House debates

Monday, 3 June 2013

Private Members' Business

Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013; Second Reading

8:26 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill put forward by the member for Denison is about skills and training. How appropriate it is that we are debating it tonight, because today is National TAFE Day. I joined many of my colleagues earlier tonight to celebrate what our TAFE institutions around the country do in developing skills and training and to send a signal to the New South Wales government in particular and to state governments generally that we do not want them with their hands all over our TAFE institutions. Those institutions play too vital a role in our communities and in our economy, particularly in supporting productivity. We say that we want our TAFE funding retained. The Commonwealth government has been putting significant additional funding into TAFE. Indeed in my own electorate, through the Regional Development Australia grants, money is going into TAFE institutes such as the one at Muswellbrook, where the grant will help it do more in mining skills training in particular. But at the same time Barry O'Farrell is taking money out of TAFE in New South Wales, which is very disappointing.

I am speaking in continuation on this bill. In the other chamber, last sitting week, I made various points about the objectives of this bill and about the real concern of the Australian Institute of Marine Engineers about what this bill could mean for the standard of training accepted for those who work in our shipping industry. I have been an apprentice. I do understand the concept of accelerated training and, in some instances and in some circumstances, it can be a good thing. But we must put sufficient weight on maintaining standards and safety in industry, particularly the marine industry. I was pointing out the objectives of the bill and the views of the minister, but what I was about to say when time expired is that the Australian Institute of Marine Engineers and those whom they represent have some very legitimate concerns. I urge the minister to take those concerns into account and I urge the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to take those concerns into account. I suggest that they put aside any preconceived views and ideas about this issue and that they put aside plans to make the changes—changes including reducing the training requirements for a marine engineer from three years to one year, which to most people in the community would seem rather extraordinary.

We need to get everyone back to the table, to speak about these concerns and see whether we cannot find a way forward. We do not want a Mexican stand-off, we do not want the government digging in, we do not want AMSA digging in and we do not want the institute digging in either. We want people back at the table. They are all sensible people, and the minister is certainly a sensible person. I have great regard for his department and those who advise him; I have great respect for those who work in the industry; and I certainly have great respect for those who represent engineers and others.

There seems to be an impasse here. I know there is goodwill on the part of the institute, and we need determination on their part to address this problem. They do have legitimate concerns; they have been in this industry a long-time. As I said when speaking in the House, surely there is no more important role for government to ensure that we have an efficient and effective shipping industry in this country. Safety should always be paramount and of course going hand-in-hand with safety are standards amongst those who work in the industry, particularly those who maintain and repair our shipping fleets. I urge the minister to take a step back, have a listen to what the institute is having to say, get back to the negotiating table and see whether we cannot get an outcome that satisfies all the parties.

8:31 pm

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I fully support the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013, introduced by the member for Denison, and I support the comments made by each speaker. The bill is intended to prevent a reduction in standards that would apply to the engagement of marine and power engineers. We only have to think of the consequences of that reduction in terms of the safety of vessels, in terms of the impact on our environment and in terms of the health and safety of the other crew members of the vessels upon which marine and power engineers work. We should remember that Australian marine and power engineers are some of the most highly qualified and highly trained engineers in the world.

I have spend a considerable part of my professional life looking at working standards, including occupational health and safety standards. It has been a fundamental tenet of all the principles I have worked for—as it has been for all those I have been involved with in the sector, including on the employee side and on the employer side—that we are about raising standards and not reducing standards. The trouble with the proposals put forward by the department and by the minister, if I might say so with respect, is that it is adopting international standards that are less than Australian standards. What we are about in Australia is lifting standards—particularly in respect of occupational health and safety rather than having a race to the bottom. It is vital for Australian shipping and for the Australian environment that these standards be raised.

Let us reflect on the Exxon Valdez situation and what impact such an incident would have on the Great Barrier Reef. Should a similar accident occur, it would destroy for ever and a day that pristine environment that has international recognition—one of the natural numbers of the world. Think of ships coming through there and, because of a breakdown in machinery, a breakdown in navigational capability as the result of a breakdown in machinery, having an accident on the barrier reef. Again, if we are not working internationally to raise standards, that must be recognised as a possibility. But what we need to do is focus on maintaining Australian standards and, in maintaining Australian standards, lifting its national standards.

It has been a real concern of mine that we have not put enough attention into the security benefits that we obtain from having an efficient and safe functioning Australian maritime capability. We have again, through lowering of standards, through allowing the importation of labour that is not as qualified as we would expect in Australia, diminished the status. You cannot beat in a national security situation having Australian eyes and ears around your coastline. More than that, you cannot benefit from having vessels that are able to not only navigate safely but also to assist those who may become in distress in circumstances where they require Australian assistance.

We are an island continent. We are very much dependent on our sea lanes. To even suggest in this day and age that we reduce rather than lift standards, I think, is complete and utter folly. I commend the honourable member for Denison for moving this bill. I, with my colleague the member for Hunter, fully support it and we again call upon the minister and the minister's department to have regard to its substance.

Debate adjourned.