AFTER all my now concluded focus on shipping past, it is time to address how we can see the future.
Australian international shipping is a vital economic lifeline for our exports, but it also constitutes a very important strategic factor. Statistics from 2014 show Australia as the 21st largest exporting nation globally with A$240bn.
However, our ranking as a maritime nation placed us 75th, behind countries like Mongolia, Bangladesh, Tuvalu, Dominican and Luxembourg. We are about par with landlocked Switzerland.
The UNCTAD formula provided for a 40/40/20 split between the two trading region counterparts and third flag in ocean carryings. We are stated by government to be handling only about 2% of our exports, leaving almost all of it to foreign flags, and I suggested to Federal minister for infrastructure and transport Darren Chester that it might be a point to establish a forum, limited in size but with representatives from all concerned, to discuss positively what should be done.
In my somewhat one-sided communication with our government I was told that a normal waiting time for a reply could take several weeks, even months.
Certainly there is a need for bringing response times up to the commercial world level. For sure, it would take initial strong leadership like a firm instruction from the Prime Minister, followed up by frequent performance audits in addition to the internal ones to be run by each ministerial office.
Guidelines could be: three working days for acknowledgement and indication of time for reply, which should be no longer than one week thereafter, even if just an interim response.
Australian shipping future forum proposal
Without any support for my suggestion from either side of politics the concept would be dead, even with the support given by the unions. They have agreed with me, that the success eventually achieved on the waterfront after decades of obstinacy and sabotage should also be possible with the seagoing unions.
I have a strong feeling that both political parties shy away from a complex objective like this as too difficult and lacking party-political points, and hang the consequences of the strategic damage done to our country and its international reputation.
We “the Mob”
We are all aware that the common and deeply insulting reference by the political “elite” to the general public is “The Mob”. Easy to manipulate and without any comprehension, and if in trouble any minister or his “shadow” can simply refuse to reply.
In real life, any commercial activity based on such policies, and its hapless staff, would be out the window in no time. It is therefore alarming to note how many ministers and their opposition counterparts totally lack any skill or background experience qualifying them for their portfolios, which are allocated out in accordance with the internal party political preferences.
Any health minister should be a qualified doctor, defence minister to at least have worn a uniform, financial portfolios be filled with degree-holders in economics, shipping for someone with at least a clue from practical experience, etc. We are very much handicapped compared with, for example, the USA, where the government luckily doesn’t have to rely on filling ministerial positions with politicians, but can draw on the huge and talented pool of experienced people in the real world.
None of the above offers any promise of a successful Australian entry into international shipping, and it is virtually all left to foreign flags, as already also is much the case with coastal shipping. There were many opportunities for the Australian National Line to get a strong foothold, most likely as a dominating part of a consortium in each of the main trades. But the government sold the ANL naming rights and container services to the French CMA/CGM.
Memories of the ‘Axe’
One person who I much admired during my career was my friend Max Moore-Wilton of ANL, later head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
I remember well, exiting an abortive meeting concerning flood protection with the then Deputy Prime Minister at his Parliament House office. Floods had been serious during the previous season, and the next one wasn’t far away. At the end of the presentation he looked out the window and said to his minder “doesn’t look like it is going to rain, so no problem”.
In the corridor I met Max, then Cabinet Secretary, who told me that he was on his way to a cabinet meeting. I commented on his lack of paper in his empty hands and he tapped his forehead and said “It is all in there, son”. He would have been a good man to lead a new national line.
We must look for a new initiative and create a new identity for a national shipping line. Just sit back and give a thought to what the reaction would be if an Australian flag or base didn’t have any international airline services either; no Qantas, Jetstar or Virgin, and how that would be reflected in the airfares. And the possible pullouts e.g. in case of international air fuel supplies or political problems.
Shipping and war
We must also be prepared for shipping crises in the case of international upheavals, like war. The Vietnam War created its own problems and Australia partly depended on commercial shipping supply arrangements.
No matter its merits/demerits this war placed demands outside the normal scenarios, and our own company was able to assist and did so as a duty, no matter the controversial justification or otherwise for that war.
The Iraq war also created massive complications aside from its circa two million dead to date.
In the Philippines, the decades-long internal conflict with the New Peoples’ Army escalated to cover most of Mindanao and its vital ports. I was an executive on the Australian – Philippines Business group, and we had a meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos in Manila to discuss the remedies needed to clear the war effects. From memory, His Excellency was more interested in telling us about his golfing in Canberra.
So, where to now for Australian shipping?
Frankly, I cannot see any progress without a drastic change of thinking and the courage to implement it by whatever party takes government next. Focus seems to be entirely on political point scoring and internal dual nationality problems, etc. From my experiences with the current individuals in charge I see the possibilities as very remote.
For a wonderfully resourceful country like Australia, it is a tragedy to see us reduced to the Third World along Bangladesh and Mongolia in shipping rankings. I am also depressed over the general apathy over this subject.
Compare our situation with e.g the United States, which also has to bear high crew wages but seem to keep a substantial fleet going year after year, and which normally is on the way to expansion.
But very few seem to be interested, expressing caution over problems with the Unions and clinging to the old motherly ties from when Britain did all our thinking for us in shipping.
A shipping forum?
So I wish to conclude in a positive way and with a repeated but now concrete suggestion for a bi-partisan approach for the forum I suggested. Small in numbers (maybe 40-50) but fully representative of government on ministerial level, the opposition similarly, departmental heads, the Unions, Shipping Australia, media etc.
I intend to prepare a simple submission for an agenda and send it open to all the relevant ministers and shadows.
Meantime, it would be interesting if Lloyds List Australia readers would contribute their views to me for consideration and inclusion in this submission, and I will await these with much anticipation until September 30. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
No, I don’t know how, or if at all, this will pan out, but I feel it a duty not to give up on this highly important issue of Australia to emerge as an important international shipping participant, much as we are in air transport.
Politicians – be aware. Perhaps the following words may be of assistance to our taxpayer paid politicians to help lifting their indifference and bring this important matter out from mediocre thinking: “Ministers and Departments do have an obligation not just to achieve the bottom line that is often sought by private companies.
“We owe it to the community to establish public trust that we work with integrity and put public interest ahead of personal gain.
“Ensuring the transparency of our processes can focus our minds on the need for each individual decision we take to be justifiable in terms of strict propriety”.
Currently there is much written about Captain Cook’s landing and his other actions. His skills, courage, devotion to his country and his determination are all being correctly lauded. But one may just wonder what his reaction would be today, when he noted the reluctance of us famous Bronzed Aussies to put a toe into the water other than with a surfboard, P&O cruise or once a year on a hideously overspent computer controlled yacht in the now tedious Sydney-Hobart “race”.
Regarding the almost total lack of maritime developments at the world’s largest island nation he might say “It seems that what I was trying to show them just didn’t catch on!”
From the print edition September 14, 2017