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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 70


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (5:00 PM) —I propose this afternoon to talk about an issue of national importance. In doing so, I note that this week the government intends introducing its counter-terrorism laws for debate. It is therefore timely to revisit what I regard as a significant part of this debate, and that is the issue of our maritime security. I think it is an area that has been seriously neglected by the Howard government.

Across the political spectrum politicians are sensitive—and rightly so—to the need to protect citizens in the war on terrorism. That is what it is. In a post-September 11 world the issue of terrorism is one of the few areas of policy with consistent bipartisan support in this parliament and also, I might say, at state, territory and national levels. To this end the opposition has, for the right reasons, welcomed the development of the Maritime Transport and Offshore Facilities Security Act. This is one that I handled to a large extent in the last parliament as the shadow minister for transport. The opposition also supports the changes made earlier this year to strengthen the act’s framework through the inclusion of the offshore oil and gas industry. The potential for a major terrorist attack around the Australian coastline, especially in north-west Western Australia, is an issue.

But the fact remains—and the parliament should be aware of this—that these laws do not go nearly as far as they should in addressing some of the serious dangers posed by security breaches of our maritime borders. If you have got any doubt about that, just look at the problems with illegal fishing in the area north of Australia at the moment. As an active local member, this is something that the member for Leichhardt—who is at the table—would be well aware of. Maritime security is of paramount importance to a country like Australia, which is an island nation. It is a nation that is dependent on the existence of a safe and secure international shipping industry. That is bread and butter to us as a major trading nation that is more than ever dependent, for example, on the export of our resources for economic prosperity in the face of the declining importance of the manufacturing industry under the current government.

To our north we have some of the busiest ports in the world, and up to 300,000 ships a year pass through the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia—an area notorious for pirate attacks. Only last weekend a ship carrying Australians was actually attacked by pirates. It is both close to home and far from home. Despite this and despite government claims of security reviews I contend that there are gaping holes in our coastal maritime security system that could threaten our ports, our cities and Australia’s population at large. Still today the international maritime security community accepts that the perpetrator of the world’s most heinous terrorist act, Osama bin Laden, owns a fleet of ships registered under the notorious flag of convenience system. We cannot escape these facts.

Several summits on international terrorism in Australia and internationally have heard that organised terrorist cells own and operate cargo vessels. It is well known that cargo shipping is used to finance those cells—to actually finance some of their terrorist activities. Flag of convenience ships have also been linked to another serious issue that Australia has confronted on a regular basis—the smuggling of people, weapons, bombs, explosives and drugs. They are all interrelated. I note that the US Coast Guard, in a classified report, documents that 25 terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network illegally entered the US as stowaways aboard cargo vessels through ports such as Miami and Long Beach. That is the United States, with supposedly one of the most secure and advanced international security systems. We have also had our own cases of stowaways—for example, recently aboard the Capitaine Tasman.

Despite these threats the government has not responded to the plan outlined by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report Future unknown: the terrorist threat to Australian maritime security, which warns that an attack on our maritime interests is a ‘credible scenario’. The report found Australia still faces ‘major institutional and operational challenges in reducing the risks of maritime terrorism’. The institute has therefore recommended the establishment of a $100 million maritime security program aimed at ports including the direct involvement of the Australian defence forces in ship and maritime port security.

The flag of convenience system poses a current and real danger to our shores. We have scant information about the foreign crews on these ships, where they come from or the conditions they endure. These are circumstances ripe for exploitation, including by organisations responsible for international terrorist acts. While these flag of convenience vessels must be covered by the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, they are hardly properly regulated when they are flagged in countries with exceptionally bad security reputations such as Mongolia and Cambodia, just to name a couple.

The number of foreign vessels operating around the Australian coast has increased dramatically under the Howard government because of its approach to coastal shipping permits and the deliberate erosion of the Australian flagged shipping fleet. In 1990, by way of example, 50 permits were issued to foreign ships; last year there were more than 850 permits issued to foreign ships that are potentially an activity front for international terrorist organisations.

The government has also failed to demonstrate how it satisfies itself about the bona fides of the crews on board these ships. Instead, at a time when we are imposing stringent background checks on all Australian maritime security workers, the Howard government is willing to take the word of underpaid or unpaid foreign crew members from countries described, not by me but by the Prime Minister, as the ‘arc of instability’. It takes their word that crews are who they say they are, rather than making any endeavour to actually check the bona fides of the crew members.

Some of these vessels, like the FOC ship Henry Oldendorf, are carrying ammonium nitrate into our city ports, where once it was securely carried by Australian flagged vessels with domestic crews. That causes even greater alarm to the Australian community. Just think about a vessel carrying ammonium nitrate going up in the port of Sydney, Melbourne or Geelong. Think about what damage it would do to the local community, including the death and maiming of members of the Australian community. This is a very serious issue that the Howard government is continuing to neglect in its fight against terrorism. It is a graphic example of what could go bad with respect to a terrorist attack in Australia’s major ports.

At the weekend, the potential for terrorist actions on the water was further highlighted by the attack on the Seabourn Spirit off the coast of Africa by pirates using machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. But we just want to let these flag of convenience vessels go around the Australian coastline willy-nilly without any endeavour to do proper checks with respect to the crews. Think about that passenger vessel being attacked with Australians on board.

Last week, we had a joint report by the International Transport Workers Federation, the World Wildlife Fund and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. It recommended that the flag of convenience system be eliminated to stop illegal fishing in international waters—a major problem for Australia. That report, The changing nature of high seas fishing, found that the number of large-scale fishing vessels whose flag is listed as unknown has leapt by 50 per cent since 1999.

I note that fishing vessels are outside the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code. It goes without saying that these ships, many built specifically with illegal fishing in mind, provide the cover that terrorists need and the cover that terrorists go out of their way to seek to allow them to perpetrate their attacks on innocent people internationally—and potentially in Australia because of neglect by the Howard government.

We have to get more serious about properly resourcing maritime security and making sure that our security regime is tight and that we actually front up to the weaknesses with respect to foreign vessels relating to such issues as poor reporting and the fact that we potentially have porous maritime borders which represent a point of serious terrorist attack. While the Howard government looks to these new laws to track possible terrorist threats on land, it is ignoring the potential dangers lurking in Australian waters. One flag of convenience ship arriving in Australian waters using these loopholes could see a very serious accident of considerable danger to the Australian community. I simply say to the Howard government: get serious about your job.