We must protect Australian shipping

Published on Wednesday, 15 August 2018 12:42

We cannot continue to sit idly by and watch Australian shipping and our capacity in that space decline. It is critical to our economic wellbeing. We are a trading nation. We are an island nation, and shipping is our lifeline. It's a matter of sovereign self-sufficiency. Without it we can't be sure in general terms and we certainly can't be sure in times of crisis that we will be able to function economically and be able to secure and sustain the social and economic wellbeing of Australia. It's also central to our capacity to be engaged in and support our region, to respond to natural disaster and at times to draw on a merchant marine capacity.

Mr Wilson (12:42pm) — I'm glad to have the opportunity to speak in support of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Grayndler and to make some remarks in opposition to the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Amendment Bill 2017 as a whole. I'm pleased to make my first legislative debate contribution, since being re-elected as the representative for Fremantle, in defence of Australian shipping and Australian seafarers, but I am sorry that once again this government appears by the evidence of this bill to be set on unpicking and running down an industry that has always been and always will be a vital part of our life as a nation and a key to our future. With regard to Australian shipping and Australian seafarers the government's approach has consistently presented the full a la carte menu of poor governance. It has actively undermined Australian shipping through what can be described only as very poor process and in ignorance of the clear and present signs of danger with respect to its health. As well as acts of direct harm there have also been sins of omission. This government has failed to act in response to those signs of danger. It has failed to follow the lead of the former Labor government in seeking to address through a careful and long-running framework the operational, regulatory and workforce challenges that exist for Australian shipping and Australian seafarers.

Australian shipping is vital. It's not a matter of romance or nostalgia, nor just another aspect of transport or economic activity; Australian shipping is fundamental to our wellbeing. In an age of air travel and internet shopping, there's a danger that we underestimate the lifeline that shipping represents—and it is a lifeline. We are an island nation. An overwhelming proportion of our imports and exports are transported to and from this country by ship, and those ships travel here through a changing and volatile region. In those circumstances we should all, in this place and in the wider Australian community, be concerned that our coastal shipping is in decline—and there's no doubt, there can be no question at all in this place and in the debate, about that fact. The Australian coastal shipping industry has been left to wither by a regulatory framework that doesn't accord proper value to Australian shipping and doesn't work effectively to protect the jobs, conditions, skills and safety of Australian seafarers. That means that very few Australian owned and flagged vessels remain.

I think it's right to say that under the Howard government the number of Australian flagged ships declined from 55 in 1996 to 21 in 2007, and it's got worse since that time, as the member for Makin observed. There isn't currently an Australian general licensed vessel capable of transporting petroleum. We do not have sovereign self-sufficiency when it comes to the delivery of petroleum to our country. That's coupled with the fact that we have a very poor record of maintaining our fuel supplies in accordance with the obligations we've signed up to under the International Energy Agency. I spoke about that in the first few months of my time in this place, and I note that subsequently others, including the member for Canning in Western Australia and Senator Molan in the other place, have talked about how dangerous that state of affairs is.

We cannot continue to sit idly by and watch Australian shipping and our capacity in that space decline. It is critical to our economic wellbeing. We are a trading nation. We are an island nation, and shipping is our lifeline. It's a matter of sovereign self-sufficiency. Without it we can't be sure in general terms and we certainly can't be sure in times of crisis that we will be able to function economically and be able to secure and sustain the social and economic wellbeing of Australia. It's also central to our capacity to be engaged in and support our region, to respond to natural disaster and at times to draw on a merchant marine capacity.

A number of people have noted over the years the difference in approach between Australia and the United States. The previous speaker talked about the Jones Act. The United States is taken by some as a kind of paragon of a free market operation and deregulation and all these sorts of things. The United States, of course, has taken, for a long time, careful steps to protect its own shipping capacity, precisely because it won't tolerate being without the ability to export, to import and to be engaged in the world, particularly in a defence capacity and at times of humanitarian crisis.

The running down of Australian shipping does have direct relevance to the preservation of our marine and coastal environment. We've seen in other parts of the world some very savage environmental disasters—the Exxon Valdez spill back in the 1980s, and more recently Deepwater Horizon. But there have been a number of those offshore events and other related shipping events that have had a phenomenally harmful impact on coastal and marine environments. And there's no doubt that when you have foreign flagged ships and you have ships that are not operated by Australians, with their local knowledge and their high level of skills, you put that coastal marine environment at greater risk.

I make the further point that Australian seafarers have a proud tradition, through their representatives in the maritime union and through the International Transport Workers' Federation, of being concerned not just about Australian pay and conditions, safety regulations and skills development but about those things for seafarers around the world. Seafarers are a particularly vulnerable class of worker, and Australian seafarers and their representatives have been very active in working to protect the rights of seafarers around the world and to improve them. In many places they are still very poor.

It's for all those reasons that the former Labor government undertook a careful and substantial program of first consultation and then reform. Of course, I'd like to recognise the huge amount of work over a long period of time undertaken by the member for Grayndler in government, which he's continued now as a shadow minister. That work was designed to arrest what was already a pretty significant slide in Australian flagged shipping, and it put in place a careful structure that meant that Australian flagged vessels using general licences had the ability to properly compete and to continue to operate.

This bill, unfortunately, follows previous legislative attempts by the government in weakening and loosening that framework. It weakens and loosens what was already a thoroughly hopeless and ineffective regulatory framework. It will make it harder for Australian flagged vessels to participate and essentially compete for freight work. It introduces flexibility in the form of tolerances that really make a mockery of the existing tiered licence regime. As Maritime Industry Australia has pointed out:

Without the tolerances being meaningful (and remembering that these were expanded by the 2012 reforms from 10% and three days to 20% and five days) the system may as well be deregulated entirely.

I suspect that that's what this bill actually seeks to do. It's a view that has also been put by the Maritime Union of Australia. In relation to this bill, they have said:

Such open-ended tolerance provisions would totally undermine accepted commercial arrangements and make it impossible for a GL holder to contest a cargo, as the GL holder would not know what they are contesting. The ability to position a ship when the loading date could vary by up to 30 days would be commercially untenable for a GL holder, as would be the unknown nature of the cargo volume.

If you want to understand why the government is going down this particular path, it is tempting to say that it's through ideology and idiocy, to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister. But I'd point out that I think ideology unfairly gets a bad name. Ideology is essentially a set of values that inform a political and policy program. There's nothing wrong with ideology, subject to what those underlying values are. I'm afraid to say you can't really describe this bill and the government's approach in this area as springing from any kind of comprehensive or sophisticated ideology or set of values, other than perhaps the extent to which there are some on the government's side who are captive in a simplistic way to the idea that anything that can be deregulated should be deregulated. Of course, that's a folly. Our system is properly a combination of market forces within a regulatory framework. It always has been. It always will be.

If you cut away every form of regulation and every kind of structure around market forces, you will see that what you think of as red tape really is the circulatory system that makes the whole thing work and makes the whole body vital. We know that the previous attempts by the government involved almost complete deregulation. We know that the 2015 legislation, whose justification was really around cost savings, derived 88 per cent of those cost savings from a reduction in labour costs, and the reduction in labour costs was going to be achieved by the fact that the work would shift to foreign flagged vessels and foreign crews. It meant that 93 per cent of Australian seafarer jobs would disappear, and we saw, through that experience, cases where Australian companies who put questions to the relevant department about how they would be expected to survive with their Australian flagged vessels and their Australian crews were given direct advice, 'You should use these changes to chop your Australian workforce.' It's an approach—I don't know if you can call it an ideology—that is best captured by that expression about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

What this really does spring from, I think, is a reflexive antipathy and a reflexive enmity towards Australian seafarers and the maritime industry in this country, and that's not the way any government should proceed. The fact that some on the other side of the House regard maritime workers and, particularly, their representatives, the Maritime Union of Australia and other maritime industry representative groups, as the enemy shouldn't be what drives policy in this country. Seafarers play a vital role in the life of this country, and they are a vital part of communities around Australia. They certainly are a very important part of both the history of Western Australia and contemporary life in Western Australia, particularly in the seat I represent, the division of Fremantle. There's no good reason whatsoever for following the kind of program that puts our national wellbeing at risk in pursuit of an ancient grudge—a shallow and superficial political enmity.

I noted in the submission I made to the government's coastal shipping discussion paper that the government's record has been to undermine Australian shipping and actively weaken the position of Australian seafarers and their representatives. It's unintelligent and it's dangerous. That's why I oppose this bill.

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