Nov 21, 2013

Abbott must rethink future of Workforce Forum – Opinion

In the complex area of maritime policy, any government worth its salt listens carefully to industry experts.

Industry input is particularly important when it comes to ensuring our nation produces workers with the right skills to crew our ships and run our ports.

This is because efficient ports are critical to the economic health of a trading nation like Australia, which relies on exports and moves 99 per cent of all of its products by sea.

That’s why I was shocked recently to hear that Tony Abbott had decided to scrap the Maritime Workforce Development Forum.

This decision is ill-advised and short-sighted.

The forum was specifically designed to advise government on workforce issues and its abolition risks preventing the creation of jobs and thereby damaging the economy.

A strong maritime sector is important for our economy, for national security and for our environment.

The Prime Minister should reconsider this decision.

Labor established the 11-member forum last year as part of a $12 million reform package to revitalise the maritime sector, which had been in decline after years of government inaction on regulation and skills training.

The forum included eight private sector representatives covering rail, ports, shipping, engineering and logistics as well as a representative of the Royal Australian Navy and two union representatives.

We asked the forum to advise us on how to deal with a skills shortage which had been driven partly by the ageing of the maritime workforce.

In May this year, the forum produced the first industry consensus on skills training in the nation’s history, a reform blueprint for a mandatory training standard applied on a national basis.

The emphasis was on productivity and jobs.

Our nation must have highly skilled seafarers to crew the national fleet and, over time, to fill critical roles such as port masters, pilots and marine safety inspectors.

And with 42 per cent of seafarers aged 51 years or over, it is vital we train the next generation of maritime workers.

But maritime reform is not just about jobs in ports.  Millions of people earn their living producing exports and they all have a stake in efficient ports.

Inefficient ports prevent the efficient flow of these exports and this, in turn, outs these jobs at risk or, at the very least, inhibits further job growth.

That’s why the industry participated enthusiastically in the Maritime Workforce Development Forum, realising we wanted their input into how to best address workforce issues and create a platform for the maritime sector to flourish in the future.

The industry was also keen to ensure the forum remained in place to oversee the implementation.

No government can ignore advice from industry experts about how to deliver on the industry’s skills needs.

And no government should reverse measures simply because they were initiatives of its predecessor.

In this case, the workforce forum was the vehicle for genuine consensus in this critical industry.

I urge the new government to utilise that vehicle for the good of the nation.

It is bad enough that Mr Abbott, who says he wants to be known as the infrastructure prime minister, appears not to understand the impacts of this decision.

But you would think that Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss, as the Leader of the Nationals, would want to do everything possible to lift the efficiency of ports on behalf of primary producers who earn their living selling their goods overseas.

For the sake of the industry, for the sake of exporters and for the health of the national economy, Mr Truss must press Mr Abbott to think again.


**An amended version of this article was published in The Australian today.**