LEADER of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese on Monday proposed the establishment of an Australian “strategic fleet” comprising up to 12 privately owned and operated, Australian-flagged ships.

The announcement comes as politicians are gearing up for the next federal election, which must be held no later than 21 May.

Mr Albanese said the vessels would ensure Australia has ongoing access to essential imports, such as fuel, in the event of a national disaster or international conflict.

He said a taskforce would be established to provide advice on putting together such a fleet.

In an interview with Hamish MacDonald on ABC RN Breakfast, Mr Albanese said Australia needs to protect its national interest, including its national security interests.

“We know that the Australian economy is vulnerable to shocks. And we’ve been reminded of that during the pandemic. We were reminded of it during the bushfire crisis, where the lack of an Australian fleet meant that we didn’t have the capacity to introduce supplies,” he said.

“We had to rely upon a Norwegian-flag vessel to deliver food, water and diesel to Mallacoota in Victoria. What we need is an Australian-based fleet that provides us with that security and that economic sovereignty.”

During the interview, Mr Albanese said there are issues around fuel security that are of “great concern”

“We know that a failure of having Australian owned ships is a weakness, a gap in our economic sovereignty, and that leaves us vulnerable,” he said.

“If you have an Australian strategic fleet, that can be called upon at times of national crisis, such as issues with fuel supply that need to be secured, then you can call upon that Australian flagged vessel as part of an agreement of establishing the fleet. This is something that is a common-sense proposal.”

Mr Albanese said he wanted to work with the shipping industry, Australian business, the Department of Defence and the Department of Infrastructure to develop a concrete proposal.

He said the Australian economy at the moment if vulnerable.

“Other countries, like in the United States of America and in Europe, would not allow the circumstances to develop the way we have here in Australia, where we’ve seen the Australian crews and Australian-flag ships disappear, being replaced by foreign crews with foreign flagged vessels that leaves us vulnerable,” he said.

Maritime Industry Australia welcomed the ALP’s commitment to building an independent strategic fleet.

MIAL CEO Teresa Lloyd said a strategic maritime fleet would provide a trifecta of benefits, including security of key supply chains, jobs for sought-after maritime skills and economic stimulus to the country.

“As an island nation, ships must form part of Australia’s critical infrastructure ­– this means Australian-based businesses having some level of participation in maritime supply lanes,” Ms Lloyd said.

“The resilience of our seaborne supply chains has been tested more than most realise over the past two years. While the current supply shortages, high freight rates and delays are well known, less well understood is how perilously close the international shipping industry came to complete shutdown during 2020 as the COVID crisis pushed maritime crews to their operating limits and they threatened to stop work en masse. This would have been disastrous, critically effecting the supply of goods including essential medical supplies.

“While the summer of 2019/20 seems a long time ago now, that season of bushfires – and the maritime response that assisted so many local communities – is seared in the memories of those who sought refuge or evacuation. We should not forget the countless times our maritime industry has provided assistance during time of natural disaster – flood, cyclone, or fires.”

Ms Lloyd said a strategic fleet would help to reignite Australian maritime activity, kick start homegrown capability and assist Australian businesses to be able to compete internationally, reinforcing our supply chain and civil maritime security.

“Our maritime sector deserves to be fostered and secured in order that it can serve the Australian community,” she said.

“MIAL has been advocating for such a national capability to exist since 2016 and has undertaken years of work establishing the detail of what is necessary for the Strategic Fleet to provide maximum benefit to the nation. MIAL looks forward to being part of the taskforce announced to deliver this critical national capability.”

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