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Thursday, 29 March 2001
Page: 26010

Mr HOLLIS (12:54 PM) —Although this legislation has been around for some time, I believe that the Maritime Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 has been introduced much too early, certainly before some of the important issues—as my colleague the member for Melbourne Ports has identified—have been finalised. Indeed, the best we can say is that this bill is incomplete, and the opposition will seek to amend it on this basis. This government—the government that we have in Australia at the moment—has absolutely no interest in shipping and less interest in the welfare of those who go to sea in ships. The National Party, with their rural background, talk about low cost shipping. Low cost shipping comes at a cost and too often, as we have seen in Australia, that cost is human lives. This bill amends the Navigation Act 1912 to rearrange governmental responsibilities concerning ship safety regulation. It also amends the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 and the Occupational Health and Safety (Maritime Industry) Act 1993 to reflect the rearrangement of government responsibilities.

Earlier in this debate I listened with great interest to the honourable member for Grey's remarks. Although I have the greatest possible personal regard for him, one must ask who was he trying to fool or impress with the nonsense that he spoke of about the former Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business needing personal protection as he moved around Australia? Who was it that at midnight a couple of years ago ordered mad dogs and balaclava-wearing thugs onto the waterfront of Australia? What protection was there for the workers chased out of their work by mad dogs and balaclava-wearing, baton-wielding thugs? The then Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business is now claiming he needs protection after his action on the waterfront. Who needs the protection?

Having dealt with that nonsense from the member for Grey, I turn back to the bill. The area of this bill that most concerns me is the unclear use of the opting-out provisions relating to occupational health and safety issues. The opting-out provision allows for vessel owners to remove themselves from the Commonwealth jurisdiction for maritime safety regulation, occupational health and safety legislation and compensation arrangements. It is well recognised that the Commonwealth's provisions in terms of occupational health and safety and compensation are generally much more favourable than those provided for under state and territory legislation.

In 1995 the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure in a report on an inquiry into ship safety—one that followed the internationally acclaimed Ships of Shame report of that same committee; and you, Mr Deputy Speaker Mossfield, would know this committee as you, like me, are a member of that committee—to deal with the issue of the relationship between Commonwealth and state occupational health and safety legislation and the Navigation Act 1912, recommended:

The Minister for Transport initiate an inquiry into the relationships, interfaces and interactions between Commonwealth and State Occupational Health and Safety legislation, the Navigation Act and its delegated legislation.

I cannot find any governmental action on the committee's recommendation, but if this bill is meant to address this deficiency it is a failure. The opposition was assured by the departmental briefing that guidelines dealing with the possibility of vessel owners engaging in a smorgasbord of shopping for the lowest possible labour protection for vessel crew would be agreed with the states and this agreement would have been finalised by the time the bill was introduced.

It must be said that the standard of shipping is slowly improving throughout the world, but an area that is not improving is that of crew conditions and crew safety. Crews deserve to have certain knowledge that their working conditions are protected and that, if they are injured, settlements will be quickly and favourably resolved. I make the point that in Australia we should not permit any ship in our jurisdiction that has work conditions lower than those generally accepted in Australia. It is not good enough to have Third World conditions on ships plying around the Australian coast. Ships must have an adequate standard—the same standards that we have here in Australia.

Earlier in this debate, the honourable member for Hughes spoke about Australia being girt by sea. This is all the more reason why Australia requires important legislation dealing with conditions of ships at sea. It is important that we have this legislation. We have seen this in the Ships of shame report. As I said earlier, in many parts of the world the quality of shipping has improved, but our former colleague, Peter Morris in his most recent report Ships, slaves and competition shows that many countries profess total support for the IMO and international uniformity, but they are applying conditions of access to their ports. What the general public and this parliament need to realise is that cheap freight comes at the cost of human rights and of human lives. The International Commission on Shipping, which I have just referred to, shows that thousands of seafarers are exploited and subject to physical and psychological abuse worldwide. Peter Morris has said:

Life at sea is modern slavery ... Their workplace is a floating sweatshop.

It is not just the MUA or the ITWF that sees this abuse; so does Missions to Seamen. They see the daily fight for wages, medical help and repatriation. This sort of exploitation should not happen in this modern age. It is not just a matter of wages, but also of crew abuse and environmental plunder. These are all linked. The same ships that abuse their crews also pollute our oceans. At the same time that ships threaten our coastline, crew members are often subject to all sorts of conditions, not least fires and other things. Others jump ship after standing abuse for years.

I have said many times in this House that many crew members on foreign flag vessels go overboard on their journey around the Australian coast. Someone may see the International Transport Federation in Melbourne or Sydney, and if that ship sails to Brisbane often it does not arrive and no-one knows about it; no-one cares about it. People often say that I make alarmist claims about ships and conditions on ships, I happen to be a board member of Missions to Seamen and for every ship that is detained at Port Kembla I get a telephone call, and I try to go on board that ship. Often I am not allowed on that ship, or sometimes when I am on it I am ordered off. Often in this chamber, especially when John Sharp used to be the minister, I have challenged them to come to Port Kembla and visit one of those detained ships with me. They just come into this House and spew out the nonsense that they spew out about shipping and conditions. I have seen people on ships who have lived for almost a week on watermelon. That was the only food they had—watermelon. I have seen all sorts of conditions that you would just not believe. These are the physical conditions that these people are expected to live in. Do you know what this is all in aid of? Cheaper shipping rates; low cost shipping. Low cost shipping means loss of human lives and that is one message that we should constantly remember.

Some years ago a committee that you, Mr Deputy Speaker Mossfield, and I are a member of made a recommendation in the report Ship safe, and one of the recommendations, recommendation 14, said that the Commonwealth should provide `interim financial assistance on an annual basis for approved seafarers, welfare organisations' and `investigate the establishment of an annual funding of a National Seafarers Welfare Network, and report the findings to parliament by June 1999.' The recommendations were not accepted. On the first one, the government said:

The Commonwealth does not consider that seafarers' welfare organisations should operate, or receive benefits, in any way differently to other welfare organisations.

Then, on the next one, it says:

The Commonwealth does not believe it would be appropriate to investigate the establishment and funding of a National Seafarer's Welfare Network.

These people often come to this country and are stranded. The Missions to Seamen, especially the one at Port Kembla, does not have a large income. We have to engage in fund raising activities to exist. Some of the firms that are in Port Kembla assist us and every so often we put an appeal in the paper and people will give money. Often at a funeral service, especially from someone associated with the Maritime Union or others, they will say instead of giving flowers or wreaths, make a donation to the Missions to Seamen. That is the way the Missions to Seamen exist.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, we were not asking for the government to provide a lot of money. We were asking them to give financial assistance to some of these organisations that, when necessary, can repatriate the seafarer back to their homeland and buy them food—to give them a decent feed and put food in their belly. Often when they have come off these ships they have been half-starved, beaten and not only physically and mentally abused but sexually abused. What goes on on some of those boats just defies belief. To those people, any members of parliament, who think I exaggerate: come with me the next time a ship is detained in Port Kembla. I will not select the right ship, the one in the worst possible condition. One ship I went on had 109 defects. When I was on television going on about the 109 defects—one of the defects was that none of the toilets had seats—the interviewer, half smart, said to me, `Do you think you're going on a bit, one of the defects being no toilet seats?' I said, `Yes, that was one defect out of 109. But what you are not asking me about are the 108 other defects that were found on that ship.' Many of these ships are in appalling condition and the conditions for the crew have not improved and are not being improved.

The states have not agreed to the guidelines, as assured by the department. The opposition, as the shadow minister has said, will seek to amend the bill, maybe in the Senate. We believe that this bill is incomplete. There are outstanding issues to be finalised. The most important relate to occupational health and safety and compensation jurisdictions. I say to the government: finalise these issues as the Ship safe committee report recommended in 1995 and then bring this bill back again.

Despite what people might say about the current government, this government has shown no interest in shipping. Its record on shipping has been appalling. I say that notwithstanding that in the past, at the time of Ralph Hunt, people did do quite a lot about shipping. I look opposite and see just one minister there that I respect for what they have done for shipping in Australia and for the welfare of crew members. It has an appalling record. I agree with the MUA that this federal government is politically and morally bankrupt on shipping policy.