The Oz: Paddy Crumlin on the Future of Shipping and the MV Portland

By Paddy Crumlin. Originally published here.

For a Federal Government that extols the virtues of playing by the rules, Malcolm Turnbull’s administration has failed the basic political axiom of following its own advice and it may put at risk their legislative agenda.

At 1am on Wednesday last week, crew members aboard the Alcoa ship, the MV Portland, were taken from their bunks by up to 30 security guards and marched off the vessel.

They had been sacked and replaced by overseas workers on as little as $2 an hour, paying no tax and working for international companies operating out of tax havens.

I know the Portland well – I was a seafarer in my twenties on its maiden voyage from Korea to Australia.

The ship was the first training vessel for the new ‘integrated rating qualification’ which meant non-officers and engineers on the ship were multiskilled and provided part of the basis for the revitalisation of Australian shipping by dramatically cutting the number and cost of an

Australian ship’s crew. The ship was built by Alcoa. To this day, I hold “IR ticket 001”. I can vividly imagine the fear and surprise the crew would have felt when men dressed in black invaded their small rooms and threw them out. They were handed a letter by the ship’s captain but had no time to read it, nor assess whether it was given under duress. The crew at one stage thought they could be under terrorist attack.

The move is of questionable legality, including extreme bullying and harassment and that will be tested in coming months. This is an Australian workplace by any definition. The ship never leaves Australian territory.

There are plenty of questions for the Government here. How did the foreign crew gain permission to enter the country and sail the vessel once the Australian crew was unloaded?

Where were the new crew from? What security and criminal checks do they have? What visa are they on?

Perhaps even more seminal, has the Federal Government really changed since the infamous waterfront dispute in 1998 when security guards were sent into the

Patrick’s docks in the dead of night to forcibly remove an Australian workforce?

As you would expect in a dispute which went for two months, the MV Portland dispute was subject to Fair Work Commission hearings and Federal Court proceedings. The Federal Court never found against the union.

Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash said during the dispute that it’s not up to industrial parties to pick and choose which decisions of the Fair Work Commission they will abide by. If not, the entire integrity of the system is put at risk.

OK then, let’s apply that logic to the Senate.

In October, the Government issued a license to Alcoa allowing them to engage a foreign crew on a domestic shipping route between Western Australia and Portland. Australia has cabotage laws which state that ships trading through domestic ports are to be Australian flagged and crewed.

The Senate voted in late November to oppose the Government’s attempt to change the relevant

legislation and retain cabotage laws because Labor, Greens and the crossbench are not prepared to send Aussie jobs offshore and open up a domestic transport mode to the security risk of unchecked foreign crews.

Sensible Senators know that we shouldn’t be promoting Flag-of-Convenience shipping, which is essentially a tax avoidance scam by registering your vessel in Liberia or Mongolia and then paying your workers as little as possible – if you pay them at all.

Besides, there is an ongoing Senate inquiry into Flag-of-Convenience shipping which is yet to report.

So by Minister Cash’s own logic, the Government should cancel the licence, right?

Apparently not.

While we’re on the subject of thumbing your nose at the Senate, Minister Cash has form. As

Assistant Minister for Immigration, Ms Cash is the respondent in an upcoming High Court case.

The Gillard Government in 2013 passed the Offshore Resources Act, which offers labour market testing and appropriate protections for Australian workers in the offshore oil and gas sector.

The Abbott Government’s regulations were subsequently disallowed by the Senate, so Ms Cash immediately made an obscure ministerial determination over the top.

The Federal Court later ruled the determination invalid, so the Minister narrowed the determination, effective immediately.

The matter is listed for the High Court on February 19 but possibly because they thought they would lose, the Government in December sneakily revoked the Ministerial Determination and Declaration and issued another effective that day.

All of this goes to the heart of whether Australian workers have fundamental entitlements to

continue to work in their own country.

Multiple decisions of the Government have left many Australian seafarers in the precarious

situation where they have no right at all to work in their own industry and employers can bring in any foreign labour they wish, at any rate of pay.

There is a pattern of behaviour here. Good governance is surely predicated on sitting down and dealing with the crossbench, unions and stakeholders on a productive and sustainable industry policy.

The Government’s ham-fisted approach has enraged many on the crossbench and rightly so as it marks a new low in parliamentary tactics and doesn’t exactly engender good will.

At an industry shipping forum today, which both Alcoa and the Government have declined to

attend, committed industry stakeholders including three crossbenchers will be sitting around the table, trying to find a way forward to maintain an industry which has served us well.

It is counterintuitive for the Government to poke key Senators in the eye and maintain a ruthlessly partisan approach to matters requiring long-term political stability. The same goes for offshore visas.

Malcolm Turnbull said when he was appointed as Prime Minister that he would have a different approach to Tony Abbott in dealing with the crossbench, and indeed with the community. It seems not all of his ministers got that memo.

In the meantime, my old workplace, the MV Portland, sails into the night leaving its crew jobless and serious questions unanswered in its wake.