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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1500


Mr PETER MORRIS(10.10 a.m.) —-In this discussion of the estimates for the Department of Transport and Communications, I first want to address my remarks to subprogram 5.5, which includes funding to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority for the inspection of foreign ships. The seaworthiness of international vessels is an issue of growing global concern. Over recent years we have seen the disappearance of increasing numbers of ships at sea and the sinking of vessels crewed in the main by seafarers from Third World countries. It is a matter that demands much greater attention by the world's trading nations.

Currently some 25 per cent of foreign ships visiting Australian ports should be inspected by officers of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. In the period under review, 259 foreign vessels were inspected to ensure that they complied with the relevant international maritime conventions and to ensure that their oil tanks did not present a hazard to Australian ports or to the Australian marine environment. Of the 259 vessels inspected, 147 were found to have defects affecting their seaworthiness and/or life saving equipment. We are advised that all of the deficiencies affecting the seaworthiness of the ships were made good before their departure.

I want to emphasise that Australia's objective is to inspect only 25 per cent of foreign vessels visiting Australian ports. Australia is one of a handful of nations that inspect foreign vessels frequenting their ports. When we introduced the inspection of foreign vessels several years ago there was a clamour from the free marketeers that this inspection would deter foreign vessels from frequenting and visiting Australian ports, that our international trade would be damaged, that we would not be able to get the freight rates that were available at that time and were likely to be available in the future and that, overall, Australian trade would suffer. That has not occurred. What has occurred is that hundreds of seamen, mainly from Third World countries, have lost their lives at sea in ships that have sunk or disappeared without trace.

At this stage it is not clear, because of the lack of information, just how many of those vessels were lost due to the unseaworthiness of the vessels alone, as a result of inadequately trained crews and poor seamanship or as a result of a combination of both--vessels in foul seas need well qualified expert crews and attendants to handle them. We have a situation where on many of the flag of convenience vessels there may be only one or two certificated or qualified officers on board. The rest of the crew, being paid poverty wages, are effectively seagoing labourers. No tears are being shed by the trading nations of the world for those hundreds of Third World seamen who have disappeared without trace or who have lost their lives at sea.

It is clear that in recent years we have seen a re-emergence of the coffin ships of past centuries when ships were sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition or in a condition that was likely to result in the loss of those vessels and their crews. The development of international maritime conventions and the development of proper standards for the construction and maintenance of vessels, crewing and training of crews developed out of those malpractices of centuries gone by. For years seafarers of the world have been pointing to the deplorable condition of many of the vessels that operate as flag of convenience ships. For their efforts they have generally been portrayed as people crying wolf, people who did not want to work, people who were drawing undue attention to the safety aspects of ship operation. We are now seeing the results of the continued neglect of this major safety issue by the shipping nations of the world.

The irony is that attention has now been drawn to this practice of using coffin ships not because of concern about the loss of lives at sea, but because of concern about the marine and global environment. That environment is a matter of major concern; however, I should have thought that priority would have been given to the needless loss of lives of sailors at sea. We have a concern in this nation because of the risk posed to our coastal marine environment by oil spillages from poorly crewed vessels and from unseaworthy vessels in the event of their being wrecked. Recently, the near sinking of the Greek owned tanker Kirki off the west coast focused our attention on the risk to Australia's fishing grounds and to our coastal environment.

In the past 18 months, 39 large overseas bulk-carrying vessels have suffered serious structural damage, were lost at sea or just went missing. We know that 21 of those ships sank. Six of them were loaded in north-western Australian ports. They were loaded in Australian ports by Australian persons, sailed, and were never to be seen again--ships that disappeared, ships that sank without trace. I commend the Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support (Senator Collins) for recognising the seriousness of this situation and for his determination to initiate an international campaign to address this problem.

I have touched briefly on the sea safety issue, and I want to say more about it at a later stage. The important thing is that these ships are being loaded in Australian ports, they are frequenting Australian ports, they pose hazards and dangers to the lives of the seamen who crew them and they pose hazards to Australia's priceless coastal environment. This is an issue to which we will have to give a lot more attention in the time ahead.

I now want to say something about what is happening on the waterfront because it is related to the expenditure within the Department of Transport and Communications. Most people would now agree that solid progress is being made in the improvement of waterfront operations, in reducing the delays that have been experienced--delays that we would all prefer not to have occurred. But the fact that there have been delays, the fact that there have been difficulties making the changes that are necessary, simply illustrates the complexities, the inertia, the long-established arrangements that have been built up over many decades, not on the part of waterfront employees alone but on the part of waterfront employees and employers, and to a large extent condoned by the users of waterfront services.

This morning I received a copy of an article published in the Reader's Digest. It advocates the big brother, big stick approach and states:

Time to get tough on the waterfront.

I have always regarded the Reader's Digest as a magazine publishing articles that usually have a fair amount of status and a high degree of credibility attaching to them. However, this article is jaundiced, it is out of date, it does Australia a disservice. In respect of the Opposition, it says:

`If negotiations don't work,' says Liberal leader Dr John Hewson, `we will not hold back on the stick.' If unions retaliate by paralysing the wharves, Hewson threatens to use the defence forces to unload cargoes.

I am sure all that is out of date. But the point I want to make is that that kind of approach does not solve the problem.

The article refers to the New Zealand progress, to what has happened over there. The question to raise in New Zealand is: who is getting the benefits? If one checks the scene in New Zealand one will find that the major users of shipping services other than the shipping companies themselves, which are foreign owned, are getting the benefits; the major users of shipping services other than corporations such as the National Dairy Corporation, which charters ships itself, are the only ones getting the benefits. The benefits are not being passed down to the other users of shipping services.

I deplore the article. It makes no reference to and does not recognise the impact of services to and from the waterfront, and it is unfortunate that the article was published at this time. It does not portray an accurate picture and it does not give any encouragement to those engaged in the difficult task that is under way.

The growing awareness among waterfront users of how they need to lift their game is also evidence that we will get a much better performance from waterfront related services in the year that is ahead. I am strongly of the view that before the year is out the improvement required on the waterfront will be achieved and we will see a much greater effort by the users of waterfront services to improve their performance. (Time expired)