Where there is confusion or doubt on whether the legislation accurately reflects the intentions of the parliament, we must make whatever changes are necessary to clarify the collective will of this parliament. Indeed, we should always ensure that parliament provides the community with certainty in the law.
However, while we’re considering this important issue, we should also reflect on our responsibility to provide certainty over the existence of an Australian shipping industry and certainty as to the jobs that Australians rely upon. For the past five years, this government has undermined Australian shipping, seeking to expose it to unfair competition in coastal trade from foreign-flagged vessels paying their crews third-world wages. This has created five years of uncertainty for the Australian shipping industry and Australian seafarers.
Labor will always support changes that enhance Australian shipping, create jobs or, as is the case today, amend legislation to clarify legal ambiguities. But what we won’t do is undermine Australian industry and undermine Australian jobs. Put simply, those opposite want to replace the Australian flag on the back of Australian ships with the white flag of surrender when it comes to Australian jobs. That is the wrong approach. We should be nurturing the Australian shipping industry. We should be promoting job creation and job security. That’s the principle behind the amendment that I will now move. I move:
That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(a) despite the Government’s repeated claims, its proposed changes to coastal shipping legislation are all about eliminating Australian jobs, and ultimately the entire domestic industry; and
(b) during this Government’s period in office, 12 previously Australian-flagged vessels have been reflagged to foreign States; and
(a) it is in the national interest to ensure a level playing field between foreign and domestic shipping operators; and
(b) Australia’s vital economic, environmental and national security interests are best served when there is a viable, competitive and growing local shipping industry”.
Can I outline the context of this legislation that’s before the House today? The Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012 and the Navigation Act 2012 give AMSA the ability to make what are known as marine orders. Marine orders are designed to be legislative instruments allowing AMSA, as the regulator, to keep pace with developments in a rapidly changing industry. Essentially, the idea is that these regulations can be changed at periods of time in order to ensure that the appropriate regulatory regime is kept up-to-date and that there is certainty and consistency. Indeed, when the Navigation Act 2012 was introduced, it replaced the Navigation Act 1912—for 100 years we’d sat on that legislation. It took a Labor government to modernise the legislation that covered Australian shipping.
Marine orders are generally practical in their nature. For example, marine order 15 relates to fire protection for ships. Marine order 17 concerns regulations for carrying dangerous liquids. The original intention of marine orders, as defined in the Navigation Act 2012, was that they would be legally enforceable and, particularly, would include a provision for penalties for noncompliance. However, the government has lately faced some legal questions concerning the enforcement of marine orders. This legislation clarifies the situation by giving marine orders the status of regulations, as was the original intention. The amendment to the Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012 inserts a definition for ‘regulations’ that includes marine orders, with relevant exceptions. The amendment to the Navigation Act 2012 makes the same change. Labor supports these changes. There’s no room for legal ambiguity over issues such as the ones that I raise: fire protection and the carriage of dangerous liquids. These are not issues of partisan disagreement; they are issues of common sense. As the national regulator, AMSA does a very good job in this regard.
The parliament should also provide clarity over the security of the Australian coastal shipping industry, because the existence of this sector is fundamental to our national interest, given that we are an island continent. Yet, from the moment the coalition took office, and indeed before that, they have sought to undermine the industry. They want to cut costs, without any regard to whether that cost cutting is actually real. It is so dedicated to undermining the people who work in the Australian industry who happen to be members of trade unions that their solution to eliminating members of the maritime sector who are trade unionists is to eliminate the jobs that exist. That’s their plan. No maritime sector? No Maritime Union of Australia. This is the logical conclusion of anyone who actually looks at the legislation that’s been put forward by the government opposite. Tragically, it has been the National Party that has been in charge of this—the National Party, the party whose name implies standing up for the national interest, the party which historically arose out of an approach, in part, to protectionism and regulation of Australian industry.
Now, we don’t say that there should be a protectionist model in the Australian shipping industry. We don’t go the way that many countries have gone—for example, the United States with the Jones Act, where, if you want to take goods from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you have to have a US flagged ship built in the US and with US seafarers on it. It is a completely closed system for their coastal shipping. Indeed, Australia has one of the most open systems in the world. But what we don’t support is the idea that an Australian flagged ship should have to compete with a foreign flagged ship with fewer regulations, less maintenance and less wages, because we know that that isn’t a level playing field. That’s why the 2012 reforms sought to genuinely have a level playing field through a range of measures, including taxation measures, so that the cost differential between a ship that was flagged in a Third World country or a country like Singapore that has a zero rate of taxation would not be at an advantage over an Australian ship.
The fact is that the changes that were sought in 2015 were about eliminating the Australian shipping industry. It actually said it in the regulatory impact statement, where it said that 93 per cent of the savings that were estimated to result from that legislation were a direct result of the difference between Australian wages and foreign wages. It also said that it anticipated that the Australian flag would be removed from ships and be replaced by foreign flags. We saw that in really practical and specific terms as the debate went on.
Perth businessman Bill Milby of North Star Cruises came to a seminar. In all of the seminars and launches of this policy the big hint was where the National Party ministers launched the policy. They launched it at events hosted by the foreign shippers. It was a bit of a hint. It’s a bit like when Pauline Hanson moves a resolution on race: you kind of know where that’s going. So you launch a policy that you say is about the Australian shipping industry and you launch it at an event hosted by foreign shippers—and, of course, foreign shippers are called Shipping Australia. That’s what the foreign shipping organisation is called, because they know that it’s untenable not to be seen to be supporting Australian shipping, because most Australians would think it’s just a bit of common sense to have an Australian shipping industry as we are an island continent.
Bill Milby, a quite successful businessman and owner of North Star Cruises, goes along to this forum. He’s listening to what these reforms are and he’s a smart fellow. This business has been operating up around the Kimberley very successfully. It has been employing Australians and bringing dollars into the Australian economy from international visitors who, as Mr Milby says, actually want to hear an Australian accent while they’re travelling around the pristine areas of the Kimberley and northern Australia. He has provided employment for crew, for cooks and for all the people who work for his company.
He goes up to the deputy secretary of the department and says: ‘I can’t see how, if these changes come in, I can compete. How can I possibly compete?’ and he is told, ‘Well, this is how you compete: you replace the Australian flag on the back of your vessels with a foreign flag and you replace your Australian staff with staff from the Philippines or some other nation. That’s how you compete.’ That’s what he was told. He gave this evidence at the Senate committee into the legislation. He has said this outside of parliament as well. We know it’s true because the legislation said it was in the regulatory impact statement. Quite extraordinary. Here we had an Australian government proposing legislation and providing advice to businesses that was specifically designed to put Australians out of work. In more than two decades in this place, I’ve never seen such a flagrant betrayal of the national interest by representatives in this chamber.
But the fact is that crossbench senators wouldn’t have a bar of it. They put the national interest first. Former Senator Nick Xenophon, when I went to see him about the legislation, said, ‘Well, I always vote for second readings.’ In general, the crossbench has had a view that you vote for the second reading—not the amendments; the second reading—because it allows for further debate. It may well be that there are amendments that make legislation acceptable. But what happened with this legislation is it didn’t even get a second reading. That’s how bad it was. That doesn’t happen too often in the Senate. I’ve dealt with a range of legislation in my portfolio, and it’s the only time I can remember that they just said, ‘No, go away; this is absurd.’
Just last month there was another tranche of legislation debated here in the House of Representatives. They came back. We had Minister Truss introduce the first legislation. Then we had Minister Chester introduce the second bit of legislation. We had Minister Joyce sit on the legislation. Then we had Minister Cormack. It’s a revolving door. This mob speak about the parliament. I’d like to be able to say to the House that I, as shadow minister, am the best shadow minister there’s ever been because I knock over a minister every few months. But I can’t, in all honesty, say that this isn’t self-inflicted as much as anything else. The fact is that last month we had debate on the latest tranche of legislation, maritime legislation from 2016. It took from 2016 to 2018 to get a second reading debate in this place. They’ll go through another four ministers before it gets to the Senate. It’s just extraordinary. The fact is, in spite of the government saying that they’ll consult with Labor about shipping legislation, they essentially haven’t sought to get any bipartisanship—you have one meeting, then the next time there’s a new minister. Maritime Industry Australia Limited, MIAL, the peak industry body, a bunch of businessmen involved in an industry, regard the government as having treated them with contempt, because the consultation for the new legislation was all with the foreign shippers rather than with them as well.
Why do we need a shipping industry? Firstly, of course, it’s clearly in our national economic interest. We are a maritime nation. Most of our exports and imports, close to 99 per cent of them, come and leave via our coast on ships. We rely on the maritime sector to train the people who become harbour masters and run our ports. It is essential for our national economy that those skills be maintained.
Secondly, there is the issue of our environment. We know that every time a major incident has occurred—Shen Neng;Pacific Adventurer—they have something in common: there’s a foreign flag on the back of the ship. People aren’t as familiar with our coastlines, with the pristine nature of our reefs. The accidents that have occurred have caused great damage, but the potential is there for a catastrophic event that would have enormous impact on our national economy.
The third reason is national security. There’s a direct link between the defence industry and our merchant fleet. That’s why, when we established an organisation to look at the maritime workforce development, we had the Navy represented on it. It was chaired by a former Public Service Commissioner. We had the Navy, we had the Australian shipping industry, we had the Maritime Union of Australia, we had the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers and we had the Australian Maritime College down at Launceston. They all came up with a plan for workforce development, a common interest. They had funding of just $5 million from the government to make this plan work. What did this government do when they came to office? They scrapped it. They took the $5 million and scrapped the plan. The fact is that there is a direct link, and, in times of conflict, the merchant fleet has suffered great losses—during World War II, for example.
When this government speak about national security, when they speak about us stopping boats, we didn’t think that meant stopping ships with an Australian flag on the back, but that’s precisely what they’ve done. They’ve done it through abuse of the existing regulations. Take, for example, the Portland.The Portland operated from Portland in Victoria, where the refinery is, picking up the natural resources from over in Western Australia and essentially going to and fro with the natural resources, down to Portland and back again. There was nothing temporary about it. It was a permanent, two-destination voyage that had operated for many years. Yet this government allowed it to be replaced with a foreign-flagged vessel with a foreign crew. The government said that the journey and those regional jobs based in regional Victoria could be replaced by jobs offshore in the Philippines and other destinations. Somehow that was temporary. It’s just a complete abuse of the legislation; it’s an outrageous indictment of the government’s failure to implement what is the law. Yet the government, of course, were completely determined to do that, because they don’t seem to understand the synergy which is there between our naval and our merchant fleets.
Our Australian seafarers undergo very stringent background checks. They have to have an MSIC. Foreign seafarers don’t have MSICs, but they operate in our ports and in our harbours. The government should think about where ships are, what they have on board and the potential issue for national security that this represents if the proper checks aren’t made. I say to the government: don’t say that you didn’t know about it if there is an incident. Don’t say it, because this is called Hansard,and I’m saying in it that there are national security interests in Australia having an Australian fleet operating around our coasts. And don’t say that you don’t understand the economic reasons for why we need an Australian shipping industry. Don’t say that you’re not aware of the Pasha Bulker, the Shandong Hai Wang, the Pacific Adventurer and, in New Zealand, the Rena, which I flew over with the New Zealand transport minister. Essentially, that incident had an enormously damaging impact on the environment and also on the economy of the region around Auckland and the north coast of the North Island of New Zealand.
The fact is that Labor does understand the importance of the shipping sector and the need to provide Australian seafarers with secure work. In government we created the Australian International Shipping Register, allowing operators of Australian-flagged vessels to employ mixed Australian and foreign crews on internationally agreed rates and conditions. We enacted the first major rewrite of the nation’s maritime laws. That was consistent with the other work that we did on the National Ports Strategy. We made sure that the oil companies pay for any and all damage their ships may cause. We had to fix legislation to fix that. We replaced the myriad laws that operated separately from state to state with just one national regulator administering one set of modern nationwide laws.
By contrast, the coalition have completely undermined the Australian shipping industry. As I said at the outset, I’m all for certainty in legislation, but I’m also an advocate for job certainty for Australian seafarers and investment certainty for the Australian shipping industry. It is in Australia’s economic, environmental and national security interests to maintain a vibrant Australian shipping industry. It is also the case—to give a comparison that I think is appropriate—that, if you want to take freight from Sydney to Melbourne down the highway, you use a truck that’s registered in Australia; you have a truck driver with an Australian licence; and you are obligated to pay Australian wages. If you take those same goods down the blue highway, which is free from Sydney to Melbourne, you can have a foreign-flagged ship with foreign wages and foreign conditions, regardless.
What that does as well, as the Australian rail industry has pointed out, is to distort the market across transport modes towards foreign ships. That’s over Australian jobs in the rail sector, in particular, but also in the roads sector. That’s a distortion that, again, undermines Australian conditions and wages.
If we’re going to compete in the Asian century, we can’t compete on the basis of how low we can drive our wages. We need to compete on the basis of how smart we are, how innovative we are, how creative we are as a nation—creating the jobs of the future. This government doesn’t seem to understand that. In spite of the Reserve Bank saying that wages being reduced in real terms is a problem for the national economy, in areas like this what we see is that they have contempt for Australian industrial conditions. There should be no difference between the blue highway and the Hume Highway. It’s a very simple principle of operation.
The fact is that those opposite do want to replace the Australian flag on the back of Australian ships employing Australian seafarers with the white flag of surrender when it comes to Australian jobs, and it is much to their shame that they remain determined to pursue this course after five years of destructive attitudes towards Australian shipping.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.