ABC: Senate Inquiry Told Foreign Flagged Ships Could Pose Terror Risk

Below is the Transcript from Friday's Senate Inquiry into Flag-Of-Convenience, Thomas Oriti from ABC PM Radio reports:

TIM PALMER: The Border Protection Department has warned that Australia could see an increase in terrorism and organised crime because of the country's increasing vulnerability to the proliferation of foreign flagged ships plying at Australia’s sea lanes. 

The concerns were raised during a heated Senate Committee hearing, examining the increase in so-called 'Flag of Convenience' shipping.

A retired Rear Admiral with the US Navy also expressed concern that the deregulation of Australia's shipping industry could leave the nation vulnerable.

And Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan lashed out at Government representatives, claiming they weren't doing enough to monitor foreign ships in Australian waters.

Thomas Oriti reports.

THOMAS ORITI: It's a mystery that unfolds like a Hollywood thriller. At the centre is the Sage Sagittarius, a giant ship that's been transporting Australia's coal to Japan for more than a decade and earlier this year, the ABC's Four Corners program revealed how the ship became a floating crime scene in 2012 with the deaths of three people on board.

DEAN SUMMERS: It's not easy to - for a seafarer, for a man to fall over the side of a ship. There was something much more on that day. There was a threat and there was a very, very real and present threat to those seafarers.

THOMAS ORITI: That's Dean Summers from the International Transport Workers Federation. He appeared at today's Senate inquiry.

DEAN SUMMERS: The Australian industry has suffered even more cutbacks and more ships have gone off the Australian coast, only to be replaced, as we've said, by flag of convenience ships and it doesn't talk to the quality of the machinery, the quality of the ships. It talks to the registration; it talks to the capacity to hide completely the ownership behind these ships.

THOMAS ORITI: Sage Sagittarius is one of those flag of convenience ships. It's Japanese-owned, but carries the flag of Panama and relies on a Filipino crew and the inquiry's examining an increase in these foreign-flagged ships in Australian waters.

According to Dean Summers, not only is that a security risk, but the economy suffers.

DEAN SUMMERS: We can't compete on zero wages, we can't complete on zero taxation. The FOC ships pay nothing into this country, they pay zero. In fact, when they leave the ports, they leave us with a bill.

THOMAS ORITI: And the Maritime Union of Australia's concerned it'll get worse if the Federal Government deregulates the shipping industry. A bill to allow for that was narrowly defeated in the Senate last month, but it's understood the Government plans to reintroduce it early next year. And if it passes, the union's national secretary Paddy Crumlin says nothing will stop shipowners from turning to cheaper labour from countries with lax regulations.

PADDY CRUMLIN: We're a maritime nation, but we haven't got any leadership and we've got to win it back, senators. That's all I'm appealing to. This is not an industrial issue or a political issue, this is a national interest. And we are Australians, regardless of whether everybody loves us.

THOMAS ORITI: And to prove his point, he invited retired Rear Admiral Robert D. Reilly Jr. from the United States Navy to provide his perspective. He told the hearing that under what's known as the Jones Act, any ship travelling from one US port to another has to be US-made with a US crew and at least 75 per cent US-owned.

ROBERT D. REILLY: Our merchant maritime community, which we call the fourth arm of defence, is absolutely critical for us to respond in terms of national crises and disaster.

THOMAS ORITI: He expressed concern when WA Labor Senator Joe Bullock remarked that Australia was thinking of heading down a different path and some of those concerns are shared by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which warns that flag of convenience ships could be exploited by crime syndicates and terrorist groups.

Dr Benjamin Evans is the assistant secretary of the Department's strategy branch.

BENJAMIN EVANS: If a ship is on the high seas and we have suspicion it is engaged in an illegal activity, to board that ship, we need the permission of a flag state to do that. If the flag state is uncooperative or unresponsive, a lot of the times it is not possible for us to board the ship at sea to determine whether there have been any activities of concern going on.

THOMAS ORITI: Representatives from the Department of Infrastructure also discussed the challenges in determining who owns a foreign ship and Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan made his feelings clear to the Department's acting deputy secretary, Judith Zielke.

BILL HEFFERNAN: The guy standing at the back of the room there thinking, "What is this mob up to?," if you're not entitled to know who owns a bloody ship that's using our resources and using our ports, I'll go and - I mean, get with it.

THOMAS ORITI: Senator Heffernan told the hearing that most people would be shocked to learn about the obstacles involved.

BILL HEFFERNAN: The ordinary, average Aussie would be shaking their heads, saying, "We're not entitled to know who owns the ships that are servicing our ports, doing whatever they're doing, is bloody crazy." 

WOMAN: Senator, I'll just note that you're using the word entitled. What I'm talking about is what the legislation actually currently covers.

BILL HEFFERNAN: Yeah, yeah, I don't want to talk political semantics or what you've learnt at training school when you come to estimates. This is just plain English. I think we're entitled to know who we're dealing with.

THOMAS ORITI: The committee's expected to report back in February.

TIM PALMER: That report from Thomas Oriti