THE STRATEGIC Fleet Taskforce detailed a path to the establishment of an Australian strategic fleet in its final report, made public on Wednesday (8 November).
The government launched the Strategic Fleet Taskforce in October 2022 to liaise with industry and stakeholders and advise government on ways to establish such a fleet.
In the 2022-23 federal budget announced in October 2022, the government allocated $6.3 million to the taskforce.
The taskforce submitted its final report to government in June and it has only just been made public, along with government response to its recommendations.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (when he was leader of the opposition) proposed the establishment of a strategic fleet in January 2022 in the leadup to the past federal election. As proposed, the fleet would comprise up to 12 privately owned and operated Australian-flagged ships, which the government could requisition in times of emergency.
The proposal set off much debate throughout industry.
The taskforce’s report laid out 16 recommendations to government for the establishment of the strategic fleet. The government agreed with five of the recommendations, agreed in principle to seven and noted the remaining four recommendations.
The taskforce acknowledged that operating the fleet would cost more than current arrangements and proposed changes to tax regulation, as well as levies on vessel arrivals to fund subsidies for the Australian-flagged fleet.
The government agreed in principle with the proposal to change tax regulation and noted the recommendation to impose a levy on vessel arrivals.
In its report, the taskforce outlined several ways to support training of Australian seafarers. In its 10th recommendation, it said government should impose a training levy on maritime industry participants that are “beneficiaries of STCW-qualified seafarers”. The funds raised would be used for financial assistance for employers and sponsors of trainees and cadets. The government noted this recommendation.
However, the government agreed in principle with the following two recommendations. Recommendation 11 said the government should establish a cadetship scheme to provide financial assistance to organisations that provide berths for cadets and trainees who are working towards their STCW qualifications. And recommendation 12 said the government should mandate a minimum number of training berths on each vessel in the strategic fleet.
The five recommendations that the government agreed to include:
- recommendation four, that all vessels in the strategic fleet should be registered on the Australian General Shipping Register;
- recommendation five, that the government should review the provisions of the Australian International Shipping Register to encourage the registration of more vessels;
- recommendation six, that the government should review the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012;
- recommendation 13, that AMSA, civilian maritime institution, Defence and the Transport and Logistics Jobs and Skills Council work together to facilitate greater alignment between defence and civilian maritime training qualifications; and
- recommendation 16, in which the taskforce says there should be a review after the strategic fleet is established.
The federal government in a press release on Wednesday said Australia’s maritime sector had been neglected and there as a shortage of Australian-flagged ships and skilled workforce.
Federal minister for infrastructure and transport Catherine King said the creation of a strategic fleet would build Australia’s resilience and protect its national security and economic sovereignty by enabling the movement of cargo in a time of crisis.
“We are getting on with the job of revitalising Australia’s long neglected maritime sector,” she said.
Member for Fremantle Josh Wilson said “maritime shipping” is a crucial industry for our island nation.
“A fleet of up to 12 Australian owned and crewed vessels will provide important employment and training opportunities to boost Australia’s maritime workforce capability,” he said.
Maritime Industry response
Maritime Industry Australia said the report and the government response was a welcome step in securing Australia’s sovereign maritime capacity and its future as a maritime nation.
MIAL said the recommendations of the report include measures that, if fully resourced and implemented, could level the playing field for Australian shipping businesses to compete with foreign shipping.
MIAL CEO Angela Gillham, who was a member of the taskforce and contributed to the report, said the government’s response to the report was a first step to delivering an election commitment to support Australia’s resilience, and that of our Pacific neighbours, during natural disasters, conflict, or supply chain disruptions.
“MIAL and its members will continue to work collaboratively with the minister on implementation, including to confirm a timeline to provide certainty for industry,” she said.
“Australia has a significant international and domestic freight task which is growing; expanding and diversifying activity in the offshore sector, including in offshore wind; and strong demand for maritime skills across the economy. We are facing a major deficit in our ability as a nation to fulfil this potential and this requires a brave and swift policy response.”
Ms Gillham said the gradual decline in Australia’s sovereign fleet over the past two decades means Australia is almost entirely reliant on foreign shipping.
“Recent supply chain shocks, natural disasters, and the critical maritime skills shortage have all demonstrated the need for the increased national resilience that an enhanced sovereign shipping industry will bring,” she said.
“MIAL is pleased that the government has responded to the recommendations in the Strategic Fleet Taskforce Report and, while we would always welcome a more urgent approach, the response provides a positive pathway forward and restates the government’s commitment to securing our maritime capability through the Strategic Fleet Policy.”
And the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers also welcomed the release of the report.
AIMPE federal president Martin Byrne said the union had been awaiting the release since the middle of the year.
“It is very good that it has been published today and that the process of further discussion will commence next week,” he said.
“The Strategic Fleet is a key policy commitment of the Australian government and AIMPE has been calling for the urgent implementation of a new national maritime industry training program in order to make sure that Australia can manage the demands that the Strategic Fleet will place on the maritime workforce and the whole industry,” Mr Byrne said.
“AIMPE understands that the government response provides agreement in principle to the recommendations relating to workforce development, cadetships and training berths and AIMPE will be working with all relevant parties to advance this process as quickly as possible.”
In a statement Shipping Australia called the strategic fleet plan “bad policy”. The industry association said similar policies had been tried in Australia several times and have always failed.
“The Strategic Fleet is just the recycling of a policy that we already know has failed in the past,” SAL’s statement said.
“It will not boost our supply chain resilience; throughout history, time-and-time again in crisis-after- crisis, shipping sailed through every problem and continued to deliver the goods. International shipping has never been stopped – not by disease, not by war, or strikes, or piracy. Nothing stops international shipping from delivering the goods.”
SAL said there was little transparency around the taskforce and that it was “shrouded in secrecy and there was no open and transparent selection process to the membership of the taskforce”.
“There was incomplete consultation as the report of the Taskforce was not released to the public until today, when the Government had already agreed to many of its recommendations,” SAL’s statement said.
“So no-one got a chance to review, or comment upon, the work of the taskforce before the government accepted the recommendations of the taskforce.
“At best the Strategic Fleet will add next-to-no extra capacity while being a costly waste of resources. At worst, it will increase costs during a cost-of-living crisis.”