House debates

Monday, 13 August 2018


Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

6:59 pm

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure) Share this | Hansard source

Today I rise to speak to the House about the Australian shipping industry; in particular, the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Amendment Bill 2017. Maritime security is critical to the economy and to our national interest. As an island nation with such a strong maritime history, the federal government has a responsibility to maintain our capabilities in this area. However, unfortunately, this government has consistently shown no such regard for Australian shipping and shipowners, and continues its attempts to force through legislation that would compromise their ability to compete with foreign vessels and undermine our national maritime capabilities. Labor knows how important shipping is to this country. That's why we developed and passed the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Bill in 2012, and that's why we've opposed this government's repeated attempts to degrade its protection of the Australian maritime industry.

This bill offers a raft of measures that will make it easier for foreign flagged vessels to operate in Australian waters, while providing absolutely nothing for Australian flagged vessels. The proposal before the House would increase tolerance limits from their current level of plus or minus 20 per cent of the nominated cargo or passenger volumes to 200 per cent more or 100 per cent less. It would also change the current loading window from plus or minus five days to 30 days either side of the authorised date. This drastic increase of volume tolerance limits and loading windows would make it impossible for Australian owned and operated ships that hold general licences to compete with foreign vessels holding temporary licences. These provisions would, according to the Maritime Union of Australia, totally undermine accepted commercial arrangements and make it impossible for a general licence holder to contest a cargo, as a general licence holder would not know what they were contesting.

Maritime Industry Australia Limited, which is the peak industry group for Australian shippers, also opposes these changes, claiming that the integrity of the system is undermined, as general licence holders' rights and opportunities are reduced. They go on to state that without tolerances being meaningful the system may as well be deregulated entirely. The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers has stated that under these proposals the ultimate voyage carried out may bear no resemblance to the original voyage for which the temporary licence was granted, and AIMPE opposes these proposals. One of the biggest shipping groups in this country, CSL, says of this legislation that 'the current date tolerance seems unreasonable', and True North Adventure Cruises, a tourism operator off north-western Australia, has warned that the proposed changes would allow foreign operators to game the system.

This overwhelming chorus of opposition from key stakeholders reflects the dangers of these proposals to the future of Australian shipping and maritime capabilities. These proposals will not see one extra Australian job in our maritime industry or put one extra Australian flagged ship on our coast. Until we see something different from this government—something that allows Australian shipping to stay competitive both now and into the future—the Labor Party will continue to oppose these reforms.

This government has form on this issue. This government has tried this before, and the response from stakeholders was clear. The only way forward for shipping in this country is a policy that is founded on proper consultation and has bipartisan support. The minister has himself acknowledged this, claiming in his own discussion paper that another key message from my recent stakeholder consultations is that regulatory certainty, ideally bipartisanship, is essential for investment. I would implore the government to go back to their drawing board and listen to the industry and stakeholders and follow a proper consultation process, just as Labor did when we created the original legislation and came back to the House with something that puts Australian jobs first and Australian workers first.

Unfortunately the government's record in this area is dismal reading. I recall their previous attempts, in 2015, to tear down the Australian shipping industry—and I don't say those words lightly. They were intending to destroy the Australian shipping industry. You don't have to take my word for it. You only have to read the regulatory impact statements that accompanied the 2015 legislation, stating in black and white that under their proposition 1,000 of the 1,100 workers employed in the industry would be sacked as a result of this legislation. Let me repeat that: the RIS for the 2015 bill stated that more than 90 per cent of the Australian maritime workforce would be put out of work under plans put forward by this government. Rarely has a government been so incompetent—or maybe so startlingly honest—as to say that their legislation would result in 90 per cent of an industry's workforce being sacked. Yet this is what this government attempted in 2015, and what we see now is a watered-down attempt at the same thing.

In contrast, the coastal shipping laws that Labor put in place created a level playing field, requiring that Australian wages and conditions be observed if ships are here for a certain amount of time. Let me repeat a simple premise: if a ship were here for a certain amount of time, it would have to pay Australian wages and conditions—not an unreasonable thing. If someone wants to truck goods down an Australian highway, they have to pay Australian wages and conditions. Why is it different for the blue-water highway? If a ship works the Australian coastal trading route for a reasonable amount of time, it should have to pay Australian wages and honour Australian conditions. Anything else is an attack on Australian workers.

The bill in 2015 was essentially Work Choices on water, the driving down of wages and conditions to Third World standards. What we were talking about then and what we are back to argue for today is maintaining Labor's record and regulations in this space. We're not taking an extreme position on this. In fact, Australia has one of the most liberal coasting trading regimes in the world. The rest of our G20 partners have much more restrictive policies in this area than we do, including Japan, the United Kingdom and most European countries. Even China has closed shipping lanes. The United States, the supposed bastion of the free market and free trade, has the Jones Act which legislates that all ships that service the US coastal shipping route must hire American seafarers and must pay US wages and conditions. In fact, the ships must be built in the United States. Yet this government, time and time again, tries to drag us the other way, to the detriment of the national interest.

This bill represents yet another in a sequence of attacks on coastal shipping in this country under the Turnbull government. It is a shameful record of attacks on the maritime industry and the proud and skilled workforce that service that industry. We saw this when 30 security guards boarded Alcoa's ship the MV Portland in the middle of the night to remove five Australian crew that were protesting their sacking. The security personnel then brought aboard a foreign crew who sailed the ship immediately for Singapore. The sacking of 40 Australian workers who staffed this vessel right before Christmas was bad enough, but to employ such tactics to get rid of this issue in the middle of the night was worse still. This midnight guerrilla raid marked the low point for Australian shipping at the time, and this government has continued to oversee the degradation of Australian coastal shipping since then. In fact, a few months after the MV Portland incident, the Turnbull government issued a temporary licence to Pacific Aluminium for 30 voyages in 2016, which allowed them to sack the crew of the CSL Melbourne and bring in a Greek owned ship travelling under a flag of convenience. A foreign ship replaced an Australian vessel and a foreign crew replaced Australian workers, with no regulation or standards regarding their wages or working conditions.

These were ships that had been doing regular trade and employing Australian workers for a long time. The CSL Melbourne had been running alumina on the east coast for over five years, while the MV Portland had been shipping alumina from Western Australia to Portland's aluminium smelter for 27 years. These were well-established, longstanding Australian shipping lanes which employed Australian maritime workers and supported Australian industry. Now all this has been replaced by fraudulent temporary licensing and foreign crews with unknown working conditions, and the government wants to expand this model further. This was not temporary trade. This was regular trade. This was a trade that had been undertaken for 27 years, as predictable as night following day, shipping alumina from the refineries to the aluminium smelters. Yet this government issued temporary licences that allowed Australian crews to be sacked and to be frogmarched off the ships in the middle of the night, replaced by crews who were exploited and paid $2 a day. That is wholly unacceptable, but this is the attitude of this government.

It paints a sorry picture of the future of coastal shipping in Australia that will have consequences not just for our workers but for the nation as a whole. Maritime infrastructure and workers are not just economically vital; they also represent a core pillar of our national security. To protect our borders and ensure the safety of all Australians, we must maintain not only a strong shipbuilding sector, including maintenance and repair, but also a strong merchant navy. History has shown time after time that these capabilities are crucial to our national interest, regional security and participation in the international community. Going forward, we must look not just to protect our maritime systems but also to improve and strengthen them so as to remain not only competitive but also secure. We are an island nation. We need a skilled merchant marine if we are to maintain our national sovereignty. It is important to acknowledge at this time that the Merchant Navy had the highest casualty rate in World War II, after Bomber Command. These are highly skilled and dangerous jobs in wartime, and we need a skilled Australian workforce to maintain that capability.

In addition to the economic security and social benefits of a strong Australian shipping industry, there are tangible environmental benefits. In my region, and across the nation as a whole, we've seen that foreign vessels, when compared to domestic operators, show less regard for environmental protections in force in Australian waters. Whether it is the preservation of national icons such as the Great Barrier Reef, or ships ignoring port authorities to disastrous effect, like the Pasha Bulker in my home region of the Hunter, it is clear that an increase in the number of foreign vessels is dangerous to our maritime and coastal environment. Time after time, we have seen the results when foreign flagged vessels ignore environmental regulations, whether they run aground on the Great Barrier Reef or, as in 2007, when the crew of the Pasha Bulker ignored the requirements to move further offshore, wash up on Nobbys Beach in Newcastle. If we allow foreign flagged vessels to dominate our coastal trading, we are risking our national environmental icons.

Beyond our natural heritage areas and their associated beauty, there is a direct economic impact. The attractions of the Great Barrier Reef mean employment for 68,000 Australians in the tourism industry and drive $9 billion of gross domestic product each year. The maritime industry also provides security for workers across this country, from Fremantle to Adelaide and Melbourne, and right up and down the east coast. This bill would place workers in tourism, shipping, shipbuilding, maintenance and other related industries in an uncertain and unacceptable situation. We have seen enough examples of the poor conditions and wages afforded to workers on foreign flagged vessels to know that we must do whatever it takes to ensure that hardworking Australians are not forced into these situations. In fact, the last time the government tried to overhaul this legislation, the Senate heard that changing the law to favour foreign flagged vessels would result in catastrophic job losses across the sector and a significant drop in wage and workplace standards, and that any regulatory savings claimed would be built on the back of those. The government is again looking out for big multinationals and leaving Australian workers in the lurch.

Because I have an electorate that is on the coast, with the Pacific Ocean on our eastern border and the great Lake Macquarie, Lake Munmorah and Budgewoi Lake on the western border of the electorate, it has many seafarers, both those who are employed and those who are out of work. When I have a mobile office, I meet seafarers who haven't been able to find jobs for years on end because of this government's neglect of the industry. It does not have to be that way. We should have Australian crews on Australian ships on Australian coastal trading routes who are paid Australian wages and are under Australian conditions. That is what every other advanced nation in the world does. The fact that we do not do that is a horrible indictment of this government—a government that, yet again, is betraying workers and compromising the maritime security and the environmental integrity of this nation when there are foreign crews on flag-of-convenience ships being paid $2 a day. It is unacceptable.

I'm proud to be part of a party that in 2012 tried to change that and got important laws through. We will stand up against this government's constant attack on the maritime industry and on maritime workers, their wages and their conditions, because their families and their livelihoods depend upon it.


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