Hawke cabinet stood firm on pilots

From the very beginning of the 1989 pilots dispute the Hawke cabinet gave its full support to the airlines.

It was one of Australia's most costly and divisive industrial disputes, pitting the Hawke government against the pilots union.

The RAAF was conscripted to provide crucial domestic services, and overseas pilots were recruited as strike breakers over 30 weeks from August 1989.

The pilots demand for a near 30 per cent salary increase tested the government's Accord wage agreement which sought to limit pay rises across the workforce.

Ultimately, the dispute damaged then prime minister Bob Hawke's standing in the community.

The dispute started with the hefty pay claim, but escalated when pilots refused to work outside the hours of 9 to 5, and then staged a mass resignation less than a week into the protest.

Much to the nation's surprise Hawke sided with the airlines, including Ansett which was owned by his close friend Sir Peter Abeles.

Hawke declared he was prepared for war with the pilots union, and confidential cabinet minutes released by the National Archives of Australia reveal the lengths the prime minister was prepared to go.

The cabinet papers show that just four days after the beginning of the dispute, on August 22, the Hawke cabinet was united in its support for the airlines.

"Contingency arrangements would be implemented to maintain emergency domestic air services should the dispute worsen," the cabinet minute states.

Cabinet also determined that there would be no discussion with the Australian Federation of Air Pilots unless it "publicly committed itself to accepting, and working within, the existing industrial relations system".

A September 4 cabinet minute noting a briefing from Hawke, in the wake of the pilots' resignation, states Ansett and its domestic competitor Australian had requested financial assistance.

But just a week later, on September 12, a third minute captures the growing government concern over the dispute.

After another briefing from Mr Hawke and Transport Minister Ralph Willis, the cabinet noted "the extraordinary nature of this dispute, and the gravity of its implications for the government's incomes policy and its overall economic policy".

The cabinet agreed to provide financial support to the airlines by waiving charges levied by Civil Aviation Authority and Federal Airports Corporation.

It also backed setting up a committee of ministers, chaired by Willis, to manage the government's response during the dispute.

The government eventually won the stand-off, but the long disruption hit the tourism industry and business, costing the economy more than a billion dollars.

It also cost Bob Hawke politically.

In March 1990 he led Labor to a narrow victory at the federal election, despite losing the popular vote and eight seats in parliament.

Just 12 months later he lost the prime ministership to Paul Keating.

Source: AAP

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