by Mike Gallacher, CEO, Ports Australia

Resilience is the first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on the ports’ role through COVID-19. I empathise with the many industries struggling under the weight of the pandemic, many losing their workforce, supply, demand, or means to stay afloat. Representing Ports Australia, I’ve been fortunate to experience a sector that didn’t hesitate to adapt to ensure an uninterrupted supply chain which is evermore essential during these times.

Considering the maritime sector’s response to the pandemic holistically, ports and other members of the supply chain should be proud of their vigilance in banding together to share knowledge, establish new norms, and elevate industry-relevant concerns to the highest level.

Ports Australia, with other industry leaders such as Shipping Australia and Maritime Industry Australia Limited, led an early push for establishing the Maritime Response group.

Chaired by the Federal Department of Infrastructure, the group continues to meet weekly, bringing all corners of the Australian maritime industry together in response to COVID-19.

I couldn’t have anticipated in January just how imperative our industry’s presence in the forum would be given how fluid and aggressive the spread of the virus became domestically and abroad.

The ports industry has stepped up through this group to manage concerns both reactively and proactively, whether through their own voice or through Ports Australia’s.

While government authorities around the country can be as vigilant as possible in managing the pandemic along the Australian supply chain, their ability to craft policy and protocols is only as strong as the knowledge pool boasted by the industry they serve.

The same applies to us at Ports Australia; we are extremely fortunate yielding the ability to utilise the operational expertise of the personnel that make up our membership, expertise we’re constantly filtering up to government.

Continued investment and employment

While the future of COVID-19 and the resultant changes remain uncertain, it’s evident our ports still have their eyes locked on progress and sustainability given their continued investment in infrastructure.

Many Australian ports have either announced, begun or continued with projects throughout the pandemic period, despite the many potential threats COVID-19 poses to trade.

Looking around the nation, there’s cruise terminals going up and being upgraded across Queensland; a Container Logistics Chain Study being conducted at the Port of Melbourne; continued construction at Port Botany in Sydney to double port-rail connectivity; and lighthouses getting facelifts in Bunbury.

Investment extends beyond infrastructure too. Some weeks back, we highlighted on social media the number of ports posting job advertisements.

While a job advertisement from Gladstone Ports Corporation for an operational role within the port may seem routine, we believe it’s more important than ever in the context of the current world.

It’s important to remember that industries across the supply chain like ports are operational as ever, maintaining a sense of normality which means continuing the process of filling roles as per usual.

Even more positively, filling those roles plays a strong part in building and strengthening the Australian workforce currently under the strain of COVID-19.

All projects, whether they come with a price tag or not, signify a desire of the ports to invest in a future beyond COVID-19, one where Australia will inevitably remain reliant on them as an indispensable link in the supply chain.

Keeping mentally healthy

Resilience also comes in ways often forgotten when the focus is primarily fixed on physical safety and hygiene.

The ports have equally turned their attention to the mental and social well-being of their staff and surrounding communities.

While working from the isolation of one’s own home drastically reduces the spread of COVID-19, it also has the potential to socially isolate workers from their colleagues and workforce they ordinarily spend their days with, posing a threat to mental well-being.

The initiatives the ports have implemented are a creative way of taking the port to the workers when the workers cannot come to the port.

To list a few: Flinders Ports further enhanced its mental health support services; Port of Portland assisted the local Mission to Seafarers prepare care packs for seafarers; Port of Townsville held an all-staff virtual lunch; and Fremantle Ports committed $10,000 to a local food relief emergency program.

Positive signs for future operation

I acknowledge there’s no secret behind how throughput numbers and the operation of ports remain one of the most useful indicators to how Australia and its trade has reacted to COVID-19.

It’s a privilege to report the fact that no port’s operation has had to be halted by government authorities due to concerns around COVID-19, and while throughput numbers across the numbers have been inevitably shaken, resilience prevailed and supermarket shelves have remained stocked.

Despite many of our international trading partners being squeezed even tighter than Australia by the grips of Coronavirus, our container ports’ statistics report a downturn of a far less significant measure than some may have initially expected.

Even more positively, many of our major exporting ports have remained steady with their throughput, except for Pilbara Ports who hit record-breaking high numbers at the worst of COVID-19.

The consequence of these numbers transcends a mere success for the ports boasting them, they hold significance for an Australian economy needing every bit of support our resource-rich nation can muster.

It’s certainly too early to ring the victory bell, but it’s important we celebrate deservedly.

To finish, I’ll reflect on the panic-buying saga when Coronavirus first hit Australian shores which saw toilet paper and food being snatched into trolleys in unprecedented quantities.

While the panic brought about an unnecessary crisis, it crystallised three things: a lack of confidence from the public; the dire importance of supply chain continuity; and the evident need for balance between the two.

When COVID-19 ‘post-mortems’ begin analysing what worked and what didn’t, we must establish an agreed and transparent plan for the future that encompasses industry, government and the public.

That way, our ports, supply chain and nation can stand up a nationally consistent and agreed plan when and if we need to move seamlessly to self-sufficiency and action once again.

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