THE Western Australian government is establishing taskforce to examine the resilience of Western Australia’s shipping industry and vital supply chains after floods severed the main east-west rail line in late January; the rail link was closed for 24 days.

A statement from the state government said the impact of the disruption – which is still being felt on WA supermarket shelves – raises questions about what else can be done to strengthen the state’s supply chain.

WA is home to some of the world’s busiest ports, and the state government said it is keen to train more Western Australians to play key roles in the shipping industry and perform vital functions in our ports.

The taskforce will examine:

  • the role intrastate and interstate shipping can play as an ancillary route for freight movements in the event of natural disasters and disruptions to other supply chains;
  • potential support for a national approach to the agile use of interstate shipping to strengthen critical supply chains;
  • the sustainability and resilience of WA’s on-water maritime labour force, including any emerging skill gaps, training requirements or critical worker shortages;
  • opportunities to develop multi-modal responsiveness towards disruptions in vital WA freight supply chains; and
  • opportunities to improve supply chain co-ordination and service quality at WA ports.

The taskforce will be chaired by the parliamentary secretary to the minister for transport and ports Jessica Stojkovski and Kyle McGinn.

The state government, in its statement, pointed out that the taskforce announcement came shortly after MIAL called on the government to guarantee the survival of an Australian flagged commercial shipping fleet.

The state taskforce will engage with the shipping and transport industry, customers, port authorities, unions and the broader community.

The taskforce will identify and recommend implementable options to improve shipping industry utility and will report back to Cabinet by March 31, 2023.

The state government said the ability to deliver these outcomes will be reliant on assistance and co-ordination with the federal government.

WA minister for transport and ports Rita Saffioti said Western Australians saw firsthand the disruption to supply chains the South Australia floods caused when they washed away parts of the Trans-Australia railway.

“We see this as a national issue, and we are keen to work with any federal government willing to help us to better strengthen our east-west supply links,” she said.

“It’s important we examine other supply chain options in the event of future natural disasters and disruptions – having better access to a local shipping fleet would be one option to future-proof our freight supply chain.

Minister for state development and trade Roger Cook said improving transport links and building more resilient supply chains is vital to diversifying WA’s economy, particularly the regions.

A spokesperson for Shipping Australia said it is good to see that politicians understand ocean-going shipping boosts supply-chain resilience.

“The resilience of seaborne transport has been proven in theory by the Productivity Commission’s supply chain inquiry (and also numerous times by UN bodies). And, given that ships delivered the goods when there was damage to Australia’s cross-country land infrastructure, the resilience of seaborne transport has also been proven in fact. Shipping Australia would advise against any further restrictions on coastal trading under the guise of building supply chain resilience,” the spokesperson said.

“The existing coastal regime was promoted by a certain maritime policy actor as being sure to spark a shipping renaissance. But it didn’t.”

The SAL spokesperson said the same policy actor said the coastal shipping regime (and associated tax benefits) would provide Australian companies with an exciting opportunity to invest in new tonnage and to expand existing operations.

“But it never did. The same policy actor said on the ‘great day’ of the legislative passage of the coastal shipping and tax regime, that shipowners were ready to invest, that they were committed to their investment decisions, and that they were looking forward into expanding into new trades. But they weren’t. And they didn’t,” the spokesperson said.

“Worse, the 2012 coastal regime not only failed to revitalise the Australian shipping industry, it harmed Australian shipping, it harmed Australian seafaring employment (many seafarers lost their jobs), and it harmed Australian shippers who have had to pay inflated freight rates (and, in some cases, have gone out of business because of it).”

The SAL spokesperson went on to say that the idea of a national fleet is an “extraordinarily bad idea”.

“If there was demand for an Australian national fleet then, surely, the Australian coastal trading regime that was set up to revitalise local shipping would have induced its creation? It didn’t,” the spokesperson said.

“Shipping Australia would instead advise government that the section 11 exemption to the Coastal Trading Act be indefinitely extended or rolled-over so that the latent spare capacity of ocean-going ships – which are sailing from east to west Australia – can be used by shippers at a fraction of the cost of an unnecessary and expensive domestically-protected coastal or national fleet.”

In response to the supply-chain problems in WA, the federal government waived part of the Coastal Trading Act 2012 – a power it has under section 11 of the act – to allow or containerships and ro-ro vessels to carry interstate cargo to and from WA. The exemption came into force on 1 February and expires on 31 March.

This article has been updated to include comment from Shipping Australia.