Reith: I’m going to get a real life

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Reith: I’m going to get a real life

Former Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith’s announcement that he will leave Parliament at the upcoming Federal election has prompted speculation that the current minister, Tony Abbott, could be a potential future Deputy Prime Minister.

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Former Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith’s announcement that he will leave Parliament at the upcoming Federal election has prompted speculation that the current minister, Tony Abbott, could be a potential future Deputy Prime Minister.

Reith, who moved to the Defence Portfolio earlier this year in frustration at not being able to get industrial relations legislation through the Senate (see previous story, 153/2000), said he would quit the marginal seat of Flinders, south-east of Melbourne, at the election expected within four to five months to ‘get a real life’.

The move is a blow for the Government, which also loses Finance Minister John Fahey, who is retiring for health reasons, and has seen former Defence Minister John Moore retire. If the Coalition loses five seats, it loses Government.

Reith, at 51, has been in Parliament nearly 20 years. He was Deputy Leader to John Hewson in the disastrous election campaign of 1993 when the Liberal Party first tried to introduce the goods and services tax.

He said he had a couple of books he wanted to write, and had even received a couple of job offers (not as an international stevedore, he told a joking journalist at a press conference in Canberra this afternoon, ‘although I’m sure I’d be good at it!’). Reith, a lawyer before he entered Parliament, said he was busy finishing up work in his portfolio, and would concentrate afterwards on what he’d do next, although his interests included the republican movement and a local Christian community school he had helped set up before entering Parliament.

True to his scathing comments previously made about politicians who used the family as an excuse when retiring, Reith did not say that had swayed his choice, made 10 days ago. Instead, he said there was ‘more to life than politics, and I want to go out and see what that is’. And he headed off critics who said he was deserting a sinking ship by saying: ‘Quite frankly, if I thought we were going to lose, I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t give the other side the satisfaction.’

He achieved notoriety in the fierce waterfront disputes of 1998, with ACTU President Sharan Burrow saying when he swapped portfolios last year that ‘Peter Reith will never escape the image of balaclavas and attack dogs on the Australian waterfront.’

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley echoed Burrow’s statement today and said the Minister was one of the prime culprits in breaking the assurance that no worker would be worse off under the Coalition. And Maritime Union of Australia national secretary Paddy Crumlin said Reith had probably been ‘half-pushed, half-jumped’. ‘I think he’s become a political liability for the Government,’ he said. ‘They’re trying to wash their hands of the type of image he portrayed.’

However, while unions won moral ground in the waterfront dispute, Reith has finally achieved his aim of increased productivity, with reports only yesterday that Sydney container terminals have finally broken the 25 containers an hour benchmark set by Reith, achieving 25.3 in the March quarter. This was up from 24.3 on the previous quarter and less than 20 lifts before the dispute. Generally, lifts are at a new high of 26.4 per hour around the country (five-port average), with Brisbane and Fremantle recording more than 27 lifts an hour.

Reith was also responsible for introducing Australian Workplace Agreements and stripping back awards under his Workplace Relations Act 1996, which was passed after talks with then Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot. And he advanced discussions towards a unitary IR system (131, 132 and 133/2000). In his current portfolio, he said he was proud of the fact the defence budget had increased by 3% in real terms.

Unions had sworn a concerted campaign against Reith in the seat. It is believed the fact Labor may win the seat, plus the realisation Treasurer Peter Costello was now the frontrunner for taking over when Prime Minister John Howard decided to go, were behind the decision. Political pundits also say Reith felt removed from the cut and thrust of politics he loved when he went to Defence.

Last year, he also went through a tough time with the Telecard incident, when the Department of Finance realised there was $50,000 racked up and unpaid for on the phone card he’d let his son use.

He said if he had his time again, he would prefer more time spent in Government, rather than Opposition. But he said he had ‘pushed the boundaries’ as a Minister, and said the late journalist Paul Lyneham was not far off when he likened him to ‘a bank manager on speed’.

Current Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott said Reith’s departure would leave a big gap, and he would be much missed. He said being Reith’s junior Minister ‘was to learn from a master, and to be Peter Reith’s apprentice was politically an extremely interesting, challenging and ultimately instructive time’.

Like Reith, Abbott is grappling with getting legislation through the Senate. Late last night, a Bill outlawing the levying of union fees for service on non-union members passed through the House of Representatives. The Workplace Relations (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill, which applies to worker and employer organisations, makes it illegal to include provision for service fees in agreements. It will be debated in the Senate when parliament next sits, in August.


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