Please see the full text of the speech below:
Famously, when the current Prime Minister assumed his office, he awarded every member of his cabinet a lapel pin, which was the Australian flag.
Now, tellingly, it wasn't this flag. (Red Ensign) It wasn't this flag that he put on the lapel of every one of his cabinet members. And there's a very good reason for that. Most of his time over the last five years he's been conspiring with shipowners to have this flag removed from the back of Australian vessels so that it can be replaced with the flag of a foreign nation. Over the last 20 years, international sea freight to and from Australia has nearly doubled. But, at the same time, the number of Australian-flagged ships has been going down and down and down. And at the same time the number of Australian seafarers working on ships up and down the Australian coastline has been going down and down and down.
Australia is an island continent, located in a relatively remote part of the globe. Almost all of our imports and exports are transported in the hull of a ship. A 10th of global trade flows through our ports. Statistics on vessels operating on the Australian coast between 2014 and 2015 reveal the decline in Australian-flagged vessels. In the major trading fleet, there were four vessels registered to Australia for major international trading—a decrease from nine between 2005 and 2016. For coastal trading, there were 20 registered ships—down from 32, 10 years prior. In 2016 there were 27,516 ship arrivals in Australian ports by 5,719 foreign-flagged vessels. Port Hedland was the busiest Australian port for foreign vessels.
However, despite our obvious reliance on the maritime industry, Australia's own merchant fleet as well as the skilled workforce it trains and employs are fast disappearing. The disappearance of our merchant fleet and skilled workforce has correlated with an increasing use of flag-of-convenience vessels used to transport cargo around the Australian coastline. Currently, the International Transport Workers' Federation has declared 35 countries to be flag-of-convenience countries. The crew on flag of convenience vessels can earn as little as $1.20 an hour. They have less training and are often unaware of our country's fragile coastal environment, directly making Australian seafarers unemployed and, in effect, effectively taking their jobs under this industry of rorting and vandalising Australian workers' rights.
A recent example I would like to remind the parliament of is the CSL Thevenard, which had been operating around the Australian coast for nearly a decade carrying cement, fly ash, gypsum, mineral sands and other goods. This work had been conducted safely by qualified Australian seafarers. Last year, the ship was sailed to China, purportedly for dry-docking, where its Australian crew were sacked. There were 40 Australians who worked that ship. They were from Tasmania and South Australia, and one of the crew members was from my electorate, coming from Moss Vale.
With extraordinary indifference to the fate of this crew and hundreds of other workers like them, the coalition government issued the company that owns this ship a temporary licence, allowing it to continue to operate in Australia with a new crew of overseas workers. I do not blame the overseas workers. Many of them are coming from some of the lowest-waged countries on earth. They are only struggling to do what they can to put food on the table of their families back home. I do however blame the Australian government, which has facilitated this direct transfer of Australian jobs from the former Australian crew to these overseas workers.
Collectively, in 2016, Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands accounted for the registration of more than 60 per cent of shipping vessels—a marked increase from only four per cent of ship registrations in the 1950s. Other countries not traditionally associated with the shipping industry are increasing their presence on international waters via ship registration. This includes landlocked countries like Mongolia, not known as a centre of maritime navigation. We have only to look at the impact flag-of-convenience shipping has had on the United States and Britain—once proud shipping nations. Research has shown that over 70 per cent of privately-owned American ships are registered outside that country. In Britain, it has been reported that the majority of ships are now registered under flags of convenience, with only a third of British-owned vessels registered under a British flag.
Our task must be to prevent the demise of our proud shipping industry.
It's about more than jobs and skills, as important as those are. There are also sound national security and environmental reasons for us to do so.
Regarding national security, there are clear synergies between our naval and merchant fleets. It is not uncommon for people to have moved between one service and the other in the course of their working careers. Defence experts have long recognised the importance of maintaining a domestic maritime workforce. It ensures that Australia has a pool of highly skilled labour that can quickly be mobilised during times of war or other national emergencies.
Furthermore, Australian seafarers undergo stringent background checks to ensure that they pose no threats to our national security. By contrast, overseas seafarers, whose backgrounds are a mystery to us, do not undergo such close scrutiny.
Can I talk about the environment. Australian seafarers are familiar with our coastlines and have a vested interest in the protection of our world-renowned environmental assets, such as the Great Barrier Reef. They have a vested interest in it because, like all Australians, they take great pride in the fact that they belong to a country with such a magnificent maritime coastline. It is a fact that all of the maritime accidents that have occurred on our waters in recent decades have involved foreign-flagged vessels crewed by overseas seafarers.
The Labor Party understands the importance of the shipping sector and the need to provide Australian seafarers with secure work. The former federal Labor government had a goal. It was quite simple: more Australian seafarers crewing more Australian-flagged ships carrying more Australian goods around our coastline. In government, Labor created the international shipping register, allowing operators of Australian-flagged vessels to employ mixed Australian and overseas crews, on internationally agreed rates and conditions. There are currently around 12,000 vessels recorded on this register. Labor also enacted the first major rewrite of the nation's maritime laws in almost a century, made sure that all companies pay for any and all of the damages that their ships may cause, and developed Australia's first national ports strategy—all visionary; all long overdue.
The coalition government, quite simply, does not have the best interests of our maritime industry at heart. Once the coalition government were elected, they quickly moved to scrap Labor's reforms altogether and to dismantle what had remained of the industry. All of us want to reduce the cost of doing business in Australia—but not at any cost. It is simply not possible for an Australian shipping operator to compete when the rates of labour being offered by foreign-flagged vessels are as low as $1 or $1.20 an hour. If that is the race to the bottom that the government is encouraging and urging upon Australian shipowners, then it is a race to the bottom that we must resist with great vigour.
The legislation and policy that have put ideology ahead of our national interest should be resisted. So we will support this legislation, but a government that is committed to securing the future of an Australian maritime commercial shipping fleet and the workers upon that fleet should be introducing—or, should I say, reintroducing—legislation which mimics the former Labor government's legislation, which was designed to secure the future of our maritime industry.
Globalisation has helped to fuel a race to the bottom, and we believe that we should not be in contention for this race. There are much better ways for us to compete than on the basis of offering shipping with the lowest rates of pay in the world.
We should prevent the demise of our proud shipping industry, protect our fragile coastal environment and ensure our national security. I do support the bill before the House, but I also support calls from the industry that the government reintroduce the bills that they had to amend and remove the Labor reforms so we can get back on the path of ensuring that we secure the future of our proud maritime industry.