Recently, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) chief executive Andrew McKellar gave an address at the National Press Club of Australia in which he singled out the Maritime Union of Australia as holding back productivity in Australia. Whilst I am no friend of the MUA (I was a manager at Patrick Stevedores during the 1998 Waterfront Dispute), I feel that his remarks about productivity in Australian ports tell only part of the story.

The figures quoted by Mr McKellar are misleading. Whilst Australian ports are no world beaters, we are not at the bottom of the World Bank ranking, as stated by Mr McKellar. Upon careful consideration of the World Bank report, which I undertook here, our ports rank in the middle of the table when comparing like for like. Mr McKellar also mentions the issue of a ‘Family and Friends’ style clause in the Hutchinson Ports enterprise agreement, where 70% of new hires must be sourced from a union list of names. This is a reflection on the negotiating skills of Hutchison Ports and the MUA, and no such clause is evident in other stevedoring EAs.

I do agree with Mr McKellar’s comment about poorly conducted port privatisations having produced near-monopoly conditions that stifle competition. What Mr McKellar did not mention is that last year shipping lines made a combined profit of US$190 billion and are expected to reach a stellar US$300 billion, this year according to shipping consultancy firm Drewry. Some of this is off the back of Australian importers and exporters who have seen rises in freight rates and shipping-related charges of more than 300% over the last few years. Research by Alphaliner also indicates that the top 10 shipping lines now command nearly 85% of the global market due to consolidations and mergers, which leads to a lessening of competition.

Earlier this year the previous government tasked the Productivity Commission to investigate Australia’s maritime logistics systems. The draft report was supposed to be released in June however, due to the change in government, I suspect the report is currently collecting dust on the shelf and is unlikely to come out until after the ‘Jobs and Skill Summit’ in September.

Let’s hope that the ‘Jobs and Skills Summit’ and the research by the Productivity Commission leads to sensible outcomes resulting in harmonious discussions between employer groups and unions and an improvement in Australia’s productivity overall.

Peter van Duyn,
Maritime logistics expert, Deakin University