Sep 2, 2015

Transcript of press conference, Sydney

Subjects: Australian shipping industry; Bureaucrat’s advice to replace Australian flag with foreign flag

ANTHONY ALBANESE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORT:  Good morning. The Federal Government has introduced legislation that would decimate the Australian shipping industry. As an island continent, Australia depends upon having a strong shipping sector for reasons of our economy, our environment and also for national security reasons.

The legislation that is currently before the Parliament has been subject to a review by a Senate legislation committee. The submissions make interesting reading indeed. Every single one of the Australian shipping industry’s submissions, whether it be from the peak organisation, Maritime Industry Australia Limited, or from individual shippers, supports the current regime but suggests some changes or consistently opposes the proposals that have been brought forward before the Abbott Government.

National governments understand that it is in the national interest to have a shipping industry. That’s why in nations such as the United States, in order to do a freight task domestically from LA to San Francisco or anywhere else around the US coast, the ships have to be US flagged, they have to have US seafarers on board, and indeed, in the United States the ships actually have to be built in the United States.

Australia has a very open system indeed. But it’s one that provides for a preference if an Australian ship is available to be used, and secondly requires that for domestic work in Australia, Australian wages and conditions have to be observed. This legislation before the Parliament would remove any preference for Australian based ships, and secondly would allow for foreign wages to be paid on those ships which are competing with Australian flagged ships.

It’s no wonder that this has been characterised as WorkChoices on Water. No Australian industry could compete side by side with a foreign industry if they are allowed to pay foreign based wages.

If you want to take freight on the Hume Highway by truck from Sydney to Melbourne, you have to pay Australian based wages and conditions and you have to be on an Australian registered vehicle with the appropriate Australian safety standards.

If you decide to take that freight by ship rather than by road on the blue highway rather than the Hume Highway, you should also have to pay Australian wages and conditions on that route. It’s a very simple principle.

But the Abbott Government wants to support unilateral economic disarmament. It’s no wonder that it’s been condemned by submissions including from Intercontinental Shipping Group Chairman, Peter Cadwallader, who has said that as a 50-year member of the Liberal Party, he regards this as against the Liberal Party’s stated objective of supporting Australian jobs.

But the most significant submission is from North Star Cruises, from Bill Milby. He outlines his attendance at the launch of this policy on the 20th of May. It was launched at the Shipping Australia hosted event.

Shipping Australia is, in Orwellian speak, the ships that actually aren’t based in Australia but are foreign flagged. Mr Milby says in his submission that he attended the function, where he advised the Executive Director of the Department of Infrastructure and Transport and Regional Development that, and I quote “allowing foreign crewed passenger vessels into the Australian coastal expedition cruise sector would effectively result in our operation, as well as that of many other Australian coastal maritime operators being uncompetitive.”

The Executive Director’s advice to them was quite extraordinary.

“The Executive Director advised that we should consider taking our ship, True North, off the Australian shipping register, re-register the ship in a suitable foreign country, lay off our Australian crew, and hire a cheaper foreign crew.”

A quote from the Department, from people in charge of the implementation of this policy, to an Australian operator.

Then the operator chose to meet with the Department and actually flew to Canberra for a meeting on Tuesday the 16th of June. They put their case to the Department about the problems that would be created for this cruise company, which operates in the Kimberley in Western Australia.

They got told again, to “take True North off the Australian Shipping Register, register True North in a foreign country and reflag our ship True North with a foreign flag, then replace the Australian crew, apart from the captain and chief engineer, with foreign crew who would not be governed under the Australian labour laws and the Australian Fair Work Act. The foreign crew would also be trained in a foreign country, not Australia, saving money.”

When asked to justify this position, the bureaucrat said this “Australia is part of the international market and we have to compete with international operators”.

This is an absolutely extraordinary position. The Abbott Government wants to replace the Australian flag flying on the back of our ships with a white flag when it comes to Australian jobs. This is an outrageous piece of legislation that would destroy a vital Australian industry for our economy, our environment, and also for national security.

REPORTER: In regards to the Caltex issue in Tasmania, a Caltex spokesperson actually said similar to the bureaucrat you’re referring to that this is an issue where Caltex need to compete against hundreds of other shipping companies that are also paying foreign workers. How do you suggest that Australian companies compete if they’re not prepared to pay for foreign workers?

ALBANESE: We need to recognise that the wages component is a very small component in terms of the shipping costs. So the differential between the Australian based wages and foreign wages, when you look at the overall capital costs of a voyage, are not the major part of the costs.

The truth is though, that if you apply that logic, why wouldn’t you allow a Filipino truck operator to compete with Linfox and Toll on the Hume Highway with a Filipino registered truck, with the standards that are accepted in the Philippines but not here, in terms of safety and environmental considerations, and allow them to employ a Filipino truck driver paying Filipino truck wages and conditions?

There are costs to the national economy as a result of not having an Australian shipping industry. I’ll give you just one. The environmental cost of incidents such as the Pasha Bulker, the Shen Neng, the Pacific Adventurer, were all substantial for the Australian economy.

An Australian flagged ship has not been involved in any of the major incidents that have occurred off our coast. The Australian taxpayer, the Queensland taxpayer, and industry have borne the cost of those incidents. There is a reason why the Australian shipping industry is so well regarded internationally.

Because of the standards that we have, because of the skills of our workforce, and that’s why, when we sat down in developing the policy that the government is trying to remove, we sat down not just with the workforce through unions, but with employers, with peak organisations, with the Navy, with organisations including ports and others who are involved in the maritime sector.

If you lose an Australian based shipping industry, you lose those maritime skills that are so important for an island continent such as Australia. So yes, it is cheaper to employ someone on foreign wages than Australian wages. That’s the case across the board.

That would be the case if you had two construction sites next to each other and on one you’re allowed to pay third world wages and on one you pay Australian wages but guess what?

We in this country pride ourselves with the standards that we have, and it cannot be a race to the bottom. But that is what is being admitted by the Departments who are responsible for implementing this policy.

We’ve already seen a major cruise ship operator in Cairns take the Australian flag off their ship and put a foreign flag on, employ people on foreign wages rather than Australian wages, is what they would like to do, but they’ve done that in anticipation of these changes – in order to compete with those ships that will operate in terms of competitively with a foreign flag.

So all that we’re asking for, and all that Australian industry are asking for, is a genuinely level playing field. We do not have protection here in this country in terms of the Australian coast. There’s an important role for foreign ships around our coast. But they should compete on a level playing field with Australian industry otherwise the Australian industry themselves are saying that they will leave the Australian coast.

More importantly now, the people responsible for the implementation of the policy are quite extraordinarily advising Australian industry to sack Australian workers, employ foreign workers, remove the Australian flag, and put a foreign flag on the back of those ships. That is an extraordinary position to be in, in 2015.

REPORTER: With the next election coming up, with regards to this incident, particularly in Tasmania, will the topic of Australian jobs and protecting Australia’s own financial interest really in and amongst it?

ALBANESE: Australian jobs are vital. This is a government that has no plans for Australian jobs. In this case, they’re actually promoting a policy that will result directly in Australian based seafarers being replaced with foreign based seafarers being paid foreign based wages,  doing domestic freight tasks.

If you take that logic there, to other industries, then that is why this legislation must be defeated. The government will say this is about the unions. This isn’t unions making this submission. It is employers.

It’s Australian based industry that have invested their capital in having Australian ships operating on our coast. It is them who are saying so strongly that this is unacceptable legislation.

So I say listen to Maritime Industry Australia Limited, the peak organisation. Have a look at their submissions. They’ve made it very clear that this is ideology before common sense. Common sense tells you that you need to have an Australian based shipping industry if you’re an island continent. Thanks very much.