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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2513

Mr TUCKEY(4.38) —The honourable member for Chifley (Mr Price) appeared somewhat surprised that the Opposition supports government legislation. Apparently he is falling foul of a popular perception in the community that the Opposition never supports government legislation. One can always thank the media for that, because unless we are in conflict they never bother to report these things. It is a point worth making to those who may one day read the Hansard record of this debate. I have a few comments to make on the Ships (Capital Grants) Bill, which the Opposition supports. I wish to draw to the attention of the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) and the Government a few facts regarding this process.

First, I remind the House that this is a process of what I would term picking winners. The Government on this occasion has decided to give a 7 per cent taxable grant to the shipping industry in certain conditions relating to putting our shipping industry on a more competitive basis, namely getting crewing levels down by the use of technology, which is to be applauded. Once ships leave our shores, they are outside in the cruel world of international competition. There is no way out there that we can dictate the price of things and what people pay as we do in Australia. People will go to the lowest market and, in the case of international shipping, they invariably ignore Australia. This is not the only assistance the Government has given in recent times. Recently it gave 150 per cent tax deductibility for research and development-another admirable step. While it has done all this it has decided to dispose of a few winners. It banned negative gearing in the building industry. Negative gearing occurs when an investor pays more in interest than he receives in rent. That has been labelled by the Government as a wrong policy and it is not allowed any more.

The Government has introduced a capital gains tax which applies particularly to the building industry, an area of responsibility I have just inherited, and is maintaining a high interest rate regime. While one section of the community is being assisted by this legislation, another is falling into disaster. The number of housing starts is dropping dramatically. We have now achieved a situation in which the number of new housing starts is down to 8.6 new houses per thousand head of population in Australia compared with the lowest ever of 8.8 new houses per thousand head of population under the Fraser Government. Of course, it has all happened because of government activity in taking away the attractions of investing in the housing industry, adding other taxes such as the capital gains tax and having a high interest rate regime.

It is excellent to try to create more employment in the seafaring industry, the shipping industry. Nobody wants to criticise that but let me remind honourable members that some 500,000 people are employed in the housing industry and the products they provide are basic to our philosophy of the needs of our families. The level of expenditure in this industry is $20,000m annually. There is no way in the world that the Minister would be able to indicate to us that the shipping industry has the same short term potential. I do not want to be negative about this matter; I am just asking the Government: Why not practise in the housing industry what it preaches in the shipping industry? Why create negative mechanisms in one industry which has such massive levels of expenditure and employment while recognising the need in another industry for additional expenditure and for Australia to get a greater share of international competition?

Just today the Master Builders Federation of Australia drew our attention to a survey it has just concluded which indicates a decline in employment in the respondent firms of 7.1 per cent in the March quarter of 1987, and a further 2.8 per cent reduction is expected in the June quarter. There have been significant declines in the employment of sub-contractors. Employment of bricklayers is down 18 per cent and carpenters 16 per cent, and is expected to contract further in the last half of the year. The survey goes on to indicate the States that have the greatest level of decline. Most importantly, the survey listed the major factors that influence work availability; some 49 per cent of respondents listed the high level of interest rates, 16 per cent of respondents listed lack of suitable finance, 10 per cent of respondents listed lack of suitably priced land and 7 per cent of respondents listed lack of public confidence in the Government. Honourable members can again see that the Government's policy is assisting one industry-the industry dealt with in this legislation-but at the same time it is causing another industry to fall.

The car industry reports that it has had the worst sales in 20 years. One does not have to ring many people in the car industry to discover that it is again laying the blame on the fringe benefits tax-a government initiative-high interest rates-a government initiative-and, of course, the disastrous terms of trade, government debt and overseas debt that have caused a decline in the value of our dollar.

I am saying that the Opposition supports any government initiative that improves the opportunity for people to gain employment in Australia and for Australia to get a bigger share of international markets. However, it does not want the Government picking winners; it wants the Government to have an even-handed, overall policy. I draw the Government's attention to the disastrous state of the building industry which purely and simply reflects its policies at present. I hope the Government will see the problems it is creating in that industry.

I have remarked on other areas of the Ships (Capital Grants) Bill. The 7 per cent grants will be of some benefit but maybe those companies which are making profits in this area will be the least encouraged if the grants are to be taxed. Obviously those companies that are making the profits are probably the most efficient. I wonder a little about that.

Crewing the ships with Australian residents seems to be fundamental to the requirement of getting a grant but it reduces the opportunity for us to be competitive. That is something about which the crews must think more. I am not suggesting that we replace them with foreign crews; I am just saying that our rules--

Mr Hollis —I was starting to worry there for a while.

Mr TUCKEY —I am correcting that point. The point I am making is that our crews still have a long way to go to be competitive with crews of other countries and I refer not just to the wages they receive. We are well aware that we do not meet some of the conditions of some of the more highly paid crews in the world. One of the conditions of working on a ship in Australia is that a crew member is returned first class from the port where his tour of duty concludes. Quite frequently that gives me an opportunity to chat with a crew member from one of those boats. They happen to sit next to me. I find them very interesting people. Quite a few of them vote Liberal too, so the Government should not think they are all on its side. The reality is that some of them tend to have a couple of crayfishing boats stacked away here and there. They are doing pretty well, thank you very much. They have some interesting things to say. One day a chap quite angrily informed me that members of the Seamens Union of Australia do not carry out at sea the duties that are carried out by seamen from other countries. Our seamen will not do the same level of maintenance. It was his opinion that probably half, if not a third, of the time our ships spend in dry dock is because of lack of work done at sea which is traditionally done at sea by seamen of other countries. I hope that if this deal has the full support of the unions, those sorts of foolish tactics will be discontinued. It just adds to the cost and probably puts the ship into dry dock earlier than it otherwise need go there. That is not very sensible.

We believe that a crewman on a ship can work only about six months of the year because immediately he goes to sea he is denied access to his family and those sorts of things. Consequently, I am wondering when we might see the size of this Parliament doubled so we have to do only six months each, considering the amount of time I spend away from my family. Obviously, things are a little different here-we keep fighting to get our jobs back. Surely there are other ways of looking at this matter. Maybe the only reason that two crews are needed for every Australian ship is that people are denied access to their families. Not only politicians living in the north west of Western Australia, as I did for many years, are denied access to their families. I have met shearers and other good Labor Government supporters who for lengthy periods of the year are also required to live away from their families. The younger ones woke up and overcame this problem by buying a caravan. Because their wives, and sometimes families, were young enough to be able to participate in their life, they travelled together from shed to shed. That was for their personal convenience but it was an excellent arrangement. They stayed in the bush on weekends and entertained themselves by fishing or doing something else with their families. Inevitably the single fellows went to town and the local hotelier-me-and the bookies shop next door got far too big a proportion of their wages. Why cannot our shipping industry look more and more--

Mr Hand —Did you ever give any back?

Mr TUCKEY —If the honourable member would listen for a minute on this occasion he might get some advice that is of interest to all, particularly the people he claims to represent. If we can improve the efficiency of our shipping industry, it might be a huge opportunity for people to gain respectable employment. That is what I think the Government is trying to tell us. We are well and truly aware that only 5 per cent of our exports are carried in Australian shipping. We ought to be a great maritime nation, but we must be sensible about why we are not. The Government is addressing the problems of capital cost-and we congratulate it-but there is nothing wrong with the member for O'Connor telling it where some of the other problems lie and how the unions, in particular, might overcome them.

The issue is: Why are we not thinking, and why are the unions not talking, about families going to sea? A ship is a very large object. The cabins should be designed so that people could spend the normal year at sea if their families were with them and their children were young enough. I recognise that when the kids have to go to high school, for example, the rules change. But if that is a way of keeping people at work and reducing the cost, it is worth considering. I am told that other nations do that sort of thing. Frequently there is a working arrangement under which both husband and wife have responsibilities on board. It was pointed out to me by this gentleman, a seafarer, that when that was tried on some of our ships, the stewards union demanded that it have more men on board because there were more people on board. That is silly. For a start, it should probably be the other way around. If the facilities were sensibly designed, there is every reason to believe that the families would eat in their own quarters and one member of the family would do the cooking. It is worth considering these things because they are still problems to be addressed. I wish we could look at these things in the interest of a better industry.

I refer to another aspect of the shipping industry. I represent a rural electorate. My constituents have only one question about shipping. They want to know how cheap they can get it. They want to know what is the best available price, because they are the people who have to pay the rates. They are the shippers, if you like. They are still not happy with the involvement of Australian shipping on the Australian coast. They badly want competition in that area, particularly since the Australian coastal trade has extended to Christmas Island, and such places where superphosphate rock is mined. They want world competition. They are well aware that the rates of nearly $30 a tonne that they are obliged to pay on rock phosphate could be as low as $11 a tonne in a depressed world shipping market.

There are other problems associated with our shipping industry that are affecting our opportunity to export in other areas. Mr Ralph Sarich, a well known inventor in Australia, was on a plane with me one night. He told me that his board had just concluded its investigation into whether to manufacture his revolutionary two-stroke motor-not his orbital motor-in Australia. When he and his board carried out that investigation they considered the whole manufacturing process, and believed they had a viable proposition. They got right through the whole process, until it came to the reliability of the Australian waterfront. The mere fact that they could not guarantee delivery of engines, and the consequential requirement to put large stocks of these motors in other countries so that they could meet the just-in-time assembly requirements of all production facilities today, meant that the interest cost on that money lying idle destroyed the project. On that day a decision had been taken to sell licences instead of manufacturing in Australia. That decision has since been published; I am not telling any secrets. Mr Sarich was heartbroken, because he is a real Australian. He wanted to spend that money and he was not able to do so. His company, his shareholders, are okay; they are getting the licence fees. But the jobs are going to Americans. That is a disaster. It is another aspect of the shipping industry.

As many of the fellows for whom we are trying to get jobs at sea seek to be away from home and family less, they will seek jobs as tug operators, pilots and things of that nature. They must realise that every time they stop freight leaving Australia they are stopping other Australians' job opportunities. I wanted to make that point. I ask the Minister whether he will explain to us why the maximum crew for an overseas ship is 21 and for a coastal trade ship 23. It would seem that the reverse would be more likely. We can only wonder what effect the monopoly that Australian ships have on the coastal trade has on that. In other words, it appears their negotiating ability has been reduced.

I refer to another aspect of the matter. The other day I raised in the Parliament the problems in my State for cray fishermen in getting adequate air space to export a very highly valued product overseas. I make this point again: We must always balance the value of the shipping industry or the airline industry against the value of the trade serviced. If we let, by way of legislation, one industry's interests outweigh the others, it is bad legislation. We would be better off with no ships at all. That would be a great pity because obviously we should have 50 times the ships that we have now. I give another example of a pipe manufacturing firm in my State that was operating three days a week about three or four years ago. The firm told me it had adequate contracts available through its Asian subsidiary companies, but the freight rates out of those Asian ports were so much more competitive than it could get from Australia that its more competitive factory in Australia could not compete in the Asian markets. It approached the shipping companies that were servicing it in Asia and said: `Look, if you will come to Australia at the same tonne per kilometre rates, we have a shipload of pipes for you'. Those companies said: `We do not go to Australia, friend. We would not be seen dead in Australia. We consider Australia a war zone'. The firm did not even want the companies to cut the rates on the longer journey. It was prepared to take those rates, as they would still have been competitive. It continued to operate three days a week when work was available for every day of the week. These are the sorts of questions we must address in this sort of legislation.

Finally, I refer to another matter related to shipping which is of concern to me, because a new ship has just entered the trade. Some people in a company called Arka Export-Import Ltd in Melbourne have a small ship, and are breaking into the Vietnamese market, sailing into Haiphong harbour. Unfortunately, the other day they attracted some business from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Apparently they contracted, in rather general terms-I gather that the Department did not ask for a proper quote, which might have resolved the problems that I now raise-to take five containers into Haiphong harbour. They have now asked the Government to pay $130,000 in freight charges for those five containers. The Government is outraged and has offered them $35,000. Someone must be wrong. The wrongness is that the proper procedures were not followed by the Department of Foreign Affairs in the beginning to make sure that the whole contract was tied up before the goods were loaded. Those goods have nearly reached their destination. The shipowner has told me that it will cost him $90,000 to unload them in Haiphong harbour. Apparently, the Vietnamese see foreign shipping as a substantial source of foreign exchange. If one wants to have one's ship unloaded in Haiphong harbour by a container crane, it will cost an amount of that order.

I cannot substantiate the figures, but the man has told me that he will have to outlay $90,000 to get the goods unloaded. On three occasions the Department of Foreign Affairs has sent him a cheque for $35,000 and has tried to bludgeon him into accepting it. It has taken court action against him. It has given him a hard time. That does not seem to me to be the way to treat a person entering the foreign shipping industry in Australia. Let us face it: I do not think he is seeking to profiteer. On the other hand, he has told me that the arrangements were not finalised, and that that is the account he is rendering. The Minister has already been given over a week to attend to this matter, so it is not as though I am trying to ambush the Department of Local Government and Administrative Services on this matter. I think the Minister is probably attempting to do something about it. But it is an indictment--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.