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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 25987

Mr O'CONNOR (10:47 AM) —The Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 amends the Navigation Act 1912 to revise and clarify the respective responsibilities of the Commonwealth, states and territories in relation to the regulation of shipping safety of Australian ships engaged in trade within our waters, as well as regulating foreign flag trade ships that operate within our waters. While I do not propose to speak at length on this piece of legislation, I have a longstanding interest in the issue of safety of ships which trade within Australian waters. I had the privilege of serving on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure with the former transport minister Peter Morris. Members would know that Peter Morris chaired the famous Ships of shame inquiry, which produced a report of world significance. Peter Morris is held in high esteem by all sectors of the industry, be they unions, shippers, port owners or other transporters who are associated with this industry.

I also have an interest because the port of Geelong is in my electorate of Corio. It is the largest bulk handling port in the Southern Hemisphere. Through the years, I have had a close association with the MUA in my electorate, particularly with Kevin O'Leary, who has kept me informed, as the local member, on many of the problems and issues that relate to foreign trading vessels that come into our port. The port of Geelong is a vehicle for the export of grain and timber products particularly. It serves as a major import destination for petroleum products and other bulk commodities related to the production of fertilisers. It is a very important port and generates considerable wealth for the Corio electorate and the Geelong region.

Ports of this kind are not without their problems. I have relied on the vigilance of MUA members in my electorate to alert me to some of the safety concerns that surround the foreign vessels that come into our port and some of the more extreme cases where safety and the rights of seafarers have been violated. In the past, the MUA have alerted me to significant safety concerns and instances where crews have been maltreated. I commend the work of the MUA and also the Seamen's Mission in North Shore for the work that they do on behalf of foreign seafarers who come into the port of Geelong. The MUA have expressed to me both nationally and at a local level their concern at the operation of flags of convenience vessels not only in the port of Geelong but around Australia. They have raised concerns about the inhumane treatment of crews and have alerted the community to the significant environmental damage that these vessels may cause in our ports. None of us in this House downplays the realities of world commerce in the 21st century. Australia is an important trading nation within our region and in global terms. The inescapable fact of trade is that many of the products that we export and many of the products that come into our country are brought here in flags of convenience shipping vessels.

In the sector that I have a particular interest in as the shadow minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, many of the major industries—sugar, beef, wool and dairy, for example—export significant amounts of produce. With that trade comes significant danger. We have seen that danger in the way in which foot-and-mouth disease has spread in Europe and the attempts that we are making here to keep Australia free of this disease which is so difficult to control. I commend here the role of the MUA in that. The wharfies are often the subject of denigration here in this House from members opposite. I must say I am disappointed in the honourable member for Grey, who delivered a short speech in the parliament the object of which seemed to be to denigrate the MUA and its members. Of course, the people who mount this sort of criticism probably have not done a good hard day's labour in their lives. The former minister for industrial relations and now the Minister for Defence was the recipient of some $45,000, as I understand it, in a discount on a penthouse in Melbourne at Crown Casino. He is also the minister who was responsible for a significant abuse of his telecard.

Mr Anthony —You are above all that.

Mr O'CONNOR —The Minister for Community Services sits here at the table saying that we ought not to mention those things. But I think one of the elements of credibility when you get on your feet in this House and start to bag members of a trade union might be that you at least have a clean skin yourself. I do not think that is unreasonable. But, as we know, some of the most vociferous critics of the MUA in this House have been some of the biggest coalition rorters. That is the fact of the matter. So, when they get up here and bag the MUA and its members, I will get up here and defend them. I will defend my members in Geelong, who have been vigilant on this issue of quarantine. They have been at the forefront in expressing their concern about the inhumane treatment of their fellow seafarers who come to Geelong and they have been at the forefront in raising with me their concerns about the safety of some of the vessels that are coming into our port.

Members opposite might not be aware of that. They might not want to hear that, because they do tend to swallow their own anti-MUA rhetoric. But, as far as the farmers of Australia are concerned, the people who are in the front line in defending their livelihoods against the ravages of foot-and-mouth are the wharfies. They are the ones who have been alerting us to some of the potential quarantine breaches and the problems that might be caused by the importation of goods and machinery that might carry that disease. And they do that while knowing the history of the National Farmers Federation and its leadership at the time in trying to break them. I think honourable members ought to understand that particular point and I would like the Australian people to understand it. If ever there was a group of citizens in this country that had their rights assailed, it was the MUA. They were the ones in the front line when the then minister for industrial relations sent in the thugs trained in Dubai. They were in the front line when the dogs were barking at the behest of that minister. I remind honourable members that they are the very people who could bear an eternal grudge against the rural sector. But what have we seen on this issue of foot-and-mouth? They have been in the front line in warning farmers about the dangers and they have expressed a real concern about the impacts of that disease if it were to get past them and the quarantine officers. They do not deserve the mean-spirited, mealy-mouthed pillorying that they get from coalition members in this House. When they raise issues of safety concern, the MUA members are doing it because they fear for the welfare and the lives of foreign seafarers and their own members. When they express concern about what foreign vessels in our waters dump into our bays, they are expressing their concern about the potential damage that could be done to the Australian environment and to industries in this country. Those are legitimate concerns of that particular body, and they ought to be legitimate concerns of this parliament.

One of the reservations that we are expressing about this legislation relates to the opting-out provisions, because they provide an opportunity for vessel owners to apply to remove themselves from Commonwealth jurisdiction for maritime safety regulation, occupational health and safety legislation and compensation arrangements. We all know that the provisions of Commonwealth legislation are generally considered to be more favourable than those in the states and territories on compensation and occupational health and safety issues. We consider that it is absolutely imperative that the guidelines and conditions on the opting-out provisions are rigorous and are open to scrutiny.

I will not speak at length on the details of this legislation but I think it is timely for me, as shadow minister for agriculture, to make some comments on the great dangers posed to rural industry by certain exotic diseases that can come into this country in ships. It is a task of not only the members of the maritime union but our great quarantine service and the Australian public to ensure that exotic pests and diseases are kept well away from our shores. One of the dangers, a very real danger, that we all feel is that, if we pitch to the lowest common denominator and we go for cheap freight rates at all costs, there might be a short-term commercial advantage to some—and, as we know in this particular industry, that advantage can accrue to a small number of very, very rich people—but we ought not lose sight of the fact that often the cost in the long term of seeking the short-term benefit far outweighs any short-term commercial benefit. We might enjoy for a short period the benefits of low freight rates in our coastal waters and between our cities but, if we allow free rein to these flag of convenience vessels that deal with the lowest common denominator in safety concerns, abuse their crews and have no regard for Australia's environment, we are really opting for a very short-term benefit at the risk of long-term harm.

These are concerns not only raised by the MUA. I held a meeting in Geelong last year of people interested in this issue, particularly the potential for foreign vessels entering the port of Geelong to do untold environmental damage to our bay. Members of councils and of the Geelong Environment Council, the MUA and other interested citizens attended that meeting and expressed their concerns, and it is those concerns that I express on the floor of this House today for them.

In conclusion, I was interested in a press release that came from the MUA on 6 March which highlighted the daily cases of exploitation and abuse on our coast. It is a hard-hitting press release. It is entitled `Australian shippers promote slavery'. The press release comments on a report published by the International Commission on Shipping called Ships, slaves and competition. The commission is chaired by Peter Morris. The report, delivered at the APEC safer shipping forum in Sydney on 6 March, has catalogued the very things that I have been talking about on the floor of this House. Peter Morris has catalogued once again all of those things that are wrong in Australian shipping, and I think we need to reflect here on some of the words in this press release. It says this:

But it is not just a matter of wages. Crew abuse and environmental plunder go hand in hand. The same ships that abuse crew, pollute our oceans.

That is the reality of it: a short-term commercial advantage to the nation from cheap freight rates for our coastal waters could cost the nation, at the end of the day, billions. We need to be cognisant of that fact.

This government has a very tardy record on a whole range of matters relating to Australia's coastal shipping and the waterfront. I have referred to some of those in this debate here today. We know this is a government of the lowest common denominator in the way it has sought to relate to issues on the waterfront. There must be many members opposite who are ashamed of the fact that dogs and thugs in balaclavas were the policy output of their government and their ministers. So let us hope we get some sensible debate on maritime affairs in this country. Let us hope we get some realistic concern by government for the potential dangers that flow from the flag of convenience vessels that come to our shores, abuse their crews, do environmental damage and, at the end of the day, give nothing to Australia.