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Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Page: 9951

Mr TRUSS (Wide BayLeader of The Nationals) (19:33): Before my contribution to this debate was interrupted by question time and all the other events of the day, I was referring to the Maritime Labour Convention and the fact that this bill implements the Maritime Labour Convention into Australia. The Maritime Labour Convention addresses various conditions of employment for seafarers and will put in place a system where ships will be inspected and certified to meet particular standards. I indicated in my earlier remarks that the coalition would not oppose the bill, although we are naturally anxious about some elements of the way in which it will operate.

The shipping industry has raised some legitimate concerns about the practical operation of this scheme. The Australian Shipowners Association has raised concerns about the treatment of cadets and trainees, who under the MLC would be required to have individual sleeping quarters. This may pose a disincentive to vessel operators taking on more cadets, making it more difficult for them to obtain appropriate sea time to gain their qualifications. Additionally, concerns have been raised that the new provisions requiring vessel owners to provide free meals to seafarers on board vessels may mean that they will attract Australian fringe benefits tax, which will significantly increase the cost of providing this service.

It should also be noted that this will be the first time that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority will undertake a social as opposed to a safety function. Under the MLC Australia will be obliged to inspect ships that do not have the required documentation docking at Australian ports. The inspection process is extensive, requiring the inspection of all employment contracts and qualifications for all crew, including the kitchen staff—more bureaucracy from international organisations and an Australian government that believes more paperwork will save the world. The time taken to complete this process could potentially delay cargo leaving Australia's ports and add to the bottlenecks already experienced.

As such, appropriate training and funding will be required to ensure that inspectors are well equipped to undertake the role required of them in a timely manner. The MUA has been pushing for the International Transport Workers Federation to play a role in the inspection process which, if allowed to happen, would be a major concern for industry participants. Additionally, it should be noted that wages and conditions for seafarers will be subsequently stipulated through regulation. The coalition will carefully scrutinise this process to ensure that the requirements are not more onerous than those required to meet the MLC. Traditionally Australia's shipping industry has been uncompetitive internationally because of the higher cost of running an Australian as opposed to a foreign flagged vessel. Australian ships are notorious for having high manning levels and wage structures compared with the rest of the world. For example, at the moment a typical Australian container ship pays $4.06 million in crew costs per year compared to a foreign ship, which pays just $1.65 million in crew costs.

I turn to the practical concerns of the bill. It was referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications for consideration. The committee recently tabled its report addressing each of the industry concerns. The committee was assured by the Department of Infrastructure and Transport that it was working with industry to ensure a seamless transition to the MLC provisions that would not unfairly disadvantage the Australian shipping industry and undermine its viability. Specifically in relation to the requirement for single berths for seafarer cadets, AMSA have advised that they are actively working to address this issue and will be proposing subordinate legislation on this matter.

It is clear that should the MLC not be ratified in Australia and it comes into force internationally as expected, our shipping industry will be at a significant disadvantage relative to other vessels from countries that have ratified the MLC. This would have the potential to significantly affect Australian trade. The Australian Shipowners Association, Shipping Australia and the Maritime Union of Australia have all publicly expressed their desire for the MLC to be ratified. Additionally, state and territory governments have been consulted and have raised no objection to the ratification of the MLC.

In summary, the coalition will not oppose the ratification of the MLC. However, in doing so we note the practical concerns raised by industry participants and will continue to monitor this process to ensure that they are addressed. We look forward to being given the opportunity to scrutinise the regulations to be implemented in due course.

The second part of the legislation, schedule 1 part 2 of the bill, amends the Navigation Act 1912 in relation to vessel tracking services. It amends the definition of 'vessel tracking service' to refer to guidelines adopted by the International Maritime Organisation and any amendment to those guidelines. It also amends the regulation-making power in the Navigation Act to specifically provide for the making of regulations relating to vessel-tracking services. These amendments will provide legal backing for the extension, from 1 July 2011, of the current vessel-tracking services to the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef in response to the grounding of the Shen Neng 1 on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010. The amendments made in schedule 1 part 2 of the bill are non-controversial and the coalition will not oppose them.

However, I was concerned by reports yesterday that at the same time the government is expanding vessel tracking on the Great Barrier Reef, it is casting aside seafarer expertise when it comes to charting a safe course through our territorial waters of the Torres Strait, exposing the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef to potential irrevocable damage. Revelations by WikiLeaks indicated that Labor had quietly watered down shipping safeguards in the Torres Strait to no longer require shipping pilots to be on board large vessels such as oil, chemical and liquefied gas tankers navigating these treacherous waters.

The previous coalition government insisted that vessels entering the Torres Strait be manned by pilots. I was pleased when the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport came into the House yesterday to give an assurance that Labor would not be putting our marine environment at risk, had not bowed to pressure from overseas, and the reports in the newspapers were incorrect. It is important that we all adopt high standards when it comes to protecting our marine environment and the assurances of the minister were most welcome. The grounding of the Shen Neng 1 off Rockhampton in April 2010 tore a three-kilometre scar in the Great Barrier Reef and the oil slick covered two nautical miles. No doubt the reef will take some years to recover. While I think it is true that the reef is more resilient than many people think, we do not want any damage, lasting or short term, to this precious natural asset. When you think of the long-term damage that can be inflicted on such a pristine and unique marine environment as the Barrier Reef, nothing should be left to chance. Therefore the requirements to fit these vessel-tracking devices on vessels passing through this area has merit.

As I indicated earlier, the coalition will not be opposing the bill. We will monitor its implementation to ensure that the Australian shipping industry is not disadvantaged. In concert with some of the proposed reforms being talked about at the present time, the bill can play an important role in the future of Australia's international trade.