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Monday, 28 May 2012
Page: 5730

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (16:43): It is very interesting hearing those opposite talk about consultation, about having more time and about not enough people getting to have their say and that perhaps we should refer it to yet another committee. I find it very strange. In 1992 when I was a young and eager member of Young Labor, I remember reading the Ships of shame report, which was a report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure. It had some very famous people on it: Peter Morris, who was a former minister; John Anderson, who was a future Deputy Prime Minister; and a number of other people whose names have unfortunately passed out of this House and into the history books.

The Ships of shame inquiry first examined this issue of coastal trade and cabotage and some of the issues that the world and this country as an island nation and shipping nation had to confront. Of course, that inquiry in its preface talks about how it was told of the operation of unseaworthy ships; the use of poorly trained crews with false qualification papers; crews unable to communicate with each other or with Australian pilots; classification societies providing inaccurate information on certificates; flag states failing to carry out their responsibilities under international maritime conventions; careless commercial practices by maritime insurers; inadequate, deficient and poorly maintained safety and rescue equipment; classification societies that readily class ships rejected by more reputable societies; the beating of sailors by ship's officers; the sexual abuse of young sailors; crews being starved of food; crew members being forced to sign dummy pay books indicating they had been paid much more than they had actually received; sailors forced to work long overtime hours for which pay was refused; crew members being denied telephone contact when family members had passed away; sailors not being paid for several months or remittances not being made to their families at home; sailors being denied medical attention; officers regarding maritime crews as dispensable; and crews being denied basic toilet and laundry materials.

The beneficiaries of these flag of convenience arrangements and the arrangements that were in place then were flag states who take the shipper registration fees and pay lip service to their international maritime obligations; the classification societies who readily accepted changes in the class of vessels already rejected by reputable classification societies; the classification societies that issued certificates that did not accord with vessels' true conditions; ship owners, operators and managers; crewing and training agencies; and charters, exporters and importers.

This parliamentary report, Ships of shame, into ship safety was the first of many reports in this area that outlined some of the difficulties in protecting the interests of the nation state and our reputation as a First World country and the real and lived experience of the shipping industry. Even today, some 40 per cent of international shipping is under flags of convenience, under the open registry in places like the Marshall Islands, Panama and Liberia. We know that these flags of convenience are there for a reason: they are attractive to ship owners because they can often hide their ownership, they can avoid international regulations on labour standards or environmental standards, they can avoid international criminal sanctions, they can avoid international arms control sanctions.

We know that there is this great problem out there with regulation of international maritime transport, shipping and the like. It is a very big problem for this country. I remember when this report came out, there was an incident off the Western Australian coast with the Kirki, which was a Liberian flagged ship that was Greek owned. It was rust bucket and it was carrying oil. The bow fell off the front of the ship. The pointy end of the ship fell off into the ocean and oil spilled out onto the Western Australian coastline. But for the bravery of an Australian rescue crew, that would have been an environmental disaster to match the Exxon Valdez. We came very close to that.

One only has to look at some of the recent headlines around the place of ships ploughing through the Barrier Reef and off the coast of Newcastle to know that international shipping is a serious business—it is not one in which you want to make mistakes. There has been a recent disaster in New Zealand as well. I think that we would be wise to have good shipping laws in this country—shipping laws that do not just improve our national shipping and make sure that we are not an island nation without an international maritime capacity, but that also go some way toward, if you like, civilising the savage world of international shipping.

The Shipping Reform (Tax Incentives) Bill 2012 promotes a viable shipping industry, which will contribute to a broader Australian economy. We know that it is terribly important to make sure we have got an Australian choice, an Australian option. We know that this bill is important to facilitate the long-term growth of the Australian shipping industry. It will enhance the efficiency and reliability of Australian shipping as part of a national transport system, and it maximises uses of the vessels registered on the Australian General Register under the Shipping Registration Act 1981. This is achieved by making sure that, first of all, we have a general licence for Australian general registered vessels, which will provide unrestricted access to engage in coastal trading in Australian waters. There will be temporary licences that provide access to engage in coastal trading in Australian waters, which is limited in time and in the number of voyages authorised by the licence. There will also be an emergency licence that provides access to coastal trading in Australian waters, which is also time-limited but is there to deal with an identified emergency situation. Those three different types of licence help to safeguard the national interest. They will provide for more than enough options for those who want to ship their goods from port to port, and they allow for the coast to be open but appropriately regulated. That is a particularly important thing.

In the last decade—and we have heard all the speakers talk about this—the Australian fleet has gone from 55 ships to 21, with only four operating on international routes. In a country which is basically an island nation where our trade with the rest of the world is by ship, we need to act so that there is an industry there for the future. At this time, at the point of action, as it were, you do not want to defer a decision to another inquiry and another time. That would be not very sensible at all.

At the moment we have one of the most liberal domestic shipping regimes with some 30 per cent of our coastal cargoes being transported by foreign vessels—470 permit ships—and I think that tells you something. In every other country in the world, and particularly if you look at the United States and places like the United Kingdom, they provide some sensible regulation on their coastal shipping. And that is for good reason. They understand the good national interest reasons why one would do that, and it is important that this House does as well.

I find it a little strange that after all these inquiries, and there have been many of them, that we are considering looking at the matter again. There was the Rebuilding Australia's coastal shipping industry report, and we have recently had the infrastructure and communications committee look at this matter again, and a Senate committee is being set up in anticipation of this. One questions, after 22 years, from the Ships of shame report to now and the many different people looking at it with more than enough opportunity to provide their views, whether it is not just time to act. Acting is important in protecting the national interest. I think that it is important to getting this industry back in the game. It is important to protect this industry, there is no doubt about that. It is important for an island nation to have an Australian fleet. Where would we be without it? I think that is a particularly important point.

The Nationals' own platform boasted about how they would do exactly what is in this bill. Their platform to the people talks about all of these reforms—the zero tax rate, sensible regulation around these things, and development of the workforce. Yet when push comes to shove, we have the member for Wide Bay, who hopes to be Deputy Prime Minister one day, walk away from his own platform. I think Barnaby Joyce is negotiating his passage into this House at the expense of other sitting members; he is the circling the member for Wide Bay. And it is very curious then that the member for Wide Bay should walk away from his own platform. It is an odd thing to do. When we look at what people say and what they do, they are often two different things, and on this issue it is no different.

The government has been quite upfront with the fact that we have gone through a very long negotiation period. The previous speaker talked about some of the concessions that have been made on the temporary licences, from 10 voyages to five. I think that that is a sensible concession to make, but you would not want to lower it to zero. What would be the point? What would be the point of having reforms if you make them so meaningless as to not be effective?

It seems to me that in all these things the question you get down to is the same question that William Wilberforce faced when he moved in the House of Commons to abolish slavery. He was in there talking about ideals and about principles and about the way the world should be if the government and society willed it. Then you had people getting up making speeches about how the boats and the money that had been invested in the slave trade would lie idle—and what would we do then? They were quite extraordinary speeches to the House of Commons. I remember reading William Hague's fine biography of William Wilberforce, and it was very interesting to see some of the arguments we have on so many of these issues—the argument of regulation versus the economic cost of regulation—and there are echoes in this House even now of those debates.

It seems to me that we should protect the national interest, that we should have Australian ships trading in Australian waters, carrying Australian goods to produce Australian jobs. To me it is a sensible thing for an island nation to have an Australian shipping fleet. I think that it is terribly important when you think about some of the longer term challenges that we might face. And it will not have that unless this House is prepared to put in place the laws and regulations and the zero tax rate that support it. I commend this bill and the related bills to the House. We should act now and not put it off, not absolve ourselves or avoid our obligations by shunting it off to yet another inquiry.

Debate adjourned.

Resumption of debate made an order of the day for a later hour.