Thursday, 27 June 2013
Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.
I present the explanatory memorandum.
I have great pleasure in introducing the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013.
This bill has a simple aim of safeguarding the safety standards in Australia’s marine industry and address deficiencies in the Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Amendment Bill 2013. Under normal circumstances matters of this detail are dealt with by regulation rather than by legislation. But due to three significant mistakes by Labor, it is imperative that we now act to prevent the lowering of regulatory safety training and certification standards for marine engineers in Australia. That is the big risk here. Without the passage of this bill, there is a real risk that regulatory safety training and certification standards for Australia's marine engineers will be lowered—and that is the last thing we want.
The first mistake under this government is that the regulator, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, has become so politicised that there is real doubt as to whether it can produce impartial safety regulations on merit. This is a major problem for our seafaring industry and has to be addressed. Unfortunately, we can see again the influence that the unions are having on Labor policy. And we saw it again last night when another Prime Minister was deposed. This is now par for the course for Labor—governing for the unions and their own self-interest, not for the Australian people.
Returning to the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill and the reasons it must pass, the second significant mistake is that, due to political interference by non-engineer interests, AMSA abandoned on 22 October 2009 the considered engineering reforms they had agreed to with the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers. Instead, there has been the attack on the marine engineering safety training and certification standards that I have just referred to.
The third mistake is that, as a result of the poor drafting of Minister Albanese's shipping reform bills and acts, vessels currently covered by the Navigation Act 1912 standards will instead default to a lower standard under the Maritime Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012, or the national law as it is known. Let us look at this in more detail. AMSA has attacked engineer standards of training and certification throughout the entire Marine Order 3. I asked many questions at Senate Estimates on this issue. I continually question them on the processes, for which there are genuine concerns that accountability is being downgraded.
I will list where these deficiencies lie. Engineering standards of training and certification are being attacked through MO3 in the following ways: by counting sea service as a rating as engineering qualifying sea service, which clearly it is not; by deleting tables used for assessing workshop service; by deleting a table showing the framework of state and federal issue marine engineer certificates and how they relate to each other; by deleting the three-year duration of training for an engineer cadet. That is amazing. How are you going to train a cadet in less than three years? Look at our apprenticeships around Australia. And the final ways in which the engineering standards of training and certification are being attacked are by deleting the requirement that engineers not be certified unless they pass an examination by an AMSA examiner and by allowing AMSA to foist the audit of the college course onto a third party.
And that is just the start. AMSA drafted successive changes to Marine Order 3 from the point of view of desk officers and of ratings—that is, relatively unskilled seamen. Because of all the requirements, that adversely impacts on engineer officers. What are these adverse effects? Firstly, last time, AMSA's proposed changes incorrectly required engineers to meet the eyesight standards for the desk, which would have ended the career of hundreds of engineers. And this government talks about protecting Australian jobs! The time before that, AMSA's proposed changes would have refused to issue an engineer a certificate unless the candidate had passed the deck subject for radar training and for radio operator training. Neither of these is relevant for engineers—more red tape. This time, AMSA has incorrectly deleted the recognition of separate engineer certificates for steamships and for motor ships. This mistake is clearly unsafe and ridiculous. An engineer who is qualified for only motor ships cannot safely operate steamships, and vice versa. This is the downgrade in standards that I have been referring to. This time AMSA was too busy putting in new certificates for ships cooks to provide certificates for ships electrical officers.
AMSA also proposed changes which would have prevented hundreds of engineers from renewing the periodic validity of their certificates. And now we start to work out what this is all about. What is really behind the drop in these standards? The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has allowed the interests of other parties, such as the Maritime Union of Australia, to press them to reduce engineer training standards. The MUA is a union that our new Deputy Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is aligned with. I say 'new' Deputy Prime Minister because we do not know how long he and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will remain in their jobs. The frequency of turnover would suggest it will not be long before the knives are out again. Such political interference is easy to justify when a change to ratings regulations simultaneously changes engineers regulations. These examples could have been prevented if AMSA would revert to a separate marine audit just for marine engineer qualifications, as previously existed. This bill seeks to make that a mandatory requirement. Let us get the politics out of this and keep the standards high.
Turning to the second of these government mistakes, AMSA, apparently due to political interference from Minister Albanese and his factional colleagues the MUA, have abandoned the considered engineering reforms they had on 22 October 2009 agreed to with the Australian Institute of Marine and Power engineers. Here we go—flip flop again. Those reforms included an agreement that the new Marine Order must require AMSA to not just turn away applicants who had the wrong trade to be an engineer but must instead require case-by-case evaluation of post-trade experience to help make up workshop efficiency and to evaluate alternative trades. Those reforms also included a breakthrough undertaking that would assess the maintenance experience of class 3 state certified engineers as a substitute for the possession of an approved engineering trade and thereby allow them access to AMSA certification.
These case-by-case assessments would require decisions about marine engineering qualifications to be made not by non-engineering managers but only by suitably qualified AMSA engineer examiners—and this too has been agreed to by the AMSA chief executive officer. But after political interference with AMSA, the authority suddenly changed its mind. It walked away from the agreement with the marine engineers, who were holding discussions in good faith, once suspicions were aroused as to why this was so—but walk away it did. The result is hundreds of Australians with not quite the right trade are turned away from a highly skilled future career now that engineering reforms have not been progressed. This bill addresses this and requires AMSA to implement what it agreed to.
I said at the outset this legislation seeks to address three government mistakes. This is the third. It has enormously reduced applications of Marine Orders part 3 as a result of the repeal of the Navigation Act 1912. The Navigation Act 1912 covered all Australian ships that traded internationally or between the states. Astonishingly, its replacement, the Navigation Act 2012, applies only to ships that trade internationally. Why is that so? Let me elaborate. Vessels that trade between the states are now covered by the Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012, which sets much lower safety training and certification standards. In fact, this new act further reduces standards compared to those applicable under the state laws this new act replaces. That is why the Marine Engineer Qualifications Bill 2013 is necessary to mitigate in some small way both these reductions in marine engineer standards.
If passed by parliament, the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013 would require regulations issued pursuant to the Navigation Act 2012, to the extent they deal with marine engineering training certification matters, to implement and give effect to the 15 standards set out in the bill. The same would apply with respect to the regulation issued pursuant to the Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012, which deals with vessels of at least 3,000-kilowatt propulsion power or 500 gross registered tons. The redraft of the Navigation Act 1912 was necessary because the Navigation Act 1912 only applied to trading vessels during the time they were on an interstate or overseas voyage. That definition does not include an oil and gas industry vessel, which, of course, had not been contemplated in 1912.
In relation to Australia's substantial oil and gas industry, parliament tried to resolve this with a later amendment whereby section 283G attempted to be deem a foreign registered offshore industry vessel to be covered by the provisions of the Navigation Act 1912 as if it were registered in Australia and not registered in any other country. But AMSA's view, based on Crown law advice, was that the deficiencies of a section 2 application of the act—that is, only covered trading vessels—could not be overcome by parliament's deeming provision. So Minister Albanese, now Deputy Prime Minister Albanese, dealt with these deficiencies in the Navigation Act 1912 by having it completely redrafted. As a result, does the new Navigation Act 2012 cover commercial vessels engaged in Australia's offshore oil and gas industry in our claimed Exclusive Economic Zone? The answer to that question is: no, it clearly does not. Even Australian based companies like Farstad Shipping in Melbourne and Swire Pacific in Perth, which actually own their offshore vessels, find it much cheaper to not register or flag them in Australia, so the Navigation Act 2012 has little application. I will use an analogy: if you wanted to run a trucking business from Melbourne to Brisbane, you would have to register your truck in Australia and comply with Australian regulations. That is obvious; that is the law. But there is nothing in the Navigation Act 2012 or the national law that requires anyone to register their ships in Australia to conduct a commercial shipping business from Melbourne to Brisbane. I will repeat that because we are now getting to the crux of this whole debate. The much vaunted Navigation Act 2012 does not require anyone to register their ships in Australia to conduct a commercial shipping business from Melbourne to Brisbane. But wait, there is more. Nothing in the Navigation Act 2012 or the national law will require anyone to register their ships in Australia to operate commercial oil and gas vessels in our oilfields in our claimed Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Navigation Act 2012 expressly only covers ships that trade from Australia to international destinations. How many would that cover, you ask. Would it cover 50, 100 or 150 perhaps? No, there are only seven such ships in Australia, just seven—that is all. The Navigation Act 2012, AMSA claims, will cover more vessels than this but it just is not so. All the other ships that were covered by the Navigation Act 1912 will now fall through to a lesser safety regulatory standard under our state based regulatory system under the new national law.
The effect of section 9 of the Navigation Act 2012 will be that the offences and penalties of the legislation only apply to a foreign vessel while it is in an Australian port or entering or leaving an Australian port or internal waters such as rivers, lakes or a territorial sea other than in the course of innocent passage but not when that vessel is out in the Australian oilfields in our claimed Exclusive Economic Zone.
Absurdly, even if Farstad or Swires chose to reregister their oil and gas vessels in Australia, the default position is that they would not be covered by the Navigation Act 2012 because it only covers Australian registered ships while they are proceeding on an overseas voyage. Instead, the default position is that the Australian registered offshore oil and gas vessel would be covered by the national law and the lesser safety training certification standards it now introduces. That is what this legislation is trying to address. There is an ability to voluntarily opt-in to be regulated by the Navigation Act 2012. In other words, it is your choice. Isn't that like telling a motorist that the speed limit is 100 kilometres per hour and he can choose to drive to that limit if he wants to? This is clearly a flaw.
Federal and complementary state legislation has been passed by parliament to empower AMSA as the nation's single maritime jurisdiction for commercial vessels, and it was intended that the lower-safety-standard states be brought up to the standard of the better regulated states in a new national law. If that had happened we would not be here talking about it today. But that is not the scenario in front of us. Instead of every state adopting best practice, AMSA has taken the best states down to the lowest common denominator—that is, the hands-off, self-regulatory Queensland model, where the vessel owner, not the independent regulator, decides the manning and certificate requirements and decides whether his vessel is seaworthy. That is some regulation?—it is not.
Under the existing state system the lower safety standards of the states are replaced by the higher standards of the Navigation Act 1912 whenever a vessel crosses a state border, and that is consistent with international practice, where a ship voyage of more than 1,000 kilometres would normally cross a national border and trigger equivalent safety standards.
However, the new national law will no longer do this. From 1 July 2013 a vessel will be able to sail out of Port Phillip Bay, turn left and sail all the way around Australia on a voyage of more than 60,000 kilometres before returning to Melbourne, without triggering the higher Marine Order 3 standards that would currently apply once it crossed a state boundary. Such a voyage is the equivalent of three around-the-world voyages, yet AMSA will no longer apply the higher safety training/certification standards. Safety on commercial vessels will be reduced as a consequence.
Examples of how the national law standards are less than those under the Navigation Act 2012 and MO3 include that the national law counts only half the defined propulsion power in determining the level of training and certification required for a given vessel. It no longer triggers Navigation Act standards when a vessel exits state waters, does not mandate the three-year training requirement for a marine engineer watchkeeper, does not mandate AMSA oral examinations, does not ensure AMSA directly audits college course providers, and does not maintain the academic entry standards of engineer cadets.
Today I have attempted to give you an overview of what the Marine Engineer Qualification Bill seeks to address. It is about retraining, safety standards and certifications. It is about reducing union interference in our shipping industry. It is about jobs for Australians and proper regulation. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I rise to oppose the Marine Engineers Qualification Bill 2013. I must say that this is one of the more bizarre contributions I have heard from Senator Williams, and I have heard some bizarre contributions from Senator Williams in my time in the Senate. Here we have—and I say this with great affection, Senator Williams—a cow cocky from Inverell pontificating about maritime safety. I do not think Senator Williams saw the sea or a boat until he was about 24 years old, but now he is an expert on maritime safety.
On one hand he is arguing that this is about union power and union interference, and on the other hand he is arguing the speaking-note points from the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers. What is going on? There is a whale in the bay, somewhere, Senator Williams, and I am sure we will find it.
I am not sure if they have opened a port in Inverell! Maybe this is one of the National Party's great ideas: 'We're going to open up the north.' Maybe they are going to build a canal from Sydney Harbour up to Inverell, and Senator Williams will be the expert on marine safety! Give us a break!
This is even more bizarre. Here we have the so-called coalition, who talk about getting rid of union influence and union power, standing here running the speaking notes for the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers. I have no problem with that. That is fine, but do not be a hypocrite. Do not bring hypocrisy into this.
I really do not know why you have introduced this bill, to be honest. There is already a bill in the lower house, still to be discussed. We are still to see the details, and yet here we have a bill being introduced by the cow cocky from Inverell on behalf of the maritime industry in Australia. What is going on? There is a whale in the bay here; there is no risk about that, Senator Williams. We will find out what it is about. We will search out what this is about.
But let's go to the serious points on this. I would be one of the few senators in this place who have 'served their time', in the old colloquialism. I served my time as a fitter and engineer in Scotland. And I was a time-served tradesperson.
An opposition senator interjecting—
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Cameron referred to Senator Ronaldson as Senator Richardson. Senator Richardson was the one on their side who used to be here counting numbers like they have been doing in the last couple of days—
Senator Ronaldson, I profusely apologise. I think it was because I was watching a lot of the former Senator Richardson last night. So I think you could understand and forgive me for that indiscretion. But let's get back to the sheep shearer from Inverell.
As I said, I am one of the few in this place who have actually served an apprenticeship. I was a union organiser, up to the nation secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. In that time, I went through the whole process of helping to move Australian industry from the old time-served approach that I worked under to a competency based standard where if you could demonstrate your competencies you could access payment for your skills. I do not want people to have to go to back to what I had to do, which was serve 4½ years as an apprentice—and when I started off, my apprenticeship was five years, but it went to 4½ years during my apprenticeship. After four years, I was doing the work that tradesmen were doing in the place that I was serving my time but being paid a fifth-year apprentice's rate of pay. But I had the competencies; I had the skills. I had been there for four years. What Senator Williams is trying to do with this bill—and I am not sure that this is all he is trying to do—is say to people, 'If you've got the skills, you shouldn't be paid for them.' As a strong trade unionist, I believe that if you have the skills and the ability and the qualifications you should be paid for them.
What is going on here—and you heard Senator Williams start off—is not about skills and training. Rather, it is a pretty blatant attack on the government. I am okay about attacks on the government. I think that I can look after myself in this place and I will continue to do that.
Senator Cash interjecting—
So Senator Cash is now an expert on the maritime industry? Senator Cash, you should take one of those pills. Then you might feel a bit better. You are always a bit agitated when you are in here. You should really get that anger stuff under control.
What we need to do here is look at the facts. We have a National Party member supporting a small union. It is a good union; I do not have a problem with that union—it is trying to safeguard what it sees as an issue for its members. I think that it is wrong in this issue, because we should move to competency based standards. It is what is happening around the rest of the world and all over Australia. I will tell you, Senator Williams, that you know as well as I do that, if you support the principle of this bill and that is coalition policy, then what you will be doing as a coalition—on the basis of a lack of understanding about how competency based standards work—is threatening the capacity of this country to train young Australians for the jobs of the future. And you nodded, Senator Williams, so you agree. We find out a little about why you move this bill.
What would happen if this passed would be more 457 visas. Your bill would mean that there would be little or no flexibility in the training system in the maritime area. If there was any technological change—and technological change is a feature of industries including the maritime industry—then we would have to come to parliament and get an act of parliament passed to allow the training system to reflect the technological change that has taken place in the industry. How dumb is that? How old-fashioned is that? Why would the coalition be supporting that type of approach? It just does not make sense. If this bill went through, one of the other implications would be that every engineer in the country working in the maritime sector would have to be retrained. They would have to have their certificates assured. That would mean a huge a cost to the industry and could bring the industry to a halt. What is this about?
Normally, if a bill is to be brought to the Senate, we have a process in which there is some discussion about the bill so that we can work out the rules of engagement, if you like, learn what the bill is about, come to understand where the issues are and then engage on those issues. This has not been done in that way. This bill has been brought in here without any consultation or discussion and put on the table by the coalition. It is a bill that is not in the interests of individual engineers or workers in the industry or the industry generally. And it is a bill that is not in the national interest. What is going on? I have never seen a bill come here that would have such bad effects on the productive performance and safety of an industry and on the capacity for workers in the industry to work their way up in that industry.
This bill is about a blockage on workers progressing through and increasing their skills. I have been there as a fitter. I have seen engineers trying to block fitters from getting access to skills and access to wider work on the job. Anyway, I have always thought that an engineer is simply a fitter with a huge ego. I have worked with them, Senator Williams. The people who do the work on the job are the fitters. The engineers ponce around there from time to time while the fitters get out and do the job. I am biased on that, because I am a fitter.
Anyway, I want to get back to this issue about safety, because I will not come in here and be accused of not dealing with the issue of safety. This government is a government that has actually taken safety seriously. We have consulted on every aspect of safety with industry and with unions—something those on the other side of the chamber have never done. You hear them—and I will not be lectured by the coalition on safety—and they have suddenly discovered asbestos, now that there is an issue with Telstra. They have suddenly discovered that asbestos is a problem. Yet when I was national secretary of the AMWU we were trying to get asbestos banned for years and the coalition would not ban asbestos. It was one of the worst killers of working people in this country, inflicting people with horrible deadly diseases, and they would not ban it. When I was the national secretary of the union, the coalition would not call a ban on asbestos. They wanted consultation after consultation after consultation. So do not come in here, Senator Williams, lecturing me or the government on the issue of safety. Look back at the record of the coalition on safety.
I do not know what is going on here, but obviously somehow or other you got AIMPE's speakers notes on this bill. And are you have faithfully and very competently read those speakers notes to the chamber. So, when you ring AIMPE or they ring you, you will get the tick. But I do not accept the proposition that you are putting up about being a member of the MUA—and I think this is what it is all about. Senator Williams, the MUA are here to stay; just get that through your head. The MUA are here. They represent workers in the maritime industry and do a great job representing workers in the maritime industry. We know the coalition despises the MUA because they look after workers. We know the coalition put the dogs on the docks. We know the coalition put the security guards, with their headgear on, on the docks and threw workers off the job. That is your concern for the maritime industry—nothing but a blatant attack on working people in this country. So don't come in here saying you are concerned about safety standards in the maritime industry, that you are concerned about workers having an opportunity to actually gain a trade or have time-served standards. Time-served standards are a thing of the past—like the National Party, which is a bigger thing of the past in its own right.
Anyway, you have to understand what you are talking about, Senator Williams. I spent years as the national secretary of the AMWU, working through competency based standards for workers in the manufacturing industry. That has been a boon to individual workers and to the industry. It was the right thing to do, and we must, in my view, ensure that the national standards that are being put in place are the correct standards, that there is proper overview of those standards and that the standards meet the needs of workers and industry to have a productive and effective industry with basic skills and to have high skills available to all workers. When I think about what the issue is, it is that you do not like the MUA, so we should not spend any time on these issues. An MUA member who is a cook on an oil rig getting proper skills to make sure the oil rig does not close down because the cook has poisoned the crew—don't do that, that's not on! The cook is MUA, so don't let the cook get on with getting some classification skills or some competency standards! There are other workers at oil rigs and on ships in this country, and they do have the capacity, in my view—and should have the capacity, if they have picked up skills over the years—to have those skills recognised. It is called RPL, recognition of prior learning, which is recognised all over in competency based standards. What this bill would do is stop ordinary Australians getting access to those skills so that jobs could be performed. It is saying: put skilled jobs in the maritime industry on the shortage-of-skills list and let's bring in more 457 workers from overseas.
I think that is what is really at the bottom of this; I think that is what it is. It is about trying to restrict the skills in this country so that we need to bring more workers in from overseas. Well, I am not xenophobic. Why would I be xenophobic? I have been lucky enough to come here from Scotland. In case anyone didn't recognise it, I do not quite have a full Aussie accent. I am getting there—fair dinkum, I am. But this is about the coalition's position. This is about what they want. They want 457 workers. They say they want the skilled migration system in this country to be based on 457 workers. So what do you do? You get some 457 worker, you bring them in and the boss says, 'If you play up, join the union or demand more than I'm prepared to give you, then you're on the next boat or the next plane out of here.' That is what this mob wants. And this bill will reinforce it, because it will restrict the achievement of skills of workers in the industry, and we should oppose it—and we are opposing it.
So Senator Williams, I do not think the Sydney to Inverell canal is going to be built very quickly. If we were ever unlucky enough to have a coalition government in this place, maybe you would muscle up on Mr Abbott and say, 'We've got to build the Sydney to Inverell canal, because I want you to set me up as the guru for training for the maritime industry! I'm only a broken down shearer, but I want to be the guru on maritime industry training!' Mate, you hadn't seen a ship until you were 24 years old. Give us a break! And that is when you went for a trip on the ferry on Sydney Harbour, no doubt wearing a hat with the corks on it. I saw that photo of you on your first trip on Sydney Harbour—a 24-year-old, cow cocky sheep shearer, but not a maritime engineer. He is a good bloke, 'Wacka', but he is a bit wacko on some things, especially this! Mate, you should stick to your knitting. You just do not understand it. (Time expired)
As an educationalist, I find it disturbing that this place is being used to consider quite a retrograde step in educational history. There is a movement in education that has been going on since the late eighties, with a move from prescriptive assessment to descriptive assessment, and from time based learning to competency based learning. It is recognising what learning is. It is recognising that individuals learn at different paces and in different methods to come to the same place, which is a level of competency in a particular area. Time based learning is going back to the past. Time based learning presumes that you have a group of students—whether they be young school students or people who are studying, in this case, to be engineers—who are all in the same room, at the same time, with the same teacher, and, at the end of that particular period of time, they are all qualified to do a particular task. That is not the way education works today. Education works today on the acquiring of skills. It does not matter whether it be about learning how to be a barista or how to be a neurosurgeon. I, for one, would prefer, if I were to be under the knife in a serious operation, to know that that particular individual had not just served time at university for a number of years but had reached the level of competency that they deserve. This is what this is all about.
Going along with the analogy of medical training, in a different job I worked for the medical school of Tasmania. My task was to review the curriculum of the six-year course for all students doing a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Medical Science. What became very clear during that exercise was that so much of that training was time based and it needed to move. Over the years, more and more had been added to the curriculum, based simply on facts and figures, rote learning, if you like, and it needed in to be brought up to the end of the 20th century, as it was then—this was back in the 1990s. It was a culling of the unnecessary rote learning by medical students of thousands and thousands of unnecessary facts and a move to a teaching model that meant that those students were learning skills that would fit them to make decisions into the future.
Another thing that became disturbingly obvious during that time was that there can be a tendency amongst some professions—and the medical fraternity can be accused of this on occasion, and I strongly suspect that the group behind this particular legislation are of a similar mind—that a closed shop can suit some people. It can suit to have the group of people who have those skills kept quite small because then they can determine their price in the marketplace. It is a very retrograde step to introduce these kinds of out-of-date standards. It is contrary to modern training practices, and it is very inconsistent with global practices. It is contrary to moves that have been made to current Australian government policy reform directions, because the Australian government is committed to introducing competency based progression in Australian apprenticeships and traineeships. There is a global recognition in the educational fraternity that competency based learning is the way to go.
The same kinds of changes have been made in the areas of assessment. There was a time when assessment was purely and simply on a pass/fail. We do not do that anymore. We do not just pass/fail kids. We look at describing what they have achieved over a period of time and describing that achievement on their assessment. That assessment then stops being something that can cruel the life opportunities of a student and actually becomes a tool for teaching. It means that the teacher has a clear description of the abilities and competencies of their students. They can also clearly identify where those gaps are and teach specifically to them. Gone are the days where we simply say, 'For you to be in high school, you just go for six years, and we move you on to high school after you have done your time.' In Tasmania now, a much more modern method of teaching and assessment occurs, whereby students are assessed against the competencies they have achieved. So, within the same age group of students, you can have real recognition of the variety and richness of the achievement of students in those areas.
Those general points about competency based learning as opposed to time serving can be applied generally across all areas of education. But we are talking here, specifically, about how it applies in the area of marine education. Members here may not know that Tasmania is home to the Australian Maritime College. The Maritime College is based in Launceston, a city in the north of the state, and it was due to the efforts of a very well-respected Labor politician, Lance Barnard, that that particular institution came to Tasmania. It has served not just Tasmania but also the broader educational community well for many years now. In fact, it boasts some of the most modern teaching techniques in the world. It is a place that people spend a lot of time and effort trying to get into, such as people from India, from all over South-East Asia and from the United States. They go there because they know they are going to get the very, very best maritime education.
It is globally recognised as a centre of excellence, it has a multimillion-dollar suite of specialist teaching, learning and research facilities and, as I have said, it is internationally acclaimed. It is utilised by government bodies and maritime related businesses worldwide. What is really important is that the staff of the Australian Maritime College are very highly experienced, very highly respected and have very, very strong industry links. They know what they are doing at the Australian Maritime College, and they do not need a draconian piece of legislation to tell them how to teach. I think they would be aghast to know that the college is being hijacked for the quite narrow set of needs of one particular group in the community.
The AMC has two campuses. The main campus is in Newnham, which is a suburb of Launceston. I have had the privilege of visiting that institution on many occasions. If senators ever get the opportunity to visit the Australian Maritime College, I think they would be very impressed by the very high standard of education that that place provides. Amongst other things on the campus is an enormous pool area, which would be almost as tall as this chamber, and would have about the same floor area. The whole area can be darkened and then can be turned into a storm at sea. Waves can be whipped up; the sounds of the wind and the terror of being at sea can be conjured up in this setting. Lifeboats are then thrown in and man overboard procedures can be practised. It is quite phenomenal to see. The college does the most amazing research on wave generation with their equipment. I do not pretend to be technologically up with all of it but, believe me, it is extremely impressive.
They have some of the world's best and most innovative ship simulators available. One can virtually stand on the deck of a ship and have the complete experience of controlling that ship. There are a variety of vessel types and sizes to choose from. They can also simulate the entry into some of the world's biggest and most important ports. For instance, you could take a multithousand-tonne ship into a big harbour, like New York Harbor. It is an extraordinary experience. The college produces some of the best qualified people in a whole variety of maritime based industries, including maritime engineers.
The other campus is at Beauty Point, which is a few kilometres up the western side of the Tamar River. Once you have travelled through all the beautiful wine areas, you reach the lovely area of Beauty Point, and that is where the field based activities of the Australian Maritime College occur.
At the college, through these two campuses, students are provided with very flexible course options. I will stress the word 'flexible' as being not time based, or rigid, or old-fashioned learning, but flexible course options with opportunities for full-time, part-time and even online distance study. Study can be about captaining a vessel, safeguarding the marine environment, designing advanced ocean engineering structures, farming seafood or keeping the world's goods moving. These courses are all provided through the Australian Maritime College.
I am quite confident that, if we were able to have any of the staff of the Australian Maritime College here today, they would be aghast to think that people who know very, very little about the subject are actually dictating to the teachers, to the college, to the professionals, to the experts, what they should teach. Why for the life of me we would try to dictate teaching styles through a piece of legislation is beyond me. To think that at any one point in time you would dictate what the education of a particular profession should be I find quite astonishing, because education moves all the time. We have constant innovation, not only in the actual direction and delivery of education but also in the matter that needs to be covered. Teachers and the industry itself need to be the ones that determine what goes on. This is true of the Australian Maritime College as it delivers the maritime engineering courses.
The Australian Maritime College also introduces vocational certificates at many levels, bachelor degrees and diplomas, and postgraduate certificates and degrees, including doctorates. The college has an emphasis on small class sizes and very direct learning. Consequently, the graduates of the Australian Maritime College are sought after worldwide. There are alumni across 56 different countries. This is a centre of excellence that everyone here can be proud of.
We know that the sectors of offshore marine and maritime are exciting new frontiers, not just for Australia but for the whole world. We must not be using this place to try to compromise the adaptability and effectiveness of the regulatory regime for maritime safety as has been established by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The passage of this bill would mean that Australia would be inconsistent with the International Maritime Organization's training standards, to which we are a signatory. The most serious and immediate effect of the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013 without amendment is the potential impact on all existing qualification certificates. Due to the complex interaction with other legislation and the absence of transitional provisions, I am told that about 23,000 current qualifications would be rendered invalid. I am sure it is not the intention of my honourable colleagues opposite to render the marine industry qualifications of 23,000 people null and void. What do we have here to ensure that unqualified persons will be able to serve as seafarers? The bill does not set minimum standards and it does not prevent any reduction in those standards; it only enacts a time served approach to maritime engineering qualifications. It increases the amount of regulation on the industry, overrides the effect of three other Commonwealth acts passed unanimously by the parliament and serves to increase the costs for shipping in Australia. Why would anyone want to do this?
The core of it comes down to what we were talking about previously: a very small group—approximately 11 per cent of the maritime engineer industry—wanting to have a stranglehold on the people they think are fit to be part of their group. How many times have you heard conversations about how different royal colleges restrict numbers, whether it be in ophthalmology, obstetrics, gynaecology or general surgery? It makes it very difficult for people to enter and be one of their rank. They do it for a very clear reason, in my opinion, and that is to have a closed shop that they can manipulate for their own purposes. This is not supported by educationalists, it is not supported by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and it is not supported by fair-minded people who recognise that educational practice has changed. It is draconian, backward and narrow.
Here we are on the second last day of the sitting of the Senate, with many important pieces of legislation we should be dealing with, and yet the valuable time of the Senate is being used in a cynical and manipulative way by members opposite. I can only say I am extremely disappointed that that is the case. We should not have to be doing this at this time. I understood that there were, in fact, other pieces of legislation to be discussed today. There has been a lot of fuss and noise in this place about guillotining debate and proper process not being followed, and yet when we do have a process agreed to, when we do have agreement amongst all people in this place that particular legislation will be debated, at the last minute a change is made, not because the legislation is considered to be extremely important, not because members opposite genuinely believe that the best interests of this country are going to be served by the passing of this legislation—no; it is cynical and, quite frankly, beneath the dignity of this place. I would not like to see this place being party to a turning back of the educational clock for any particular area, whether that is for apprentices, university graduates, teachers, doctors or anybody else. We have to move forward progressively in education in this country, not backwards. For that reason, I will not be supporting the legislation.
I too wish to make my contribution to the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013. I would like to follow on from my colleague Senator Thorp's comments. I too looked at the Order of Business this morning and saw that there were a couple of bills mentioned for general business today—one about migration and one about Fair Work—which I think will attract a lot of conversation, and a lot of conversation should be had at this stage of the parliamentary cycle. We should be talking about the migration amendment and Fair Work, but I find that all of a sudden this bill has popped up out of nowhere. It has been in the other House. I believe it was introduced by the member for Denison, Mr Wilkie. I have no doubt that to Mr Wilkie it was a matter of extreme importance, and no-one would argue that, but there must be some cunning plan from those opposite that this was not on the agenda for today and somehow now it is. Mr Wilkie's motives are more than honourable, but unfortunately some unforeseen circumstances would come out of this bill, should this bill pass as it is, without amendment.
As with all bills, it is most important that we have a moment of thought about the history of one of Australia's greatest industries. I never played a direct role in shipping—I am proudly a boat owner, but that does not rate anywhere amongst Australia's maritime industry, seafarers and waterside workers. Of course, marine engineers play a very important role. I would like to think about this for a moment and share with the Senate some thoughts I have about just how important shipping is to this great nation. It is a no-brainer that we know we are an island and without shipping we would not be in the fantastic position we are in. Shipping not only imports numerous items that we take for granted, such as clothing, white goods and certain cars—although I wish more were made here in Australia, but unfortunately that is not the case—but also there are our exports.
We all know, particularly those of us who come from the great state of Western Australia, the importance of the mining industry to Australia's future and present and also to our productivity and our economy. But it does not matter how great our materials or commodities are or how good and efficient we are at getting them out of the ground and moving them to the ports if we do not have efficient ports. We are succeeding at that particularly under this government and under the guidance of the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese. He honestly and truly gets the importance of efficient ports. We have to get the materials onto the ships to disperse them around the world. It does not take a lot to work out that, without shipping, we certainly would be in the dark ages.
We have to have a safe and sustainable shipping industry. Unfortunately, shipping has attracted a lot of attention for the wrong reasons over the years. Over the years we have heard about the well-known shame and scam of flags of convenience. There is absolutely no argument that a lot of places in the world do not have a seafaring industry as respectable and reputable as Australia's. The consequences that this bill without amendment could have for our shipping industry could be devastating. They could be devastating not only to lives but to our environment. Particularly those of us who are on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, which I proudly chair, know that there are numerous examples around this country of what happens when our shipping industry is somehow not as safe as it could be. For a lot of people the first thought that comes to their mind, after loss of life, is the environmental damage along the Great Barrier Reef. It would be absolutely frightening to think what could happen if we were to see any more major catastrophes in shipping.
I want to talk about something close to my heart. For those of you who do not know, Carnarvon is a wonderful diverse little town some 970 kilometres north of Perth. I would give you the exact kilometres but I cannot remember through the haze of looking at the speedo every week on my way to Carnarvon, through Carnarvon and past Carnarvon coming back from Darwin. But, trust me, it is around 970 kilometres. Just north of Carnarvon there is a small operation, Lake MacLeod. It is a salt mine. Fortunately it is still a viable salt mine. It has been a salt mine for a number of years. I would not want to guess how long, but it has been well over 25 years. They export salt to all ports around the world. We had a seafaring accident north of Carnarvon and Lake MacLeod. This was only in the early 1990s. It was not carrying salt, but a ship ran up on the rocks and the massive oil spill that followed actually woke a lot of us up to the devastating effects on our environment. When these massive ships hit rock and run aground it is quite frightening.
But, sadly, we are still seeing maritime disasters, with none more vivid in our minds or our children's minds than that of the cruise liner just off Italy recently. I know that disaster was not created by a drop in the standards of maritime engineers, but the truth of the matter is that one simple mistake in shipping can have a disastrous outcome for the environment and life.
I am sure Mr Wilkie's thoughts on this are pure. There is no doubt about that. But we must amend the bill. We must amend the bill to deliver on its intent—and that is to protect the integrity of our marine engineers and their qualifications. As Senator Thorp touched on, some 23,000 qualifications could be made null and void—if that is the correct terminology—if this bill were to pass without amendment.
Let us look further back into our proud maritime history. Let us not forget that our history is closely related to the global story of people crossing oceans. The first people to engineer ocean-going vessels capable of travelling thousands of kilometres were Pacific Island mariners. They were the first truly maritime people. Like the Torres Strait Islanders, the Pacific mariners used double outrigger canoes and a sail to cross oceans with strong currents. Several thousand years later, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish and other westerners from England and Europe made similar journeys around the globe to the southern hemisphere. From 1600 onwards—and possibly earlier—Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders traded with fishermen from Makassar, Indonesia, who harvested trepang from Australia's northern coastlines, selling them to the Chinese.
I remember not all that long ago, around 2005 or 2006, the Indonesians were still harvesting trepang, but they were harvesting them in Australian waters. If I remember rightly, I was sitting on that side of the chamber and the minister at the time was none other than Senator Ian Macdonald from Queensland. It created enormous dramas. It created massive dramas, particularly in Western Australia. Those poor fishermen were trying to survive, but they were harvesting trepang in our waters. Anyway, to cut a long story short, some changes were made to Australia's offshore rules. We had more planes out there. Then Senator Macdonald was relegated to the backbench. I just want to remind the Senate that the harvesting of trepang by Indonesian fishermen is still recent in our history.
Until 1950 Australia's history with trade, colonisation and settlement was dependent upon maritime sailing voyages. We all know that there is an abundance of diversity in Australia's maritime history. There were the early Dutch mariners, such as Dirk Hartog. We know what happened to poor Dirk off the coast of Western Australia, but there is an island that still bears his name. It is a wonderful island. Of course, there was Abel Tasman and the English navigators, like James Cook and Matthew Flinders, mapping the Australian coastline through to the commercial sealers, whalers and pearlers. And there were explorers like Douglas Mawson. So it is imperative for Australia to never forget the importance of the maritime industry to our trade. We need to have a safe and sustainable maritime industry.
One proud thing that Labor governments have hung their hat on for years and will always hang their hat on is that they are about improving standards in the workforce. We are a party that are proud of the fact that, for the 100-odd years that we have been around, we have stood for the virtues of training and qualifications that provide safe and healthy work areas so that members of the workforce can bid their family farewell in the morning and go to work knowing darn well that they will be back that evening because of the fantastic effort put into occupational health and safety. Occupational health and safety standards are not limited just to the shop floor or to a vehicle; they apply to our ships.
I would like to take the opportunity to remind those who may be listening that the opposition earlier tried to bring this debate to an end so we could not talk about this, but I am proud that I have got my opportunity. Going back to the nineties, and a previous life, I remember that one of the hats I wore was that of chairman of the road division of the Western Australian transport training council and the transport industry training council. I was also on the board. It was made up of employers in the road transport industry; representation from the unions, which was me; and of course educators. Those industry training councils and industry training boards were there so that both arms of the industrial sphere—employers and employees—could work together to deliver training outcomes that would deliver qualifications and trained personnel in the areas of road transport, warehousing and the like. I may be digressing a little bit, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens; would you please bear with me? We were an integral part of the maritime industry because we wanted safe warehouses and safe transport workers—safe forkies and truckies who got the freight to and from the wharf.
In 1999 or 2000 the then Prime Minister, John Howard—before he got full control of the Senate—could not wait. He had spent years deviously conniving on delivering shortcuts to his mates in big business—shortcuts around training, which was seen as a cost, not as an investment. As a father, I stand here proudly saying that I will always want my kids, your kids—all our kids into the future—to be trained. I want them to know that they can successfully use the machinery that they are in charge of or the machinery that is around them so that they have every opportunity to come home with all fingers and toes still in place. But it was John Howard who delivered on some slimy promise made in the backrooms or the boardrooms to his mates in big business. He said that, if any industry training council or industry training board had the audacity to have union representation on their committee or their board, he and his mates on that side of the chamber—a lot of them who are here now were not here then, but there are still quite a few—would deliver the hammer down on the top of those industry training councils and industry training boards. Their funding would then be ceased unless they removed the union representation. And here we go again.
Whenever there is a blue or an argument about decency and safety in workplaces, it is the workers who work with their employers. I will talk about the employers. The majority of employers are decent hardworking human beings who have taken a big punt in life. Whether they are employers in shipping or delicatessens or wherever they may be, part of employers' working family—it is not only the family structure at home—is their employees. I proudly say that the majority of employers that I have met would be welcome in my home.
It is an insult to working men and women, whether they be the business owner, the production manager, the operations manager, the supervisors or the boys and girls out on the floor or wherever, to think that they are not grown up enough to want to work together to have the safest work environment. Their employer, who had the intestinal fortitude years and years earlier to put everything they owned on the line—let us face it, most employers are not born with the gift of being given a fantastic enterprise—has gone out and done the hard yards. They have taken the big chance. They have put the family home on the line. They are the ones who have had the entrepreneurship to want to do better. They are also fantastic people who treat their workers as part of the family. But that Prime Minister thought it was just fantastic to insult these businesspeople, these business leaders, and union representatives, who were working together to do everything they could to have the safest working environment, by removing funding from the boards unless the union people were removed.
When I was with the industry training council in Western Australia it was headed by a wonderful woman named Debra Goostrey. I see Debra once a year now. Debra is with the Urban Development Institute of Australia. Good luck to them, because they have snaffled a fantastic person. Debra stood on her digs and said very clearly to me and to the employer representation from—what were they called then? They are now the Western Australian Road Transport Association; they had another name, which escapes me at the moment—Transport Forum WA. She said that they would not, and she would not, entertain the thought of losing her chair, which was me, on the road freight division, because of the insult. She would rather cop the loss in funding and she would go out of her way to find funding elsewhere. I can happily say that I was ably supported and abetted by the transport employer body, because they thought it was an absolute insult, a disgraceful episode. Fortunately, that part has been corrected. That ship that was on its side has been righted. We as a nation are now grown up enough—I hope we are grown up enough—to say that if we are going to fix it we are going to fix it together.
So, on that, when it comes to this bill, as I say: Mr Wilkie, it is good of heart—but it cannot go through without amendments. We have to do everything we can to ensure that Australia's maritime industry keeps its absolutely brilliant, high-quality record. We have to work with the union that represents the maritime engineers, and we have to put a few amendments through so that we do not have the unforeseen circumstances that this bill will deliver.
It would be a retrograde step for Australia to introduce outdated standards contrary to modern training practices and inconsistent with global standards. Time-served progression is contrary to current Australian government policy reform directions. The Australian government has committed to introducing competency based progression in Australian apprenticeships and traineeships—something that we hold to very proudly—and there is no embarrassment for me to say, as a Labor senator: the sooner we pump out more Australian trainees and Australian apprentices the better. As a nation we have found, over the years, that sometimes, sadly, it has been easier for employers to go overseas to seek to fill certain job descriptions. I have absolutely no dramas with a Western Australian senator saying that this nation was built on migration and that, sadly, we lack some of the skills we need. But I go one step further. We lack those skills because of the likes of John Howard's attitude to training and, unfortunately, some of those in industries in Australia who think that it is just so much easier to go overseas, rather than to create a training scheme and think: 'In four or five years time, I want Australian kids in those jobs; I want Australian trainees; I want Australian apprentices. I want to give Australian kids every opportunity to seek employment in their land.' And then there is no embarrassment in topping up with foreign workers.
I rise to speak on the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013. The Australian Greens are pleased that this bill is before the Senate today. This is a bill which we supported in the House of Representatives, where it was introduced as a private member's bill, debated and recommended for a vote. Unfortunately, even though there is only one sitting day left in the House, the government has not brought the bill on for a vote there, even though the list of speakers was exhausted and, indeed, the House's selection committee recommended this bill for a vote back on 5 June. We look forward to this fully-debated bill going to a vote here in the Senate today.
Before I come to the particular provisions of this bill, I would just like to take this opportunity to reflect, at nearly the end of the 43rd Parliament, that there have been some excellent outcomes from this minority parliament and that those outcomes have been very good for the people of Australia. I think that, among all the recent media activity and debate, it has sometimes been easy to lose sight of that. Because of this minority parliament, we have seen $13 billion put into clean and renewable energy, which is an extremely important step for Australia in this very challenging 21st century. We have also seen that the tax-free threshold will be lifted to $18,200 for many, many people from the start of next year. I am also proud to say that the Greens have been able to negotiate that, from 1 January 2014, parents will be able to take their kids to the dentist and use their Medicare card to get free dental treatment. Just yesterday, through the hard work of the minority parliament, we saw the Gonski school funding reforms pass this Senate, providing the framework for needs-based funding of schools in Australia—a long-overdue and transformative change to the schools funding system in Australia of which I think all those involved can be justly proud. We have also seen a lifting in the standard of protection offered to firefighters around this country. Because of the minority parliament and the Greens' bill in the House of Representatives, we have been able to increase the protections for and compensation available to those firefighters. And now we have the opportunity to do more for the Australian community and lock in some further protections for people right across this country.
The Greens have been approached by members of the Maritime Union of Australia who have said that their long-running campaign for a national stevedoring code of practice, to ensure safety on the docks, was threatened to be stymied at the last minute and now may not happen at all as a result of the intervention of some large employers. One thing that we, here, could do right now is to enshrine the standards for our marine engineers.
First of all, I would just like to indicate what the basis of this bill is. This is a bill designed to prevent a reduction in marine engineering training and certification standards in Australia. This bill will do this by requiring that any marine regulations, such as marine orders, must be amended by the issuing authority so as to comply with and give effect to the existing Australian standards for engineering training and certification. This bill also implements the engineering improvements which were agreed to on 22 October 2009 between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the AMSA, and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, the AIMPE, and which include, among other things, the establishment of separate regulatory requirements and ratings to assist with regulatory certainty.
Importantly, with the passage of the Navigation Act 2012, existing Australian standards will no longer apply to a vessel in Australia's merchant trading fleet if the vessel does not trade internationally. However, only seven of the approximately 20 merchant ships left in the Australian fleet actually trade internationally, so the Navigation Act 2012 does not apply to the remainder of the Australian trading fleet. The Navigation Act 2012 also does not apply to the more than 150 commercial vessels which are currently engaged in the Australian oil and gas industry or to other relevant operations. So there is a problem.
The Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012, which I will refer to as the national law, has given rise to lower training and certification standards than those required by the Navigation Act. The national law sets lower standards. It counts only half the defined propulsion power in certifying the level of training and certification required for a given vessel. It no longer triggers Navigation Act standards when a vessel exits state waters. It does not mandate the three-year training requirement for a marine engineer watch-keeper. It does not mandate the AMSA oral examinations. It does not ensure that the AMSA directly audits college course providers. It does not maintain the academic entry standards for engineer cadets.
To ensure this reduction in training and certification requirements does not progress, the bill we are debating today proposes that, in addition to the seven vessels covered by the Navigation Act 2012, where a commercial vessel is either 500 or more gross registered tonnes or has propulsion power of 3,000 kilowatts or more the engineer on the vessel shall also be required to meet the marine engineer training and certification standards set out in this bill.
It is reassuring to know that this bill has been scrutinised, as is the requirement for all proposed legislation and regulations, by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a proud member. The committee and the statement of compatibility in relation to the bill noted that the bill engages with some important human rights. The bill engages with and recognises the right to enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work, as described in article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 7(b) makes particular mention of safe and healthy working conditions. This bill helps to ensure that all persons have the right to safe and healthy conditions at work by ensuring a minimum competency standard. Maritime working environments have the potential, of course, to be hazardous, and the competency of maritime workers can directly affect the health and safety of others. The bill was found to be compatible with human rights.
We have a good shipping industry in this country. It faces its challenges, as do shipping industries around the world. In Australia that is in part because successive governments have not understood the importance to our trade and to our defence, let alone our economy, of having a good Australian owned shipping industry. We have a safe shipping industry. It is safe for the people who work on the ships. It is safe for the people who are out at sea. And it has to be, and generally is, safe for our environment.
One of the reasons for that safety is the high standards and level of qualifications and professionalism of our marine and power engineers. We have a good track record. Unfortunately our good safety regime and track record has to be defended against attacks and undermining. We have seen some of those attacks in recent years with the attempt to reduce the minimum time of study required to become an engineer from three years to one year. We have been able to stop that. One thing that is worth noting, though, is that the attempt to reduce the time from three years to one year was, in essence, reneging on an agreement that had been reached with the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers.
The Greens have had the privilege of working closely with a range of workers and their unions, as well as with a range of organisations that might be described as craft unions. These are often smaller unions, organisations and professional institutes. They are often non-political and non-partisan in the sense that they do not necessarily hitch their wagon to a particular star but are prepared to work with those who will understand, listen to and advance their interests. When an organisation comes knocking on your door and says, 'There is a real concern about safety and we need you to stand up in parliament and fix it,' the Australian Greens are very happy to work with them. It is a fundamental responsibility of all of us in the parliament to be looking at what needs to occur in the national interest and to give a voice to those interests in the Australian community who look to us for leadership and look to us to rectify threats to safety.
There is a continuing move to erode protections and minimum standards, and we must always be vigilant in Australia. This is not about enshrining a closed shop. If anyone who is a member of another union, or not, wants to come in and work as an engineer they should be able to. But that should not come at the expense of reducing minimum standards, which are important for health, safety and the environment. The minimum standards should be the minimum standards, and whoever meets them can then go and get a job.
There are a number of things we are still waiting for from the government, but this legislation is something that we can implement right now. On behalf of the Australian Greens I commend this bill to the Senate and congratulate all members of the AIMPE on their advocacy.