Mar 24, 2015

Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (13:06): I rise to oppose the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015. This legislation is an ill-thought out response to uncertainty in the shipping industry caused by a Federal Court decision.

The seafarers act establishes a privately underwritten workers compensation scheme, the Seacare scheme. This bill seeks to amend the legislation to clarify uncertainty relating to the scheme that was created by that Federal Court case. In that case, the court held that the Seafarers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 extended to cover all employees on all registered ships, if they were owned by an Australian trading corporation, an Australian financial corporation or a freight corporation no matter where they were trading or what business they were conducting.

The bill asserts that only seafarers engaged in interstate trade and commerce should be covered by the Seacare scheme. It is based on the view that the scheme should not apply to employees engaged on ships undertaking intrastate voyages who are covered by state and territory workers compensation and workplace health and safety arrangements. The bill also makes technical changes to ensure that where seafarers are covered by state or territory legislation their employers will not be liable to pay any levies to the Seacare scheme.

The opposition do not support this scheme because we are concerned that it will reduce protections for workers. The government claims that the proposed changes deliver on what it describes as a shared understanding of the effects of the existing legislation within the sector. However, there is no shared understanding. As the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Federal Court decisions indicate, it was never intended that the seafarers act should cover only a very limited group of seafarers. The passage of this bill would mean that some workers whose workers compensation and health and safety arrangements are covered by Seacare would instead be covered by state and territory arrangements.

The key reason I cannot support this bill is that some state and territory arrangements are weaker than those in place under Seacare. So this bill could mean that some workers will be worse off, and that is the bottom line and the concern that the opposition have. We do not trust those opposite when it comes to workers entitlements because we know that, at their heart, they support Work Choices and when it comes to the maritime sector, of course, they have a policy of supporting Work Choices on water, undermining conditions that have existed that are in the national interest.

It is curious that the government claims that this legislation represents a shared understanding of the seafarers act. A shared understanding is usually the result of shared deliberations, consultation and respectful debate, but as far as I know key employer and employee groups were not consulted over this legislation. It is typical of the way that this government respond on these sorts of issues. If the Federal Court and the AAT decisions have created uncertainty about the legal situation in relation to Seacare, those opposite should actually sit down and talk with those people who are affected. That is just good practice and common courtesy let alone good governance. But from those opposite, they seize any opportunity that there is to undermine existing working conditions.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development has made it clear on a number of occasions that he is opposed to the maritime reforms that were put in place by the former government. These reforms were comprehensive when it came to revitalising the Australian shipping industry. The act that was replaced, the Navigation Act 1912, gives a bit of a hint as to the problems that were there—100-year-old legislation with provisions that were out of date, many of which applied to the conditions available for people in the maritime sector. We had a parliamentary inquiry that was unanimous. We then had a consultative process with industry, unions, the sector—organisations like Shipping Australia, the Australian Shipowners Association and individual companies like Rio Tinto were all engaged in the process—as well as the full range of departments.

It came up with a comprehensive plan, essentially that a permit system would continue, requiring people who wanted to move goods domestically around our coast to first ask if an Australian ship was available to undertake such a task on a competitive basis. Not a protectionist model at all but one at least that acknowledged that there was an Australian shipping industry; and, where they cannot engage an Australian flagged vessel, a foreign flagged vessel could operate. But of course like other industries in the transport sector, it would have to pay Australian level wages—not an unreasonable request, one would have thought.

It had an international shipping register with tax breaks for Australian shippers and seafarers, and of course improved training opportunities for the maritime workforce—one of the first things that the government cut. This arose out of a workforce advisory group that made unanimous recommendations to the government. It included representatives of the shipping industry, the maritime unions, the Australian Navy and those who use the Australian shipping industry. It made recommendations about making sure that we had a skills base for the future. What did the new government do? When it came in that was one of the first things that it cut.

Yesterday, in this chamber we paid tribute to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. One of Malcolm Fraser’s great legacies is the Australian Maritime College in Launceston, a world renowned institution. Yet this government does not seem to understand the importance of those skills. The government goes back to talking about protectionism, but the truth is that our arrangements are amongst the most open in the world. There is certainly no country in the industrialised world that has more open arrangements than Australia. In the US, under the Jones Act, a ship carrying cargo around the domestic coast of the United States not only has to be US flagged and staffed by US mariners but also has to be built in the US. That is the protectionist model, not what was being implemented here.

And why is an Australian shipping industry in the national interest? Firstly, it is critical for our national economy when some 99 per cent of our exports are carried by ship. It means jobs for Australians and opportunities for business. Once an Australian shipping industry ceases to exist, which is the model those opposite seem to want, then of course costs will increase, because there will not be Australian competition in the sector. In terms of jobs, there are the skills that are required for Australian based shipping—people to be the harbour masters, run the ports and be engaged in the maritime sector on what is an island continent. Secondly, there is the environment. Having Australians onboard who understand our waters on the blue highway reduces the possibility of accidents such as the 2010 grounding of the Shen Neng 1, which tore a three-kilometre gash through the Great Barrier Reef. None of the major maritime accidents off our coast in recent years involved an Australian flagged vessel. Thirdly, there is national security. For those who talk about national security and border protection, the idea that we would not have any merchant fleet with the Australian flag on the back of it, on an island continent such as ours, flies in the face of the rhetoric of those opposite regarding border security. We know that the merchant fleet plays an important role in that area. Lastly, the interrelationship between the nation’s naval and merchant fleet is also very important in terms of skills and in terms of the national interest. That is why countries like the US intervene in the way that they do. They understand that connection.

The Minister for Infrastructure, the Deputy Prime Minister, wants to dismantle all the arrangements. On 8 October 2013 he told a PACSHIP conference:

To put it bluntly, there is no point in artificially propping up our coastal shipping industry if it is unable to compete – it will have an impact on the broader economy.

That is an extraordinary proposition for an Australian minister to make. And Australian based industry is not asking for any special favours. They are actually just asking for a level playing field. The idea that you can pay Third World wages on a ship going from Sydney to Melbourne and have Third World conditions is no different from the idea that you can do that on a truck going down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne, with all the consequences for safety and for the national interest that that would present. Yet for the government, somehow the blue highway is different from the bitumen highway.

Well, we on this side of the chamber will defend the fact that there is a national interest in having Australian workers on Australian ships with the Australian flag on the back. And this is nothing to do with their absurd proposition of bagging anything to do with the MUA. And it is not just the opposition saying this. Earlier this year the owner of Cairns based tourism venture Coral Princess Cruises, Tony Briggs, was forced to sell his business to foreign interests because he could not compete with a Bermuda flagged vessel that began operating in competition. He said that changes that this government had flagged would make matters worse and damage Australian businesses. Indeed, he said that they were already damaging Australian businesses because of the uncertainty that was being created. So, this legislation before the House is about uncertainty. They were prepared to undermine existing conditions of workers on the basis of uncertainty, but they are creating uncertainty throughout the industry. This is what Mr Briggs, a businessman based in Cairns, said:

There will never be another passenger ship built in Australia if there is no certainty on how we can operate. It’s exporting jobs.

Mr Briggs noted that foreign flagged vessels are at a huge advantage over Australian flagged vessels, because they are not bound by Australian regulations on wages, occupational health and safety or industrial relations. Mr Briggs also noted that ‘the main thing is they don’t have to pay tax’.

So, this is very much against the national interest. This is a government that is lazy when it comes to doing hard policy formulation. It falls back to its prejudices, whereby it has never seen a member of a union that it did not want to attack. And it does not understand that its role is actually to speak out and to legislate in the national interest. That is why we are urging members of this House to reject this legislation and tell the minister to go back to the drawing board—do some consultations and come back when you have a bill that addresses the issues rather than this minister’s ideology.