Michael Danby MHR

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INTERNATIONAL MARITIME CONVENTIONS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2001: Second Reading
Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (12.42 p.m.) —
In supporting the amendment moved by the member for Batman, I want to focus on some aspects of shipping, the government's undermining of the cost of Australian shippers and their ability to operate successfully against some of the people that the member for Bass quite rightly identified, and particularly on this very short-sighted single voyage permit process, which has increased, as the member for Bass said, by 507 per cent since 1992.

One of the things that has surprised me about this debate is the role of the Deputy Prime Minister—the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and the Leader of the National Party—who I would have thought had the interests of agricultural exporters and the strategic interests of this country at heart. When I talk about the strategic interests, my mind goes back to one particular aspect of this that has only recently been brought to my attention in reading the history of Australian merchant shipping. I urge other members of parliament to do this too—to look at the number of merchant ships sunk by the Japanese, and indeed by German submarines, during the Second World War on the Australian coast. The record of Australian merchant shipping is a long and honourable one and, as the member for Bass said, we have some of the most highly trained seamen in the world. It is a tradition, a profession, a vocation and an industry that we should be doing everything to preserve. In fact, this government is doing the exact opposite.

The increase in single voyage permits allows, as I have outlined previously in other speeches, these foreign flag-of-convenience ships—many of which are `ships of shame', as the member for Bass described them—to come into Australia. It particularly arises from the failure of the minister for transport and Deputy Prime Minister, and indeed this government, to address the effect on Australian importers and exporters of the costs of stevedoring. That is an issue that goes back—and this is the principal focus of my remarks—to the very large maritime dispute that this government orchestrated.

Before I turn to that issue, I do want to draw to your attention some overall figures on the cost of shipping, particularly our reliance on overseas owned shipping. Our reliance on overseas owned shipping lines to shift almost all of our imports and exports produced a yearly net freight bill of $A4.9 billion, overwhelmingly reflecting our shipping costs. This is well in advance of wool exports for the year of $3.9 billion. I think this country—and I am surprised members of the National Party are not more agitated about it—deludes itself by thinking it is simply a good thing that the country has a low value dollar because this helps agricultural exports. It actually costs the country an enormous amount of money for high value imports, capital goods and foreign shipping services that we are increasingly relying on with these single voyage permitted overseas shippers.

The genesis of the maritime dispute a year and a half ago was the government's view that the previous government had inadequately pursued micro-economic reform, that the docks were a major economic problem, that Australia had to force major changes in those areas and that the benefits would then be passed on to importers, exporters and shippers. Any rational analysis of what has happened since the waterfront dispute shows that this is very far from the case. Unfortunately, the government's `amen corner' in the media, the so-called `dry' economic analysts—the Paddy McGuinnesses, the Quadrant magazines and the Alan Woodses of this world—have failed to evaluate what has happened since. But this is the basic picture.

When the decision was made to cause the maritime dispute, Lang Corporation's share price stood at $1.60. The benefit of waterfront reform was to be passed on by Lang and P&O to Australian shippers to importers and exporters. Indeed, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister, prior to his visit to London where he was going to meet Lord Stirling of P&O, that he pass on to Lord Stirling the government's concern that these shipping costs had, in fact, not been lowered, and that stevedoring charges remained as high as ever. It seems to me, and to any person who has evaluated what has happened since, that the only people to have benefited from so-called waterfront reform are the Lang Corporation, whose share price has now increased to about $11. The last time I looked I think it was about $10.85. It has been up as high as $13.50.

No-one is concerned about the fact that an individual company is prospering, but the Australian taxpayers, through this parliament, have paid for a massive number of redundancies as a result of this dispute on the Australian wharves. In Melbourne, I know, the number of people who operate the docks in my electorate has been halved. There were probably more than 1,200 full-time people; there are something over 600 now. The crane rate lift—about which the Deputy Prime Minister in one of his performances just before the winter break was exultant, saying that this increase in productivity was a wonderful government achievement—is now about 25 container boxes per hour, which is about the international benchmark that Australia wanted to get to. We have half the work force, we have the box rate at the level that it is and we have Patrick's and P&O's redundancies paid for by the Australian taxpayer—hundreds of millions of dollars.

What is the benefit for the Australian people? None. There have been no decreases in stevedoring charges. This is something that should particularly concern the National Party, particularly concern agricultural exporters and particularly concern people in business. I get approached all the time by people in business who are importers or exporters and who complain about the fact that this government has been totally inadequate in representing their interests and in seeing that the so-called benefits of micro-economic reform trickle down to them.

The government gets up and makes a great deal, as the Deputy Prime Minister did, about productivity benefits to Australia. It is true that there have been massive productivity gains on the Australian waterfront. This is largely due to some of the very fine people who work there, who are as skilled as some of our shippers in their industry. But, unfortunately, the benefit has gone to Patrick's and P&O's bottom line. Again, no-one is against the success of individual companies, but when we paid for all of these redundancies, when this government caused this massive industrial disruption, we expected that these benefits would be passed to the Australian people. They simply have not been.

Lang Corporation, in its last six-monthly profit report, showed that its operating profit after tax increased 25 per cent to $29 million, earnings per share increased 19 per cent to 18.5c and the company had over $300 million cash on hand. It is the responsibility of this government, of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, the Deputy Prime Minister, to say to Mr Corrigan and to P&O that the benefits of waterfront reform should be passed on to the Australian people.

It is a completely inadequate performance by the member for Gwydir to say that productivity has increased on Australian waterfronts, and that we have faster, more regular turnarounds. There are the bigger ships that are turning around faster. The shipping lines tell us that because the terminals turning around the ships faster have to pay more to the stevedores they therefore pass these costs on to the exporters. Mr Donges, the President of the National Farmers Federation, is one of those in the federation who were foolish enough to be right behind the massive dispute two years ago but who now are having second thoughts. The federation engineered that dispute with the help of the government's hatred of the union movement—under the then minister, the member for Flinders, who is retiring—but Mr Donges now says of the waterfront reform which the National Farmers Federation had totally backed and had hoped would benefit farmers:

We believe the level of productivity (on the waterfront) will enable more farmers to compete on an even keel for lucrative international markets. But—

and these words are very significant—

we have to ensure that the savings from increased productivity flow on to farmers and other port users as soon as possible.

In other words, they are not flowing on to farmers or exporters at all at the moment. The government needs to send the Deputy Prime Minister and transport minister back to do a remedial economics course. There is no point in having a productivity benefit, paid for partially by the Australian taxpayer through redundancies, if we do not have it passed on to the Australian people via exporters, importers and shippers.

Members of this government can ring any exporter or importer, anyone from the peak shippers association, from shipping lines, and they will tell you that this minister's claims about commercial-in-confidence—that they cannot reveal these dread secrets to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, about how much it costs to ship a container from here to Seoul or Tokyo or any other port and back—are absolute nonsense. We know that these costs have not decreased but, in fact, have increased in some states and in some cases.

For the benefit of the Australian shipping industry, we need this government to say, as I am sure the next Beazley government will say to the stevedoring firms, `You've had the benefit of redundancies. You've had the benefit of higher productivity. Now lower your rates and pass on the benefits of micro-economic reform to the Australian people and let the Australian shipping industry prosper.'

Main Committee adjourned at 12.55 p.m.

 
     
 

Authorised by Michael Danby 117 Fitzroy Street St Kilda VIC 3182