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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 3329


Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (10:25): I rise to speak in support of this suite of reforms to the shipping and maritime legislation, reforms which have quite literally been about 100 years in the making. Australian shipping has been heading under over the past 10 years. Our merchant fleet has decreased by half, with the number of Australian-licensed trading vessels dropping from 55 in 1996 to 21 today. And only four of those vessels are operating on international routes. In a country where 99.9 per cent of our trade is moved by ships, there will soon be no fleet to revitalise. Australian seafarers' jobs are being lost as overseas flagged ships take more of our goods from producer to market. In a country that has the fourth largest shipping task in the world, this Labor government has never been prepared to sit back and wave bon voyage.

This suite of bills provides the incentives to invest in shipping in Australia. It will get the Australian flag flying on ships again—ships carrying goods produced by Australian workers both to markets in Australia and to Singapore, Hong Kong and the other great ports of the world. It is simple: either we get on with the job of reforming the industry and of trying to find the right incentives to assist Australians in the shipping industry or the Australian shipping industry will disappear, and our producers will be left at the mercy of more overseas decision makers. This results in increased uncertainty for business owners and for the hardworking Australians they employ. There are no plans to restrict the number of foreign vessels in Australian waters; these reforms are about levelling the playing field for Australian ships so that they can better compete.

I begin with a quote from Teresa Lloyd, Executive Director of the Australian Shipowners Association, on the day this suite of bills passed the lower house:

"I just want to say that the shipowners are ready to invest and this is a great day in terms of a new era for Australian shipping.

It's been very difficult to compete for at least the last 15 years, and that's seen the industry shrink to an almost unsustainable level.

And today is a fantastic day and the shipowners are quite committed for their investment decisions and they're looking forward to expanding into new trades, into new international opportunities that have never been available to us before.

We think it's a fantastic thing and we thank the Minister for all his efforts to make it happen."

This quote hits at the chord of the goodwill between the parties involved in negotiating this suite of bills, from a committee inquiry in 2008, the establishment of a shipping advisory group in 2009 and the release of a discussion paper that shaped the path taken to get to where we are today. Specific groups were then established, one on taxation, chaired by Treasury, one on regulatory reform and one on workforce development. Another inquiry was conducted when the suite of bills came to the House of Representatives. It was a process that the Labor Party, the labour movement and the shipping industry were committed to getting right.

These groups took the opportunity—because, as I said earlier, this is the first time in 100 years that the Navigation Act 1912 has been comprehensively updated. They took their opportunity and were very flexible during negotiations, making sure that they did not put their own interests first, no doubt recognising that together we can rebuild the Australian shipping industry and that together we are stronger than if we are all fighting over the pieces of broken hull. It was a process that led to unanimous recommendations on this legislation from the bipartisan parliamentary committee, including its deputy chair, Nationals MP Paul Neville, which makes the amendment proposed by Senator Joyce unnecessary. The shipping industry thought that the conservatives in this place were onside. Unfortunately, the National Party is being forced by its big brother to ignore its very own policy statements and put politics and obstructionism ahead of the livelihoods of Australian seafarers and Australian shipowners. Labor is here to take the necessary steps to ensure that Australia has a sustainable shipping industry for the next 200 years and that young Australians who dream of a life at sea will be able to have one under Australian wages and conditions. It is about recognising what government can do to assist industry and working collaboratively to achieve it. We all want and deserve a strong shipping industry in this country. Just like we are exporting our minerals, we should be exporting our expertise in naval architecture, seafaring and engineering.

The Leader of the Nationals, Mr Truss, is on record opposing these changes out of a concocted fear that other industries would want the same concessions—as though no industry-specific policies were ever enacted by the Howard government. I am very proud to say that just a few months ago this Labor government, with the support of the Independents and the Greens, moved through both houses of this parliament to abolish what was one of the most disgusting Howard era industry-specific policies. While we on this side are about building capacity in Australia's workforce and providing incentives for Australian business, those opposite are fixated on stripping away working conditions, stripping away family payments and stripping away incentives to invest.

I will now step the Senate through four key points in the legislation that bring the internal battle of the National Party senators to the fore. The National Party policy platform seeks to 'introduce a tonnage tax to replace company tax on an opt-in basis'. This seems to be a reasonable step, without promising too much. One would suspect that, if the bills, on the recommendations from Treasury and industry, went further, the Nationals would be only too keen to lend their support. These bills before us today introduce a zero rate of taxation for Australian shipping companies to get the vessels sailing again.

The National Party platform also seeks to 'introduce a national system of training support' to 'replace the existing state based distribution of funds'. Well, guess what? The bipartisan committee supported this and it is reflected in the bills before us.

The platform continues by saying that the Nationals will:

Examine ways to reduce the income tax disadvantage suffered by Australian seafarers operating outside Australian waters, compared with seafarers from other nations.

The work has been done. The bipartisan committee supported the reforms, and the bills will remove the income tax burden on Australian seafarers operating internationally.

Finally, the suite of legislation provides for a second shipping register. This second register was, once again, a part of the Nationals Policy Platform 2011-12. I urge them to support it through supporting this legislation.

Labor recognise that at times we need special assistance for some industries of national significance. Today we are looking at the maritime industry. Just this year we have sought to create better conditions for truckies in the road transport industry, for outworkers in the textile industry and for all workers in the construction industry.

This legislation would not have come about without the tireless advocacy of the Maritime Union of Australia and its national secretary, Paddy Crumlin. I recognise all from the MUA for your work. As many of you are aware, I am based in Devonport, Tasmania, the home of the MUA's Tasmanian branch. Membership of the MUA in Tasmania centres on the key transport linking us with the mainland, the Spirit of Tasmania. The Spirit, as it is affectionately known in Devonport, employs around 200 seafarers based between Devonport and Melbourne, making it the biggest employer of seafarers in Australia. There were many cries of relief from members in Devonport, many of whom are third- or fourth-generation maritime workers.

Tasmanian exporters have been hit hard over the past year, with the closure of the only international shipping service out of the island. All freight now has to move through the Port of Melbourne, significantly increasing costs to exporters. Federal Labor has delivered a $20 million package to assist Tasmanian exporters and, importantly, to investigate freight logistics in the state. The funding package contains three key measures: direct and immediate assistance of $14.5 million to Tasmanian exporters through a one-off payment to help them stay competitive in the new shipping environment; investing $4 million in infrastructure improvements at the port of Burnie to increase container-handling capacity and enhance the movements within the port, thereby reducing the need for shunting and double-handling; and establishing a freight logistics coordination team with an industry leadership. These three practical measures address the complex issues facing Tasmanian exporters, as well as the shortcoming in the state's supply lines. Together, the measures support exporters in the short term through direct assistance and benefit the whole state in the long term through significant infrastructure upgrades.

Labor is committed to Tasmania's and Australia's maritime industry. We are a seafaring nation, and this suite of bills has used the experience of those in the industry to best target how we can rebuild our once-great Australian shipping industry, a process that has seen industry, unions and government work together in the national interest. It is a great display of how these parties recognise that it is in their interests to achieve a positive outcome in the nation's interest, rather than picking over the leftover hulls of our shipping fleet. I commend these bills to the house and urge all to vote in their favour and support maritime workers and shipowners.