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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 25997


Ms JANN McFARLANE (11:40 AM) —I am pleased to be able to talk today on the Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 because shipping is a critically important industry for our nation. The Labor Party understands the economic and strategic importance of maintaining a vibrant, efficient and safe domestic shipping industry. As an island nation, Australia is greatly dependent on the shipping industry. Shipping plays a key role in our society, facilitating trade and generating wealth. The bill amends the Navigation Act 1912 to revise the division of responsibilities between the Commonwealth, the states and the Northern Territory for the safety regulation of Australian trading ships and foreign flag trading ships visiting Australia.

As the shadow minister for transport, the honourable member for Batman, has already explained, Labor supports the main purpose of this bill but we have reservations which we will ensure the Senate legislative committee fully explores. Labor opposes the change in item 10 relating to cabotage and we will move to amend the bill when it is considered in detail.

The central feature of the bill is to give the Commonwealth responsibility for vessels over 500 gross tonnage, grt, and the states and the Northern Territory responsibility for vessels under 500grt. As such, the Commonwealth will assume responsibility for the safety regulation of trading ships of 500grt or more whenever they voyage in Australian waters. Currently, responsibility for a vessel's safety rests with either the Commonwealth or the states and Northern Territory according to its voyage pattern alone. Five hundred grt is significant in that it is the size of a ship to which the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea applies. This bill broadly aligns Commonwealth jurisdiction with international convention obligations for vessel safety.

It is important to note that under the provisions of this bill the Commonwealth will continue to regulate vessel safety for all trading ships proceeding on overseas voyages, regardless of their size. I note that, for the purposes of identifying the application of the act to a ship, a ship of at least 35 metres length is taken to be equivalent to a ship of at least 500 gross tonnage where the ship does not have a tonnage determined in accordance with the International Convention on Tonnage Measurements of Ships 1969.

A very positive feature of this bill is that all foreign flag ships under 500 gross tonnage that voyage interstate or overseas will be covered. I see this provision as having a great impact on environmental safety. This should bring about a significant improvement to the vessel safety and regulatory regime presently operating in Australia. The bill should also maintain the already high standards of safety and environmental vigilance of which we are proud. As my electorate adjoins the coast of the Indian Ocean, with the popular recreational beaches of Scarborough and Trigg within its boundaries, I would hate to see an environmental disaster, of the sort that has recently been brought upon the people of France, brought upon my constituents by a ship of shame flying under a flag of convenience. Labor knows that efficiency improvements must be achieved only in the context of a safe and humane industry with professional standards of training and development for crews and with diligent monitoring of the structural integrity of ships operating off our shores.

As the member for Batman alluded to earlier, the opposition will seek to amend the bill to remove the proposed changes to the application of part VI—coastal trading, cabotage provisions. In its current form, the bill proposes to quarantine the cabotage provisions from the impact of the revised jurisdiction. To date, the application of part VI for cabotage provisions has been limited by section 2 of the act. The result has been the situation where foreign vessels proceeding on intrastate voyages have not been covered by the cabotage provisions of the act. Because the cabotage provisions are part of a Commonwealth act and that act has only applied 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.

The consequence, quite simply, has been that foreign ships conducting domestic transport services within one state have been able to avoid paying domestic wages and ensuring domestic Australian conditions of service for crews. In his second reading speech, the Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation informed the House that this bill also does not seek to change the present arrangements connected with part VI of the Navigation Act 1912, which regulates participation in the coasting trade, and that the functioning of part VI has been quarantined from the changes described in this bill.

There is much that the minister could be doing. I would suggest that the minister might like to start at home with assistance to our Australian shipping industry. He could start by releasing and finalising the report on his desk that he received in 1998. That report was one conducted by senior shipping industry officials to improve the efficiency of the Australian shipping industry. It is my understanding that he did not like what it said. It did not recommend the bulldogs and balaclavas approach they used on the waterfront, so he has discarded it.

But the government has form on this. Having already pursued a savage and ideologically driven attack on the workers in the maritime industry on the docks, it now seeks to undermine Australian maritime workers on the high seas. Up to 31 May 2000, the total funding provided to the Patrick group of companies was $102.1 million for 821 redundancies. This is about people's jobs, people's lives. The P&O group received $62.9 million for 552 redundancies—again, this is about people's jobs and people's lives. In total, $178 million was spent to shed labour in the stevedoring industry; that is, the government spent $178 million to help companies take jobs from Australian maritime workers on the docks.

I suggest that the only beneficiaries of the government's reforms were the shareholders of Lang Corporation. The enemy of the worker, the member for Flinders, may well be gone from the portfolio of workplace relations, but the MUA is here to stay. Unfortunately, nothing has happened since the bulldog and balaclava days of the waterfront dispute. However, my memories of grim days on the community picket line at Fremantle docks give me a commitment to take a greater interest in waterfront issues and waterfront reform.


Mr Slipper —You didn't actually stand there, did you?


Ms JANN McFARLANE —Yes, I did actually—for many days. Here we have an opportunity to do something to support the Australian shipping industry, to support Australian maritime workers, to support the crews of foreign ships and to ensure that they can enjoy the rights and standards of other Australian workers, but the government is up to its old tricks again of trying to undermine workers and the industry.

The bill attempts to change the Navigation Act coverage, but limit that only to parts that would ensure this loophole was left open. Item 10 amends section 284 of the Navigation Act 1912 to disapply the revised application provisions of section 2 and to insert a separate application provision for part VI which replicates the current application provisions of section 2 of the act. The practical result is that part VI of the act continues to regulate only trading ships engaged on interstate voyages. This item preserves the existing application of part VI of the Navigation Act 1912 which licenses or permits ships to engage in the coasting trade.

Arrangements for the economic regulation of coastal shipping through the existing licensing and permit systems are not to be affected by amendments to section 2 of the act. The current application of part VI of the act is determined by the interactions of sections 2, 7 and 284 of the act. Suffice to say, the effect of the amendment in item 10 is to introduce major change to the application of the act, but only part of its application. In spite of the government's rhetoric, 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 apply for all seafarers working on our coastal domestic transport task.

One might imagine that the government's argument for these amendments is that the jurisdiction change contemplated by the Commonwealth only relates to the safety regulation powers. However, enshrining the current application in the revised part VI of the act makes it a clear intention of the parliament that coastal trading provisions not apply to the operation of foreign flag ships on intrastate voyages. This is an illogical position. Leaving part VI as it is, and therefore subject to the new section 2, gives a consistent application of the part to all coastal trade.

The Labor Party supports the cabotage provisions of the Navigation Act and condemns the government for their abuse of the single voyage permit—SVP—provisions of the act to disadvantage and undermine the shipping industry. SVPs are administered by the Department of Transport and Regional Services on a one-off basis to foreign flag ships for the movement of cargo. In 1991-92, 203 SVPs were issued. Under this government's abuse of the system, by 1997-98, 779 SVPs were issued—more than triple the 1991-92 rate. There are particular implications for maritime workers from the government's abuse of SVPs. The replacement shipping companies and their work forces have no allegiance to Australia, pay no tax and are effectively guest labour in the Australian domestic transport sector.

It is clear from the government's actions, and inactions, that cabotage is under attack. It has been said that the government has been colluding, even conspiring, with major mining companies which want to use cheaper overseas vessels and crews. A prime example of this was Western Mining's use of a foreign registered ship called the Algarve to move phosphate from Townsville—a foreign ship, with a foreign crew—a job that could have been done by one of the Australian coastal trading vessels.


Mr Slipper —How much money did it save?


Ms JANN McFARLANE —The government issued single voyage permits to this group to allow this foreign vessel to trade on the Australian coast—foreigners working in our country, paying no tax, putting Australian maritime workers out under a piece of legislation designed to protect them, being circumvented by what some describe as criminal conspiracy between parties.

The Algarve, registered in Liberia, using cheap foreign labour, with few overheads and no regulatory bodies pursuing it, was instrumental in putting Australian maritime workers out of a job—Western Mining and the government colluding to further decimate the Australian shipping industry. Yes, this government has form. When asked about these arrangements, Ian McGregor of Western Bulk Shipping said that he did not think that he had done anything wrong. When asked if he had won the contract with Western Mining—because he paid less tax by exploiting the loophole in the cabotage provisions—he confirmed that Western Bulk Shipping did pay less tax than domestic competitors. Again, we have a government that is prepared to genuflect to the big end of town in its ruthless obsession with destroying organised labour in the Australian shipping industry.

In 1994, the number of major vessels in Australia's coastal trade numbered 78. By March 1999, numbers had been culled to 56—a dramatic 28 per cent reduction. Today's merchant fleet, apart from ANL container ships and BHP vessels, comprises a sprinkling of vessels operated by Canada Steamship Lines of Australia (CSL), Queensland Alumina, Queensland Cement, CSR, Stolt NYK and the oil companies. The Australian National Line once operated 32 ships; it now operates just two vessels. The Minister for Transport and Regional Services highlighted his ignorance of the problems faced by the Australian shipping industry in a press release on the 24 November 2000 in which he said:

... the Labor Party and the maritime unions seek to give the impression that there are only two possibilities in relation to the movement of domestic cargo, that is, Australian ships or foreign ships. What the Labor Party and the maritime unions fail to understand is that there is a third possibility. A buyer will source product overseas if it can be landed at a lower cost than domestic product moved around the Australian coast.

I would like to share with the House an example of what can happen under the `third' option the minister describes. This is the story of Sulteng 1. Shortly after the Sulteng 1 left Christmas Island one day, after having discharged fresh water because it had been overloaded with phosphates at the port, the boat sank. Officially, the Sulteng 1 was an Indonesian ship owned by one company and brokered by another Perth based company called Assets. Captain Neil McGovern, the harbourmaster at Christmas Island, set up the Perth based company Assets with the claimed aim of assisting the Singapore parent company Assets Ship Owners Pty Ltd into Australia and brokering cargo. Captain McGovern owned one quarter of the company, and his wife owned another quarter. As a result of this arrangement, when the Sulteng 1 sank the Maritime Investigation Unit's director did not investigate the incident because it was an Indonesian ship. The director later said:

If the Indonesians approach us and ask for help we would be pleased to give it.

This is an example of a situation that is possible under the `third possibility' the minister describes. A lot of people might think that Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a long way away, but they are part of Australia's territory and any pollution that affects the islands and the people of the islands directly or indirectly affects Australia. The damage to the integrity of the waters and marine life of the Christmas and Cocos islands is quite devastating to the people. This is the shame of it. In small islands like these, a long way out from the coast, there is a lot of disinterest in Australia about what happens there. People often take the attitude, `It is a long way away and it is nothing really to do with us.' But the people on those islands rely on the surrounding seas to provide one of their main food sources—fish. So any pollution there and any more incidents like the Sulteng 1 will affect those people. Any subsequent health costs will be to the Australian taxpayer and to the Australian budget. It is also about the integrity of people's lives. It is about people having the right to live in an environment that is safe and protected.

If it had happened off the eastern seaboard with its high population or off the Western Australian coast, there would certainly have been a lot more media attention than the couple of brief items, as good as they were, that brought out the issue. One of the media articles questions the structure of the Assets company, the role of the harbourmaster and the need for an investigation. In Western Australia, we will never forget the break-up of the Kirki and those vivid images on television of this ship adrift, and the possibility of not only pollution of the Western Australian coastline but also the loss of seamen's lives, and hence the loss to their families and communities, because of a ship that was in very poor condition that broke up in heavy seas. It was not a particularly huge storm, just heavy seas. Those images on the television woke up the people of Western Australia to the issue of safety of ships at sea and to the issue of people being paid Australian wages and working under Australian conditions while in Australian waters. Again, it comes down to skills, expertise and an efficient, well-trained up maritime industry.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister for Transport and Regional Services to listen to Australian maritime workers, to listen to the industry and to listen to the people of Australia, who are sick and tired of unemployment levels due to contracting out or arrangements being bypassed such as I have described. I urge the minister to provide some support and to give clearer policy directions than he has been doing.