Seafarers and our ports deserve better

Published on Mon 13 February 2017 1:17pm

Make no mistake: if the government continues to inflict death by a thousand cuts on Australian coastal shipping, the economic, strategic and environmental consequences will be substantial.

Mr Wilson (1:17pm) — The stated intention of the Transport Security Amendment (Serious or Organised Crime) Bill 2016 is to make our ports and airports safer to the extent that it changes the approach to regulating the maritime security identity card and the aviation security identity card—the MSIC and ASIC—respectively.

It has to be said at the outset that it leaves many areas of safety and security regulation untouched, especially in relation to our seaports and other maritime infrastructure. There are also aspects of this bill that are not sufficiently clear, and there is a question mark over the potential for these changes to unfairly discriminate or otherwise prevent people who present no genuine security risk from working in our ports or airports.

I can say from experience that there are many workers in my community who are directly affected by these changes, to the extent that an MSIC is a prerequisite of their employment. At a time when employment conditions are difficult—and in Western Australia they are as bad as they have been in a quarter of a century—any change that affects a person’s opportunity to work should be approached with great care. I have assisted people both in the past and more recently who have had their MSIC renewal denied and were then forced to seek clarification or apply for administrative discretion. Needless to say, that presents a situation of enormous stress. Taken altogether, it is not clear whether this bill really serves the entire purpose intended or does so in the most effective way, or whether it strikes the right balance in making both administrative and security improvements while first ensuring that affected workers are not subject to some new and potentially capricious obstacle to work.

While this bill tinkers around the edges, we should keep in mind those areas of safety and security regulation that are not being made the focus of review and reform. It is disappointing that a number of serious matters of maritime security, in particular, continue to go unaddressed by this government or, in some cases, are positively undermined by the actions of this government—and I will come to that in due course.

Last year, there was a fairly rapid Senate inquiry into this bill as it existed in the 44th Parliament nearly a year ago. The report of the inquiry raised a number of issues in relation to the proposed law’s purpose, scope and effect. As other members have pointed out in the debate already, there is a very basic but important inconsistency between the way the National Ice Taskforce highlighted a need to focus on serious ‘and’ organised crime and the way this bill refers to serious ‘or’ organised crime. Clearly they are not the same. The common practice for law enforcement agencies is to use the criterion ‘serious and organised crime’, and that is the formulation in the relevant Senate report and in the submission from the Attorney-General. It is hard to see why that formulation would not prevail and, on that basis Labor, through the shadow minister, have indicated we will move amendments to correct this.

One of the reasons I am very happy to take part in this debate is that I represent an electorate that has both a seaport and an airport. It is well known that Fremantle is WA’s principle cargo port, through which passes virtually all of WA’s container trade, as well as bulk commodities such as petroleum, grain, alumina, iron ore, mineral sands and so on which pass through the outer harbour. In 2015-16, total port trade through Fremantle was 34.91 million mass tonnes, with a value of more than $26.1 billion. But, perhaps less well known, Jandakot Airport, a regional airport in my electorate, has at various times been the busiest airport in terms of flight movements not just in Australia but also, I think, in some years, in the Southern Hemisphere.

It has always been the case that seaports and airports are points of entry and access when it comes to the illegal importation of goods, including the importation of illegal drugs, and proper regulation of these areas—their physical and systemic security measures—and oversight of all personnel with access to ports, airports and seaports are critical to maintaining safety and security. In that context, it has to be recognised that these changes to MSIC and ASIC arrangements leave some of the most significant security risk areas untouched. In the first place, there are already parts of the maritime supply chain that are not covered by the MSIC requirements—for example, those working in container packing yards, or senior and middle managers in stevedoring or trucking companies. What is more, and what is worse, this government has actually pursued and implemented policies that increase the risk in Australian ports and at offshore maritime facilities by weakening Australian coastal shipping and by encouraging the use of foreign crews and flag-of-convenience shipping.

The cynical use and expansion of the temporary license provisions under the Navigation Act have inflicted significant damage on the viability of Australian owned and flagged ships and, therefore, on the employment opportunities for Australian seafarers. As we consider a bill that purports to strengthen the MSIC and ASIC screening arrangements, let us just remember that foreign holders of maritime crew visas are not subject to the same checks as apply to Australian workers that hold an MSIC. We have seen several examples in recent years of foreign flagged vessels that operate in flagrant disregard of basic workplace standards, and this creates safety and security and environmental risks. It really does not matter how robust the MSIC arrangements are if an increasing number of ships and workers are not covered by them and if, in future, we face the prospect of having no ships and workers covered by them because there are no Australian flagged and crewed vessels.

A strong coastal shipping industry is important to ensure the ongoing presence and capacity of Australian flagged vessels to serve our freight needs, to sustain maritime jobs and skills in this country and to give Australia a sufficient merchant marine capacity. Shipping is our link to the world. We are an island nation. Our economic and strategic engagement depends on shipping; our ports are the apertures through which our import and export lifeblood flows. Make no mistake: if the government continues to inflict death by a thousand cuts on Australian coastal shipping, the economic, strategic and environmental consequences will be substantial.

Beyond our own compelling national interests, we should not forget that Australian seafarers and port workers, through the Maritime Union of Australia and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, play an active role in fighting to secure fair and safe working conditions for people to go to sea or work in ports the world over. That is in keeping with our national character. That is something that Australians have always done. We are concerned not just about our own circumstances and about safety and security in our own country but more widely. That has been an incredibly honourable tradition and a great contribution by working men and women and their organisational representatives in this country. Seafarers have always been, and will continue to be, a class of worker that is especially vulnerable. Last October, for the second time in two months, the Australian Marine Safety Authority detained a foreign vessel for not paying its crew. The condition of the ship was disgusting; there was virtually no food on board. This sort of occurrence is becoming more common as the use of foreign ships increases and as Australian flagged and crewed coastal shipping is subject to further pressure, diminishing support and regulatory neglect. If it goes unaddressed, this trend will weaken both our economic sufficiency and our national security, and it will reduce our capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies in our region. As the shadow minister for infrastructure, the member for Grayndler, mentioned quite rightly, it is also likely that such changes will put us at greater risk of major environmental disaster.

It is also relevant in considering the security of our ports to question the blind haste with which these vital pieces of infrastructure are being sold off. Rod Sims, the Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has been openly critical of such asset sales, pointing out that, when states seek to maximise asset prices for ports, they are laying the ground for inevitable freight price increases, which in turn flow through the entire economy. State governments obviously have an interest in maximising those prices. I know in Western Australia there is a particular interest because the Barnett government wants to cover its quite considerable blushes in relation to nearly $40 billion worth of state debt. But it needs to be remembered that, if you max out those asset prices on sale, a private operator has to recoup those funds and it does so through freight prices—and freight prices flow into everything. Mr Sims has been particularly critical of the proposal that a private operator in Fremantle would be given the contractual opportunity to control the development of the outer harbour in future.

In an article from September, Kenneth Davidson listed a number of critical views from people with long experience of port operations. While deploring the sale of the port of Melbourne, former ports boss Michael Frydrych said:

I have always operated on the premise that ports are vital to the development of countries and should play a supporting role to the rest of the economy.

John Lines, the managing director of ANL, said in the same article:

We remain opposed to the privatisation of state-owned monopoly ports.

Port and other State asset privatisation are taxes by stealth which will be paid for decades to come.

That is an important point: they are taxes by stealth. You take a monopoly asset, you sell it into private hands, you get no competitive benefits and the pricing approach that a private operator takes in the interest of maximising profit, which is their primary interest, flows through into the general economy. It is a tax by stealth, and you cannot argue against taxes and the influence of taxes and give away private monopoly infrastructure when you know that that will be one of the economic consequences.

The reality is that the privatisation of Fremantle port, as part 2 or part 3 or part 5—it is hard to tell—of the crazy plan to create a privately operated toll road in the form of the so-called Perth Freight Link, would achieve the privatisation of our future in Fremantle and the south-metro region of Perth. Port assets and their landside links should be controlled, planned, delivered and adjusted over time in the broad public interest. When they are subject to the commercial interest of a private owner in the case of a privatised port or a private owner in the case of a privately operated toll road, we as citizens give away the opportunity to have those critical assets regulated and controlled in the broad interest. One of the things that people in Western Australia have not cottoned on to sufficiently is that, if we see the Perth Freight Link become a privately operated toll road, it will inevitably involve concession deeds as part of that contractual arrangement. Those concession deeds will be given so that the private operator of the toll road has confidence about its revenues into the future, and that will stop a future state government from being able to introduce public infrastructure of that kind.

The reality is that Australia’s strongest economic and strategic position is one in which our ports are administered and developed in the broad public interest, and that requires public ownership. It is a scenario in which coastal shipping should be supported and maintained as a vital transport capacity involving, more than anything else, Australian ships and Australian seafarers.

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