DAN TEHAN | Australian Financial Review | December 21 2015

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is holding the town of Portland in Victoria to ransom by breaking the law. Through its illegal actions, more than 6000 visitors could be prevented from disembarking from three cruise ships over the coming weeks, costing the local economy millions. It is time we had an industrial relations system where breaking the law had real and immediate consequences.

The MUA has highlighted this month that Australia’s industrial relations system is flawed. Its illegal action has shown that in the current industrial relations system, law breakers can prosper at the expense of the law.

By refusing to accept a Fair Work Commission decision, a Federal Court injunction, and numerous attempts by the port authority and Portland’s largest employer, Portland Aluminium, to move the MV Portland, the union has shown that it can break the law with impunity.

In a globalised economy, Australia can no longer afford to be held to ransom by law-defying union bosses.

While illegally docked in Portland, the MV Portland occupies the only berth that can be used by non-industrial export shipping.

Portland’s cruise ship industry is in its infancy, with the first ship docking in March 2014. Since then, cruise ships have used the purpose-built berth to allow passengers to explore western Victoria, in particular the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles.

The cruise ship industry has delivered in spades to the community. Each time a cruise ship docks, the local economy receives a $1 million boost, an incredible kick for a town of 10,000 people. This boost to the economy is exactly the activity that generates jobs and growth.

By keeping the ship docked in the port, the MUA is using the cruise ships and tourists as pawns in a law-defying game of brinkmanship. In doing so, it is putting at risk the jobs and livelihoods that benefit from visiting cruise ships.

This isn’t the first time in 2015 the MUA has tried to use ships as pawns in industrial disputes. In July, the Alexander Spirit was held hostage in Devonport by the union and prevented from leaving port, leading to a two-week delay, which shut down a berth at the dock.

The sad part about these actions is they highlight an increase in industrial activity that has consequences for the economy more broadly. In September 2013, 23 days of work were lost to industrial action per 1000 workers. In the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 28 days of work per 1000 workers are being lost to industrial action.

Some of this action is legitimate and certainly protest has its place, but when the institutions and the courts that set the decisions for industrial relations disputes can be ignored so blatantly something has gone seriously wrong.

The rule of law must be upheld or the system itself is worthless. It is time the Australian Labor Party called out such disregard for legal proceedings and decisions and helped the government reform the system.

The Productivity Commission’s recommendations on reforms to industrial relations, which will be released this week, should be the first step for Australia as a nation to start discussing how we can fix this.

The government and the opposition should be committed to ensuring that the rule of law and not the rule of unions is what dictates business and workers in this country.

Like our current debate on tax reform, it’s time we had a mature conversation on how we can improve our industrial relations settings to provide certainty for workers, businesses and the economy.

When a town can be held to ransom, when unions can break the law knowing no one will hold them immediately to account, and when businesses can’t rely on court decisions to be enforced we need to admit to ourselves that Australia’s industrial relations system has some serious flaws. All the way with the MUA is a Christmas present no one deserves.