LABOR leader Anthony Albanese on Monday announced a plan to establish a “strategic fleet” of up to 12 Australia-flagged, privately owned and operated merchant ships if the Australian Labor Party is able to form a government after the upcoming election.

In a press release Mr Albanese said Australia depends on seaborne trade more than most countries.

“Despite this, Australia is now in a situation where less than half a per cent of our seaborne trade is carried by Australian ships, forcing us to reply on foreign governments and companies for our essential imports,” he said.

“In times of conflict and crisis, our economic sovereignty and national security are dependent on Australian seafarers working on Australian ships. Protecting and growing Australia’s maritime sector and seafaring workforce is vital to our economic sovereignty and national security.”

Mr Albanese pointed out that the number of Australian vessels has decreased over the past 30 years from 100 to less than 20 now.

“The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable supply chains can be to external events, while the risk of global or regional conflict leaves us vulnerable to the actions of foreign powers,” he said.

“Without a strategic fleet, Australia’s essential supply lines – including fuel imports – are vulnerable to the decisions of foreign governments or the whims of international shipping companies. With 99% of our imports coming by sea, it is essential that Australia has its own sovereign, independent maritime capability on which we can safely rely.”

The ships

Should ALP form a government after the next election, Mr Albanese said they would create a maritime strategic fleet, which will be made up of Australian-flagged and Australian-crewed vessels, likely to include tankers, ro-ro vessels, general cargo ships and containerships.

“We expect the vessels will be privately owned and operate on a commercial basis, they will be available for requisition by the Defence Forces in times of national need, whether that be natural disaster or times of conflict,” he said.

“As a first step towards establishing a strategic fleet, an incoming Albanese Labor government will appoint a taskforce to guide it on the establishment of the fleet as quickly as possible. This taskforce will include representatives from the shipping industry, major charterers, unions, Australian business representatives and the Department of Defence.”

Mr Albanese also said his government would “act immediately” to close loopholes in the existing regulatory framework “to help rebuild Australian shipping”.

“The taskforce will also advise on how best to enforce existing coastal shipping laws and what legislative or regulatory reforms are necessary to reinvigorate Australian shipping,” he said.

The rebuttal

Shipping Australia, which represents the interests of the international shipping lines and others, does not find the strategic fleet proposal sound.

A spokesperson for SAL said, “The freight-carrying maritime industry is absolutely, 100% opposed to a national fleet; we’re internationalist and free-market focused”.

The spokesperson said 6013 cargo ships made a total of 34,130 port calls at Australian ports 2018-19, including 5915 cargo ships that made 17,602 voyages to Australian ports from overseas ports.

“If there is a disaster or something, what are those 12 ships [of the proposed strategic fleet] going to do? How can 12 cargo ships do the work of 5915 cargo ships making 17,602 voyages? Twelve ships out of 5912 is about 0.2% of the fleet calling Australian ports – it’s a drop in the ocean,” he said.

“And, these 12 ships should be thought of as a ‘single point of failure’ fleet. One fleet, with one owner, one set of Maritime Union of Australia crew – it’s a recipe for disruption. There’s an old cliché that is applicable – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

The SAL spokesperson said overseas experience shows that protectionist maritime policies such as Labor’s strategic fleet proposal are not good. He pointed to the Jones Act in the US, saying it contains “a litany of horrors”.

“Shipping costs [in the US] are massively higher than they need to be, their maritime industries are declining, they spend a fortune on it, it’s very bad for the environment (because it shifts cargo to trucks, which are very polluting), and it’s led to an unsafe fleet as their ships aren’t up-to-date any more,” he said.

“There have, literally, been fatalities because their ships are so old and decrepit now and don’t have up-to-date technology. The fleet is old because of the Jones Act.”

The union view

It should come as no surprise that the Maritime Union of Australia has welcomed the strategic fleet plan.

A statement from the union said the Coalition government, under several prime ministers, has failed the nation by allowing Australia’s domestic maritime capability to be eroded to the point where “our supply chains are held totally hostage to decision making by international shipping cartels and other countries’ political leaders rather than the Australian government”.

The union said Australia once had a vibrant national shipping industry. It pointed out that cabotage laws are a feature of many maritime countries worldwide, particularly where the national interest relies heavily on shipping, such as China, the US (in the form of the aforementioned Jones Act), Canada, the Philippines and Japan.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said the pandemic has revealed the difficult situation Australia faces maintaining supply chains and the timely delivery of essential goods.

“It is a disgrace that the Morrison-Joyce Coalition along with Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have allowed our shipping industry to be taken over by foreign-flagged and foreign-owned vessels with dubious safety standard, exploitative labour practices and little or no regulation,” Mr Crumlin said.

“When it comes to maintaining essential maritime supply lines to this country, we cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage to international shippers whose priorities lie elsewhere.”

Mr Crumlin said fuel security is vital to Australia’s economic and social needs and it is “reckless in the extreme” to be reliant on foreign-flagged and foreign-owned shipping.