Old Salts And Iron Men

Veterans of the BHP iron boat fleet come together with maritime families and local politicians at the Maritime Centre in Newcastle on Saturday to commemorate the heyday of Australian shipping.

At its peak BHP boasted a fleet of 53 iron ships - more than the whole Australian merchant navy of today.

It was Australia's largest merchant shipping fleet.

Speaking at the event Mick Doleman, MUA Deputy National Secretary who recalled the great officials of the iron boat era Snowy Webster in Port Kembla and John Brennan in Newcastle. "Iron boats reflected Australia's commitment to an independent shipping fleet and getting away from the yoke of colonialism which saw a strong national fleet as well as the BHP vessels," he said.

Greg Combet, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, local member for Charlton, former ACTU secretary and MUA officer and special guest speaker recalled some gains made under the Keating Government for Australian shipping.

"But they were very quickly wiped out by the Howard Government" he said.  "To get a picture of how much shipping has declined particularly over the past 15 years consider this:  in 2008, a few years ago, 830 tonnes of international cargo was traded in and out of Australian ports by 4000 vessels.  Less than half of one per cent of that was done by Australian shipping

" We need to turn that around," he said.  "And the Gillard Government is committed to do this."

 Robert Coombs, NSW Member for Swansea and former MUA Sydney Branch Secretary sailed iron boats as a young seafarer.

"The BHP fleet fondest memory of my life," he said.  "The camaraderie, the friendships.  My last trip to Port Hedland was my 25th - all done in iron boats.  I remember trudging into the union rooms as a kid, saying 'I want to get to sea'.  My first ship was the Iron Shortland. "

Robert warned the gathering against the perils of the state coalition government.  "We're fighting the fight of our lives," he said.  "We really do need your support. They are trying to put up soft edge for the moment.  But if they are elected on March 26 you will realize how hard core conservative this mob are."

Peter Morris, transport minister under the Hawke/Keating government, Newcastle local and former seafarer recalled how BHP set up the fleet claiming they were being exploited by avaricious ship owners. 

"BHP's Operation HQ was here in Newcastle and was, retrained here for 70 years," he said. "It provided employment and economic benefits to Newcastle, where it picked up deck boys and engineers.  In 1980s the Nara Treaty with Japan provided for the promotion of Australian flagged transport both countries."

The Newcastle Herald featured the event highlighting the union's current campaign to support government revitalization of Australian coastal shipping, interviewing iron boat veterans and event organiser, Glen Williams, MUA.

He told the Herald how the domestic shipping fleet had effectively halved in the past decade and was a shadow of its heyday when the BHP-owned iron boats plied their coastal and global trades.

Glen said the federal government had pledged to rebuild the industry, with Transport Minister Anthony Albanese warning in December that the ''entire merchant fleet could be gone within a decade'' unless something was done.

"It was a terrific day and I hope the politicians were listening to all the speakers  about the proud history of shipping in Australia and the need to maintain a shipping industry for all the economic, environmental and security benefits it provides to the country," said iron boat vet and Glen Williams's dad Maurie Williams.

For more photos of the day visit our Flickr page http://www.flickr.com/photos/muaaustralia


Federal Member for Newcastle Sharon Grierson

State Member for Newcastle Jodi McKay

State Member for Charlestown Matthew Morris

State Member for Wallsend Sonia Hornery

MUA Deputy National Secretary Mick Doleman

MUA SNSW Branch Secretary Garry Keane

MUA Sydney Branch Secretary Paul McAleer

MUA Sydney Branch Assistant Secretary Joe Deakin

Former MUA Victorian Branch Secretary John Higgins

Former MUA Newcastle Branch Secretary Laurie Steen

Former MUA WA Branch Secretary Wally Pritchard

READ HERALD STORY: Iron boat men recall heyday


The first Iron Boat Day was commemorated in Port Kembla last year.