Sep 3, 2015

Transcript of radio interview – ABC Sunshine Coast with Annie Gaffney

Subject/s: Bureaucrat’s advice to cruise company to replace Australian flag with foreign flag; China free trade agreement; Australian economy

ANNIE GAFFNEY: An Australian cruise company has been advised by a government bureaucrat in Minister Warren Truss’ Department to register its ships overseas so that it can hire cheaper crews.

You have to wonder what’s going on. The Prime Minister said that’s not true. The man at the centre of the controversy, Bill Milby said this last night on Channel 10 in response to the Prime Minister’s comments.

BILL MILBY, NORTH STAR CRUISES: If that’s what he’s saying, he’s basically calling me a liar. And I’d like to say to him I am not a liar, I do not lie. I know who I spoke with. I know what they said and it wasn’t just said once. It was said at two separate meetings.

We’re very concerned because it doesn’t just affect North Star Cruises, it will affect all of the Australian owned, and operated, and crewed ships around the Australian coast that do similar things to what we do.

GAFFNEY: Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, amongst his many other portfolios. Mr Albanese good morning, welcome to the coast. What can you tell us about the legislation underpinning this situation?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: The legislation does two things, Annie. First, it removes any preference for Australian ships as opposed to foreign ships in terms of doing a domestic freight task. So if you want to take freight from Brisbane to Sydney you have to check to see if there’s an Australian ship available to undertake that task.

This would remove any preference whatsoever for the Australian flag, but secondly and most importantly, it would also allow the foreign competitor to pay foreign wages and conditions. And that means, put simply, that the Australian industry would simply be unviable and would need to, as this bureaucrat has advised Mr Milby, replace the Australian flag, and in his words from the advice he was given, “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”.

What that has done is highlight exactly what the implications of this legislation are. Already, in anticipation of this legislation, the Coral Princess that operates in Far North Queensland has done just that – removed the Australian flag, become a foreign flagged vessel, and it’s extraordinary that any government would contemplate what is unilateral economic disarmament. No country in the world in terms of a G20 country behaves in this way.

GAFFNEY: The Prime Minister has said it’s untrue. Is it possible he’s unaware of the situation or the possible results for workers in this field?

ALBANESE: It’s possible he just doesn’t get it. One of the issues with shipping is that because it happens off our coast, then it’s sight unseen. We saw the Four Corners program expose basically the loss of life of three seafarers off our coast on a foreign vessel and the investigation that’s occurring into the death of those three seafarers.

So it’s possible that he doesn’t get it, but what he should understand is that if I wanted to take goods from Brisbane to Sydney via road down the Pacific Highway, I’d have to have an Australian truck, it would be registered here, and it would have Australian safety standards.

It would have an Australian truck driver with qualifications being paid Australian wages and conditions. Under this system, if people chose the blue highway, rather than the Pacific or the Bruce Highway, then it can be a free for all. It can be a foreign ship with foreign standards with foreign workers paying foreign wages.

That is quite an extraordinary proposition. No one would suggest that would be appropriate on our roads or on our rail system or in construction or anywhere else for that matter, and yet the government is essentially saying, this is fair game.

They tried it on earlier this year in aviation as well, where they wanted to remove cabotage, which is the term for Australian preference. They wanted to allow foreign airlines, paying foreign wages to compete with Qantas and Virgin in the north of Australia, which would have simply meant that those operators and the smaller operators as well such as Air North would have become unviable when trying to compete against foreign wages.

GAFFNEY: When is this legislation relating to shipping going to come into effect, and what’s Labor doing about it?

ALBANESE: The legislation is before the Parliament now. This submission from Mr Milby is consistent with all of the submissions from industry. There’s one from Peter Cadwallader, he’s the head of Intercontinental Shipping Group. He’s been a member of the Liberal Party for 50 years and points out how anti-jobs this proposal is.

Maritime Industry Australia Limited, which is the peak organisation for Australian shipping, has pointed out the flaws in this legislation and there will be a Senate legislative inquiry into the bills on Monday.

Really, this legislation should be scrapped. No one’s saying that the current system is perfect. If there are some measures that are needed, that are practical, then Labor and I’m sure, the crossbenchers would be prepared to consider them. But this is extraordinary legislation.

These are explosive allegations whereby Mr Milby, at a meeting at the launch of the policy on the 20th of May, raised his concerns and was told that by the bureaucrat.

He was shocked, so he organised a meeting in Canberra, travelled to Canberra, met with the Department of Infrastructure’s senior bureaucrats on the 16th of June and was given the same advice to essentially remove the Australian flag and put up a white flag when it comes to Australian jobs.

GAFFNEY: It’s sixteen to nine on ABC Sunshine Coast. I’m Annie Gaffney. My guest is the opposition spokesperson for infrastructure and transport, Anthony Albanese.

Mr Albanese, that brings us to the free trade agreement with China. The unions are very worried about workers and jobs for Australians. In light of this, and  with so many Labor Premiers and former leaders like Bob Hawke saying the deal should go ahead, can you explain the Federal Opposition’s position on this?

ALBANESE: We support free trade. We think there is a case for greater involvement with China – with what will be the world’s largest economy to our north and a very significant relationship with Australia, going back to the Whitlam Government as people have pointed out, which recognised China.

Labor has always recognised that we need to engage in our region. But what we’re saying is that the Government needs to make sure that everyone benefits from this free trade agreement. Labour market testing that currently occurs for 457 visas, if people want to use a foreign workforce rather than an Australian workforce; it has to be tested whether Australians are available to do that particular task.

What we’re saying is that Australians need to benefit. It’s as simple as that. We’re certainly not anti-free trade. Far from it. When in government, we advanced this agreement, but we will always look towards making sure it was in Australia’s national interest. We’re just calling upon the government to sit down and be cooperative and see if we can come up with solutions to the issue that have been raised.

GAFFNEY: Beyond jobs, I mean the ABC’s Fact Check unit has said the deal will threaten jobs. It’s a little bit hard to understand what exactly the position is. So what are some of the other sticking points for the Opposition on this?

ALBANESE: That certainly is the major sticking point – who benefits. Then there’s the issue of the ability of countries to, as a result of trade agreements, undermine the sovereignty of national government decisions. At the moment there’s a case against plain packaging laws, for example. We think that any agreement shouldn’t undermine the rights of sovereign states, such as Australia, or China for that matter, to make decisions such as that.

GAFFNEY: Why do you think, then, that so many Labor voices are chorusing at the moment for the deal to go through?

ALBANESE: What they’re saying, if you look at the detail, I don’t think there’s a great difference here. It’s nuanced. They’re saying at the end of the day, they want this deal to happen. We want this deal to happen to. We just want to make sure that it’s the right deal and that the details are looked at, not just given a tick without ensuring that Australians and Australian jobs will be enhanced as a result of this deal.

GAFFNEY: The CFMEU says there are lots of workers in Australia working illegally. We’ve also seen 7-Eleven breaching the rules and underpaying workers in some franchises, United Petroleum as well. Are we as a country able to afford the wages we pay workers?

ALBANESE: We have to, because we enjoy living standards that are part of our way of life. That’s the big issue here. It’s there with shipping; it’s there across a whole range of areas.

Do we as a nation compete in our region on the basis of our skills, our knowledge, providing high value jobs, which ensure that we have growing living standards into the future, or do we engage in a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and conditions?

Quite simply, we cannot compete on the basis of wages and conditions. We shouldn’t try to. That is the wrong approach – and those people who usually advocate that approach are people who are on exorbitant salaries themselves in the big end of town. Australians understand that they value our way of life.

They value the fact that we have a society which doesn’t have the same levels of inequality that you see in some other nations but the truth is in the last couple of years that inequality has grown. Living standards are falling. And this is a government that speaks about jobs and growth. Well, unemployment is growing and economic growth is declining.

GAFFNEY: Anthony Albanese, thanks for giving us so much time this morning.

ALBANESE: Great to talk to you.