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Wednesday, 2 November 1983
Page: 2188

Mr GROOM(12.26) —The Australian Shipping Commission Amendment Bill is of particular concern and interest to me because I represent a region in which a number of sea ports are situated including the ports of Devonport, Burnie, Stanley, Grassy on King Island and smaller ports such as Currie on King Island and Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania. The latter two ports mainly cater for fishing vessels and smaller commercial vessels. Our shipping services are very important for a Tasmanian member and it is necessary for us to take a special interest in shipping services. Our interest and concern is perhaps greater than the interest and concern shown by members on the mainland because we depend so heavily on our shipping services. The Bill that we are now debating amends the Australian Shipping Commission Act 1956. It was under that Act that the Australian Shipping Commission was first established and given a charter by this Parliament. It appears that this Bill attempts to make the Australian National Line a more commercial entity. If one looks through the history of the ANL one sees that it has not really fulfilled its original promise, that is, that it was to be a commercial shipping enterprise able to compete effectively with private enterprise and to provide a service to the community at reasonable rates. It has had a difficult history because of many pressures brought to bear upon it, particularly by the union movement, the maritime unions and the demands that those unions have made.

Mr Hollis —Liberal Government meddling.

Mr GROOM —I noted some of the remarks that the honourable member made in his speech and I thought that he showed a lack of understanding of the history of the ANL and the problems that it has faced. The honourable member has made a broad statement about meddling but he did not particularise it at all and indicate where he thought the meddling had taken place. The ANL operates cargo services around Australia, some international cargo services and it also operates Australia's one and only interstate sea-passenger service between Melbourne and Devonport in Tasmania. I take this opportunity of commenting firstly, on the general operations of ANL, make some remarks about those operations and secondly, direct some particular remarks to the urgent need for an improved sea-passenger service between the mainland and Tasmania.

I make one or two points about the general operations of ANL. I think that ANL has been subject to the usual bureaucratic restraints to which any kind of public organisation is subject. It has also been able to isolate itself from the normal commercial pressures and competition which would normally force a private commercial enterprise to either increase its efficiency or to go out of business . However, I point out that I am not one who believes that private enterprise is always to be preferred to a government enterprise, especially in transport areas . I think there is often a need for the Government to be involved in providing a transport service where there are high cost factors involved in transporting goods or people to a particular area. I also believe that sometimes it is necessary to provide subsidies so I am not one of the driest members of my Party on this issue. I do recognise that the Government must sometimes be involved in providing this kind of service and I do not object to the ANL continuing to be involved. I am not one who would agrue that ANL should necessarily be sold off to a commercial organisation, a private enterprise organisation, because it sometimes does not provide the same kind of service and sometimes provides it at a higher cost particularly when it might become a monopoly. We have seen this in some areas.

One thing that does concern me is the recent decision by the Government after it took office to provide such a substantial amount of money to ANL. This is referred to in the second reading speech of the Minister for Transport (Mr Morris). He states:

When this Government came to office ANL was in a parlous financial situation. It had a gearing ratio of 15:1 as at 30 June 1982. This worsened with the unprecedented losses being incurred during 1982-83. In effect, the cupboard was bare. This Government responded by converting $60m in loan funds to equity and injecting a further $30m into the enterprise to put it on a proper commercial basis. It did so on a conditional basis. It called for a determined commitment by management and unions to greater productivity and joint action to improve ANL 's performance.

Those are the remarks that the Minister made in his second reading speech on this Bill. It is the old answer, is it not, that when a public body runs into some trouble and cannot make ends meet it approaches the Government and the Government makes a generous handout. In this case it was $30m which is a very large amount of money by any standards. However, in addition to the $30m the Government really wrote-off $60m which it had provided to the Shipping Commission by way of loans and that now becomes a grant upon which no interest will be paid. This is a dangerous step for the Government to take. It is not dissimilar from the step taken as far as Trans Australia Airlines is concerned. I believe that it leads to inefficiency, it leads to waste and it leads to a careless approach by the organisation which receives the money from the Government.

If a company or ANL ever gets into problems in the future, as no doubt it will, it will look for the same kind of solution. The precedent has been set. It will say to the Government: 'You did it in 1983 so what about providing some more money for us?' Money does not grow on trees. This money has to be provided by the taxpayers and it is suggested in the original charter and in statements made by the then Minister responsible for ANL that this was to be an organisation which would compete on the same footing, on the same basis, under the same arrangements, in relation to taxation and in other respects, as an ordinary commercial private enterprise. However, an ordinary commercial private enterprise does not have the chance to go to the Government for a handout when it has some trouble. I hope that this sort of action will not occur in the future and that this organisation will become a true commercial organisation.

I welcome some of the steps that have been taken in this Bill to put the line on a commercial footing. I think that to a very large extent it is window dressing and we will see what effect it has. The organisation has to improve its game. It is essential that this Parliament put pressure on the ANL because it does not have shareholders. Sometimes Ministers have a nice, cosy relationship with senior people in these public organisations. Therefore, it is essential that we put pressure on ANL to make it more efficient. I say to people from ANL who might read the record of this debate that they are living in a fool's paradise if they believe that there is not widespread criticism of their operations. Of course, it is easy to attack a public body. I think that sometimes public officials are attacked to often. There is not always recognition of the important role they play in the scheme of things and in the operations of government. That is not to say that we should not criticise where criticism is due. Certainly, the ANL has not operated as efficiently as it could have operated and has not provided the sort of service that the community demands. So it has to lift its game and provide a much better service at lower cost to the community of Australia. That is particularly important for my own State of Tasmania.

I turn to the question of the passenger service to and from Tasmania. At the moment I believe that the service provided by the Empress of Australia and by ANL is a second rate service. It cannot be compared with similar kinds of ferry services operating in other parts of the world. Now that the Empress of Australia is reaching the end of its operating life, we have a unique opportunity to replace that vessel with a much more suitable vessel and to improve the real quality of the service provided to passengers travelling across Bass Strait.

Mr Goodluck —Private enterprise could look after it.

Mr GROOM —The honourable member for Franklin says that private enterprise could look after it. I do not totally agree with him there. We do not often disagree, but I think that ANL can provide the right kind of service if it lifts its game, becomes more efficient, and understands some of the concerns being expressed by the community. I have travelled quite recently on the Empress of Australia. I travelled on the Empress just to have a first-hand knowledge of what it was like to travel on the ship. I had travelled on it some years ago, and I had been on many other ships across Bass Strait, including the old Taroona and others. I must say that it was a bad trip; the weather was bad. However, I was not impressed by the service that was provided. I would like to see a few more female crew members on board. That might seem a funny thing to say. It might seem like a sexist statement, but I think that women can provide a quality of service different from that provided by the male crew members, the stewards on board the ship. I had the impression, and others have made the same comment to me, that the ship is being run for the crew. I had a bit of a peep at some of the facilities provided for the crew, and there is a bit of truth in what is being said. The impression is that the ship is there to serve the crew. I do not think the food is good enough.

Mr Hollis —Is it better than here?

Mr GROOM —The food is much better here in Parliament House. The food is better on trains. I have travelled to Canberra on the train. Has the honourable member for Macarthur (Mr Hollis) been on the train to Canberra?

Mr Hollis —I have. I came down on it to protest last year.

Mr GROOM —I remember what the honourable member did when he arrived here. That was a disgraceful act, yet he is proud of it.

Mr Goodluck —What did he do?

Mr GROOM —He led a mob into this House, chanting. They broke down the door of Parliament House. This man is proud of it. He laughs about it. It was disgraceful conduct for a member of this place.

Mr Hollis —I was not a member then, though.

Mr GROOM —It was very undemocratic conduct. He says that he is a member now. That is because he had the support of the mob.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! The honourable member should return to the subject matter of the debate.

Mr GROOM —I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was misled by the honourable member opposite, led down the wrong path. I was saying that I believe that the food provided on Australian trains is of much higher quality and much tastier than the food provided on the Empress. I admit that that conclusion is drawn from only one recent trip and that maybe one should take a number of trips to make a fair comparison, but that was the distinct impression I had. I support that comment by saying that others have made similar remarks to me. Some people sit up all night; some have a cabin. If one is in a cabin there is no radio, no music. I hope that the ANL will look to providing the best possible service for people crossing the strait either way. I hope it will look around the world to see the standards that operate elsewhere and really do the best it can here. When people are coming to Tasmania we hope that their first impression will be very good as they get on the boat and have a comfortable trip across Bass Strait . People want to be entertained, so there has to be some kind of entertainment on the voyage across the strait.

Mr Reeves —Lusher is going to close them down.

Mr Peter Morris —He is going to sell them. Your policy is to get rid of them.

Mr GROOM —I do not care what he says. I am here as the member for Braddon. I am a private back bench member of this Parliament and I am expressing my point of view.

Mr Peter Morris —Aren't you in the same party?

Mr GROOM —We are a coalition. He wants a service provided across Bass Strait. I did not hear all of his speech, but I would be very surprised if he were suggesting that there should not be a service across Bass Strait. We are not like the Opposition blokes. In our Party we can have differences of opinion. We will stand by our opinions. No one will persuade me, unless the reason is logical, that my opinion on this issue is wrong. We have to get this replacement . Someone is talking about refitting the Empress of Australia. That is just not good enough. We have to get at least one new ship. There is a real demand. There is a real demand for increased capacity across Bass Strait and we need to have a new ship, or possibly two new ships.

One of the questions, of course, which is always critical in Tasmania is where the ship should go. Should it go to Burnie? Should it go to Devonport? Should it to to the Tamar? I say to the Minister for Transport that there are parochial pressures in Tasmania, but the ship should go to one port or another. I live up on the hill at Burnie, and when I look down from my home I can actually see ANL trader vessels coming into the port of Burnie. I am close to it and I know a lot of the people involved in the port of Burnie and in the port of Devonport. We have to look at this whole question objectively. We have to decide what is best for Tasmania. We must look at a lot of issues, such as the convenience of passengers, where they should arrive, and the cost and time factors involved. Devonport involves probably the shortest travelling time across the strait, and the cost factor might be reduced for Devonport. The question of convenience is important. The facilities that surround the town where the people arrive are important.

Mr Goodluck —Hobart.

Mr GROOM —The honourable member's suggestion about Hobart is just not on. There is no way the ship could possibly go to Hobart. It obviously has to be one of the northern ports. One of the problems in governments is that it can take too much notice of the rather articifial pressures and arguments that are applied. I hope that ANL will look at this issue very objectively, look at all the criteria that should apply, listen to the people and communicate with the people, certainly, but make a decision that is best for the community at large and particularly for the Tasmanian community, because we want people to come to Tasmania safely and conveniently at low cost.

Mr Goodluck —That is important.

Mr GROOM —That is terribly important for the whole of Tasmania, and that should be the objective of ANL. I will put my point of view for the ports I represent. The honourable member for Bass (Mr Newman) will put his point of view for the port he represents. We will have our arguments. ANL should look at this issue objectively and wisely and think about what is best for the State of Tasmania and for all of those people who travel across Bass Strait.

As I said before, there is a good deal of criticism of ANL. There is criticism amongst business people in my electorate, who are not particularly happy. There have been some shocking instances of delay, of cargo being left around for a long time and of damage being caused. ANL shakes its head and says that it wants to wash its hands of it, that it is not its responsibility, but these are concerns. I think that the approach to unions has not always been as it should be. Again, there has to be a strong approach, not weak-kneed, not going along on bended knees and saying--

Mr Hollis —Go on, do a bit of union bashing now. End up with a bit of union bashing.

Mr GROOM —I will bash the irresponsible unions. If I think it is in the interests of the people I represent, I will bash them as hard as I can; do not worry about that. That is the job that we have to do. I will not kowtow to anybody. I am responsible to the people I represent. If I do not do the right thing, they will kick me out next time. But I hope that ANL will respond to those criticisms, particularly the objective criticisms that people are making. Here is a chance for a new start, a fresh start by ANL, a chance for it to lift its game. I hope it does so in the interests of the community.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! It being after 12.45 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with sessional order 101A. The chair will be resumed at 2 p.m.

Sitting suspended from 12.46 to 2 p.m.