analysis of the legislation combined with reports of its rejection by all strands of the labour movement, including grouper elements both inside and outside the WWF. The bill encapsulated all the wharfies’ worst fears. Vivid memories of pre-war “snipers” and “seagulls”, the 1928 Dog Collar Act, scabs, the strike-breaking P and C, blacklists and the degrading bull system fed alarmed predictions of enforced McCarthyite betrayal of workmates and frequent withholding of attendance money

Stopwork meeting in all ports denounced the government. Hostile agitation commenced in every state. Deputations and demonstrations left politicians, shipowners and general public in little doubt of wharfies’ unanimous viewpoint. Working bees, including wives and other concerned women, folded, addressed and delivered anti-bill circulars to a wide variety of interest groups including “cultural, servicemen’s, women’s and farmers’ organisations”.25

While WWF spokesmen often pitched their arguments in stereotyped language, their apparent hyperbole was understandable. The legislation did represent “an attack on the most basic trade union principles [and] allowed gross interference in trade union affairs, deliberately prescribing…use of non-union labour and imposition of harsh penalties”26 Given the prevailing Cold War polemics, the bitter example of the 1951 crushing of the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union and the WWF’s own experience in 1954, wharfies had every reason to agree with the depiction of the new measure by the usually temperate Jim Healy. His major concern was with Sections 40 and 43 providing for supplementary labour which he attacked on grounds of safety as well as trade union principle:

If ever an exposure was required of the stupidity of the Minister for Labour and his advisers, and the employer himself it is provided in this particular provision. It flew in the face of all the authorities on the dangers of employing fatigued labour, unskilled and inexperienced labour, that has completed its day’s work elsewhere.27

Yet, after regular wharfies had completed their day work at ordinary rates of pay, such tired and incompetent “scab” workers could be hired at overtime rates—and the union would be legally forced to accept them at lower contribution rates into the WWF:

Here we have the most blatant and unjustified interference in the internal affairs of Trade Union organisation ever attempted by any Government in this country…a monstrous invasion of Trade Union rights and a subversion of all accepted principles of democratic control, [which] must be fought to the absolute limit.28

The “boycott provision” of Section 44, “lifted straight out of the Crimes Act”, cast an extremely wide net whereby, it seemed, even a chance remark in a pub advising a casual inquirer that it might not be advisable to seek registration as a supplementary wharfie could be construed as a punishable offence under the Act. After outlining in detail to the WWF national delegates all the fearful potentialities of the legislation, Healy took the opportunity to reinforce his forthright message to the preceding Biennial Conference. Just as was the case in 1954, so the introduction of the 1956 amendments had been made so much easier for the government by the failure of some WWF branches—despite repeated warnings from Healy and other officers—to maintain their port quotas.29 Thus, along with a resolution to campaign “for the immediate repeal of all repressive legislation in both Federal and State spheres” the Conference carried a motion directing each Branch “at all times…to maintain their membership at a figure at least equal to the quota fixed for the port.” Failure to do so would be a “grave breach of WWF policy to be immediately dealt with by the Federal Council”.30

Incipient paranoia among wharfies was hardly lessened by government speakers in Parliament—or by the biased press reporting of the debates. Thus, for example, Dr Evatt’s major speech attacking the bill received less publicity than the vitriolic intervention made by Liberal member W C Wentworth. Purporting to make a point of order, Wentworth captured the headlines by recalling Evatt’s acceptance of the WWF brief in the High Court appeal against the 1950 Communist Party Dissolution Act. Before the Deputy Speaker finally ruled him out of order, Wentworth made great play of Healy’s presence in the public gallery and argued that the Leader of the Opposition was again “holding a brief for the [same] Communist paymaster” and was “addressing himself, not to this bill, but to making good the Communist cause.”31  Three days later Wentworth was suspended for further intemperate remarks32 but, of twelve Coalition speakers on the Bill’s Second Reading, only one forbore from kicking the trusty Communist can. The backbench speeches were particularly replete with images of anarchy and chaos produced in strategic industries where the red-wreckers held the national economy to ransom. Yet Holt himself set the tone by opening the debate with immediate reference to:

[the] regrettable degree [to which] Communists have infiltrated key sectors of our economy. The coalmining and waterfront unions are conspicuous examples of the way in which power has come into the hands of Communist officials, to be exercised by them for the purpose they serve.33

Other ministers sustained the theme. The second government speaker, Howard Beale, Minister for Supply, ran with the Wentworth ball, insisting that Evatt took his cues from “his bedfellow, Mr Healy”. Indeed, the Coalition was used to seeing “Opposition members automatically lining up with this publicly-avowed Communist leader of the [WWF]”.34 Fred Osborne, Minister for Customs & Excise, who was particularly close to shipowners, wound up the Second Reading debate with frequent references to “communist control” or “communist leadership” of the union. In between, Coalition backbenchers indulged in more extreme Cold War rhetoric, with notorious redbaiters Jim Killen and Jeff Bate making a special target of Jim Healy.35

ALP arguments that waterfront problems were not solely due to the WWF and its communist members received little attention in the news media. Evatt’s forensic criticism of the partisan bill was overshadowed by Wentworth’s smears. Evatt’s own hyperbole about the government being “controlled by the dark forces represented by the interstate and overseas shipping combines”36 was largely ignored. So too were Eddie Ward and Leslie Haylen, the Opposition’s most fiery speakers in the debate. For the latter, this “completely ruthless and rotten…bill is a shipowners’ bill, designed to give [them] power to regulate and control stevedoring operations for the profit motive…alone, and not in the interests of the national economy… Of all the pirates of civilisation, the shipowners are the champions”.37 E James Harrison made the common Labor link with the government’s simultaneous toughening of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act by claiming the bill to be “the second of a series of measures which may brand this session as the most aggressive near- fascist period in Commonwealth parliamentary history”.38

The most significant feature of the Senate debate was that, in addition to the ALP there were four other critics of the Bill. Grouper Tasmanian George Cole demonstrated the affront afforded to basic union principles by the “hasty”, “ill- conceived” and “provocative” bill39, which would, in his opinion, only help Healy and the communists—apparently through its obvious bias—to strengthen their grip on the waterfront. The three other dissident Senators came from within Government ranks and each felt that the Bill did not go far enough.40 This sentiment struck a chord in the conservative press—and not just the tabloids. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial recording the successful passage of the Bill referred to the Liberal senators’ feeling that the “Communist masters of the WWF” had been left “too much rope” by the legislation. Hence the broadsheet exhorted the ACTU to concern itself to loosen “the alien grip on our waterfront”.41 In casting the ACTU in a central role this Sydney editorial touched on the real nub of the issue. Given the way the parliamentary numbers lined up in Canberra it had always been inevitable that, once early drafts had been suitably amended to assuage shipowners’ fears, the legislation would be approved. Exactly how effective it might then prove to be depended largely on the level of support which the ACTU offered to the WWF in opposing the new Act. In fact, the ACTU Executive proved ready to denounce the clauses which obviously contradicted fundamental union principle. It was not, however, prepared to encourage much direct action on the waterfront. Shipowner fears that it would back a national port stoppage42 proved groundless.

The sixteen-man ACTU Interstate Executive assembled in Melbourne for one of its regular meetings on 29 May—the same day as Holt introduced the Stevedoring bill into Parliament. Given its crowded agenda the Executive did not formally discuss the measure until the evening of 1 June, after a scheduled afternoon meeting with Holt and Attorney- General John Spicer. The ACTU’s first expression of opinion was one of indignation at the conduct of a noisy WWF demonstration outside its meeting venue with the Minister. Such conduct, the ACTU majority argued, brought the union movement into disrepute and hindered successful negotiations. A letter was forwarded to the WWF registering “strong objections” and warning against any repetition of such behaviour. On the bill itself, a move by militants to have the Executive simply reject it outright was defeated. Instead, while calling for the bill’s withdrawal and re-drafting, the successful motion also instructed that, if the measure went through Parliament, ACTU officers should sit down with the WWF to draw up suitable amendments to the legislation. In the meantime, the Executive refused to back a strike to follow the WWF protest stopwork meetings scheduled for Wednesday, 6 June. Wharfies must wait for further guidance until a forthcoming three-day Special Congress was held on 20-22 June.43 Militants’ attempts at the Interstate Executive Meeting immediately before the Congress to offer general support for WWF industrial action against the bill were again defeated.44

The Special Congress had itself arisen out of discontent with the ACTU Executive’s change of heart during the national waterfront strike. After failing twice during the actual dispute to have the Executive reverse its U-turn, the militants in March initiated constitutional moves through the Melbourne THC and the South Australian UTLC to have a Special Congress to consider the Executive’s record in the dispute. The Emergency Executive then delayed holding the Congress until June. This allowed time for militants’ passions to cool and, allegedly,45 for Judge Ashburner to help the Executive majority by being able to issue his ameliatory Interim Award a few days before the Congress delegates assembled. By then four other items had been added to the agenda. One was the Stevedoring Industry Bill about which the WWF was now much more concerned than with any possible recriminations over the fast-receding margins dispute. Nevertheless, the debate over the Interstate Executive’s February policy reversal remained the first agenda item at the June Congress. When Albert Monk presented the official ACTU report on the three-week stoppage Healy, perforce, moved a dissenting amendment. He was, however, careful to add that, while this criticised the Executive it did not represent a censure.46  Even so, in an atmosphere charged by the ALP split the debate could not help but rekindle some old embers among the 428 delegates before Healy’s amendment was defeated by 222 votes to 160.

When the Stevedoring Industry Bill was considered next day predictions made in some Canberra quarters of a head-on conflict between left and right and of a lengthy waterfront strike and sympathy stoppages in other sectors47 proved unfounded. Healy and his fellow militants did not try to force the issue, settling for a compromise which reaffirmed the movement’s united stance in November 1954. President Monk strongly condemned the government for not complying with ACTU requests to withdraw and re-draft the measure. Fundamental objections remained. However, it was not yet clear how far the new Authority would actually try to implement the objectionable features. Hence Monk asked the Congress to authorise the Executive “to take whatever action it deems necessary to prevent implementation of measures to which the Trade Union Movement is opposed”. With the prior concurrence of his Executive he then accepted Healy’s amendment which, after congratulating the ALP for its “splendid fight” in parliament, called on all workers not to assist in the recruitment of any supplementary labour force on the waterfront. Whatever penalties the legislation might threaten, any such recruit should be regarded as “an industrial renegade”. After a number of speakers including John Maynes, the grouper leader of the Federated Clerks’ Union, had spoken in favour of the enlarged motion it was carried unanimously.

The formal ACTU backing for the WWF’s opposition to the Stevedoring Industry Act set out the theoretical position of the final player on the contested terrain of the waterfront. The first half of 1956 had seen a comprehensive burst of legislation, disputation and arbitration. None of the main waterfront actors could claim that unalloyed success had attended all their efforts—although some had more reasons for satisfaction than others. Holt and Bland could justifiably feel confident that important new weapons with which to threaten the WWF were now available to ASIA and the shipowners. Shipowners knew they had rid themselves of the ASIB’s threatening “interference”, avoided participation in joint Port Committees and obviated the need to use Federation members on new bulk terminals. The coastal lines had also had the government statutorily protect their product markets.48 The WWF, while increasingly paranoiac about the legislative assault on its position, did see a number of positive aspects to the long-awaited general award handed down by Ashburner in June. Also, if the shipowners and the State chose to draw on the heaviest weapon in the new armoury provided by the Stevedoring Industry Act and bring in supplementary labour, the union knew its consequent resistance would have at least the formal backing of both the political and industrial wings of the labour movement. In any case, as had been demonstrated after the 1954 amendments, what actually happened in future would depend not simply on the letter of the law but on the unpredictable interplay between a complex mosaic of economic and political events and the varying motives, psychology and bargaining power of the major waterfront actors.

1Editorial, Daily Telegraph, 10/2/55.
2 Holt, 26/11/54, AA B5498, Item 5.
3 SMH, 19/2/55.
4 Bland, “Improvements Effected by Present Bill Over Present Act” n.d. (19/6/56), AA B5498 Item 5.
5 Notes on Transcript p.4999, ibid.
6Ibid. For details of the confrontation at Bowen see Les Louis, “Operation Alien and the Cold War in Australia, 1950-1953”, Labour History, May 1992.
7 Commonwealth of Australia, Stevedoring Industry Act 1954. Interim Report by Committee of Inquiry, 28th February, 1956, p.19
8 Ibid, p. 22.
9 The Age, 19/3/56
10 WWF General Secretary’s Report, 1956 BCM, p.14, ANU NBA.
11 Ibid, p.15. See also “Views of the [WWF] on the Interim Report…” n.d. AA B146, 69/1389; Maritime Worker, 20/3/56, 24/4/56
12 Tayler to Holt, 26/3/56, 12/4/56, AA B146, 69/1389.
13 Hewitt to Holt, 5/3/56, AA B146, 69/1389
14 Re. Interim Report of Stevedoring Industry Committee of Inquiry. “Observations”, 19/3/56, ANU NBAC, E217/137.
15 Submission No. 78, 10/3/56, AA A4940/1 C1076 Part. 1.
16 This was a sum (approx. equal to 3 hours wages) paid to men not hired at the daily pick up.
17 Cabinet Submission No. 178, 21/5/56, AA A4940/1 C1076.
18 Haddy to Holt, 19/3/56, ibid.
19 ASOF Circular F62, 22/3/56, ibid.
20 Cabinet Submission No. 178, 21/5/56, A4940/1 C1076 Part 1..
21 Sheridan, “Shipowners, Stevedores and Foremen”, Journal of Industrial Relations, September 1996, p. 419.
22 For details of the negotiations between the companies and the government see AA B146 69/1389.
23 Cabinet Decision No. 220, 22/5/56, A4940/1 C1076, Part 1.
24 Maritime Worker, 7/6/56.
25 Ibid, 3/7/56
26 Ibid, 7/6/56
27 WWF Biennial Conference 1956, General Secretary’s Report, p.33
28 Ibid, p.35
29 Ibid, p.39
30 Biennial Conference 1956, Minutes, p.47
31 CPD, Vol X?, p. 2772
32 Ibid, p. 3005
33 Ibid, p. 2548
34 Ibid, pp. 2920-2
35 Ibid, pp 3930-3, .2938.
36 Ibid, p. 2784.
37 Ibid, p. 2955
38 Ibid, p 2973
39 CPD Vol. xy, (Senate), p. 1713
40 Ibid, pp. 1723-9, 1779-88
41 SMH, 22/6/56
42 Above, p.17
43 ACTU IE Minutes, 1/6/56
44 Ibid, 18/6/56
45 WWF Biennial Conference, Assistant General Secretary’s Report.
46 ACTU Special Congress Minutes, June 1956. See also ACTU, Agenda Paper and Report, “Waterfront Dispute, January—February, 1956”.
47 Inside Canberra, 24/5/56, 7/6/56
48 Sheridan, “Coastal Shipping and the Menzies Government, 1950-1966”, AEHR, March 1995.