Wednesday 21st Nov, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: Australia’s foreign flag fuel crisis risk

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

FROM recent media reports it seems we have yet another issue linked with the absence of Australian-controlled shipping supposedly serving our needs.

It is stated, that whereas Australia has an obligation to deliver on its undertaking to the International Energy Agency (IEA) to stockpile 90 days’ supply of fuel at all times, in fact we only carry about half of that time span around 45 days. This issue is not new, nor is the apparent apathy for sticking to international undertakings.

I am a very proud Australian, but deeply concerned over how it is being run from time to time. I am just a simpleton non-politician, so may I be forgiven for thinking that this kind of behaviour gives our country an image of dishonesty?
With the huge proportion of our fuel being imported, and all of it by foreign flag vessels on time or voyage charters by others, Australia has no control over the continuity of shipping services supply, its costs and any future reliability due to the dependence on the spot charter markets and being at the mercy of foreign brokers.

I would strongly favour the by myself already promoted Australian flag shipping reintroduction also for the now critical situation with fuel supplies. There is no reason why Australia could not purchase a string of second-hand tankers in good condition and put them under Australian flag and management and have a small section of the RAN protecting them while in port.

I have every reason to believe that a trial project with one ship to start with would work well, having been preceded by watertight union agreements aimed to secure the same peace and productivity as now seen on the Australian waterfront after its many decades of chaotic industrial upheavals. To protect this fleet the RAN could allocate security staff on board for all ships’ time in port, in preparation for any terrorist attacks that may follow seaborne targets as to date easy prey and with huge returns to any terrorist in case of successful attacks.

NOTE: My own military history includes much relevant experience and training in the maritime security scene, plus active and live very substantial antiterrorist work projects for international maritime security, and I would be pleased to share my experiences and offer any suggestions to our military, if the government is interested.

I already had informal consultations at a senior RAN officer level a few years ago, when I suggested methods to deter piracy in the northern Indian Ocean, and my suggestions were considered sound.

These events of piracy now seem to have ceased entirely. To what extent, if indeed any, this is a result of any ideas from myself, I don’t know. My suggestions were not exactly revolutionary, since they just focussed on a self-defence strategy and capacity for all merchant ships, and the training and equipment required were quite within the capacity of any normal commercial ship. But at the time there was no such protocol in place, surprisingly enough.

Risk of sabotage of our fuel imports

Due to the thin margin of fuel stockpiles being, as stated above, at about 45 days, only half of our given undertaking to the International Energy Agency (IEA), we seem to be extremely vulnerable to any attack on our international oil tankers supply chain.

We are all familiar with the various incidents of limpet mine attacks on merchant vessels, but also on units of the US Navy resulting in multiple deaths and very serious damages to the vessels.

In the discussions to date covering the need to protect Australia’s sea lanes, all focus seems to be on the deployment of submarines or surface vessels for monitoring or escort of vital carriers such as oil tankers at sea.

I wonder if the simplest way of sabotaging these deliveries is being considered on the quiet, since there is nothing written on it that I know.

At the Australia-bound tanker’s loading port it would not be difficult for trained frogmen to approach the ship and place a few limpet mines on the hull adjoining the engine room.

The mine(s) could be put on a several days timer, or be radio operated remotely, and be blown up when the ship is well out on the deep seas. The engine room would be flooded and the ship out of action for a very long period, even if it didn’t sink.

For increased effect, two tankers could be programmed to have their mines go off simultaneously, even if half an ocean apart. The terrorist organisation responsible would warn that this will happen to random Australia-bound tankers (to begin with). It would have a dramatic effect on the availability of further voyage or time charters for Australia, and the impact on our fuel supply would be very obvious. Even if shipments continued, I believe that a War Risk Insurance Cover would have to kick in, maybe doubling or trebling this cost factor to the considerable detriment of our fuel retail costs.

I believe, that to keep these ships safe, and to be seen to be safe, the RAN could provide protection for such Australia bound tankers at the load port. Their specialists would have the means to give such protection around the clock, with the effect that no hostile frogman would even consider approaching the ship.

With load times rarely more than one to two days it would not seem an unacceptable burden for our Navy, which would welcome the opportunity to give concrete protection for Australian interests in a true hostile situation, which of course is their raison d’etre, in any case.

When or if the Australian government decides to facilitate the above proposal, the it would obviously be made much easier and cost effective, if at least some of the ships were Australian government owned and operated! I remain happy to share my own military experiences in this field and to elaborate on the proposal.

If of interest to our government, I would also like to share my views about the nuclear threat as perceived from North Korea. I believe that too much focus is given to the progress development of adequate missiles able to carry the needed nuclear payload. The concern should be to stop the production of the weapons themselves, since the non-missile delivery options are plentiful. I believe that my views may be of interest.

In this context, I am now just quietly also awaiting any reaction from Messrs. Turnbull and Shorten in response to my column of October 5 promoting Australian flag shipping. (Incidentally, I was told that such an email attachment of 7.5 MB is not acceptable by the PM’s equipment limit of 5.0 MB, so I was told to use the post office. Still, the DCN is readily purchasable, so leaving at that).

The “Australian National Line” name

I have received a lot of surprised comment on the disclosure that the naming rights were sold to CMA CGM of France.

In other words, a foreign entity may now legally introduce itself as our Australian national carrier.

Wonderment has been expressed over how the Australian government could permit this to happen, since it must give the impression that it washes its hand totally on the prospects of a national carrier ever returning to the berth.

I have to draw a parallel with the government approved 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company (Landbridge).

The strategic importance of this our northernmost major port could not be reasonably missed by anyone, in particular with the long term military alliance training project with the US next door.

It has been suggested, perhaps simplistically, that the potential overlap of jurisdictions between federal, state and territories is the reason, but surely it doesn’t require excessive brain power from any government level to identify absurdities like those above.

Communication with governments

A bi-partisan Federal political feature to rely on is the poor responses from most ministerial levels.

A typical delay for a reply to simple questions may average two months.
The excuse given is the flow of incoming mail of all kinds, and how they cannot cope.

It isn’t realised, that since ultimately all communication will have to receive a reply, life would be much easier if the backlog was given a week to clear now, and if all responses needed a max 24-hour delay, at least for an interim (not auto-reply) confirmation of receipt and target date for action.

Then have internal audits of a communications log recording actual performance. The Prime Minister to be routinely kept aware of the various ministers’ performance on a monthly basis.

The second aspect here is, of course, the relevance of the reply to the question, given the tribal “culture” of being irrelevant, such as is daily being displayed in the deplorable behaviours of Question Time. But we also have the occasions, when no replies at all are forthcoming; my recent question to a minister how he could call Australian flag shipping “vibrant” with only 2% of its exports carried by our flag, received no reply, not even after 23 repeat requests.

The same Minister’s advisor asked to be told what a Harbour Pilot does!

Another case is the distraught mother of a son, who had just completed four years of nautical studies to receive certification as a ship’s officer. But by that time, Australian shipping had disappeared , so that were no jobs for such graduates, and the educational centre in Tasmania had to close. The mother approached a very senior cabinet minister, asking for his help and advise. Which was callous and arrogant: “Join the Navy!”.

And I recall the time when I was put on indefinite hold with a ministerial office, and I overheard the conversation: “Who’s on the line this time?” Reply: “Oh. I dunno. Some bloody leftist activist bastard looking for trouble again” Raise the matter of Australian Shipping and employment and it is unfashionable and confined to socialist activists – that seems to be the view on both sides of politics.

Beats me how Left or Right can enter this picture, which is all about Australia’s welfare.

Our beautiful north

Talking about Darwin brings tears to my eyes when I think of the total beauty of all of the NT, and in particular the fragmented and fascinating coast line between Darwin and Broome, which my wife and I explored recently as a wedding anniversary (40th) treat, the billions of years old rock and land formations, the wildlife, the sunsets and sunrises all make you realise the truth of the old platitudes of the human being nothing in a huge universe.

But it also brings a fond smile thinking of our helicopter pilot in droopy khaki shirt shoulder ribbons taking us over the Horizontal Waterfalls and executing totally perfect take-offs and landings – driving barefoot! With hairy toes curling around the horizontal steel pin control at the floor. Only in Australia, I thought.

Borrowing the captain’s shoes

Ending the week on a happy note then? Which brings me to another short story, when travelling by Thai’s DC10 from Bangkok to London. The cabin crews always thought that I was an airline Captain and offered me use of one of the bunks in the pilot’s sleeping cabin. Being pre-sleeper seats days I gratefully accepted and then to awake an hour away from Heathrow. A slight commotion was noted from the cockpit area and the Captain emerged in full uniform but in his socks with his minders looking for his shoes, which had disappeared during his rest period in the cabin. I then noted some pain from my feet and observed that the shoes were alien to me! For a split second (only) I was tempted to save any embarrassment for myself by ignoring the shoe transfer, but of course my seafarer’s decency prevailed and the property was surrendered to the grateful skipper a few minutes before descent.

From the print edition October 12, 2017

* Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

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