With only a week before the federal election, the Federal Opposition has promised to implement further measures to boost maritime shipping and training.
Speaking at its shipping policy launch at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Cities, Transport and Regional Development, Anthony Albanese, announced three major policies.
First, a Labor Government would enforce 2012 reforms to prevent further undercutting of the Australian-flagged fleet.
Mr Albanese promised to stop the abuse of temporary licences that has occurred in breach of the existing legislation, and ensure the national interest is prioritised when it comes to licensing foreign ships to work in Australia.
Labor intends to more stringently enforce the current Coastal Trading Act. While Mr Albanese did not propose any specific changes to the Coastal Trading Act, he did acknowledge that as the Act had not been amended since its inception in 2012, and that there should be some adjustments.
Second, the ALP would create a Strategic Fleet of Australian flagged vessels that can be called upon in areas of strategic importance to the Australian economy, such as the importation and distribution of liquid fuel, namely crude oil, aviation fuel, and diesel.
These vessels would be Australian flagged and Australian crewed, privately owned and commercially operated. They would also provide a platform for the training of a new generation of Australian seafarers.
To ensure careful deliberation and broad consultation, a Labor Government would create Strategic Fleet Taskforce to provide advice on the design of a Strategic Fleet.
The Taskforce would include representatives of:
- Ship owners and operators
- Maritime Industry Australia
- Maritime unions
- Department of Defence
- Boosting the workforce
Third, Labor will reinstate the Maritime Workforce Development Forum to develop strategic responses to skills development.
The forum would build productive working relationships with industry to properly align its needs with the training sector.
Mr Albanese said the need for this reform was underlined in MIAL’s Seafaring Skills Census which identified an aging workforce with few young seafarers in the pipeline and a shortage of more than 500 seafarers expected by 2023.
In addition to these three approaches, Mr Albanese said the ALP would explore other ways to stimulate growth in the industry, such as further tax concessions to support the commercial viability of Australian flag vessels.
This would include the potential for investors in Australian shipping to receive tax free dividends. Mr Albanese also indicated his support for tax exemptions for Australian seafarers to provide a level playing field.
“Retaining the existing zero corporate tax rate and exempting investors from paying tax on the dividends they receive could make Australia a more attractive place to invest in shipping, which could lead to growth in the Australian-flagged shipping fleet,” Mr Albanese said.
Taking advantage of the blue highway
Mr Albanese supported the increased use of shipping to move domestic cargo around our coast noting that the infrastructure was already in place and the blue highway was free.
“Shipping is the most efficient form of long haul transport. We should be utilising a lot more of it to move freight around this country, and we should ensure that this is done by people trained to the highest standards,” he said.
Ports Australia stresses importance of training
Ports Australia welcomed Federal Labor’s Australian shipping policy, saying urgent action was needed to ensure long-term viability of Australian’s maritime sector.
In the leadup to the federal election, Ports Australia released its policy platform highlighting three policies that would improve Australia’s future through Ports.
Increasing maritime skills is one-third of the platform.
Ports Australia’s Chief Executive, Mike Gallacher, said that without Australians with maritime skills, the country is vulnerable.
“Australia is an island nation, and we rely on our Ports to connect our businesses to the world and bring goods to Australian households,” Mr Gallacher said.
“Without the people with the technical understanding to operate these ports, 98 per cent of our physical trade is in danger. This represents our economy, our way of life and our national security.”
Mr Gallacher argued that without intervention, Australian shipping would disappear; gone with that industry would be our ability to train Australians will the skills to run some of our most nationally significant infrastructure, its ports.
“Ports are major employers of Australians with maritime skills filling roles such as harbour masters, pilots, tug masters and hydrographers. There is a national and global shortage of specialised mariners,” he said.
Over 60 per cent of skilled people in the sector are over 45, while the number aged under 30 is reducing.
“Ports around the country, particularly regional Ports, are struggling to recruit adequately skilled people for specific roles,” Mr Gallacher said.
“Unfortunately, only 15 per cent of our domestic freight task is moved by ship. We believe more non-time specific freight such as construction materials and fuel can be moved along our blue highway. This frees up space on our roads and rail while providing training opportunities for Australian mariners.”
“We welcome Labor’s plan to revitalise Australian shipping. Ports Australia have done extensive work on the issue and look forward to helping the next government find a solution to what is fast becoming a national crisis,” Mr Gallacher concluded.
Shipping Australia offers more cautious support
Shipping Australia put forward a more tempered response to Labor’s shipping policy, saying its members did not expect to be impacted by the rigorous implementation of the Coastal Trading Act.
“Few of our members carry domestic cargos due to the inflexible restrictions of the Coastal Trading Act. Those that do, already comply with the Act and its regulations,” Rod Nairn, a spokesperson for the organisation, said.
“Our members would be happy to see more Australian flag vessels, which is the key element of the Strategic Fleet,” Mr Nairn said.
“However, even with the proposed further tax concessions for investors in Australian shipping, we recognise that it will be a challenge to make Australian flag operations commercially viable or competitive with international shipping.
“There are further concerns that if manufacturers and primary producers are forced to pay higher charges to move cargo in Australian flag vessels it will lead to increased import substitution of raw materials or finished products and may lead to the closure of Australian manufacturing businesses. This consequence would not be good for Australia.”
Shipping Australia said it did not believe that more Australian flag vessels would provide benefits to national or fuel security.
“The best investment in fuel security is to increase onshore fuel storage reserves, maintain the domestic capability to refine fuels and ensure that we have a variety of overseas suppliers utilising vessels of various flags. This ensures that there are still lines of supply available in case of a conflict which might impact on the availability of some supply lines,” Mr Nairn said.
In addition, Shipping Australia said it would like to be included in future shipping policy consultation including the Strategic Fleet Taskforce and the Maritime Workforce Development Forum.
During question time at Labor’s shipping policy launch, Shipping Australia asked if Mr Albanese would also consider a similar exemption for large container ships which would allow them to easily carry domestic containers between Australian ports incidental to international trade.
It argued that this measure would result in better utilisation of the blue highway, as well as reductions in import substitution, green-house gas emissions and unnecessary road deaths.
Mr Albanese expressed caution in providing exemptions in case of unforeseen and unintended consequences, but he did support the increased carriage of domestic cargo by sea.