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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 25982


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (10:15 AM) —The Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 will amend the Navigation Act 1912, the Seafarers Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 and the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993 to revise the jurisdictional basis for shipping safety regulation. At the outset I would indicate to the House that the opposition supports the substantive changes proposed in this bill with some reservations that I will address later. However, I also clearly state that we do oppose the amendment in item 10 of the bill and I foreshadow that I will move an amendment to delete those changes.

In broad terms, the Navigation Act 1912 has historically given the Commonwealth responsibility for overseas and interstate voyages by Australian trading ships and foreign vessels trading in Australian waters. The states and the Northern Territory currently regulate intrastate voyages by Australian trading ships and foreign vessels. In saying that, however, I note that over the years many of the larger vessels operating intrastate have used the mechanisms of the Navigation Act to opt to the Commonwealth jurisdiction. This has provided some of those operators of the larger vessels the flexibility to operate interstate and overseas, without changing jurisdiction.

The bill before the House, in essence, makes a fundamental change to that historic division of responsibility for maritime safety regulation. The bill amends the Navigation Act 1912 to redefine the Commonwealth's responsibility. The amended act recasts the lines of responsibility between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. The amended act draws a jurisdiction based on the size of vessels to be regulated as opposed to the nature of the voyages to be undertaken by the vessel. Generally speaking, the Commonwealth will now have responsibility for vessels over 500 gross tonnage, thereby devolving to the states and the Northern Territory responsibility for all vessels under 500 gross tonnage.

The practical effect of this change for maritime safety regulation is to bring within the coverage of the Navigation Act 1912 trading ships over 500 gross tonnes proceeding on an intrastate voyage. These vessels were previously covered by the relevant state or territory because of the nature of their voyage within the boundaries of that state or territory. Similarly, the bill has the effect of now precluding some categories of vessel that are currently covered by the Navigation Act 1912. Responsibility for the safety regulation of these vessels will now move to the relevant state or territory. The vessels in that category are Australian trading ships under 500 gross tonnes operating on interstate voyages. It should be noted at this point that it is not proposed to change the current jurisdictional arrangement for Australian fishing vessels, fishing fleet support vessels, pleasure craft or inland waterways vessels and offshore oil rigs support vessels.

The current jurisdictional arrangement reflects the shipping and navigation agreement between the Commonwealth, the states and the Northern Territory made under the 1979 offshore constitutional settlement. In 1997, the Australian Transport Council, comprising all Australian transport ministers, formed the view that this arrangement presented some difficulties in administration. It was thought that the arrangements caused unnecessary confusion for business and duplication of regulatory activity and costs. In 1999 the Australian Transport Council therefore unanimously agreed to the revised arrangement now proposed in this bill.

The general perception of the governments, both state and federal, was that the size of the vessels was a more appropriate jurisdictional base given the nature of the risks and activities to be regulated in the maritime industry; that is, large ships tend to pose a more substantial safety and environmental risk because of the volume of cargo and fuel being carried. For this reason, and because it is largely this size vessel involved in international trade, the international conventions and protocols are more rigorous and tailored to this size vessel. This has always been a challenge for states to comply with and participate in those international agreements. In fact, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974, which is the principal international treaty regulating ship safety, applies to vessels over 500 gross tonnes.

The upshot of the bill is that the Commonwealth will continue to regulate all Australian trading vessels proceeding on overseas voyages. It will also assume responsibility for the maritime safety regulation of all foreign registered vessels trading in Australian waters, with the exception of those under 500 tonnes operating exclusively intrastate. For this reason, from the opposition's point of view, that shift appears to be logical. It is an interesting question to ponder, however, why it has not always been on this basis. That takes me to a criticism of the bill that has been raised with me by a number of groups that have spoken to me in the lead-up to today's debate.

In fact, in my consultations with the maritime industry on the bill, an issue has been raised about the potential for constitutional challenges to the change in jurisdiction proposed by the bill. The Commonwealth jurisdiction has two footings—namely, the navigation power and the one based on interstate trade and commerce. It has been put to me in a vigorous fashion by some in the industry that vessels under 500 tonnes trading interstate have been covered by the Commonwealth for good reason—that is, that in the course of their trade they spend time in more than one jurisdiction. Coverage by the Commonwealth has removed the potential ambiguity regarding obligations and requirements. I take the opportunity, therefore, to foreshadow at this point that this bill be referred to the Senate legislation committee for scrutiny so as to ensure that those who have some concerns about the nature of the bill have an opportunity to present their concerns in detail to a Senate committee. I will be asking opposition senators in the Senate to explore the issue raised about the potential for ambiguity or confusion, as I have detailed in the debate this morning. I say that not because I am totally convinced that this is a problem but because the issue has been raised in as vigorous a fashion as it has and that, in the parliament's consideration of this bill, it must therefore be fully explored in the other house.

Clearly, the bill was intended to simplify the arrangements. It is important that we have not opened up a new area of confusion or ambiguity. I stress this because in this industry any confusion or ambiguity over rights and responsibilities in the act has important safety consequences, environmental consequences and can cost the lives of our seafarers or waterside workers. The government will obviously contend that this is covered by the option in the current act to allow an operator to apply to `opt in' to the Commonwealth legislation under the provisions in section 8AC. I suggest alternatively that the bill modifies that provision in the current act to allow the owner of a vessel of less than 500 gross tonnes to apply to come within Commonwealth jurisdiction. This is fine, obviously, where the owner makes the decision to make the application to come within the Commonwealth act. We are left to rely on the operator to make that application. The current act has no ambiguity. This is another part of the changes to be explored by the Senate committee because of the consequences of the bill not being clear about the regulatory framework when operating between states and territories.

The minister has also decided to introduce an `opting out' provision to the Navigation Act 1912. In pure terms, this is an interesting concept to ponder and one that suggests that one can apply not to be covered by Commonwealth safety legislation and regulations. In that context, therefore, the guidelines and provisions on determining the response to that application are critical to maritime safety and the rigour of safety in its application. The application by an owner of a trading ship of more than 500 gross tonnes for a declaration that the Navigation Act 1912 does not apply to their ship is determined by AMSA. The bill allows for AMSA to make such a declaration, subject to conditions and consistent with prescribed guidelines.

Last year, the opposition recognised how critical these guidelines and provisos were to the effective operation of the proposed new regime. Last year the minister introduced the bill and, unfortunately, expected the parliament to give proper consideration to it without those guidelines being available. That is not how you pursue good legislation in this country. On that basis, we secured agreement from the minister that the bill would not come before the House for a second reading until those guidelines were agreed with the states—something that is fundamental to the eventual implementation of the bill. I therefore report to the House that as late as Tuesday of this week, that agreement was finally secured. So I simply note today that, when the bill came in last year, it was a long way off from being agreed to because the states had not been properly consulted about the guidelines associated with the application of the bill. That is something fairly fundamental to the proper legislative processes in this country.

The opting out guidelines and the general jurisdiction change proposed have a direct impact on the employment conditions of seafarers. The current application of the Navigation Act 1912 has directly impacted on the jurisdictional arrangements for respective Commonwealth, state and/or territory compensation and occupational health and safety legislation—something that is dear to my heart. To keep it consistent, the bill therefore amends the coverage provisions of the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 and the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993 to align the application to the revised application of the Navigation Act 1912 for maritime safety regulation. The bill also amends these acts to include a comprehensive application provision, rather than relying upon the reference to coverage or application provisions in the amended Navigation Act 1912. The bill obviously maintains the status quo for coverage in relation to foreign ships under current Commonwealth occupational health and safety and maritime workers compensation laws.

The opting out provisions of the act have the potential, unfortunately, to provide an avenue to opt out of Commonwealth occupational health and safety and compensation coverage. This was a further reason why the opposition, in scrutinising this bill, was so vitally concerned to ensure that the opting out guidelines were rigorous and not a loophole, in essence, not shopping around for the lowest possible conditions on what I regard as fairly fundamental in a decent country—the health and safety of Australian workers. I therefore note in passing today that, in this respect, the agreed guidelines provided yesterday state:

AMSA will not make a declaration for a trading ship unless it has received from the Seafarers Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Authority (the Seacare Authority) a notice in writing that such a declaration will not adversely impact on the operation of the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992, and that the Seacare Authority is satisfied that the trading ship and its crew will be appropriately covered by a relevant State or the Northern Territory workers' compensation scheme.

I urge all those who will participate in the debate to give regard to that statement. I welcome that proviso and ask that the Senate committee fully explore, perhaps with a representative of the Seacare Authority, what will be intended by the term `appropriately covered'. It must be rigorous in its application so as to avoid shipowners shopping around in an endeavour to undermine fair and reasonable conditions going to the health and safety and workers compensation standards of Australian workers. I also welcome the proviso in the guidelines requiring a guarantee from the states that they will be regulated under the state's or territory's marine safety, environmental protection and occupational health and safety legislation.

These and other key terms of the guidelines agreed with the states yesterday require some scrutiny from the Senate committee. For example, I would like to be assured, as the opposition transport spokesperson, that the conditions are rigorous enough and not designed to allow a mass opting out from the more rigorous Commonwealth legislation. The limits appear strict, but any fair reading of them must demand that the committee apply full scrutiny to ensure that we are not allowing a total undermining of our rigorous maritime safety regime on our coastline—something that I fear, unfortunately, the Commonwealth government is committed to.

For that reason, as I alluded to earlier, the opposition will be seeking to amend the bill to remove the proposed change to the application of part VI, coastal trading—cabotage provisions. The bill proposes to quarantine the cabotage provisions from the impact of the revised jurisdiction. To date, the application of part VI, the cabotage provisions, has been limited to section 2 of the act. The result has been a situation—what I see as a loophole—where foreign vessels proceeding on intrastate voyages have not been covered by the cabotage provisions of the act. I say that because the cabotage provisions are part of the Commonwealth act, and the act is applied only to interstate and overseas voyages. Foreign ships operating within one state have dodged these provisions that apply to all other ships on the coastal trade. Quite simply, the consequence has been that foreign ships conducting domestic transport services within one state, such as the state of Queensland, have been able to avoid paying domestic wages and ensuring domestic Australian conditions of service for crews.

The bill has tried to change the Navigation Act coverage but to limit that only to parts that would ensure this loophole was left open, unfortunately. I will address the implications of this matter further when the bill is considered in detail. Suffice to say, the effect of the amendment in item 10 is to introduce major change to the application of the act but to only part of its application. In spite of how it is dressed up, it is clear that they will do anything to not give any ground on their entrenched ideological opposition to ensuring fair pay and safe conditions for all seafarers working on our coastal domestic transport tasks.

In terms of the number of ships impacted by the change in jurisdiction, the department has been unable to provide specific, accurate figures. However, it has estimated that the number of ships that would transfer from state or territory jurisdiction to Commonwealth jurisdiction is 40, but if ferries and barges—for example, those expected to be allowed to opt out—are taken out this estimate reduces to 10. The number of ships under 500 tonnes that would transfer to state or territory coverage is also about 40, but again the department anticipates that many of these ships are ones that have already opted for Commonwealth coverage. Perhaps the Senate committee, in its deliberations, can also glean some clearer statistics on the impact of this bill.

I have unfortunately been a longstanding critic of the minister's approach to his transport portfolio. In the maritime area, the record clearly shows that he continuously leaves Australian shipping out to dry. This is in actual fact reflected in a number of speeches he has made since he assumed responsibility for the portfolio of Transport and Regional Services. I suggest to the House that a principal reason for this is his lack of commitment and support to Australia as a shipping nation. He is obviously focused on cheap freight rates at any cost to the welfare of Australian workers and their families or, importantly, to our environment. He is prepared to forsake shipping and crew standards and risk our marine environment in order to make marginal savings in freight rates and in order to be seen ideologically strong in opposition to cabotage and the recognition of the rights of Australian workers to decent wages and conditions of employment, the right to work in a safe environment and, importantly, our right as a nation to do everything possible to protect our environment. At what cost, therefore, is this government prepared to risk the ideological application of its own view of life to the standards and conditions that any decent country would expect, be it with respect to how we employ our workers or with respect to our environmental standards?

We all support and appreciate the importance, especially as an island nation, of efficient shipping services to Australia because of our heavy reliance on trying to sell Australian goods and services—an export nation. We have always been a nation of exporters and we will continue to be a nation of exporters. But that efficiency, I suggest to the House, must not be achieved in the context of risking a humane and safe industry with professional standards of training and development for crews.

This topic is very capably covered in a report by the International Commission on Shipping Safety entitled Ships, slaves and competition. That inquiry into shipping, as the member for Braddon well appreciates, was chaired by a former member of this House and a former minister for transport, the Hon. Peter Morris. We are all aware of the contribution he has made to the maritime industry not only within Australia but, importantly, internationally. I think it is also acknowledged on both sides of the House that he is a man of some significant standing when it comes to the need to protect Australia's environmental standards against ships of shame and the need to ensure that Australian workers and families are protected on the basis that, when an Australian worker goes to work in the seafaring and the waterfront industry, he or she goes to work on the basis that they work in the safest possible environment and earn a fair day's pay for a fair day's work—something that, unfortunately, is not akin to the thinking of the current Minister for Transport and Regional Services.

I therefore give credit to the work of the Hon. Peter Morris for his untiring focus on the safety, efficiency and wellbeing of our maritime and aviation industries and also on the need to protect Australia's environment from some of the unfortunate international accidents that have occurred in recent times on the shipping lines around the world. I commend to the House the report which the Hon. Peter Morris had some involvement in—Ships, slaves and competition. It makes a valuable contribution to the consideration of this bill and it makes a valuable contribution to where we should be going as a nation when it comes to our export services and our reliance on shipping services, both domestic and international. It is a document that should be read, digested and acted upon in the interests of our maritime industry and in the interests of Australia as a nation.

I note, to the credit of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, his comments to the Shipping in the Asia-Pacific Arena conference on 7 March 2001. Perhaps, finally, he is starting to learn. He indicated in that speech that he supports the contribution of the commission and acknowledged that:

... it will be important that its work is now carried forward by the responsible part of the industry and government.

The minister has also indicated that he is prepared to sponsor the tabling of the report at the International Maritime Organisation and will ask that its recommendations be fully addressed. The opposition will obviously be monitoring this statement and the commitment by the minister to ensure that he sticks to it. It will be a nice change when it comes to proper attention to his transport portfolio.

I suggest that the minister might like to start at home with assistance to our own shipping industry. He could start by releasing and finalising the report that he received not this year but in 1998 on matters central to consideration of the issues I have raised today. That report was one conducted by senior shipping industry officials to improve the efficiency of the Australian shipping industry. It is my understanding that, unfortunately, the minister did not like what it said. It did not recommend that the bulldogs and balaclavas approach used by the Howard government on the waterfront also be used in the shipping industry. So the report continues to gather dust on the minister's desk.

It is time the minister acknowledged his broader responsibilities not just to his National Party constituency but to his wider constituency as a Commonwealth minister. It is time that he listened to the Australian community who say that they want a safe, efficient Australian shipping industry. They want that because they care about their maritime environment, something that is pretty important in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker Gash. They do not want slave conditions applied to Australian workers. Australia is a country that has always prided itself on a fair go, a sense of equity and a reasonable approach to setting decent wages and conditions of employment. The community also understand, far better than the minister, the need, for national interest and defence reasons, for us as an island nation to have an efficient and safe shipping industry. This was recently proved in our involvement in East Timor. That is not just my view; it is also the view of our leader, Lieutenant General Cosgrove, who handled our forces in East Timor, when he acknowledged the importance of our maritime industry and the contribution they made to our defence forces in East Timor.

Obviously, therefore, Labor support the main purpose of this bill. We correctly have some reservations, as it is the responsibility of the opposition to scrutinise bills presented to the parliament by the government, and we will seek to ensure that those reservations are fully explored and explained in the appropriate Senate processes. To that end, as advised, Labor will seek to refer this bill to the Senate legislation committee. As I foreshadowed, Labor opposes the changes in item 10 and at the consideration in detail stage I will move an amendment which goes to this issue.