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Thursday, 15 October 1970


Mr SINCLAIR (New England) (Minister for Shipping and Transport) - 1 move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to re-introduce the provisions inserted in the Navigation Act during the autumn session giving the Minister for Shipping and Transport powers to deal with ships and their cargoes in cases where there is pollution, or threat of pollution, of the Australian coast or coastal waters by oil. Honourable members will recall that in March this year an amendment was made to the Navigation Act as a matter of considerable urgency at a time when the tanker 'Oceanic Grandeur' had grounded in the Torres Strait and was menacing our northern coastline. The Bill was amended during its passage through Parliament to provide that its provisions ceased to have effect after a period of 6 months. That period expired on 18th September.

The Bill now before the House is in accordance with my undertaking at the time to review the provisions of the Act and to bring in legislation to ensure that to the maximum extent possible the powers which already existed in State legislation in relation to oil spillages would be permanently supplemented by such powers as could be vested in the Commonwealth. The debate on the previous Bill showed that honourable members fully endorse the need to provide the Minister with powers to take urgent and effective action to ensure there is no delay in the removal of a potential oil pollution hazard. They also agreed that the Commonwealth should be provided with authority to recover under its own right costs which it incurred in taking action to prevent the discharge of oil, or to reduce the effects of a spillage. I. would assure the House that in preparing this Bill very careful consideration has been given to all points of view put forward in the debate on the previous Bill, and to all subsequent representations. Where that consideration showed that a point had merit and could be adopted, appropriate provision has been made for its inclusion in the Bill.

The earlier Act had five main provisions. Firstly, it provided for the Minister to take action when he was satisfied that oil was escaping, or likely to escape, from a ship and cause pollution. Secondly, it empowered the Minister to require the owner, master or agent of a ship vo take whatever action appeared appropriate sa relation to the ship, or its cargo and failing action by such person the Minister could himself cause action to be taken. Furthermore any costs incurred by the Minister in taking action could be recovered from the person on whom the notice was served, and the Commonwealth's cost of cleaning up any oil that escaped from the ship by reason of the notice not having been complied with could also be recovered from the person on whom the notice was served. Penalties of up to $2,000 were applied in respect of each day on which a notice was not complied with and the oil continued to escape. The legislation applied to all vessels to which the Navigation Act applied, but it was specifically provided that the Act did not apply in relation to a foreign registered ship unless the ship was in Australian coastal waters.

As the present Bill, in the main, follows the pattern of the previous legislation, the principal provisions of which I have just outlined, I shall confine my further remarks to those aspects in which it varies from the earlier legislation. Perhaps the most significant change is that a general liability is now imposed on the owner of a loaded tanker to meet the Commonwealth's cost of cleaning up any spill that his vessel causes. This liability attaches whether or not a notice has been served on the shipowner and whether the oil escapes prior to or after any such notice has been issued. At the same time the tanker owner is given the same general defences, relating largely to acts of war, natural phenomenon and wrongful acts of a third party, as are . provided for in the 1969 Brussels Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage.

Under the earlier legislation no limitation was placed on the strict liability of a shipowner to meet the Commonwealth's costs of cleaning up after an oil spill. It has been put to me by shipowners that such a provision would load them with a risk against which they could not insure. In. the circumstances it has been decided to permit the owner of a loaded tanker, but not the owner of any other ship, to limit his liability to the same extent as is provided for in the Brussels Convention to which I have just referred. This is $120 a ton of the ship's tonnage with an overall limit of ยง12.6m. This overall limit would of course apply only in relation to the very largest tankers likely to visit Australian ports. As was the case in the earlier legislation strict liability is imposed on owners of vessels other than loaded tankers, for the consequences of them failing to comply with a notice and oil escaping as a result. However, in a prosecution or a Commonwealth claim for clean up costs, it will be a defence that their failure to comply with the notice was in order to save life at sea, or because it was not possible to comply with the notice.

The earlier legislation applied only to the so-called persistent oils. The laws of the various States dealing with pollution aspects, which this legislation supplements, all define oil to include the non-persistent oils. The Bill has been drawn so as to apply its provisions to all oils, including refined petroleum products. It was thought necessary to do this so that a notice could be issued on the owner of a vessel carrying non-persistent oils requiring him to take action in relation to the vessel or its cargo to prevent or reduce spillage, if the circumstances were such that the State legislation did not apply. It will be most unlikely that the Commonwealth would have to claim clean up costs in relation to non-persistent oils, as, by their very nature, they evaporate before cleaning up would be necessary.

Another area in which the Bill departs from the earlier legislation is in relation to the responsibilities of the master and agent of a ship. Formerly, both the master and agent could be issued with a notice and were faced with the possibility of prosecution for failing to comply with that notice. They could also be held liable in certain circumstances to meet the Commonwealth's cost of cleaning up after a spill. As the financial resources of both the master and agent would be soon exhausted in a case of serious pollution these provisions served little purpose and it has been decided to place full responsibility on the owner of the ship for these things. It will be possible, however, to serve a notice on the shipowner by serving it through the master or the agent of the ship. Having done this it is then possible to increase considerably the penalties for noncompliance with a notice, and to provide for penalties of a recurring nature to apply daily whether or not oil escapes from the ship on that particular day.

Other amendments made to the earlier legislation have been introduced mainly in the interests of precision and clarity and do not fundamentally affect the scheme of the legislation. The amendments have been found necessary in the light of practical application of the legislation. They serve to make the law a more effective and appropriate measure, and they take account of the various comments and representations that have been made to me, in relation to the subject matter of the Bill.

As I mentioned earlier, the legislation which this Bill replaces lapsed on 18th September and it is most desirable that this replacement legislation be enacted as early as possible. I might add that in fact no real deficiencies have been found in the legislation as it was initially drafted, but in its modified form I am sure that the additional measures included in it will be of substantial advantage in regard to the removal of risk of oil pollution. Australia could be faced with a serious pollution problem in the event of an accident to any of the numerous tankers which operate on our coasts. We were forcibly reminded of this possibility at the weekend when the tanker 'Edgewater' carrying 18,000 tons of heavy fuel oil grounded in the Tamar River in northern Tasmania. There was a distinct possibility of the vessel breaking up and causing serious pollution over the whole of the Tamar estuary. At the same time there seemed to be some reluctance on the part of interested parties to assume responsibility and to take positive and early action to prevent a discharge of oil. Fortunately the vessel was refloated without any loss of oil but the potential hazard existed for more than 24 hours. I commend the Bill to the House and trust that it will be given a speedy passage.

Debate (on motion by Mr Charles Jones) adjourned.







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