Dear editor,

I would like to comment on the recently released Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Container Stevedore Monitoring Report 2020-21 and the commentary by its chair Rod Sims.

I agree with Mr Sims comments that the “industrial action on top of pre-existing congestion has unfortunately put enormous strain on our international container ports at a time when they can least cope with it”. The current dispute between the Maritime Union of Australia and Patrick is a prime example of the industrial muscle regularly used by the union. Having been closely involved with the waterfront dispute in 1998 and three subsequent enterprise bargaining agreements, I am well aware of the tactics used by the union to bring the stevedores to the negotiating table, albeit under the cover of protected industrial action.

I also agree with Mr Sims comments that port privatisation has brought some benefits to the container industry through more dynamic port operations. However, it has also led to higher prices, at least at some ports. Mr Sims further stated, “the ACCC has been saying for some time that the current little or no regulation of container ports in Australia is not fit for purpose. Regulation needs to compensate for a lack of competitive pressure on the ports”.

Where I diverge from the ACCC’s conclusions is with respect to port productivity and the report’s selective use of the World Bank and IHS Markit study. Whilst our ports are certainly no world beaters, comparing them with large ports in China and Asia is not a fair representation of their performance. The IHS Study ranks Beirut as number 11 in the world and ranks ports like Bell Bay and Noumea well above our main container ports. You would therefore have to ask some questions about the accuracy of these ranking. And as a matter of fact, the authors acknowledge that this being the inaugural report, “the joint team intends that the methodology, scope, and data, will be enhanced in subsequent annual iterations, reflecting refinement, stakeholder feedback, and improvements in data scope and quality”. I wrote about the report in more detail in a letter to the DCN in June this year and other commentators have made similar remarks about the accuracy of the report. Benchmarking ports in general is an inexact science.

Overall, I believe our ports have coped fairly well during the COVID crisis, certainly when you take out the industrial disputation delays. Moreover, while we are not leading the world in port productivity, we didn’t close our ports for a month like Yantian in May this year, and we don’t have 70-odd container ships sitting idle off the coast like at Los Angeles/Long Beach.

Peter van Duyn
Maritime logistics expert
Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics
Deakin University