This legislation is about replacing the Australian flag flying off the back of ships with the white flag on Australian jobs.
This is unilateral economic disarmament.
That’s why the Opposition will oppose it vigorously, fully confident that our position is completely in accord with the values of average Australians.
For an island continent, it is in Australia’s economic, environmental and security interests that we are a shipping nation.
That is why it is so surprising that the current Government has chosen to bring forward the Shipping Legislation Amendment Bill (2015).
This Bill, soaked as it is in ideology, sells out the national interest on each of these key counts.
It will allow overseas-flagged and crewed ships paying workers third world wages to undercut Australian operators on domestic trade routes.
It will destroy Australian jobs, damaging the economy.
It will increase the likelihood of maritime accidents in our coastal waters, threatening the environment.
And it will replace Australian mariners, who are subject to stringent background checks, with foreign workers whose backgrounds are not subject to the same scrutiny when it comes to security.
Jobs; the environment; national security – all basic requirements of good government – all thrown overboard by a Government blinded to the national interest by its hatred of the Maritime Union of Australia.
Make no mistake.
This legislation is bad for Australia.
It is the most obscene piece of legislation I have seen in this place since Work Choices.
Indeed, it can be described as Work Choices on Water.
When it comes to the maritime sector, Australia is open for business – but only to foreign-flagged vessels that pay their crews peanuts and put Australians out of work.
Under this legislation, if you are an Australian shipping company, your business interests are about to be sold out to the lowest bidder.
If you are an Australian mariner – a worker honestly going about your job – your job security is about to be terminated.
Terminated with extreme ideological prejudice.
This Bill is designed to repeal reforms of the former Labor Government implemented to create a level playing field in the domestic shipping sector.
The Labor reforms followed a parliamentary committee inquiry and months of consultation with all relevant stakeholders.
Using several pieces of legislation, including updating the century-old Navigation Act and creating the new Coastal Trading Act, the former Labor government sought to arrest a decline in the fortunes of Australian shipping by revitalising the sector.
Our changes included:
- The requirement that firms seeking to move freight between Australian ports first seek out an Australian operator;
- That when no Australian ship was available, foreign vessels could be used, provided they paid Australian-level wages on domestic sectors;
- A zero tax rate for Australian shipping companies;
- Creation of an Australian international shipping register to help grow our international fleet; and
- Creation of a Maritime Workforce Development Forum to improve training of seafarers and port workers.
The intent here was unambiguous.
Labor wants Australian shipping companies to get fair access to the domestic shipping industry.
We believe ships moving freight between Australian ports should be crewed by Australians wherever possible.
And where we do utilise foreign-flagged vessels to assist with the growing Australian shipping task, their crews should be paid Australian-level wages so as not to distort the market.
It gives a fair go to all industry participants – ship owners, people moving goods and mariners.
If you move freight by a train in this country, the train driver is paid Australian wages and operates under Australian workplace and safety laws.
If you move freight by road, say down the Hume Highway, the truck driver is paid in accordance with Australian standards.
And he or she must observe Australian safety standards with respect to the truck’s safety standards and the hours they spend driving without a rest.
That’s the Hume Highway.
Arrangements should be no different on the Blue Highway.
Ships, trucks and trains all move freight around this nation.
Labor’s position is very simple: if you work in Australia, you must be paid in accordance with Australian laws, including earning fair wages.
It’s a concept most Australians can understand and support.
But not those opposite.
They don’t want to see Australians working on our coastal routes because they believe it costs too much.
The Minister for Transport has attempted to justify this madness by claiming he is implementing economic reform because current arrangements are protectionist.
The bastion of free enterprise, the United States, does not allow any freight to be moved by sea between American ports unless the vessel involved was built in the United States, owned by Americans and crewed by American mariners.
Under the Jones Act, outsiders are excluded.
There is strong bi-partisan support for the Jones Act in the US.
In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama promised he could be counted on to support the Jones Act.
In 2006, Republication president George W Bush said:
It is important for presidents to embrace the Jones Act.
I have, for five-and-a-half years as the President, supported the Jones Act and will continue to do so.
Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan said:
I can assure you that a Reagan administration will not support legislation that would jeopardise this long-standing policy … or the jobs dependent on it.”
That’s three US presidents, including two Republicans – ideological soulmates of those opposite.
These men all understood that the maintenance of a US shipping industry was central to the America’s economic, environmental and national security interest.
Yet here in Australia, our Government, obsessed with attacking unions and eroding wages and conditions, is blind to the same imperatives.
This legislation commits this country to unilateral economic disarmament.
These provisions would set us apart from every other G20 nation.
The Shipping Legislation Amendment Bill (2015) focuses primarily of the former Government’s Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012.
It changes the Act’s name so it no longer refers to revitalising Australian shipping.
Instead, the objects of the Act will be narrowed to fostering a competitive shipping services industry that supports the Australian economy, and maximising available shipping capacity around the Australian coast.
There’s no mention there of maintaining an Australian shipping industry – only of delivering arrangements that reduce shipping costs.
The current object of “facilitating the long-term growth of the Australian shipping industry” is simply removed.
All of existing Part 4 of the Act – which creates the existing system of preference for Australian ships in the coastal trade – is repealed and replaced with a permit system with no preference.
Coastal trading permits will be available to foreign ships on the same basis as Australian ships.
They will be of twelve months’ duration, and transferable.
Foreign flagged vessels will not be required to pay Australian-level wages until they have spent 183 days in Australian waters.
These new arrangements do not subject non-Australian ships to Australian workplace standards.
They do include a requirement that overseas vessels employ an Australian citizen, resident or holder of a working visa in two senior roles – either master or chief mate, or either chief engineer of first engineer, will apply to foreign ships.
But again, that is only after 183 days on our coast.
You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see where this is likely to end up.
Overseas shipping companies will obtain permits, operate vessels on the Australian coast for up to 183 days and then replace them with other vessels so the 183-day clock can start all over again.
The Bill before us also proposes changes to the Shipping Registration Act 1981, in terms of the operation of the so-called second register.
The registration requirement for a collective agreement to be in place is removed, and a requirement to be predominately engaged in the international trade is reduced to at least 90 days in any year.
Ironically, this anti-worker bill was introduced to this House on June 25, the International Maritime Organisation’s annual Day of the Seafarer, which promotes careers at sea.
These provisions are not surprising.
The Minister for Transport was attacking and undermining Labor’s reforms before they even took effect.
His attacks on the legislation were calculated to create doubt in the mind of business as to the durability of the change and undermine investment.
He went out of his way to make clear the changes would be repealed by an incoming Coalition government and this white-anting discouraged the industry from working with the new system.
But for Labor’s reforms to work, they needed to be given time.
The time in which a business can make a decision to invest in infrastructure, such as having an Australian flagged vessel on the international trade routes, is significant.
You cannot make a decision one day and have a ship operating the next day.
Businesses have told me they wanted to reflag ships in Australia to take advantages of the incentives in Labor’s legislation.
Others contemplated increased investment in the local industry.
Indeed, after the former Labor Government’s shipping reforms took effect, Tasmanian shipping company Sea Road Holdings decided to invest $100 million in the first of two new cargo vessels, the first of which is due to begin operating on Bass Strait next year.
In a submission to the Senate committee examination of this legislation, Sea Road’s Michael Easy warned that the legislation before us could imperil this investment.
Mr Easy wrote that when seeking bank finance for its expansion, the company cited the strong support for investment in Australian shipping.
It is crucial to our funding arrangements, Tasmania’s future and Australia’s credibility on the world stage, that the legislation acknowledges that the current regime be preserved on Bass Strait.
So here we have very clear evidence that the current regime is working, despite the undermining of the current Minister for Transport.
This minister, having sabotaged and undermined the changes for nearly three years, has the gall to point to their alleged failure as evidence of the need for change.
This is a triumph of intellectual dishonesty.
Unbelievably, the Minister for Transport’s key criticism of current arrangements is that paying Australian seafarers Australian-level wages costs too much when you can simply open up the waterways to cheaper foreign competitors.
But if we follow this line of argument to its natural conclusion, we might as well replace all of the Australian workforce throughout the economy with foreign workers paid foreign wages.
That is the kind of madness we are dealing with here.
The role of government is to balance competing interests in the national interest.
In this case, it should mean doing everything possible to minimise shipping costs while ALSO supporting the survival of an Australian maritime industry in recognition of the broader national interests served by its existence.
That’s Labor’s approach.
But this minister behaves as though the Australian shipping industry and the people who work in it have no inherent value.
To him, Australian shipping is just an expendable line item in some other industry’s balance sheet.
This is an incredible rejection of the national interest, an astounding abandonment of any ambition for this nation.
Here we are, an island nation that relies on the maritime sector to move 99 per cent of its exports, and this minister can’t see any value in maintaining an Australian domestic fleet.
It’s no wonder that twice in the past 12 months the Minister has received a warm welcome when giving speeches at Orwellian named Shipping Australia, the representative of foreign ships, where he has attacked Labor’s common sense reforms as a sop to trade unions.
I use the term Orwellian with respect to Shipping Australia because it actually represents foreign shipping interests.
After the minister announced his plans for this legislation to Shipping Australia in May, the organisation released a statement which declared these changes would be of great benefit to primary producers and manufacturers who wanted reduced costs.
Shipping Australia had absolutely nothing to say about what the changes would mean for the Australian shipping industry.
WORKCHOICES ON WATER
It is within Australia’s economic interests to retain a vibrant Australian shipping industry.
Thousands of jobs are involved.
That’s thousands of people who pay tax and who contribute to the broader health of the economy as consumers fuelling economic activity.
Thousands of people who rely on their wages to raise their families and put food on the table.
Then there are the Australian businesspeople who have taken the risk to start shipping companies.
They are also at risk, not because they are inefficient, but simply because those opposite place no value on their existence.
The minister has claimed the changes will strengthen shipping in this country.
That’s not right.
And importantly, it is not what the government is telling employers.
Take for example, the advice given to North Star Cruises representative Bill Milby by a senior official in the Department of Infrastructure and Regional development.
Mr Milby’s company operates cruises in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
It offers foreign visitors a uniquely Australian experience – beautiful scenery and top notch service from an Australian crew.
In a submission to Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs Committee inquiry into this legislation, Mr Milby wrote that when he attended the minister’s speech announcing this legislation back on May 20, he raised a question from the floor asking the minister to consider the damaging effect of the changes on his business.
The minister said there would be no effect.
Mr Milby then approached departmental official Judith Zielke, who was with the minister, who told him that if he wanted to remain competitive under the new regime he should re-register his vessel overseas, sack his 50 Australian staff and replace them with cheap foreign labour.
Mr Milby followed up with another meeting with Ms Zielke and also Michael Sutton in Canberra few weeks later, where he received identical advice.
After Mr Milby made this information public in a submission to the Senate committee examining this legislation, the Member for Warringah, who was at that time the Prime Minister, questioned Mr Milby’s integrity by claiming this advice was never given.
But in a September 7 public hearing of the Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs committee, Mr Milby repeated his evidence on oath and Ms Zielke and Mr Sutton confirmed his version of events.
Despite this, the Member for Warringah and the Minister for Transport refused to apologise, even after they had heard Mr Milby say publicly he took exception to being declared a liar by our national leaders.
Departmental briefing papers delivered to the Senate during the previous sitting fortnight again confirmed that this advice was given.
This government is not only driven by ideology on shipping; it is also happy to trample the reputation of anyone standing in the way.
The facts here are simple: Mr Milby was given two options.
Option one: Move offshore, sack your Australian staff and hire foreigners.
Go out of business.
Perhaps the Member for Warringah’s treatment of Mr Milby contributed to his stunning downfall.
His successor would be well served to scrap this legislation.
He should also give Mr Milby a call to apologise for his treatment and seriously consider his arguments and those of the many other Australians businesses who face hardship and ruin under this legislation.
The best thing the Prime Minister could do is dump this flawed legislation and go back to the drawing board.
Almost a fortnight ago, I wrote to the new Prime Minister suggesting he do just that.
The fact that I am speaking now on this Bill means that the leadership change has not changed the Government’s policy on destroying Australian shipping.
Under this legislation, the only option for Australian shipping operators who want to be able to compete against foreign shipping companies is to effectively become a foreign company.
Just sack your staff, hire foreigners and pay them peanuts and everything will be OK.
Our nation is better than this.
Our people are better than this.
But they are being led by a government that puts ideology ahead of their job security.
What’s next? Truck drivers?
Imagine if the Government suddenly decided to allow open slather in the road transport industry, with operators from across the world welcome to travel on our roads and not required to observe our road rules or regulations about how long they can drive without taking a rest.
That wouldn’t happen on our roads.
It’s too absurd for words.
Yet that is exactly what is proposed for the maritime sector in this legislation.
While Mr Milby outlined what looks to him like a very dismal future for his company, other operators have already seen the writing on the wall.
In January, Tony Briggs, head of the Cairns-based Coral Princess Cruises said he was selling out to foreign interests because he could not compete with a Bermuda flagged vessel that began operating in competition.
Mr Briggs told the Cairns Post that the changes that are before us would make matters worse and damage Australian businesses.
Mr Briggs’s assessment of the government’s reform plans was pretty simple.
He described them as ‘stupid’.
There will never be another passenger ship built in Australia if there is no certainty on how we can operate.
It’s exporting jobs.
I note that the Minister for Transport claims this Bill is about reducing red tape.
This is not true.
The explanatory memorandum attached to the legislation says 88 percent of the economic benefit the changes will deliver will come from reduced labour costs.
This has nothing to do with red tape.
It has everything to do with getting rid of Australian vessels so they can be replaced by foreigners paying low wages.
Beyond the Government’s desire to sacrifice Australian jobs for lower labour costs for its mates, there lies a particularly ugly motivation behind its actions.
Let’s face it.
They hate the Maritime Union of Australia.
There are people on that side of the House who have made their careers attacking the MUA and the union movement generally.
No doubt they see this legislation as the thin edge of the wedge for a new attempt to impose Work Choices style legislation on this country.
It’s one thing to export jobs.
But let’s consider the record of foreign-flagged vessels in this nation when it comes to maritime safety.
We can’t underestimate the importance of maintaining our clean and green coastal environment to our tourism industry, which employs more than one million Australians.
Since 2004, Australian inspectors have detained 122 foreign flagged oil tankers because they were overloaded or had defective equipment or serious deterioration in their hulls which was judged to be a risk to their seaworthiness.
In the same period, they detained no Australian flagged oil tankers.
Indeed, if you consider some of the major maritime accidents that have occurred around our coasts in recent years, it’s notable that they all involved foreign-flagged vessels not observing Australian safety standards on issues like the length of shifts and crewing levels.
In June, 2007, the Pasha Bulker ran aground on Nobbys beach at Newcastle.
It was flying the flag of Panama and its crew was made up of mariners from The Philippines and Korea.
The subsequent investigation raised concerns about the ship’s Master’s failure to take on ballast and his failure to weigh anchor and move offshore before winds associated with the storm reached gale force.
In 2009, as Cyclone Hamish approached the Queensland coast, a vessel called Pacific Adventurer began losing shipping containers overboard in very heavy seas.
One or more of those containers pierced the hull of the vessel as it tumbled into the water.
The result was a 60km long oil slick that hit the beaches of the prime tourism region of the Sunshine Coast, resulting in a clean-up bill of $34 million.
About a year later, Chinese registered bulk carrier the Shen Neng I ran aground off Rockhampton.
The vessel was 10 kilometres away from normal shipping lanes.
It gouged a hole in the Great Barrier Reef 3km long and 250 metres wide—the equivalent of about 58 football fields.
It created an oil slick more than 3km long.
There was no Australian pilot on board this vessel.
There should have been.
As Transport Minister at the time, I flew over the site on an Australian Maritime Safety Authority aircraft.
It was clear what had happened.
I could see from the air the channel through which the ship was supposed to pass.
But the ship failed to turn.
The mariner in charge had had little sleep because he was operating under Third World industrial conditions.
He was later sentenced to 18 months in jail for his negligence.
Australian vessels are crewed by Australians who are obliged to observe Australian safety rules and are intimately familiar with our coasts.
They are also alive to the fundamental importance of tourism to our economy.
I urge those opposite, just for a moment, put aside your dislike of unions and think hard about what is at stake here.
The Great Barrier Reef is this nation’s No. 1 drawcard for tourists, particularly from the booming Chinese market.
Tourism related to the reef earns this nation $5.7 billion every year. It supports 65,000 jobs.
The reef, of course, is about the size of Italy, so it supports those regional cities and towns along the Queensland coast, be it Cairns, Townsville or right down to Gladstone, where Heron Island is such an important part of the tourist industry in that Central Queensland region.
And it’s not just the reef.
Right around coastal Australia, job-generating tourism depends on a clean environment.
Australian mariners also have a critical role in protecting our national security.
They understand the location and importance of coastal facilities that could be subject to terrorist attack.
And because they are familiar with what goes on around our coasts, they are more likely to notice when something fishy is going on than, for example, a sleep-deprived Filipino seaman who has never stepped on Australian soil.
In June, the ABC’s Four Corners program highlighted the security implications of a coastal free-for-all.
The program concerned activities aboard the Sage Sagittarius, a coal freighter operating between Australia and Japan.
The vessel’s Japanese owners register the ship in Panama to minimize wage bills, even though their key business is hauling coal from Australia to Japan.
The Four Corners report contained allegations that three men were killed aboard the ship – one of disappearing overboard; another attacked before falling 12m to his death and another whose body was crushed in machinery.
Investigations are ongoing so I make no comment on those allegations.
However, I do note that while Australian mariners undergo stringent background checks before going to sea, checks on overseas mariners are cursory at best.
That’s not good enough.
We have a government that will bang the national security drum until the cows come home each and every day.
Yet if the issue of national security happens to cut across its ideological pre-occupation with attacking unions and undermining wages and conditions, it is suddenly not so important.
I note that on 17 July The Australian reported that the head of the Government’s Border Protection Command, Rear Admiral Michael Noonan, gave a blunt assessment of foreign-flagged vessels.
Rear Admiral Noonan, who ought to know something about what happens on the high seas, was reported as having said:
Vessels that flew flags of convenience flouted safety and employment standards and posed risks to revenue, trade and environmental hazards.
That’s a common sense and informed observation from someone with no political motivation, who is trained to look at the world from the perspective to Australia’s national interests.
Let me end where I began.
Australians are entitled to expect their governments to put the national interest above all else.
This legislation abandons Australia’s economic, environmental and security interests.
We on this side of the House are all in favour of reform that makes our nation more efficient.
We can even reluctantly accept reforms that are at odds with our political and policy instincts if we can see that change is motivated by good intentions.
But the changes before us are motivated by hatred of workers and a bewildering preparedness on behalf of those opposite to put people out of work simply to reduce costs for business.
There is no suggestion that Australian ships are inefficient or not up to the task of domestic trade.
It’s just that those opposite are prepared to turn their backs on the local industry because it pays mariners a living wage – something that they find unacceptable.
All of us here want to reduce costs for business.
But not at any cost.
Not at the cost of the destruction of an industry.
Labor will oppose this Bill.
My advice to those opposite is that they can do better than this.
We want to see the Australian flag flying off the back of trading vessels around the Australian coast and, indeed, right around the world.
But this legislation raises the white flag on the continued existence of an Australian maritime sector.
Instead of indulging yet another round of ideologically driven axe-grinding from the policy-free zone known as the National Party, the Government should back off and allow Labor’s reforms a fair chance to work.