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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 25993

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (11:20 AM) —I am very proud to rise today to comment on the Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2000, which is before us. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, being my electoral neighbour in Tasmania, my electorate is a coastal rural electorate. The ports of Devonport and Burnie are in my electorate, as is the smaller but no less efficient port of Stanley. I was somewhat bemused by the member for Grey, who spoke fully for one minute on this amendment today, and his comments about how sad it was that the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business in 1998, during the unsavoury and unfortunate dispute that occurred on the waterfront, appeared to have been hounded. I thought that was quite ironic in terms of the hounding that took place on the waterfront, both overtly and covertly, of those people who worked on it.

The member for Grey boasted, as did the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business and the Minister for Transport and Regional Services yesterday, about the rise in container rate statistics. In fact, in my electorate the Burnie port had those rates in 1998. Yet the past member for Braddon said nothing about the excellent work practices of those people who worked on the waterfront but merely mealy-mouthed the same comments that were being made in the ideological battle against the MUA in Melbourne and Sydney. The ports of Tasmania have always demonstrated efficiencies and have generally been harmonious. That is because it is not so much what you do but how you do it. That is the lesson that I hope this government should have learned from the 1998 episodes. I also noticed yesterday, when the ministers were skiting about the so-called increase in the container rate, they never mentioned the fact that the stevedoring rates have not changed since 1998. So you tell me what is going on. If we want to talk about making this an efficient, sustainable industry which works in harmony, then you recognise the good on all sides of the issue.

I rise, as did the shadow minister and my colleagues on this side of the House, to support the main purposes of this bill, with reservations as stated by the shadow minister, which can be rigorously investigated by the relevant Senate legislation committee, particularly in relation to reservations surrounding schedule 1, item 10, section 284 of the amendments. But in the main this legislation, as the member for Hughes and my colleagues pointed out before me, is crucial to the future of Australia's shipping industry. It goes to safety and who regulates safety in our waters and, ultimately, the effect on coastal communities and marine environments. After all, economic activities occur in communities amongst people and environments.

The bill will amend the Navigation Act 1912, the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 and the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993 to change the jurisdictional basis for shipping and safety regulation. In broad terms, the Navigation Act 1912 gives the Commonwealth responsibility for overseas and interstate voyages by Australian trading ships and foreign vessels in Australian waters. The states and the Northern Territory regulate intrastate voyages by Australian trading ships and foreign vessels, although the owners of these vessels may opt in to the Commonwealth jurisdiction.

The bill amends the Navigation Act to give the Commonwealth responsibilities for vessels over 500 gross tonnage and the states and the Northern Territory responsibility for vessels under 500 gross tonnage. I note all states and the Northern Territory have agreed to this, and we on this side also support that aspect of the bill. What we cannot support is a loophole that would remain in the legislation allowing foreign flagships on intrastate coastal trade to avoid cabotage provisions. We therefore oppose the amendments to section 284, as I mentioned in the introduction, of part VI of the Navigation Act whereby coastal trading provisions not apply to the operation of foreign flagged vessels on intrastate voyages.

As an island nation, shipping is a critically important industry to Australia, but you sometimes would not know it when you look at this government's maritime track record, outlined most eloquently by the shadow minister and also the shadow minister for agriculture. This government has steered a dubious course through many of the major issues and challenges confronting the shipping industry. I have mentioned already the waterfront `reform' as an example. Still vivid in my memory is the unprecedented attack on workers during the debacle on Australia's waterfront in 1998, aided and abetted by many of those opposite. I note again that the member for Grey spent one minute in consideration of this important legislation and all he did was defend the past Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business and attack the MUA and anybody else who did not like the thuggery of the government's actions and the minister's actions during the dispute. This government's ideological attack on trade unionism, demonstrated every day in question time, its ideological attack on trade unionism in general, and the Maritime Union of Australia in particular, is shameful.

I recall too the most recent threat to Australia's maritime environment from suspect shipping operations—for instance, the grounding of the Malaysian freighter Bunga Teratai Satu on the Great Barrier Reef. This again underlined the need to ensure that ships' crews have the skills and the competency to operate their vessels safety. The grounding sent a warning shot over the bow of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, but typically it is likely to be another warning ignored by the coalition. Closer to home for me I have seen first-hand the disgraceful treatment of seafarers and the unacceptable conditions many are forced to ensure aboard the growing number of so-called ships of shame. The Greek owned Nicolas Star sailed into a storm of protest in Burnie last year after the terrible exploitation of a crew was discovered. I remember asking at the time: is this the type of workplace the Howard government wants for our seafarers? I sincerely hope not.

We know that seafaring is a global industry infamous for ships of shame and flag of convenience ships, again eloquently demonstrated on the other side by the member for Hughes. I come from an island of Tasmania with a long and proud maritime history. Our reliance on the sea for commerce, transport and recreation is enormous, and anything that impinges on this must be very carefully scrutinised. Maritime safety should be paramount. Tasmanians, and indeed the rest of Australia, must feel secure in the knowledge that the ships that ply our waters are safe, that the crews manning the vessels are well trained and that onboard practices are of the highest standards. Sadly, the arrival of the Nicolas Star in Burnie only served to highlight to me the challenges ahead.

There have been a number of inquiries into shipping practices and shipping safety over the past decade or more, most notably the three `ships of shame' inquiries conducted by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure. These reports have been instrumental in raising national and international awareness of the nature and extent of problems affecting the safety of ships and the welfare of their crews. The last of those reports, Ships of shame: a sequel, was produced in 1995.

I have highlighted issues raised in these parliamentary reports before in this House, but on recent evidence it seems that there is still a long way to go before we can have complete faith in the shipping business. Unfortunately it is still the case now, as it was then, that the flag of convenience ships continue to avoid their responsibilities under international maritime safety obligations. Ships of shame, rust buckets, coffin ships and casino ships—these are just some of the names that describe the growing fleet of flag of convenience vessels threatening our coastline.

FOC ships fly the flags of other nations because they are cheap. They can take advantage of low registration costs, low or no taxes, poor standards and cheap crews. About one-fifth of the world's 80,000 or more ships fly a flag of convenience, but FOC shipping represents more than half of worldwide ship losses. As the last Ships of shame report says:

This final report highlights the fact that the work of this committee has really only just begun.

Sub-standard shipping and inhumane treatment of crew must be eradicated to ensure a safe, environmentally responsible, clean and efficient shipping industry.

Yet, despite these findings, successive Liberal governments have eagerly set about undermining the Australian shipping industry and the welfare of our seafarers. Why else would they want to avoid having cabotage provisions? Indeed the strategy of the Howard government for our shipping industry in general has been to let it wither on the vine. Contrast its record with that of Labor. The Labor Party know and understand the economic and strategic importance of maintaining a vibrant, efficient and safe domestic shipping industry. That was reaffirmed at our national conference in Hobart last year. Our platform summed up our commitment. For the record, it states that Labor will:

· Ensure that Australian domestic shipping is crewed by workers operating under Australian award conditions under established cabotage arrangements—

that is short for decent and safe conditions. It continues, stating that Labor will:

· Encourage the continued operation of an Australian shipping industry—and in doing so ensure that Australian shipowners continue to employ Australian crews.

· Encourage the expansion of Australia's participation in international shipping.

· And pursue productivity, increased competition and investment at our ports.

Again, contrast that with the approach of the coalition and the record of successive governments. The public face of its attempts at reform on the waterfront was none other than Peter Reith, the man who was hell-bent on bludgeoning change. I am happy to say that he has been moved on—shipped on—but, true to form, this government's ideology is unchanged, except to be moving further right, if that is possible. I note that an article written by the new Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, the Hon. Tony Abbott, appeared in Tuesday's edition of the Australian Financial Review in which he said:

As a new minister, I am in awe of my predecessor's achievements as well as being conscious of how much remains to be done.

He was `in awe' of the former minister's achievements. Goodness gracious me! What is next—World War VI? I note that he reinforced this sense of awe with his fawning and misleading comments in question time yesterday concerning waterfront container rates. It is just as well that responsibility for maritime matters has been returned to the minister responsible for transport—or indeed has it? It seems that he is more concerned with keeping his head down of late on the subject of shipping—and on most issues related to transport for that matter. I know that the shadow minister for transport, who is sitting at the table today, is responsible for keeping the minister's head down. I also note, with my colleague the member for Melbourne Ports sitting next to me at the moment, that the minister's reputation among those at the top end of the shipping scale is not the highest as well. I quote from the Main Committee yesterday where the member for Melbourne Ports said:

In a recent publication on the Australian shipping industry, the managing director of ASP Ship Management Pty Ltd made a comment which I think is very interesting—that the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services said that Australia is a "nation of shippers".

The member for Melbourne Ports goes on:

He is correct. The shipping industry is a source of a great deal of our nation's wealth. But the managing director of this major Australian shipping company went on, "What is missing however, is any interest from our Commonwealth government in allowing fellow-Australians to provide shipping solutions to the shippers." He said that, seemingly, the sole focus of attention in this current government has been on "the maritime unions and an accompanying hell-bent objective of doing nothing to support the local shipping industry".

I know that my colleague will no doubt be elaborating on that a bit later in this debate.

It has been over two years now since the Minister for Transport and Regional Services received a report on how to improve Australian shipping. As I understand it, the report contained input from key industry players, and I bet it provided some very interesting reading. Yet the report has never been released. Could it be that it contains information too sensitive for the government or is uncomplimentary about its shipping policy? I suspect so. I wonder what this report had to say about maritime safety issues or the number of flag of convenience ships plying Australian waters, or whether it supports current cabotage provisions of the Navigation Act. These issues are inextricably linked to the future wellbeing of our shipping industry and maritime safety. As I said, there is an ever present threat to our marine environment. The flag of convenience fleet is on the increase and this government does not really support cabotage provisions.

Nowadays we continually hear the coalition being accused of not listening to the electorate. In regard to the Australian shipping industry, this is a charge easily sustained. I mentioned the comments of the member for Melbourne Ports just a moment ago. The government would do well to listen to the outcome of the latest inquiry into ship safety conducted by the International Commission on Shipping. The independent commission was chaired by the Hon. Peter Morris, with impeccable credentials in the transport—and particularly maritime—industries. It was set up to inquire into and report on ways of combating substandard shipping. Its report, titled Ships, Slaves and Competition, was released earlier this month. The commission received more than 120 written submissions and commissioners travelled around the world gathering evidence during the year-long investigation.

I note that some of the major concerns expressed to the commission were: the vital need for crew skills, competency, quality training and authentic qualifications; the failure of nations registering ships to ensure that the ships meet international maritime safety standards; the need for complete public accountability or transparency in shipping operations; the need for all those in the chain of responsibility to ensure that quality shipping is maintained and to help eradicate substandard shipping for the seas of the world; and the urgent need to end the horrific abuse and exploitation of seafarers. Indeed, as one Greek shipper who put in a submission to the inquiry said about the unfortunate modern-day slave conditions in shipping, `The fish stinks from the head.' I think it is very important that all those responsible for structuring and managing the industry are aware that it is their responsibility, along with government, to ensure that it is a safe, sustainable industry.

As we have seen with previous reports, the International Commission on Shipping inquiry found that thousands of seafarers work in slave conditions with minimal safety, long hours for little or no pay, starvation diets, rape and beatings. The inquiry was told that crew have disappeared after complaints to officers and that employers practise the blacklisting of sailors who complain to unions. Surely those opposite would not condone this sort of thing, yet it seems that this government is a willing accomplice to those plotting the demise of the Australian shipping industry. How else could one interpret its obsession with doing away with cabotage provisions and its support for flag of convenience ships and, as a consequence, the threat to our marine environment?

As I have said, unsafe ships have caused the majority of maritime and ecological disasters. The removal of cabotage provisions would result in a large influx of these types of vessels into Australia's domestic trade. Again, we support the principles of this amendment but seek rigorous investigation of the reservations that we have, particularly in relation to any threat to cabotage in terms of foreign vessels on the intrastate trade.