Reith dies: don’t mourn Howard’s anti-union thug

Former Liberal politician Peter Reith, disgraced for his lies during the 2001 “Children Overboard” scandal, died on 8 November.

Dubbed the “hard man of the Howard government”, Reith received accolades from former PM John Howard and the other “hard” men.

Alexander Downer, one-time Liberal leader and former foreign minister (remember the Timor Leste bugging scandal) said Reith was his “best friend in politics”.

To Tony Abbott, Reith was “one of the very biggest of the many big figures in the Howard government”.

They loved him because Reith was a class warrior and fought for the most racist, sexist and anti-working class section of the Australian ruling class as a major Liberal Party thug.

He told a business lunch in July 1998: “Never forget the history of politics. And never forget which side we’re on. We’re on the side of making profits. We’re on the side of people owning private capital.”

Waterfront warrior

Current Liberal leader Peter Dutton called him a “stalwart of the Liberal Party” and said he is remembered most “for his fearlessness in the face of extreme union intimidation—especially by freeing up the waterfront to ensure Australia had a more productive, forward-looking economy. He was an architect of pivotal workplace reform which put the interests of employers and employees first”.

That was the anti-union WorkChoices law, which gutted awards, banned strike action, cut allowances and favoured individual contracts and non-union agreements. It put workers’ lives last.

What was the “extreme union intimidation”? The ABC reminds us that in April 1998: “A bitter dispute between the Maritime Union and stevedoring business, Patrick, was triggered when the company dismissed its union workforce and replaced it with scabs. It was a fight Mr Howard described in his memoir as ‘the most bitterly fought domestic issue of my whole time as prime minister’.”

Reith was called Howard’s “waterfront warrior” by The Australian.

As Solidarity wrote, between 1400 and 2000 wharfies were sacked. Job delegate Jake Haub said: “We were loading a ship, two gangs of workers, when security guards jumped on the moving cranes and grabbed the keys out of the ignition. The place was crawling with them, about 100 men and dogs.”

However, the Liberals’ aim to remove the union from the waterfront failed because of mass picketing and the threat of widespread solidarity industrial action. In Melbourne, a march of 2000 construction workers arrived to reinforce a mass picket, sandwiching the police between the construction workers and the picket line. The cops “reconsidered” and beat a hasty retreat.

Children overboard lies

As defence minister in 2001, Reith was embroiled in the September children overboard scandal, also involving Howard and Philip Ruddock. They falsely claimed asylum-seekers had thrown three children into the water in their attempt to gain access to Australia.

According to the ABC: “Mr Reith released photos purporting to show children in the water, but not long after his office was told those images were actually from a different boat sinking.

“A senate committee later found that not only were children not thrown overboard and there was no evidence to support claims that they had been, but that Mr Reith had ‘deliberately deceived the nation’ by not correcting the record during the 2001 election campaign.”

Later, Reith referred to the children overboard scandal as “a minor incident, long finished” or as “a bit of a stuff-up”.

Perhaps he got away with this because of the intense Liberal campaign to link asylum-seekers to terrorists in the months surrounding the 9/11 Twin Tower terror attacks. Reith asserted in four separate interviews that “security and border protection go hand in hand”.

Nonetheless, the accusations that Reith was a liar stuck and he didn’t contest the 2001 election, giving up his prime ministerial ambitions.

Like many greedy Liberals, after leaving politics Reith served as a company director and political commentator on Sky News Australia. In 2017 he challenged Michael Kroger for the presidency of the dysfunctional Victorian party but withdrew from the contest after suffering a stroke.

Socialists never forget the history of politics and which side we’re on. Reith was a ruling class thug. Good riddance.

And we never forget the power of the mass picket and demonstrations. MUA here to stay!

By Judy McVey


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