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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 25990

Mrs VALE (11:07 AM) —The very words of our national anthem certainly remind all of us that Australia is an island nation. We sing, `Our land is girt by sea.' And the modern history of Australia is inevitably mixed with maritime folklore and tales of sailors and seamen from the very early days. Often that history is about hardship and the exploitation of seamen and sailors—thankfully not so much in recent decades of our own Australian ships but certainly we still hear horrendous stories of the exploitation of sailors and seamen from other nations, and especially those which sail ships under flags of convenience.

The Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2000, which I support, needs to be seen in the context of the decades-long process by governments on both sides of the House to eliminate so-called ships of shame from the waters of the Australian jurisdiction, to improve the quality of management and safety of shipping in Australian waters and to simplify the complexity of regulations that apply to coastal trade. This bill builds upon the foundation of the Navigation Act 1912 that lays the basis for regulation of most safety related aspects of overseas and local vessels in Australian waters. It amends that act, together with the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 and the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993.

One of the other foundations of marine safety and management in Australia is the Offshore Constitutional Settlement of 1979. The settlement attempts to clarify section 98 of the Australian Constitution that gives to the federal parliament the power to make laws with respect to trade and commerce applying to navigation and shipping. The Offshore Constitutional Settlement was a Commonwealth, state and territory agreement that divided responsibility for the regulation of maritime affairs among and between those governments. In doing this, it streamlined and modernised what had been a very clumsy and confusing hotchpotch of state, territory and federal government requirements and perceived responsibilities. The Offshore Constitutional Settlement has now been in operation for 20 years and the time has come to make further adjustments in the light of the past two decades of experience.

One of the outcomes of the 1980 division of jurisdiction was that the Commonwealth was not given control over the safety regulation of large trading ships, including foreign vessels, operating only on intrastate voyages—that is, from one point to another within a state jurisdiction. But it did give the Commonwealth jurisdiction over all trading ships proceeding on interstate voyages. This double jurisdiction has created a duplication of regulation and confusion and complexity for vessels engaged in both types of voyages. It has added to the cost of the transport of goods by sea. This bill will lift a non-compliance burden from the backs of small trading ship operators who may accidentally breach the complexity of regulation when undertaking an occasional voyage interstate. The bill retains the opt-in provisions whereby operators of vessels can choose to be covered by the act where it best suits their interests. This option has existed and provided flexibility since the 1912 Navigation Act. It will extend cover to the new class of trading ships that would not otherwise be subject to the act.

As part of the ongoing adjustment of jurisdiction and regulation, at the 1999 Australian Transport Council, ministers agreed to alter the jurisdiction responsibility for vessel safety regulation. Currently, the Commonwealth regulates trading vessels on interstate and overseas voyages. What the transport ministers proposed, and what this bill will do, is to allow the Commonwealth to have clear responsibility for the regulation of safety for all Australian trading vessels 500 tonnes and over, Australian trading vessels proceeding overseas, and all foreign flagged trading vessels in Australian waters. The states would have responsibility for all trading vessels under 500 tonnes, whether they undertake interstate or intrastate voyages. The 500 gross tonnage mark is the tonnage level at which the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea applies.

In concert with this change, another Commonwealth, state and territory body, the Workplace Relations Ministers Council, agreed, also in 1999, that workers compensation and occupational health and safety regulations should be aligned with the above changes of jurisdiction to maintain consistency of safety regulation coverage. This bill will ensure that employers and employees are covered by appropriate and adequate insurance policy cover. The amendments also accord with the Commonwealth commitments required by the government's 1998 Australia's Oceans Policy.

Putting adequate maritime safeguards in place has been a struggle for governments from both sides of this House. There have been improvements in terms of good maritime management and practice, but it continues to bring its frustration because of the difficulty of ensuring proper practices in regard to foreign flag vessels, particularly in vessels registered in the so-called flag states. These are the flags of convenience that too often become the flags of irresponsibility.

Australia is a nation whose economy and welfare of its citizens depend upon international and overseas trade, especially the sea transport of bulk commodities in very large vessels. At the other end of the scale, sea transport intrastate and interstate within Australia is often an attractive option for the transport of some goods, given difficult land transport within states, or long distances between population and industrial centres interstate. The full utilisation of available transport, at competitive rates, is therefore a crucial factor to the wellbeing of the Australian economy from which all Australians benefit. The high standard of care in the Australian work force, our international obligations and our high standard of care for the marine environment require the operation in particular of foreign vessels in Australian waters at a level of acceptable social, safety and technical requirements.

When safety standards aboard vessels drop below acceptable safety limits, not only are human lives put at risk but the marine environment and valuable cargo are also endangered. Almost all human activities involve some risk, so public policies have to balance possible extra risks against attainable benefits. This is where there must be judicious risk management. The problem is that the acceptable safety level of the Australian government and community is much higher than the acceptable safety level of some foreign ship owners and operators. While most of the owners and operators of ships act responsibly, there is a long history of what has been described in the past to this parliament as the `ships of shame'. These are the ships that are used to deliberately maximise short-term profits at the expense of human lives, the environment and cargoes. The perpetrators responsible for these vessels are often unconcerned about their reputations. There are some who hide behind corporate identities that are easily dispensable and who exploit loopholes between national and international jurisdictions. The amendments in this bill remove the excuse and complaints of complexity and confusion and draw the net closer around exploitative practices.

The tightening of the Australian net will also help the tightening of the international net. One of the best ways to stop bad practices in Australian waters by foreign vessels is to lift the international standard and the international enforcement of standards. One of the single best ways of doing this is through good port management of safety regulations worldwide. This is one of the most effective tools in combating unseaworthy and substandard vessels. The government, through the International Maritime Organisation, has been doing what it can to play a leading role in the enforcement of higher safety standards in international shipping, and it is working.

There is good reason to be concerned about the standard of safety of foreign flagged ships in Australian ports and waters. Last year, 2,926 ships were inspected by Australian Maritime Safety Authority officials in Australian ports and, of these, 125 ships registered in 26 countries were found to have deficiencies sufficiently serious enough to impair their seaworthiness and to warrant detention. At this point, I would like to offer a note of appreciation to the officers of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for the work they do in helping to keep Australian harbours and seas safe.

The 4.3 per cent of detained ships last year was down from 5.3 per cent in 1999 and from 6.8 per cent in 1998. It was 6.5 per cent in 1997 and it was 8.5 per cent in 1996. Turkish flagged ships had the highest detention rate in the year 2000. It is disturbing to note that container ships moved against the general trend, being up from 7.1 per cent in 1999 to 14 per cent of all ships detained in 2000. It is worrying, because container ships make up only eight per cent of vessels inspected. This, and the fact that there were 125 unseaworthy foreign vessels under weigh in Australian waters last year, points to the need for continued vigilance when it comes to maritime safety.

There is good reason to be concerned and for vigilance regarding occupational health and safety practices for our seamen and sailors aboard ships, as the 1995 report Ships of shame: a sequel revealed. I will read a short excerpt from that report. The report Ships of shame: a sequel is from the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. It is the report of an inquiry into ship safety that was undertaken by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, and it is dated November 1995. In chapter 2, entitled `Crew Welfare', there is a report that was lodged in a submission to the inquiry from the International Transport Federation. It reads:

The ITF in their submission describe the case of a seafarer who had a foot crushed in an accident whilst preparing for sea. A waterside worker witnessed the accident and became concerned when the ship did not summon medical assistance for the man. An ITF inspector was notified and, on attendance, found the man in agony in his cabin. The Master had intended to sail with the injured man aboard. When hospitalised, the man's injury was judged so serious he required an amputation. The ITF had to intervene again to prevent the repatriation of the seafarer before his treatment had been completed.

Another incident which I thought was worthy of reporting comes from an ABC interview. The interviewer was Gordon Taylor, and he was interviewing a senior chaplain, Reverend Tom Hill, from the Missions to Seamen in Sydney. In the interview Tom Hill, who sees some of the worst cases, recounted the following:

We have a little Mission in Bunbury, a retired couple look after it, and we got a ring one night from there saying that a chap on board had a boil in his groin, and that the Master of the ship wouldn't let him go ashore for treatment. They rang me and said `Could you look at him?' because the ship was coming to Sydney.

When they came to Sydney, I went out there and the man was literally black around his groin area; he had almost caste in his bunk. The bunk smelt—I thought he had gangrene or something. I got him dressed; I went up, and the Captain came down—he must have heard what I was doing—tried to physically stop me. But I actually took him off the ship, took him around to the hospital myself, told the agent what had happened. The man was five days in hospital.

By continuing to work on improving and streamlining maritime regulation and maritime management in Australian waters, we will also help to build a regulatory infrastructure around the globe that will make it more difficult for bad operators and unsafe vessels to continue their dangerous trade. By requiring and facilitating ships to comply with maritime law in Australian waters and ports, we are also helping to protect the marine environment not only in Australian waters but in distant foreign waters as well. More importantly, we are also helping to protect the lives of sailors and seamen who visit our shores. I support this bill and commend it to the House.