By Shadow Transport Minister Anthony Albanese.
The Coalition’s attitude to workplace reform is threatening to seep in through Australia’s waterfront. Anthony Albanese takes a look at the slippery slope current Transport Minister Warren Truss is taking the local shipping industry down.
If the Australian Government suddenly told every worker in Australia it was about to slash their wages to third world levels, that government would be short lived.
Australians understand our nation has laws guaranteeing minimum wages at reasonable levels.
They also understand that if a foreign-owned company sets up business in Australia, it must observe Australian laws on wages and conditions so locally based companies can compete with it on a level playing field.
That’s only fair.
The Abbott Government wants to change the law in ways that will damage the Australian maritime industry by deliberately forcing it to operate on an uneven playing field. It’s Work Choices on the waterfront.
Transport Minister Warren Truss has advocated a free-for-all on the coast and wants to give foreign flagged ships the right to pay foreign wages during domestic journeys.
He proposes dismantling the former Labor government’s coastal shipping package, which required companies shipping goods between domestic ports to seek out an Australian vessel in the first instance.
In particular, Truss wants to see more freight moved by foreign-flagged vessels that do not pay their crews Australian-level wages and which don’t observe Australian workplace requirements.
After months of threats and talking down the existing arrangements, the government telegraphed its plan in Budget Paper No II in this year’s budget, which foreshadowed reforms aimed at “better aligning employment conditions for ships based in Australia with international standards”.
This is code for handing the Australian domestic shipping task to foreign-flagged vessels not bound by Australian workplace laws.
Days later Truss outlined his plan in a speech to a lunch hosted by Shipping Australia. The Government is also considering equivalent arrangements in aviation by allowing foreign airlines to operate on the domestic aviation sector north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
This arrangement would destroy Australian jobs. No such arrangement exists in any other developed nation.
It represents unilateral economic disarmament.
The government’s plans are unfair to the Australian shipping industry and its workforce. When Labor took office in 2007, the Australian shipping industry was in a state of decline.
Under the Howard Government, the number of Australian-flagged vessels working domestic trade routes plunged from 55 in 1996 to 21 in 2007.
As Transport Minister in the former Labor Government, I introduced new laws designed to revitalise the Australian shipping industry.
This followed the unanimous recommendations of a parliamentary inquiry and an extensive consultation program with all stakeholders.
This aim was to support the ability of Australian shipping industry to compete in its own country.
It recognised that the existence of an Australian shipping industry was in Australia’s economic, environmental and security interests.
It was a comprehensive approach which sought to give Australian shipping an opportunity to compete.
The 2012 Coastal Trading Act barely had time to bed down when the Coalition won the 2013 federal election.
Truss immediately began his quest for a free-for-all on the coast, aiming to give foreign-flagged ships the right to pay low foreign wages during domestic journeys.
It is the equivalent of paying foreign wages on a foreign-owned truck to drive the Hume Highway.
Since the day after he was sworn in, Truss has given speeches undermining the existing laws, discouraging ship owners from registering vessels in Australia.
It appears this drip-feed of criticism was designed to undermine the shipping reforms to justify the Government’s plan to reverse the changes and implement maritime policies that disadvantage Australian industry.
Not only have the Coastal Trading Act laws not had time to work, but Truss talked them down as a prelude to advancing his reform plan on the claim that Labor’s system was ineffective.
Truss clearly places little value on the existence of an Australian domestic shipping industry.
It is as though he sees the Australian industry as simply an input cost into the business models of other industries like mining and farming.
This is why he also put legislation before the parliament proposing to abolish the Seafarer’s Tax Offset – a rebate for industry designed to make it easier to hire Australians.
Our shipping industry, employing 10,000 Australian workers in direct and indirect roles, is an industry in itself.
It deserves a regulatory regime that allows it to operate on a level playing field. That’s what happens in every other industry, including in the road, rail and air freight sectors. Labor’s position is simple.
If you seek to move freight by road in this nation, the truck driver is paid Australian-level wages and operates under Australian workplace health and safety rules.
If you seek to move freight by rail, the train driver is paid and required to operate in accordance with Australian law.
The situation should be no different on the blue highway.
If you work in Australia, you should be paid in accordance with Australian conditions and legal requirements.
It is that simple.
Labor’s existing laws do not represent protectionism.
If you want protectionism, go to the United States, where only US-crewed and owned vessels are allowed to work domestic shipping routes.
Australia’s existing laws are fair on all parties – ship owners, workers, and people wanting to move goods.
If Truss asked Australian shipping operators and logistics operators about the issue, he would find they are more concerned about port charges than wage rates.
As an island nation that moves 99 per cent of its exports by sea, it makes sense to retain a local industry.
I want to see the Australian flag flying off the back of vessels working our coastal trade routes. Indeed, I want to see the Australian flag flying off the back of trading vessels across the globe.
Generally, Australian vessels are newer and safer than many foreign vessels that visit our shores.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority figures show that since 2004, inspectors have detained 122 international-flagged vessels because they were overloaded, had defective equipment or serious deterioration in their hulls.
Major shipping accidents in Australia which threatened the environment all involved foreign- flagged vessels.
Moreover, Australian seafarers are more familiar with the Australian coast than their international counterparts – something worth remembering when we consider the need to preserve our environment, particularly the Great Barrier Reef.
The economic cost of a shipping accident on the Great Barrier Reef would be astronomical.
There’s also a national security issue, with Australian crews on vessels more likely to identify security threats and criminal activity in our coastal waters.
The skills of an Australian merchant fleet also complement those of our naval fleet, offering significant exchange between those who spend time on ships which fly our flag.
The future of an Australian shipping industry can be secured if the industry and its workforce are given a fair go.
Paying Australian wages to those working in Australia so that Australian industry can compete is not asking too much.
The national interest demands nothing less.