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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2466

Mr O'NEIL(3.35) —Since I have been representing the electorate of Grey in this House I doubt whether I have spoken in a debate on an issue which is of such fundamental importance for this country, or which typifies so many of our attitudes towards our country, our industries and Australia's position in the world, as the Ships (Capital Grants) Bill 1987. I also doubt whether an issue on the Government's agenda more graphically illustrates this Government's commitment to Labor principles for the development of this nation.

This Bill represents the culmination of many years' work on the part of the parliamentary Labor Party, commencing in those seven years of opposition, when the present Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) began drawing his blueprint for transport policy. This Bill represents a watershed for the Australian shipping industry. Never before has there been such an opportunity for a domestic industry, operated by Australians, employing Australians, for the benefit of Australians to grow and play the role to which it is entitled but which it has so far been denied.

As an Australian nothing aggravates me more than to see and hear within our society the expressed attitude that we Australians are not capable of looking after ourselves. We suffer a cultural cringe. We suffer a colonial cringe. We have an almighty inferiority complex. Almost daily within the Press we see expressions of opinion from foreigners and their local toadies on what we should and should not do.

Some of the ironies are amazing. They apply equally to our shipping industry as to any other industry. We are told by the rich man's club, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the European Economic Community how to manage our economy. The gnomes of Zurich pontificate about our economic health as they plan their next speculative raid on our dollar. Spokesmen from the most protected economies of the world tell us of the virtues of free trade and of the `science' of market forces and we believe them. So used have we become to this patronising drivel that we seem almost incapable of thinking for ourselves. With this Bill, though the rot has stopped-in part any way.

We have the makings of a strong shipping industry in this country. It is not very big but it is reasonably healthy and, by world standards, it is becoming healthier. It is, however, an indictment on all of us that our shipping industry should be as small as it is. Let us look, for example, at our coal trades. We are the largest exporting coal nation but, of the 90 million tonnes we exported in 1985-86, Australian flagships carried only an abysmal 1.2 per cent. How pathetic!

We Australians are almost totally dependent on overseas owned or controlled shipping. In 1985-86 Australian flagships carried in total less than 4 per cent of our trade. In freight revenue terms in 1984-85 Australian operators earned less than $900m of the total $6,700m generated by the shipment of Australia's imports and exports.

How has this come about? Why can we not carry more Australian trade in Australian ships? The history book tells us many of the answers. The genesis of our Australian merchant navy began in 1914, when 26 enemy vessels in our near Australian waters were seized and put into service for national purposes. To these were added 15 cargo ships bought by Prime Minister Billy Hughes in 1916-with much public outcry. The great irony of course is that it was Hughes, the greatest sycophant of all time, who committed us to fight the English battles under English command yet struck a mighty blow for Australia in building a fleet which could survive the greedy hand of the British shipping combines who had, since the days of the First Fleet, grown very fat on the proceeds of their monopoly of Australian trade.

The benefits to the Australian economy were immense. The line made a healthy profit and substantially undercut the conferences to the advantage particularly of Australian farmers. So the Commonwealth line prospered and added to its fleet in 1919 five passenger lines which plied the English trade and eventually gave great service in World War II.

The line continued to be profitable; it continued to provide freight savings to Australian producers and, accordingly, made a massive contribution to the balance of trade on invisibles. In 1929, though, after 6 1/2 years of Country Party dominated conservative government, effectively the Commonwealth line had been dismantled. It had been killed off by the combined assault of British ship owners, working with the full support of Australian political saboteurs on the conservative side. We had surrendered. From that day we have never regained our position. Our own Australian National Line is but a shadow of its predecessor, and although it might wish to do so, it cannot challenge the strength of foreign ship owner cartels. It can survive only by being part of them and, although it might attempt to keep them honest, it is too small to carry much weight in the general line of trade.

That was our legacy on coming to government in 1983. We found that ANL was virtually bankrupt. The history of conservative government and management shows us why that was so. Those attitudes are still there. While it is pleasing to note the grudging support for the Bill given by the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd), behind him we know that there is a whole band of dries and saboteurs who would allow our shipping industry, now being reborn, to be sold off to the advantage of foreigners. His colleague Senator Hamer, for example, still has on the Notice Paper a private member's Bill to abolish the exclusive right of Australian ships to trade the Australian coast. What is left of that industry, anyway? One might ask where such a policy stops. No doubt the senator and his supporters would be equally happy for every other Australian industry to be opened up to foreign labour. Why is the shipping industry any different? The answer is obvious.

Senator Hamer and his supporters are not alone, of course. All foreign operators and owners are watching, no doubt very closely. The bureaucracy in Canberra, too, would have a warm inner glow. I suspect, though, that their record will never be revealed. However, we do know that the ivory tower theorists, breathing the rarefied air of Canberra, are none too keen on the Australian shipping industry. As with all government business enterprises, they persist in running them down, in depriving them of capital and milking their profits. So, too, will they try to run down our shipping industry. No doubt honourable members opposite will recall from their own experience in government the difficulties that they had in managing public business enterprises. The honourable member for Goldstein (Mr Macphee), for example, mentioned the other night on `Carwash' his own experience with the Overseas Telecommunications Commission. As the saying goes, governments may come and go but the bureaucracy goes on forever.

Despite all this, we have stood by our policy. We want to see more Australian cargo carried on Australian ships. We believe that Australian flag shipping can compete internationally and can be reliable, despite the difficult market situation that it faces globally. We want to see stronger support for our shipping industry by Australian exporters. For too long Australian shipping has been used as a scapegoat for shortcomings in our trade and marketing arrangements. After we have mined, grown or manufactured our exports, we have found it too easy to leave others to manage, and profit from, our export shipping. We have turned our backs on an enormous deficit in trade and services. Why cannot Australian shipping be treated as an export commodity itself? When shipping and related costs are such a large component of export costs, why should we not try ourselves to do something about it?

Again citing coal, I remind the House that in 1985-86 Australian ships carried a miserable 1.2 per cent of our total coal exports. Foreigners carried the rest. Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd has shown, though, that with modern tonnage and the benefits available from our revitalised shipping policies, we can do it. This year, with the three new BHP vessels-the Iron Kembla, the Iron Newcastle and the Iron Pacific-the figure of 1.2 per cent will double. We all know about our foreign debt, we all know that the imbalance is not just in trade and goods. The debt that we are incurring on shipping costs continues to increase. In 1985-86 it had reached $2,400m. Every dollar of this debt that we can save is worth while. These gains can be made, and that is why we must grasp the golden opportunity presented by this Bill. It has been a long time since we have had a chance to mend our ways. The industry, the unions and the Government have developed a package which is an absolute breakthrough. To all those who sling mud at the workers in Australia, let me say that I take off my hat to the seagoing unions. They have bitten the bullet; they know that to survive our ships have to be efficient. They know that modern technology means fewer jobs.

As indicated in the Minister's second reading speech, the Maritime Industry Development Committee has played a leading and crucial role in developing the framework for revitalising the Australian merchant fleet. Leaders of the five seagoing unions-the Seamens Union of Australia, the Merchant Service Guild of Australia, the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, the Professional Radio and Electronics Institute of Australasia and the Federated Marine Stewards and Pantrymens Association of Australasia-have taken a constructive, responsible and realistic attitude during MIDC discussions.

Debate interrupted.