INSUFFICIENT recognition is being paid to Australia’s diminishing maritime capacity, federal member for Fremantle Josh Wilson says.
Speaking at the Australasian Institute of Marine Surveyors Biennial Conference in Sydney, Mr Wilson said shipping law reform was of great concern in terms of national security, environmental standards and economics.
He noted reduced capacity in terms of shipping and maritime capital and the marine workforce.
“Despite the enormous importance of Australia’s maritime industry and related human capital, our merchant fleet and the skilled workforce that trains and employs, and the people who enable the work of that fleet are all together a shadow of its former self,” he said.
“I recognise that and it worries me. Our economic future in terms of exports and jobs will depend on a sensible approach to maritime regulation to the highest standards,” he said.
“Our security and our self-sufficiency will depend on getting those settings right.”
Mr Wilson also spoke about the grave environmental consequences of shipping accidents, noting the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the effects of which can still be seen today.
“Australian seafarers and marine professionals are familiar with our ports and our coastlines and they have a vested interest in the protection of our world-renowned environmental assets,” he said.
“It’s not surprising that all the major ship-related accidents that have occurred in our waters in recent years have involved foreign-flagged vessels crewed by foreign seafarers.”
National security is another issue Mr Wilson identified as an argument for revitalising Australia’s shipping industry.
“We have to be clear-eyed about the impact on Australian national security and circumstances where we lose sovereign self-sufficiency on coastal and regional shipping,” he said.
“First of all, we know there are obvious synergies between our naval and merchant fleets. We know it, but we haven’t done anything about it.”
He said defence experts had long recognised the importance of a domestic maritime workforce.
“It ensures we have a pool of highly skilled labour that we can be quickly mobilised during times of conflict or other national emergencies, including in response to natural disasters in our region,” Mr Wilson said.
A major concern Mr Wilson spoke about was the lack of broader awareness in Australia that the Asia Pacific region was subject to acute geopolitical risks in terms of shipping and sea freight.
“Not enough people understand that we have a particular vulnerability when it comes to imports like petroleum, and yet, at the moment, there is not an Australian-flagged vessel that is capable of transporting petroleum,” he said.
“We currently import 91% of our refined petroleum. In the year 2000, that was 60%.”
Mr Wilson went on the say that Engineers Australia told a 2015 Senate Inquiry into the country’s transport, energy resilience and sustainability that the total stockholding of oil and liquid fuel comprised two weeks of supply at sea, five to 12 days’ supply at refineries, 10 days of refined stock at terminals and three days at service stations.
“At best, that is 39 days of supply and that leaves us well short of the requirement we’re supposed to meet as a member of the International Energy Agency, which is to maintain 90 days of fuel in reserve,” he said.
“It was for these environmental and national security reasons that the former Labor government was resolute in seeking to rebuild Australia’s shipping industry after years of what can only be described as inattention.”
Mr Wilson said the objective was to create and maintain a regulatory and investment framework that would see more Australian seafarers on more Australian-flagged ships, carrying more Australian-made goods around the continent.
“I’m a Labor member,” he said.
“I look back on those attempted reforms with a mixture of admiration and regret.
“For those reforms to work, they needed time not least because the problems they sought to address had been percolating over a number of years.
“That period of settling in wasn’t delivered. There was a change of government and the new coalition government took a different approach as is their right. That is the nature of parliamentary democracy.”
Mr Wilson said the Coalition moved to scrap several of Labor’s changes under the rubric of cutting costs and reducing red tape.
“These are reasonable imperatives,” Mr Wilson said.
“I understand the value of keeping costs as low as possible. I understand the value of eliminating unnecessary administrative burdens.
“But, I am very wary of the view that every bit of regulation should be regarded as red tape. And, I’m very wary of the view that cost reduction should be the paramount consideration.”
“It is an important consideration, but in some areas, like safety, like sovereign self-sufficiency and environmental protection, cost reduction alone should not be the motive that overrides all other considerations.”