Senate debates

Monday, 9 August 2021


Migration Amendment (New Maritime Crew Visas) Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:51 am

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to make a contribution on this important piece of legislation that was introduced by Senator Keneally, the Migration Amendment (New Maritime Crew Visas) Bill 2020. In doing so, I acknowledge, sadly, that this debate would not be necessary if the federal government were doing its job. For eight long years this government has refused to act and close one of the gaping holes in our national security regime. They have ignored advice from their own officials about the growing security risks posed by foreign crews working on flag-of-convenience vessels off Australian shores. What makes this situation even more deplorable is that, at the same time, this government is refusing to let our own citizens return to Australia. It refuses to let Australian citizens leave the country without permission, and it recently threatened to jail Australian citizens attempting to return home from India, but if you are a foreign crew member working on a flag-of-convenience vessel you are currently issued with a visa for entry into Australia within 24 hours, with no security checks. Compare this to the security checks that Australian seafarers and maritime workers are forced to endure, waiting for up to three months for their maritime security identification card, MSIC. The bill that we are debating here today is aimed at fixing the hole in our national security regime and protecting Australia's borders and the Australian people.

In 2018-19, authorities estimated that 72 per cent of cocaine, 83 per cent of cannabis and 72 per cent of amphetamines seized that year had come through our maritime ports, yet this government still refuses to conduct proper background security checks on foreign crew entering our ports. In July 2016, the International Transport Workers Federation alerted Australian Border Force officers to the berthing of a flag-of-convenience ship at the port of Gladstone. The vessel was crewed by Syrian nationals, but only one of them—only one—had a maritime crew visa, and that one visa had been issued for an earlier voyage. In other words, the ship had been permitted to dock without the necessary visas in place. After the ITF's intervention, all of the Syrian crew were issued with visas and the right to unescorted shore leave. Prior to the ship's arrival no-one knew who was on board or what, if any, security risk they posed.

This is not an isolated example. The ITF presented evidence to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee of 10 vessels that had been in violation of Australia's temporary licensing arrangements. When officials from the department of infrastructure were asked about these breaches, they confirmed that they do not have officers on the ground to ensure that foreign flagged ships are complying with their temporary licence obligations. The department has also confirmed that they have detected only five breaches of temporary licences since they were introduced almost 10 years ago in 2012. This simply isn't good enough. It seems that the ITF is better at detecting breaches of the current licensing regime than government agencies. Counterterrorism and other agencies have continually identified the potential exploitation of people with access to the secure areas of our port as a risk, but the government has repeatedly failed to act.

In 2017, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, as it was then, appeared before the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee and gave evidence that flag-of-convenience ships may have been used in a range of illegal activities including illegal exploitation of natural resources, illegal activity in protected areas, people-smuggling, and facilitating prohibited imports and exports. What did the government do when confronted with this evidence over four years ago? Nothing! This government did nothing. The departments also raised their concern about the impact of reduced transparency and secrecy surrounding complex financial and ownership arrangements of the flag-of-convenience vessels. A series of serious border security incidents and the repeated concerns from government departments and agencies should have rung alarm bells throughout the government and prompted swift action. That's what should have happened: it should have rung alarm bells and it should have prompted swift action. Instead, the government's only course of action to date has been to tighten up the requirements on hardworking Australian seafarers and maritime workers.

As the situation currently stands, foreign crew can apply online for a maritime crew visa about 24 hours prior to arriving in an Australian port. In fact, it is the usual practice for the ship's operator or a crewing agent to lodge a bulk application as the ship approaches Australia. There are no face-to-photo checks and no background checks and the visas are issued very quickly. We therefore have very little knowledge of these people arriving in Australia. In pre-COVID times, foreign crews would automatically be eligible for shore leave on arrival. This often involved the crew members being bussed from the bottom of the gangways to the entry gates of the port. They were then free to roam wherever they wished throughout Australia with no meaningful checks and no restrictions: 'Off you go.' As recently as during this year, two crew members from a Panama flagged ship escaped along the foreshore in Geelong. Earlier this year, Senator Seselja was forced to confirm that the Port of Geelong is a secure area and that all people in the zone are required to have an MSIC or be escorted by an MSIC holder. Yet, somehow, at 2 am on a Saturday morning, two sailors were able to creep down the gangway and set off and disappear into the night.

As far back as 2015, alarm bells should have been ringing throughout the government. It was that year that the case of Captain Salas came to the authorities' and the Senate's attention. Captain Salas was provided with a maritime crew visa in 2015 and again in 2016, despite the fact that he was being investigated by the New South Wales Coroner over three highly suspicious deaths as far back as 2012. Captain Salas had given sworn evidence that he had, at the very least, assaulted a crew member and that he facilitated the purchase of guns. Yet, with 24 hours notice, Captain Salas was able to be issued with a maritime crew visa and was free to enter Australian waters and Australian ports. Again, there were no background checks done as are required for Australian workers. I know that it sounds like it just could not be true that someone who had given sworn evidence that he had assaulted a crew member and had facilitated the purchase of guns would be able to be issued with a maritime crew visa and be free to enter Australia, but it is true. That's exactly what happened. There were no background checks.

Australian workers are required to undergo character tests and background tests, but none of that is required for foreign workers. No character tests and no criminal record checks were carried out. Captain Salas, who had given sworn evidence of committing a crime, was allowed access to our ports. These lax visa arrangements are also in place for crew carrying highly dangerous cargo into and out of Australia and around our coast. Goods like weapons-grade ammonia nitrate is carried into and out of Australian ports on flag of convenience vessels, crewed by workers who are granted visas with 24 hours notice.

If this government isn't satisfied by the Australian evidence of the risks and danger, there's plenty of international evidence it can look to. In the past, some 30,000 rocket grenades were found on a flag of convenience ship operated by a North Korean crew in Cambodian waters. Alarming as this is, there is nothing in the current regime that would stop this ship's crew from being granted a maritime crew visa and access to Australian ports. In 2002, Tonga shut down its use of flag of convenience vessels when it was discovered that one of the vessels was owned by al-Qaeda and that the vessels were being used for transporting weapons, ammunition and crew to Europe.

Current maritime crew visas aren't used solely for vessels carrying our imports and transporting our exports; they're also issued to crews of flag of convenience ships that move domestic cargo between Australian ports under temporary licence issued under the current Coastal Trading Act. In 2019, there were eight ships used by Rio Tinto to regularly trade in Queensland waters. Four of the vessels had Australian crew who were all required to have an MSIC. The other four vessels all had foreign crew with no extensive background and security checks. Instead, they were required to have the online maritime crew visas. So eight ships were conducting the same commercial work but with much more onerous security requirements on those using Australian crew as opposed to the requirements for the foreign crew.

The purpose of the bill before us today is to address that situation. This bill aims to ensure that foreign crew are subject to proper security checks and background checks. This bill will bring the background check requirement for foreign crews on ships with temporary licences to engage in Australian coastal shipping into line with the background checks required for Australian seafarers and maritime workers. Senator Keneally's bill addresses the gaping hole in the Morrison government's border security regime by creating two categories of maritime crew visas. The bill creates a transit visa for international seafarers entering Australia on a continuing international voyage. It also creates a maritime crew visa for international seafarers engaged on ships and authorised to undertake Australian coastal shipping under a temporary licence. This new visa will require more rigorous background and security checks before it can be issued.

It is estimated that 20,000 foreign flagged ships with 200,000 foreign crew enter Australia each year. Each and every one of these crew are granted an online visa with as little as 24 hours notice. As I've said earlier, in pre-COVID times, once their online visa was granted and they arrived in an Australian port, these 20,000 crews were free to wander in Australia on shore leave.

In addition to this lax visa arrangement, some of these crews arrive at ports where there are no X-ray machines, no metal detectors and no bag checks. The Department of Home Affairs has also confirmed that, in some cases, up to 20 foreign seafarers can be left to walk through highly sensitive areas of ports where the only supervision and precaution is the use of security cameras.

This government has had eight long years to plug these gaping holes in our national security system, yet still they refuse to act. The government recently passed a number of changes to the domestic Maritime Security Identification Card to extend the security checks carried out on Australian seafarers and maritime workers but has done nothing to tighten up their online visa process for foreign seafarers. I congratulate Senator Keneally on bringing forward this sensible solution to a national security problem, and I urge colleagues to support the bill.

12:06 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I make one point absolutely crystal clear at the start of this debate: if you are going into a security sensitive part of a port, you need a Maritime Security Identification Card. It does not matter if you are Australian or foreign; you need a Maritime Security Identification Card. The same rule applies to everyone going into security sensitive parts of our ports. There is no discrimination. There's no rule for Australians different from others going to the port. The same rule applies. That's a good thing, and it's a good thing that we've tightened up the requirements around the Maritime Security Identification Cards so that bearers are people of the right character who don't have a criminal history which would indicate that they shouldn't be in those highly security sensitive areas. It's fit and proper that we have those checks and balances and make sure we control who goes into security sensitive parts of our ports.

I'd like to make some preliminary comments in relation to the maritime industry as to this bill. My first point is: the wellbeing of our seafarers should be paramount, whether they are domestic or international. At this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, many seafarers are doing it tough—doing it extremely tough. This is particularly the case with respect to crew who haven't been able to change out of vessels. There are crews on international vessels who have been on those vessels for over 12 months—13 months, 14 months, 15 months. I think it's incumbent upon countries like Australia and other countries around the world to seek solutions to that, because that's unacceptable. It's unacceptable that seafarers should be in that position.

The second point I want to make is in relation to the Ships of shame inquiry that was made in 1992. I commend the chair of that inquiry, Peter Morris MHR MP—who was on the other side, I must say. That inquiry did absolutely vital work in terms of shining a bright light on some of the disgraceful conditions on the flags-of-convenience vessels that were referred to as 'ships of shame'. Examples of unseaworthy ships, poorly trained crews, beatings of sailors by ships' officers, sexual abuse of young sailors, crews being starved of food—terrible things—were uncovered in that Ships of shame inquiry.

And what do we see today? I call upon all members to have a look at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's 'Focus areas for 2021-22', and you will find that 'Focus area 2' is on breaches of the Maritime Labour Convention. This is in 2021-22, after we had the Ships of shame inquiry back in 1992. Thirty years later, this is still an issue. I quote from AMSA's document:

Data suggests seafarer's welfare continues to be compromised with serious breaches of the MLC found on board vessels. In 2020, there was a 46% increase in MLC deficiencies issued during port state control inspections from the previous year.

That's a 46 per cent increase in Maritime Labour Convention deficiencies on a year-on-year basis. Issue 2, which AMSA is looking at, is the maximum continuous service on board. It states:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been particularly challenging with the number of complaints relating to repatriation showing a substantial increase compared to previous years. While from early 2021 there has been a reduction in the number of seafarers serving on board vessels for more than 11 months, we will continue to monitor this situation and enforce the maximum continuous service on board limits in accordance with the convention.

I really do commend AMSA's focus on this issue in relation to the Maritime Labour Convention.

I commend all those great Australians who are working in our missions providing support to seafarers. I can give you just one example from my home state of Queensland. The average number of seafarers coming into the port of Gladstone each year is approximately 60,000. Usually, 16,000 of those seafarers would seek assistance from the Gladstone Mission to Seafarers. At this time of COVID that has fallen to 6,000, but it doesn't mean the issues are any less serious. I spoke about the changing crew issue during these COVID times. The general manager of the Mission to Seafarers in Gladstone, Jessica Mulhall, said:

They're suffering extreme mental health [issues] and really difficult conditions for them to be in for 15 and 16 months at a time now.

She is shining a bright light on the huge pressures that are on our international seafarers at this time. All governments, all over the world, need to work very hard in order to address those issues.

The second issue I wanted to touch on in relation to maritime matters—and I think it's important to provide context to this debate—is the state of Australia's maritime industry. When I was a very young lawyer working in the legal department of Mount Isa Mines Ltd I was proud to be involved in the construction of a vessel known as MV Aburri. This self-discharging and self-loading vessel was designed right here in Australia, in my home state of Queensland, and constructed in Cairns by NQEA. That vessel is still working up in the gulf, taking zinc-lead-silver concentrate from the McArthur River Mine out to a deep-sea anchorage point. That vessel was designed and constructed right here in Australia. I pay tribute to everyone who was involved in that, including my good friend and naval architect Stuart Ballantyne and Don Fry of NQEA.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, 'Why aren't we designing and constructing more ocean-going vessels in this country?' What are the impediments? Then we need to ask ourselves, 'Why don't we have more merchant vessels flying under Australian flags?' I listened to Senator Sheldon's contribution to this debate, and he made the point that over a period of 30 years the number of Australian flagged vessels has fallen from 100 to 13. That is a calamitous fall. I think it's incumbent upon all of us to reflect on that change in circumstances, especially at a geopolitical time when this country needs sovereign capacity and capability.

It's in that context that we are considering this private senator's bill. I am speaking against this bill, and there are, essentially, three reasons for that. The first reason is it seems to draw a link between this bill—this new class of visa—and the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill 2020, which has now been passed. I can understand that some of those opposite have concerns as to whether or not the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill provided sufficient protection with respect to workers who might be impacted by the added obligations and requirements for the maritime security identification card.

That is a matter upon which we can have a reasonable debate. I'm on the other side of that debate. I sit on the two scrutiny committees of this place. We looked at the regulations and the act, and I—and I won't speak for the rest of the committee—considered that the checks and balances in that act were appropriate and provided enough protection for people and their rights while at the same time provided the safeguards at our ports that are necessary to address the very fact that Senator Brown just pointed out in her contribution—that there is so much illegal trade occurring through our ports.

We have to make sure that the right people, after they've gone through character and criminal background checks, are in the security sensitive parts of our ports. That's what the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill was all about. I'm glad it was passed and it is now law. I query whether the argument put forward by those opposite is genuinely about visas or is really about trying to put hurdles in the way of the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill. It would assist this place if those opposite were more transparent with their real objective in terms of this bill.

The second issue I have with the bill—and I made this clear in my opening statement—is that every single person who goes unescorted into a security sensitive part of an Australian port must have a maritime security identification card. It does not matter if they're Australian or international, the same rule applies, as it should. The issue with what those opposite are presenting is that an international crew member who never goes into those security sensitive parts of our ports except when escorted—maybe on their way to shore leave—would be required to go through the same process. This would apply even if they were working in the galley or have some role that doesn't require them to go unescorted into those security sensitive parts of our ports. Why the duplication? Why the inefficiency? Where is the logic in that? That has not been explained adequately by those putting forward this private senator's bill.

We essentially have three reasons why this bill doesn't warrant support in this place. Firstly, there is the unnecessary duplication. Those international seafarers who need to have access to the security sensitive parts of our ports already need a maritime security identification card and go through a visa process as well. So there's absolutely no justification to duplicate the process and the system and require others to incur the costs involved in that.

Secondly, there is the inefficiency. We should be focusing our resources, our security checks and character tests on the most sensitive individuals who are going into our ports. We shouldn't be wasting time and money by duplicating procedures and focusing on those who aren't going into security sensitive parts of our ports.

Thirdly, this bill is all mixed up. It's connected with—and I would argue that this is the whole basis for it being put forward—the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill. This bill was proposed by those opposite to place a hurdle in front of the commencement of the other bill. The bill is not very long. I read the bill last night and I can tell you that the one paragraph that leaps out to you says that the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill can't commence unless this bill is passed. Those opposite know that this bill wouldn't get the support in the lower house, so this bill is all about putting a hurdle in the way of the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill.

As I said, it's fine to have a reasonable debate about the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill, but I think it demeans the whole process of having a private senator's bill when you come into this place and present a bill not on the basis of its own merits but with the not well hidden agenda of it being a hurdle to the implementation of another piece of legislation—in this case, the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill.

Debate interrupted.