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On the waterfront

Four years after the MUA settled with Patrick, Stephen Long reports on working conditions, Stuart Macintyre recalls the dispute and Christopher Sheil reflects on our own War on the wharves.

A pain for Patrick

Stephen Long

Chris Corrigan was exultant. "Imagine the reaction if I'd stood here last year and declared that by February 1999 at Patrick, 'the nick' [as in nick off early] will be gone ... almost all overtime will be gone and 800 of our workforce will be gone," he told a who's who of the shipping industry five months after peace was declared in the great waterfront battle. "And those who remain will be working one man, one machine, on eight-hour shifts with one break on far more flexible rosters."

"One man per machine" was pivotal to the reforms that Patrick Corp (formerly Patrick Stevedores) won in the titanic docks dispute four years ago. It allowed Corrigan to halve his workforce and boost profits while helping to lift labour productivity to record levels. But that system is now the subject of criminal proceedings brought against Patrick by the Maritime Union of Australia. Corrigan's company stands accused of five counts of criminal disregard of workers' safety because, according to the MUA, it knowingly made workers drive towering mobile cranes called straddles for dangerous lengths of time.

The union's barrister has brought before the court six workers with back, neck and shoulder injuries that the MUA claims are representative of some 120 other employees who suffered pain or disability after driving straddles. Some of the employee witnesses had pre-existing problems that doctors said were exacerbated by the work. Others had no prior history of injury.

Corrigan, who was accused of conspiring with the Howard Government to smash the MUA, could be forgiven for thinking the tables have now been turned. Usually, it's the State Workcover authorities that prosecute businesses under health and safety laws. This time, the safety police are conspicuously absent, but the MUA, a federally registered union, has taken on the role of prosecutor under NSW law with special consent from the State Labor Government. Patrick claims this is a legal first. But if the MUA succeeds, it may not be the last.

Corrigan has dismissed the prosecution as an industrial stunt. His lawyers say Patrick has no case to answer. And the mastermind of the docks dispute has accelerated his plan to introduce driverless "robot" cranes at Patrick's ports in response to the prosecution - a move that would further thin the ranks of MUA members on the wharves. But if Patrick loses the case, the consequences could be severe. At the very least, the company could face hefty fines - each offence carries a penalty of up to $550,000. In the worst scenario, Corrigan could be forced to scrap or modify some of the reforms he won by taking on the MUA.

No one expects a return to the bad old days, but the judge hearing the case has the power to make "remedial orders" against Patrick that could force it to change work practices. This would be an embarrassment for a company that derided the rest breaks and job rotation, enforced by the union before the docks dispute, as "rorts" that propped up excessive manning.

What is the substance of the case against Patrick? Confidential documents unearthed for the case show that Patrick moved to a "one man per machine" operation at its container ports after the docks dispute against the advice of health and safety consultants. Workers were expected to drive a straddle for their entire 7-hour shift, save for one 45-minute break, under the changes Patrick introduced. Employees could be at the helm of the straddle for 3 hours at a time - far longer than previously.

A specialist doctor who examined injured workers at Patrick's request has criticised this system of work, finding that employees suffered injuries because of the excessive time they had to drive straddles without being relieved. His opinion tallies with advice that numerous experts gave Corrigan's company: the design of the straddles was inherently dangerous, and employees doing the work should have more frequent breaks and job rotation.

Dr James G. Bodel would not normally be regarded as the workers' friend. An orthopaedic surgeon, he runs a medico-legal practice from offices in the St James Trust Building in Sydney. Insurance companies defending workers' compensation claims make up about 90 per cent of his clientele. He was the doctor of choice when Patrick's Port Botany operations manager, Brendan Bilston, sought an independent assessment of the injured workers at the centre of the legal action.

Yet Bodel was to become a star witness for the prosecution. In confidential medico-legal assessments prepared for Patrick, which were subpoenaed by the MUA, he said workers had suffered pain and injury because driving straddles required them to hold extreme postures for excessive lengths of time. Bodel recommended that employees be allowed to rotate between straddle operation and other duties every two hours - a practice that Patrick scrapped after the docks dispute. Driving straddles seemed to require employees to do "something extreme with their neck and their back for the vast majority of the time", he told the hearings before Justice Wayne Haylen of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission in court session. "The longer the period of time, the more damage that is potentially being done," he said.

Why so? The core problem is that the straddle carrier moves sideways along the wharf, like a crab. The driver, who faces forward to manoeuvre shipping containers, sits side-on to the direction of travel and is constantly turning his or her neck to the side. Although a fit person in their 20s or 30s could probably cope with the work all day, every day, Bodel strongly recommended against this. "Anybody at any age, I don't believe, should do what I have ... observed being done for an excessive amount of time," he said. "The older a person would become, the less time they should do that type of work."

Patrick's lawyers are yet to present the defence case. But the question that arises from the prosecution's evidence is: why did Patrick introduce a system that required employees to spend so long at this task, knowing the risks involved? In January 1998, three months before Corrigan locked out his entire unionised workforce, ReStart Consulting told Patrick that driving straddles could pose serious health risks to workers. Its report said employees had to turn their necks at near full rotation to the left and the right and hold those positions; they had to maintain prolonged shoulder elevation; and to adopt awkward reach postures to access radio and computer equipment. ReStart said the "maximum period" employees should be allowed to drive straddles without a break was 2 hours. It recommended that Patrick maintain its existing arrangement where three employees were rostered on every two straddles, rotating between straddle driving and yard duties at least every 2 hours - a system known as "two hours up, two hours down".

But Patrick executives maintained before and during the docks dispute that "two up, two down" was a union rort that made its operations unviable. Scrapping the scheme was one of Patrick's key objectives. It achieved this under the enterprise agreements, finalised in September 1998, which ended the biggest dispute in modern Australian labour history.

The success of Corrigan's new work regime is undeniable. The average number of containers moved from a ship per hour has increased from 12 to 14 before the docks dispute to more than 25 - something MUA officials once dismissed as a pipe-dream. But, according to the MUA, soaring productivity increased the risks to straddle-drivers, who faced a double-whammy: more time spent doing the work, at higher intensity. Patrick's bonus system gave employees an incentive to work faster, harder and longer - a risk factor the prosecution says should have been taken into account. Monthly bonus payments to workers at Port Botany terminal increased by 500 per cent between November 1999 and October 2000, from less than $20,000 to almost $120,000.

Documents tendered in the proceedings show increasing concern among Patrick executives about the health risks. In July 1999, 10 months after the new work practices were introduced, Patrick received another risk assessment from consultants Noel Arnold and Associates. It backed ReStart's findings. "This is a friendly report," Patrick's risk manager, Andrew Synnott, told another manager, Barry Beech, in a memo subpoenaed for the proceedings. He said Barry Sherriff, a lawyer from Patrick's firm Freehills, had spent two hours with the consultants making it "as good as possible". Even so, the report warned: "When compared with [the] roster previously in place ... it is clear that the drivers are now under greater risk of a strain injury than previously."

Two months later, Synnott asked Risk Management International Services to prepare an exercise manual for straddle drivers to try to minimise injuries, which RMIS said could include "potential chronic effects" on the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems. The manual was forwarded to Synnott on November 11, 1999. But another year passed before it was made available to Port Botany employees, according to the sworn evidence of dockworker Chris Watson, who chairs Patrick's Port Botany health and safety committee.

These reports were among 10 available to Patrick that warned about the dangers of driving straddles. They included an assessment of its Fisherman Island terminal by Queensland Government safety inspectors, which said the maximum time-frame recommended for such work was "significantly less than the required operating time for Patrick straddle drivers".

ReStart's finding were criticised by an expert witness, forensic engineer Patrick Donahue, although he did not deny the health risk posed by straddles. Donahue described ReStart as a "partial risk analysis" and said some of its observations were wrong as it lacked a proper engineering assessment. ReStart focused on minimising hazards posed to individuals. Donahue said it should have considered ways to eliminate hazards through a complete redesign of equipment and work systems.

After hearing evidence for several months, the case is now adjourned until at least September. When it resumes, Patrick's barrister will seek to have the prosecution struck out on technical grounds, claiming that the consent granted the MUA by the NSW Minister for Industrial Relations, John Della Bosca, was not properly authorised. If Patrick succeeds by this means, and the union's substantive case stands, it will have won a pyrrhic victory.

Stephen Long is a journalist with the Australian Finacial Review, where this article originally appeared on 24 April 2002.

The third time as trickery

Stuart Macintyre

Well into the twentieth century there was an auction of humans that occurred daily at the nation's ports. The stevedoring companies would choose the men they wanted to work for them whenever a ship had to be loaded or unloaded. They did so at the pick-up. The foreman would cast his eye over the throng and decide who would work. It was a degrading spectacle that lasted well until the middle of the century, when the union managed to end it. It encouraged favouritism and corruption, but it suited the shippers and bodies were plentiful. The industry was therefore casual and unregulated. Men were taken on and expected to work round the clock till the job was done. They used hooks to lump bags, and carried cargo with primitive barrows and slings. There were frequent accidents, for life was cheap. There were no changing rooms, no washing facilities, not even toilets. Animals were treated better. It is therefore hardly surprising that the waterfront has been a recurrent site of struggle and turmoil. There have been three principal episodes of confrontation, first in 1890, second in 1928-9, and then the 1998 dispute.

Fire low

The maritime strike of 1890 was fought over the right to form a union. The marine officers, who did just that, were forbidden by the ship-owners to affiliate to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. When they walked off their ships, the crews went with them, along with the waterside workers, the coalminers of New South Wales who produced the ships' fuel and the shearers who produced the main export cargo. The governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland broke the strike by using police and introducing strikebreakers. This was when Colonel Tom Price of the Victorian Mounted Rifles issued his infamous order to "fire low and lay the bastards out".

From the ensuing misery and chaos came Charles Kingston's suggestion of an arbitration system, designed to bring industrial relations into what the president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court called a "new province for law and order". The court gave legal recognition to trade unions in return for their acceptance of its adjudication of disputes. In the new century the wages and conditions of the members became embodied in legally enforceable industrial wards.

The change did not transform the wharfies' occupation. The industry remained a casual one in which stevedoring companies assembled gangs of men to load or unload a ship, and paid them off as soon as the job was done. The insecurity, low pay, and arduous, dangerous conditions contributed to the turbulence of the industry. The pick-up, where wharfies were engaged, still revealed the operation of a labour market in its most degrading form. Against this logic of individual competition, the wharfies relied on their own forms of solidarity -- based on the dense overlay of family, friendship and neighbourhood in portside suburbs -- and the union.

The vital economic significance of the maritime industry meant that the Commonwealth government could not leave its operation to the vagaries of the market, nor its industrial relations to direct bargaining. During the First World War the government responded to strikes with an attempt to deregister the union and grant preference for strikebreakers. This gave rise at the end of the war to the events of Bloody Sunday in Fremantle 1919, when unionists blockaded the port to remove scabs. The conservative premier decided to break the pickets and assembled a flotilla of small craft that travelled down the Swan Estuary and onto the Fremantle wharf. It was met with missiles and then a pitched battle in which one wharfie, Tom Edwards, was bludgeoned to death. In the 1920s the government made it a criminal offence to obstruct maritime transport and created a system of licenses as a condition of employment.

Guns & bombs

The second great maritime strike came when a new judge of the Arbitration Court issued a new award in 1928. The award introduced a second pick-up in the afternoon, forcing wharfies who had not been engaged in the morning to return and offer themselves again. At a time of increasing unemployment, the Federation accepted the award, but a number of its port branches refused to work under it. As in 1890 and again in 1998, the dispute turned on the ability of the employers to introduce strikebreakers. On both occasions, the state governments assisted them with police reinforcements. In Melbourne the police opened fire on pickets and one of them died. Trains carrying strikebreakers were attacked. Several boarding house were bombed.

The prime minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, won the battle but lost the war. His licensing system entrenched the strikebreakers and his penal powers broke the union, but in 1929 he decided that the Commonwealth would dismantle its Arbitration Court and return industrial relations to the states, leaving federal control of the maritime industry only. He lost the vote on his legislation in the House of Representatives, and was defeated in the ensuing election. He lost his own seat of Flinders to the secretary of the Trades Hall Council, who had only recently been found guilty of strike activity.

It took the Waterside Workers Federation a decade to recover from the defeat of 1929. They did so when Jim Healey was elected secretary in 1937 and persuaded the members to accept the scab workers into the union to make common cause for better pay and conditions. During and after World War Two the union was able to civilise the industry. A roster system of employment, attendance pay, holidays, safety provisions, changing rooms and even amenities were secured. Even with the return of the Coalition government in 1949, the union held its gains. Neither the threat to use troops on the wharves in 1953 nor a campaign of vilification among primary producers in 1956 intimidated it.

Tom Sheridan, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, has made an intensive study of the maritime industrial relations during this period. He has shown that the major shipping lines, which owned and controlled the stevedoring firms, maintained a rigid and authoritarian stance. They were adamantly contemptuous of the union, preferring to retain Queens Counsel for industrial tribunals rather than negotiate. The onset of containerisation and mechanised cargo handling merely aggravated the shortcomings of their management practices. For its part, the Waterside Workers Federation was slow to respond to changed circumstances. It operated as a stronghold of exclusive and aggressive masculinity when conditions for that style of unionism were waning. John Morrison's stories of the waterfront perhaps best capture its ethos of mateship and fierce loyalties, but also suggest its limitations. It was loyal to a fault, but enclosed; tenacious in holding to what it had achieved, but reluctant to adapt. Not until the numbers of wharfies had shrunk to a fraction of the thousands once employed at each major port did the Federation accept the necessity to combine with the Seamen's Union and other small maritime unions.

Yet during the 1980s the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) accepted the need for waterfront reform and improved productivity. It negotiated with the federal Labor governments of Hawke and Keating; it accepted new redundancies; and it developed effective industrial relations with major export producers.

A new cloak

Why did the MUA come under siege in 1998? The Howard government repeatedly alleged that the performance of the industry was inefficient and an intolerable burden on exports. These claims were usually supported by statistics for container lifts per hour at overseas ports. The figures were exaggerated; they frequently confused container sizes; they took no account of differences in port layout, volume, equipment or management performance. The Howard government also claimed that it sought greater competition in the industry through the breaking of a union monopoly. This principle of competition was a dogma enshrined in COAG (Council of Australian Governments) agreements and implemented by all levels of government with adverse effects on public service provision and accountability. Its application to the private sector was highly selective. There was no assault on the market control of large corporations in media, finance and other sectors. The cry for competition in the labour market was directed to unionised sectors of wage and salary earners, rather than to the powerful professional associations. Furthermore, if greater competition was sought, why start with labour? Why not with the duopoly of P&O and Patrick? Indeed, the decision by Patrick to close a number of port operations during the dispute only promised to further reduce competition. Clearly, the government's constant talk of reform was a cloak for union busting.

In choosing to attack the MUA, the government had first to deal with the awkward fact that the union was quite willing to negotiate waterfront reform. Its tactic here was a series of provocations. First there was the attempt to establish a non-union port operation in Queensland. Then there was the clandestine recruitment of service personnel for training in Dubai. Both these exercises failed. On both occasions the government denied any involvement, and refused any criticism. The manifest intention was to provoke the unions, yet the MUA and the ACTU were still prepared to continue negotiations.

The government's hope was to provoke retaliation that would discredit the union. When that failed there was the dismissal of the workforce. Yet almost immediately the employers and the government lost control of public opinion. The pictures of security guards, with balaclava helmets and dogs, introduced in secrecy to remove workers proved enormously damaging. Furthermore, the use of company law to strip the employing companies of assets as a legal subterfuge shocked many. That the government would encourage and assist Patrick to do this was all the more reprehensible. If we are to have strict individualism, then as a first step we might abolish that notorious immunity from market outcomes - limited liability. Let the directors and shareholders pay the full cost of their debts. Let them be stripped of their legal privileges.

The anti-union preparations were extensive and lengthy. The government commissioned advice from a brace of lawyers and consultants. It dusted off its secondary boycott provisions and other legal penalties. It offered encouragement to all comers, whatever their reputation. In particular, the part played by the National Farmers Federation was fraught with peril. Here was an organisation that called for 'certainty' of land title in its response to the Wik decision, seeking to deprive another section of Australian society of its livelihood. Yet arguments between farmers and waterside workers were not new. In the 1920s, when the North Queensland port workers were striking for a roster system of employment, beef and sugar producers descended on the coastal towns of Cairns and Bowen with firearms to imprison the unionists, beat up their leaders and order them from the towns on pain of death.

If they'd been beaten ...

History occurs the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. During the first maritime strike of the 1890s, the most tragic fall was that of government leaders, men such as Alfred Deakin and Samuel Griffith. They had been leading liberals, championing the rights of labour, but when the strike began they called in the troops. The second maritime strike of 1928 was brought on by Prime Minister Bruce, and his Attorney-General, John Latham, who had stacked the High Court and created the penal powers. Bruce was a patrician Melbourne businessman, educated at Cambridge. He travelled in a Rolls Royce and had his valet pin a fifty-pound note (three month's earnings for a wharfie) to his pocket, 'for emergencies'. Latham was an austere, inflexible lawyer, determined to enforce the rights of property. There is a suggestion of John Latham in John Howard: both men from humble origins who fought their way up, stubborn, unexpansive, ungenerous. But what of the then member for Flinders, Peter Reith? He was no match for Bruce in urbanity or style, but he had the same plump prosperity. Bruce was unhurried, magisterial; Reith had to learn to control the rapid head movements that betrayed his agitation. He was a modern Pinocchio, except that when he lied his nose did not grow; rather he uttered the giveaway phrase, "quite frankly ... " Bruce was born to rule; Reith had acquired the habit by trimming his political sails to the prevailing winds. Bruce disdained to dissemble and accepted defeat with good grace. Reith gave many hostages to fortune and has now had to pay for at least some of them. This was a fight that couldn't be shirked. The wharfies were fighting for their jobs, as they have fought so often, and if they had been beaten, then no one would have been safe.


Stuart Macintyre is Ernest Scott Professor of History at the University of Melbourne and a past member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committee. An earlier version of this article was published as "The third time as rodomontade" in Overland, no. 150 (Autumn 1998), pp. 5-10 and reprinted in Labor Herald, June 1998.

Cartooning the dispute

Christopher Sheil

War on the Wharves: A Cartoon History was not intended to be a study of how cartoonists responded to the waterfront dispute. But by telling the story of how the book came to be produced in the way that it was, some reflections on the way the artists responded will naturally fall out. First, I will explain the book's origins. Secondly, to give a sense of the cartoonists’ full response, I will mention the drawings that are not in the book, and explain why. Finally, I’ll focus on the residual: the 186 drawings that are in the book, and explain how they are intended to relate to each other.


The book was inspired by two personal experiences. The first goes directly to the power of cartoons, which I recalled as a consequence of an experience as an undergraduate history student, who had to make a seminar presentation on Australia's conscription referenda of 1916-17. For a young person, studying history is surreal. Young people and many, probably most, adults only rarely seem to connect the past with the present. History is a place where wondrous things happen. Pyramids are built, kings rule, wars happen, tragedies occur, great ideas are conceived, extraordinary things are invented, people wear other kinds of clothes: everything is different. Occasionally we think that the present becomes somewhat like history. On holidays we might walk around old buildings and listen to a guide talk about the people who built them. Other times something happens: a US president is assassinated, a prime minister is sacked, a man walks on the moon, the Berlin Wall is pulled down, a big number appears on the calendar, like the millennium date, or terrorists crash planes into the World Trade Centre. On these occasions adults can be heard telling young people they’re experiencing history, and they say they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren they were there, and later they’ll be able to describe where they were when they first heard the news, and so on.

These occasions are unusual. Generally, young people and most adults live in a present separated from their idea of history, which makes it difficult to know where to start when we want to study some aspect of the past. At the outset, we’re like a blank sheet. As an undergraduate in history, I was given the standard course outline, with questions to be studied each week and a list of reading material, through which we had to plough, hoping to get some idea of what happened way back then, what it was like and what was at stake, and I had to take my turn in presenting a paper on the conscription referenda that were held in Australia at the time of the Great War.

As the presentation approached, it was my good fortune to discover that someone had been handy enough to have collected a selection of the cartoons of the day on the issue, and had published them in a book that I found in the university library. In the space of just an hour or so, I was transported from a blank sheet to feeling that I had some kind of handle on the whole debate. I didn't have any knowledge in a scholarly sense, but what I wanted to know seemed clearly outlined. Instead of a blank sheet, I knew some of the parameters and could get started on my paper. I knew who the main characters were, I had a sense of the emotional content around the issues, some idea of the language that was used, and had been stimulated. Cartoons can do that, and they can probably do it more quickly than any other medium. That is their extraordinary power.

In the event, I became more interested in history and went on to write a thesis to do with Australia’s industrial relations history, when I experienced repeated frustration in trying to get a sense of the big disputes of the past: the Great Strikes of the 1890s, the strikes that broke out during the Great War and soon after, the battles in the 1920s, the conflicts at the end of the 1940s. I don't think anyone really knows how difficult it is to get a basic narrative outline of an industrial dispute that occurred before they were born, until they really try to find out. There are books and articles on these battles, but my experience is that the record generally falls between two stools: the general histories of Australia provide too little information, while the specialists assume too much.

I’m just talking about the basics. How long did each of the Great Strikes of the 1890s go on for? What were the protagonists driven by? How many people got involved? Who got hurt? Who were the main characters in the 1917 General Strike? What was the sequence of events during the 1949 coal strike? What did these events feel like at the time? Unless you get real lucky with a source, anyone who tries to discover the answers to such questions will find themselves flicking through a pile of general references, trying to get a sufficient grasp on the big picture to enable them to understand the specialists. You go back and forth. You make a lot of notes and lists. And you often leave the scene feeling frustrated about the elusiveness of many basic features.

This experience and my earlier presentation were the two inspirations for the War on the Wharves. It was inspired by the power of cartoons and the way that the general story of big disputes can be quickly lost and become difficult to recover. The idea was not to represent the response of cartoonists to the waterfront dispute, which is supposed to be the topic of this talk, but to use Australia's cartoonists to tell the story to the future.

When the dispute broke out in a major public way on that Wednesday before Easter 1998, like many - perhaps most - people, I experienced that Kennedy-assassination or man on the moon type of feeling: the sense of the barrier suddenly breaking down between the past and the present. Sending guards and dogs onto the nation's waterfront to summarily dismiss an entire workforce in the middle of the night seemed to be such an extraordinary and dramatic thing to do, you didn't have to be an historian to know that it qualified as one of those events where people would be saying 'this is history in the making'.

As I wrote in the book's preface, the initial assault struck the nation like a mass murder. From the start, people all around the country reached into history to try to get a grip. The images of masked guards and dogs hunting workers off their jobs at midnight was so "chilling" - as Mike Carlton described it - that it suggested to many that the meaning of Australia was under threat. "Time and again", wrote the deluged letters editor for the Sydney Morning Herald when she summed up the public response at the end of the dispute’s first week, "these images were referred to as unAustralian".

It was this sense of history happening and my memory of the hurdles that students in the future might face in trying to make sense of it all that explains the book's orientation and its main features. In particular, it explains the chronology at the back and the one-page summary texts for each chapter, which are designed to link the narrative and place the cartoons in the context that gave rise to them, so that strangers will be able to understand. The dense references to the text will help with follow-up study. The generous references for the illustrations presume the reader doesn't know the names or the positions of the characters.

In other words, the book wasn’t written for you or me, nor for your friends or mine. It was produced for people who might one day find themselves wanting to get a quick handle, as I did in relation to the conscription referenda many years ago. It’s a message in a bottle sent into the future; using cartoons to tell the story in that wonderful, powerful, stimulating, entertaining, summarising way that the artists magically achieve. I wanted to log the basic narrative into the collective memory. As Walter Benjamin once said, to articulate the past historically ‘is to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’.

Of course, it’s impossible to do anything solely for the future. My aim couldn’t be too obvious. I had to think of a different spin for the publisher. So I told him the idea was to supply a high-quality momento of the dispute for the tens of thousands of people who participated in it, who were of course a 'market'. To get some attention in the market, I asked Bob Ellis to write the foreword. Whatever else one thinks of Bob - and I think a great deal of him - I don't think anyone can say that he’s not a gifted writer. Bob has the rare talent of being able to draw cartoons just using words.

What isn't in the book?

To get a feel for the cartoonists' full response to the dispute, you must know what’s missing from the collection. The most obvious are those published in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, and there is little representation from the tabloids in general. I never read the Daily Telegraph, but I did glance at the cartoons and they only confirmed that, despite the obvious talent of its cartoonist, the paper saw itself as an outpost of Peter Reith's public relations machine. Remember, my aim was not to tell the story about the cartoonists' response, but to tell the story of the dispute using the cartoonists. Had the former been my objective, of course the Telegraph's cartoons would have had to be included. But to do the latter, they had to be left out. Everything the Telegraph had to say was subsumed by the other cartoonists in their representations of Reith's position, which is of course well represented in the book. War on the wharves focused on the artists who were intent on portraying and interpreting the dispute, not those who were actively promoting the cause of one side and the Telegraph's cartoons were redundant.

For reasons of space, I also generally omitted drawings that depended on another contemporaneous event to be understood. To include these would have just doubled the difficulties for my mythical future student. This knocked out a swag of excellent cartoons that connected the dispute to the film Titanic, which was released around the same time, and it cut out a great set that combined the dispute with the Irish peace settlement Tony Blair struck that same Easter. To include these would have not only complicated the issues for future researchers, it would have put immense pressure on the context-setting aims of the text, which had to be kept to a page to ensure the cartoons would rule.

Many cartoons that I would have preferred to keep were excluded simply because of the competition for space. The publisher originally agreed to about 120 illustrations. I ended up with about 300 that I liked, and eventually pushed the limit out to 186. As you will imagine, the pressure on each cartoon to fight its way into the final 186 was enormous and some regrettable sacrifices had to be made, and no two people would have made the same choices. There was a wonderful and unique Pryor on Bill Kelty "missing in action" that I had to let go, but which would have added an aspect. Michael Atchison produced a drawing that went to the fascination of the public with the dispute, which embodied an extra dimension I would have liked to include. There were about three or four on Kim Beazley and the ALP that would have given the opposition a presence. In a hotly competitive context, they sort of self-excluded themselves, since their main theme tended to be about the sidelined position of the opposition. There was one by Nicholson which commented on the historical changes to waterfront labourers' working conditions over the long term. I recall pondering before I dropped it for another. It was a good cartoon, but played strongly into Reith's perspective, which is amply represented. Broadly, these exclusions were victims of the competition. In one instance, I weakened and squeezed six illustrations onto a single page near the end of the book. I figured that, if readers got that far, we would get away with this sole example of crowding and it enabled more of the artists a final say, but this was the outer limit.

Two great cartoons are not there because I couldn't get them out of the artists. For some reason, Alan Moir didn’t give me a copy of one that showed John Howard working at his desk under a sign that read "Hate makes the world go round". It was a tough cartoon, which I thought captured an extreme perspective that many responded to in the heat of the conflict, and I would have liked to have fitted it in. Alan gave me a great bundle, but he inexplicably left a few drawings out. Since I had hassled a couple of the other missing cartoons out of him, I just gave up on this one, and don't know if he shrank from having it re-published himself or was just too busy to dig it out. Perhaps its fate matched my rejection of the pro-Reith Nicholson illustration. There was another very good cartoon I wanted to include by a well-known cartoonist, who is not represented in the collection at all. Reflecting the intensity of the passions generated by the dispute, this artist refused to co-operate with the project in any way - the only well-known cartoonist to take such a position. There is also a great Bill Leak missing, which depicted Reith "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay". Bill remembered it too late for inclusion.

But the largest swag of missing cartoons, and they amount to perhaps as many as 50, were those that played on gags about the contradiction between 'rorting' politicians attacking 'rorting' wharfies. You’ll recall that the first Howard government lost six of its frontbenchers for 'rorting' public funds, and the casualties included John Sharp, the minister who originally led the attack on the MUA. I think every cartoonist in the country made one or more gags about this, but only four made it into the final line up. I'm sure many would have enjoyed more of these, but their inclusion would have just been the equivalent but opposite of the Daily Telegraph's cartoons.

What's in the book?

All up, there are 186 drawings by 25 artists from 11 newspapers, almost all from the 'quality' press. Geographically, the coverage is in rough proportion to the distribution of Australia's population, with a slight regional weighting. Some 40 per cent are from the Sydney and Melbourne papers, 25 per cent from the other capital cities, and 35 per cent from the two national papers.

A point to notice is that, while there are 186 drawings and 25 artists, over half, or 55 per cent, are by just five artists: Tandberg, Pryor, Leahy, O'Neill and Rowe. The idea was to use these five as the mainstays to achieve some narrative and thematic continuity, saving the reader from the demands of constantly adjusting to different styles. Why these five? Ron Tandberg was the most obvious choice because he’s an editor's dream. His economy of line and the directness of his punch means that his work can be used in any size without losing its power. No artist can give you more views per page than Tandberg. Ward O'Neill was also an obvious choice because his work is a gallery of the passing world. He was the only artist to draw Greg Combet. He’s also an acute observer. One cartoon, or perhaps caricature is the better word for O'Neill's work, showed the government getting ready for the assault on the MUA on the weekend before the attack on the Tuesday night. The country might have been shocked by the assault, but the Australian Financial Review's readers had good warning. Geoff Pryor was the third choice because he focused heavily on the dispute, picked up many aspects that others missed, and combined his perspective with wonderful drafting skills and savage humour. He has a hilarious view of Reith as a crazed psychopath which I always respond to, and he builds great continuity. Sean Leahy is another who is very useful for narrative purposes in that he picks up detail that others miss. He was the only artist to explicitly mention the $250 million loan that the government gifted to Christopher Corrigan, the only one to do a cartoon of his brother Derek, and the only one to pay attention to the fate of the scabs at the end. Like Pryor and O'Neill, he also builds strong continuities. The fifth mainstay is the wonderful David Rowe, who has one of the quirkiest and most hilarious senses of humour of all the artists, plus a style that approaches Leak's portraitism.

With these five supplying the backbone, I used another six as highlighters for particular incidents. The top five supplied 55 per cent and the other six another 30 per cent. Together, these 11 artists comprise 86 per cent of the book. The six highlighters were Nicholson, Clement, Moir, Leak, Petty and Leunig. Each produced extraordinary work. Often this was because they took the themes picked up by the others a step further, as in the case of Leak's "The Dogs of War", which showed the guard dogs sacking the security guards. In other instances they offered deeper reflections. Leunig's depiction of the Australian coat of arms with a dog instead of the kangaroo was perhaps the most powerful evocation of the way the dispute challenged the meaning of Australia. The drawing was all the more powerful because Leunig is the most gentle and sensitive of Australia's cartoonists. His original was particularly powerful in the Age, where it appeared on the editorial page, whereas the Sydney Morning Herald timidly tucked it away on its back page.

The other 14 artists were basically used to supply abundant variety and ensure a wide geographical representation. People bond with their own regular cartoonist, and the aim here was to give the book at least some resonance with the readers' familiar context on a national basis. I also tried to make sure that everyone had at least two drawings, and that at least one would enjoy a full page treatment. Finally, I tried to use the illustrators - Fazzari, Fitzjames, Krygsman and Upton - to relieve the intensity that can build up when you get a sequence of powerful gags. My theory is that, if people are ever going to read a cartoon book all the way through, they will need rest points.


How do I summarise the cartoonists' response? I think they did a superb job. I think our newspapers are poor compared to great newspapers like the New York Times, for example. The opinions are often predictable and the editorials are generally terminal. Yet Australia does have some very good journalists and, I think, the best cartoonists in the world. As far as I can tell, viewed as a whole, Australia's cartoonists didn't leave an avenue of the dispute unexplored and are to be congratulated for their perceptiveness, skill, courage, and of course their wonderful sense of humour.

How successful was the book? Perhaps oddly, the reception was dulled by the way the serious press, from which the material came after all, basically ignored it - apart from some references to Bob Ellis' contribution. This silence was even odder because the book was released in a context when almost anything about the waterfront was news, and many journalists told me how highly they thought of the book. Channel 7 News filmed the entire book launch, but, as far as I know, never showed any of the footage. The silence struck me as even odder next to the response in the journals, where it was received favourably across the spectrum. From the left, Arena called it "a valuable contribution, a good historical text, a great laugh and a testimony to the fact that political cartoons can and do make a difference". From the right, Policy, the journal of the Centre for Independent Studies, an organisation which usually works itself up into a lather over anything associated with the Evatt Foundation, found it "a good read and more than a few good laughs".

Commercially, the book did well. The Foundation only has a handful left. Personally, it was enormously rewarding. There were more than a few instances when strangers came up to shake my hand or even give me a hug when they discovered I put it together. I was delighted when the Clement cartoon on the cover went on to win a Walkley award for the best drawing in 1998. As far as I can tell, moreover, the way the story has been told has become, or has come to reflect, pretty much the prevailing orthodoxy.

Yet the real test lies in the future. As I had hoped, the book has been taken up by the libraries. One day I hope to see that student from the future who wants to know what happened way back in Easter 1998, and is able to quickly get a handle on the story because - like me with the conscription referenda of 1916-17 – she or he comes across War on the wharves.


Christopher Sheil is the editor of War on the wharves: a cartoon history, published by Pluto Press in association with the Evatt Foundation. This is the text of an address presented to the "Bringing the House Down" seminar on Australian political cartooning, convened by the National Museum of Australia at the Old Parliament House in Canberra on 4 December 1999.


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