Sunday 21st Oct, 2018

INDUSTRY OPINION: Australia’s Coastal Shipping aspirations


I HAVE been impressed by the clarity and logic of recent articles on immigration in the national press. The point has been made that elevated immigration levels are less beneficial to the nation than are presently being suggested by the three C’s of conventional wisdom, the commentariat and Canberra bureaucracy.

Simply put, such remarks question the benefits of accruing to a country of 24 million people from an intake of 190,000 immigrants a year, that if maintained at these levels could lead to a 40% increase in population between now and 2060.

I suggest that our concerns should not be confined to demographics or immigration policy, but be directed to such matters as housing, infrastructure, and importantly the effect that these inflows will have on future national transport policy, particularly as it applies to the movement of heavy freight on our existing road and rail arteries.

Based on past experience, it is London to a brick that there will be a serious lag effect between the identification of further transport problems arising from the need to supply our new chums with goods, and the arrival of meaningful Government assistance.

It is generally accepted that Australia’s freight task is growing 3% per annum, year on year, statistics borne out by DOTARS.

Judging by the already significant increases in heavy vehicle usage on the three main interstate highways, the Hume, Pacific and Bruce, it is our belief that existing congestion patterns will proceed in lockstep with this population growth, getting steadily worse as the century develops.

The problem is made more chronic by the fact 80% of our population live within 30kms of the coast in the great arc stretching from Adelaide to Cairns.

It is therefore entirely logical to believe future arrivals will also settle within this arc, leading to heightened usage of the aforementioned arterial connectors, all of them hugging the coast on the logical principle that roads go to where people are.

In our opinion, the multi-billion dollar cost of constructing the nation building ARTC fast rail across rural Australia between Melbourne and Brisbane will not greatly assist in reducing traffic on the named road and rail paths, at least in the short to medium term, its initial aim being skewed towards other objectives, such as reviving the bush.

In short, we consider that the itemised problems will increase if anything, in line with population growth.

This is not helped by the fact that the trend is away from rail and towards road, particularly with the advent of ever more efficient articulated road trailers and B Doubles, one example being the situation on the Sydney-Brisbane rail corridor and Pacific Highway, where rail is losing its share of contestable freight to road, now reduced to an approximately 12% proportion of all inter-city freight traffic on this corridor, down from its 1996 high of 24%.

This is in spite of the fact that rail is three times more energy efficient than road for this type of freight, while causing significantly less pollution and much smaller casualty statistics.

Ain’t freedom of choice in the marketplace grand?

Against this background, the elephant in the room is the almost non-existent status of Australian-flagged coastal shipping in the transport mix. Julius Sumner Miller’s query, ‘why is this so?’ is of particular relevance.

The short answer is that most of the general public and much of industry have a deep suspicion of ship-based solutions, the most frequent response of the man in the street as to his marked lack of confidence in Australian shipping being ‘because of blues, strikes, go slows and general bastardry.’

There you have it.

Certainly our industry has had bad press down the years, some deserved, some less so, but as times change, opinions should also, the present era having produced something of a sea change in the attitude and approach of the union leadership and the members themselves.

The previous maritime unions, the SUA and the WWF, amalgamated in 1993 to become the MUA, some of their recent ‘troubles’ being centred on the waterfront lockout of 1998 and the rift between the LNP and the ALP as to the objectives of The Coastal Trading Act of 2012.

Some of this negative public reaction has also been caused by the ongoing militancy of some MUA members, particularly those in the west.

I was master on the first Aussie flag, offshore anchor handler, before becoming manager of the ANL container terminal in Newstead, Brisbane, and during this extended period afloat and ashore, I found both SUA and WWF members to be men of the highest calibre, hard-working and productive, all of them reacting positively to firmness, discipline and properly laid down ‘rules of engagement.’

There are huge community and national benefits to be delivered from the revival of coastal shipping, not the least being the enormous reductions in pollution from the use of appropriate ships, a well-maintained vessel emitting some 90% less air pollutants on a tonne/km basis than a road trailer or B Double, and 50% less than a train.

There are other substantial benefits, including the employment of Australian seafarers, a reduction in road deaths, and significantly reduced damage to our road systems, where one loaded semi-trailer causes the same deterioration quantum to road pavement as 5000 cars.

Most importantly to a native Scot, the sea is free, a medium where Australian-flagged ships can operate successfully and commercially without the multi-billion dollar recurring subsidies needed to maintain our arterial highways and rail tracks.

When I first arrived in Australia as a deck apprentice indentured to Alfred Holt of Liverpool, there were more than 200 ships flying the Australian red ensign, all trading competitively on the coast.
Now there are less than ten – “go figure” as our American cousins like to say. During this time, our managing director Steve Pelecanos and I, both ex seafarers, have never lost sight of the importance of reviving the coastal sea, not just for the traditional haulage of bulk commodities, but also for its potential to open up the booming intermodal trades, now exclusive to road and rail.

Australia has always been an aspirational country, where to strive and succeed against the odds is traditionally noted and generally appreciated. Banjo Paterson and his offsider Clancy had their own vision splendid, to do with the bush and half wild store cattle crossing the Barcoo and the Lachlan. I suggest that our national maritime benchmarks be directed more towards Australia’s endless coastline, and visions of profitable and eco-friendly Aussie flag ships in the middle distance, going about their lawful occasions.

* Denis Gallagher is chairman of Hermes Maritime Pty Ltd, a company set up to own and operate Australian-flagged ships carrying containerised cargo, heavy lifts, cars and out of gauge (OOG) units on the Australian coast.

From the print edition December 7, 2017

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