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Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Page: 11709

Mr HAYES (Fowler) (10:23): The maritime industry is obviously very significant to our economy. In fact, well in excess of 95 per cent of Australia's international trade comes to our shores by ships. Our ports manage, as I understand it, in the vicinity of 10 per cent of the entire world's sea trade. We are a large island and it is probably not all that surprising that, as a consequence, the only viable way of accessing and transporting commodities to and from Australia is through shipping. As a result, we need to ensure that legislation that we propose, particularly the bill before us today, the Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, does not weaken this industry that is so vital to our economy. The Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill brings together a number of initiatives to ensure that fewer risks are taken by the masters of ships in Australian waters. The bill will also ensure protection of our environment and our maritime industries. The bill amends the Navigation Act and the Protection of the Seas Act and will with strict liability require the master of a ship in Australian waters not to operate a ship in a manner that causes pollution or damages the marine environment. It creates criminal and civil penalties for breaches of these requirements. It also creates an offence where the master of a ship fails to report, in accordance with the regulations, an incident, and it increases the level of penalties in the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1983 for reckless or negligent discharge of oil or oil residues by ships.

Last year the Shen Neng 1 ran aground close to Great Keppel Island, causing damage to the coral reef on the Douglas Shoal. The ship was carrying 950 tonnes of heavy fuel and the Chinese owned vessel was in a restricted part of the reef. I do understand that it is not all that uncommon for vessels to take the shortcut through the reef but on other occasions I understand issues of safety have been paramount in the minds of masters. In this instance I am unaware of what actually caused the master of this vessel to take that shortcut and he found his vessel in restricted waters and in an area which was obviously dangerous, where he struck the reef and caused considerable damage. In fact, the resulting oil spill had potentially catastrophic effects on the marine environment, with a very high economic cost associated with it.

The incident resulted in an Australian Maritime Safety Authority report, Improving safe navigation in the Great Barrier Reef. The report recommended strengthening regulations including toughening penalties for breaches of action at sea, increasing penalties for discharge of oil residue, which would make it consistent with the state legislation as well as Australia's international obligations under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. It also recommended that there be an increase in the penalties associated with such instances, in line with the economic capacity of modern shipping companies.

Other recommendations in the report include extending the coverage of the reef vessels traffic service to a large part of the Great Barrier Reef and developing a whole-of-government management plan to enhance navigation aids in the Great Barrier Reef. In light of the recommendations, the North Reef Lighthouse, north of Gladstone, has already been refurbished with new vessel-tracking equipment. This technology will assist ships in determining not only the best times but also the safest speed for their vessels to move through those waters.

All of these recommendations and the implementation of these new technology aids encompassed in the bill have the very clear aim of deterring shipping companies from participating in unsafe and irresponsible action. Protecting our marine base, particularly the environmentally sensitive ecosystems, and fisheries is at the core of the proposed bill. The bill will ensure that there is a minimum risk of shipping incidents that have far-reaching economic as well as environmental consequences. The Australian coast came very close to experiencing one such catastrophe in 2009, when the Pacific Adventurer lost 31 containers of ammonium nitrate overboard east of Moreton Bay. The damage that the ship caused could easily have been catastrophic. As I understand it, the ship lost 270 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. The incident occurred on the Queensland south-east coast, which is an area of significant tourist interest and economic consequence for the state. We saw on our television screens the efforts taken by the Queensland government to clean up that spill. Somewhere in the vicinity of 2,500 workers drawn from all across Australia were deployed over two months to rectify what was caused by the Pacific Adventurer.

We cannot speak about these issues without recalling what is probably still the world's worst oil spill, the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska some 21 years ago. As I understand it, 11 million tonnes of crude oil was leaked from that ship. It was directly responsible for killing in the vicinity of one-quarter of a million birds and close to 3,000 sea otters as well as another 3,000 seals. It decimated the coastal communities in the Alaska basin. It collapsed the local fishing industry, which struggled to recover. The catastrophic impact of this event is still being felt with many social and psychological effects on the surrounding communities. In other words, these communities did not fully recover. And that was 21 years ago.

At present, our close neighbour, New Zealand, apart from preparing to meet Australia on the rugby field, is cleaning up oil that has been leaking from the ship Rena, which became caught on the Astrolabe reef last Wednesday. It has been leaking oil for some time, and on Monday that oil reached the New Zealand coastline. The ship is carrying 2,000 containers, of which 70 have fallen overboard. An estimated 300 tonnes of oil has already been spilt, and the rate of leakage is apparently increasing. I understand that for our New Zealand colleagues it is a challenging clean-up that will take many, many weeks. The ship's captain has been arrested and charged under New Zealand maritime law.

Although large incidents such as these, with their far-reaching environmental and economic consequences, are relatively rare, the truth is that in Australia smaller scale oil spills are very common. On average, surprisingly, 250 oil spills occur in Australia each year, with our maritime industry and the environment, including the tourism and fishing industries and the broader community, subject to major impacts. Our side of politics has considered the potentially catastrophic impact that oil spills can have on our communities, particularly our maritime environment. It is undoubtedly clear that these simple amendments, which I have already outlined, must be passed to ensure not only the safety of the industry and the fact that the industry is discouraged by law from taking unnecessary risks but also moves to protect our maritime environment. I commend the bill to the House.