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Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Page: 14529


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (16:25): by leave—I support the remarks made by the chair of the treaties committee, the member for Hume. As he pointed out, the International Labour Organization's Maritime Labour Convention establishes minimum working conditions for seafarers working on ships. The Australian government ratified the convention in 2011 and it entered into force for Australia in 2013.

In April last year, a conference of the parties to the convention adopted a number of amendments obliging signatory flag states to provide financial support to seafarers abandoned by their shipowners and compensation for a seafarer's death or long-term disability while working for a shipowner. The Australian government must ensure that the required amendments to the Australian legislation are enacted by January 2017, and it has indicated that Australia will adopt the proposed treaty obligations in full.

I welcome this, particularly at a time when it could not be more precarious for seamen in this industry. Thankfully, the Senate rejected the Shipping Legislation Amendment Bill which would have allowed foreign flagged ships to pay Third World wages to undercut Australian flagged ships on domestic cargo trade. Had it passed, Australian shipowners, required by law to pay Australian-level wages, would have been forced to operate under a competitive disadvantage. Shipowners would have faced a very simple choice: reflag their vessels to remove the Australian flag and replace their Australian crews with cheap foreign labour or go out of business. Indeed, earlier this year, when Perth ship owner Bill Milby warned the government that the proposed changes would destroy his business, bureaucrats advised him that if he wanted to remain competitive he should sack his local crew and hire foreigners at lower rates of pay.

As an island nation, we have a greater interest in a viable local maritime sector than most other nations, yet there is only a handful of Australian flagged merchant ships left. In November it was reported that Fair Work Australia had ordered the MV Portland to sail from Portland to Singapore where it will be sold and the crew flown home redundant. The ship will be replaced by a foreign flagged ship with a foreign crew. Foreign crew members are routinely paid as little as $2 an hour. The ship's owner, Alcoa, was issued with a temporary coastal licence from the Australian government to allow this arrangement to go ahead. Alcoa decided to sell the MV Portland, which has spent the past 27 years hauling alumina from Western Australia to Alcoa's smelting plant at Portland. I believe it is highly preferable for local crews with local knowledge of shipping channels, not subject to fatigue or working under poorer work and safety standards, to be at the helm of ships working around our coast.

I also believe it should be the same for workers in the offshore oil and gas industry, where occupational health and safety should be paramount. Drilling for oil and gas in offshore waters creates an extremely hazardous environment in which to work. Back in 2006 the Howard government established as an industry regulator the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. This authority is poorly regarded by the workforce. Despite the hazardous nature of the industry, the legislation has not been improved or updated in any substantial respect. The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act does not align with the principal features of all other modern Australian health and safety regimes covering high-risk industries. Every person and entity with the capacity to control workplace safety should be thoroughly consulted and protected under comprehensive legislation.

The ACTU has urged the Australian government, the Council of Australian Governments and relevant authorities to embrace world's best practice for offshore occupational health and safety legislation by adopting specific provisions of the model act and harmonising OH&S laws governing offshore industries with those governing onshore industries. The ACTU believes, and I agree, that the existing OH&S laws which apply to Victorian and South Australian onshore industries should be extended to cover offshore operations. As the ACTU says:

… why is the safety of offshore oil and gas workers treated differently to their onshore colleagues?

The national interest would be best served by having an Australian shipping industry and offshore oil and gas industry that adheres to world's best practice, specifically when it comes to issues of decent wages and conditions and uniform and robust occupational health and safety laws.

We rely on shipping for 99 per cent of our trade, including an increasing amount of our petroleum supply. We cannot afford interruptions to this trade occasioned by reliance on foreign shipping. We need a maritime sector that calls Australia home. There is also the environmental interest. Shipping in Australian waters should maintain high environmental standards, especially in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef. Incidents such as the Shen Neng, which occurred in 2010 on the Great Barrier Reef, the Pacific Adventurer in 2009 off the Sunshine Coast and the China Steel Developer this year off Mackay underscore the risk to our natural assets. As an island nation, we have a greater interest in a viable local maritime sector than most other nations. I commend the report to the House.