The Maritime Union of Australia has warned that Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s failure to recognise the national security role played by Australia’s domestic shipping industry has revealed a major failing in the Federal Government’s strategic planning.
Minister Pyne did not mention shipping once during his first major address since taking on the portfolio where he outlined how the Turnbull Government hopes to drive advanced manufacturing through a $195 billion spend on defence over the next decade.
“Defence industry is front and centre of this government’s vision and agenda for jobs and growth in the Australian economy,” Pyne said. “Across the nation, industry is making the transition to hi-tech manufacturing, embracing the innovation that will drive our continued national prosperity.
“We are determined to use the defence dollar to drive a high technology, advanced manufacturing future. This was where the jobs of the future would be created and with them the broader growth needed to ensure Australia maintained its position as an advanced economy among the top ranks of nations in the 21st century.
MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said he feared the Coalition Government was putting politics ahead of the nation’s long-term strategic interests by neglecting coastal shipping.
“Australia’s defence doesn’t just rely on front-line troops, it requires the strong local industries that design, build, maintain, operate, and support those efforts,” Mr Crumlin said.
“A functioning merchant navy is the missing piece of the puzzle, particularly in times of crisis.
“During WWII, more than 600 Australian merchant mariners — or one in every eight who went to sea — died while working to maintain supply lines and ferry injured troops.”
Mr Crumlin said that the Federal Government’s ongoing deregulation push, including a plan to remove cabotage rules for coastal shipping, was in stark contrast to the approach of our closest ally, the United States.
“Knowing the vital defence importance of shipping, the United States has The Jones Act that ensures all goods transported between US ports are carried on locally-flagged ships which are built, owned, and crewed by US citizens and permanent residents,” he said.
“The alternative — where shipping is controlled by foreign interests — drastically undermines national security and provides additional vulnerability during times of conflict.”
Mr Crumlin said that a revival of Australia’s domestic shipping industry, not just the defence manufacturing sector, was central to the nation’s long-term strategic planning.
“It is not good enough to talk up the importance of some industries to Australia’s security, while deliberately ignoring other equally important sectors,” he said.
“While manufacturing has been thrown a lifeline, the Federal Government is yet to rule out plans to tear up the 2012 Coastal Trading Act.
“The result of this deregulation will not only see the loss of Australian jobs and conditions, it will rob our nation of the skills and experience of merchant seafarers, resulting in coastal shipping becoming the domain of ‘flag of convenience’ vessels, which are notorious for breaches of environmental, workplace, and other laws.
“If Minister Pyne is genuinely interested in harnessing Australian industry in his efforts to strengthen our nation’s security, then he needs to ensure a strong and vibrant domestic shipping industry is part of that solution.”
Crumlin also pointed out that the Turnbull Government’s deregulation plan sits at odds with recent comments from Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Dan Tehan.
Minister Tehan said on Merchant Navy Day that Australians should remember the vital contributions made by those who served in the Australian and allied Merchant Navies in times of war.
"Merchant ships played a crucial role transporting men to and from warzones and carrying valuable cargo during the First and Second World Wars," Mr Tehan said.
"Some vessels were converted to military hospital ships. The work was highly dangerous as the slow convoys were at constant risk from enemy fire, sea mines and other threats.
"Memorials around Australia record the more than 600 Australian merchant mariners known to have lost their lives in war, however there are likely more unknown because some Australians served in the merchant navies of allied nations.”
Mr Crumlin said Federal Ministers needed to be mindful of history.