Labor has promised to close off loopholes allowing for the exploitation of foreign labour on ships and build an independent fleet to secure Australia’s essential supplies.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says foreign ships will still play an important role but Australia was reaching a point where there wouldn’t be an “Australian flag on the back of an Australian ship”.
“The idea that we will have no Australian industry, no Australian skills, leaves us very vulnerable,” he told reporters in Newcastle on Monday.
Mr Albanese said despite shipping accounting for almost all of Australia’s imported and exported goods, only one per cent of seaborne trade is carried by Australian ships.
“The Morrison-Joyce Government has put our national security and economic sovereignty at risk by standing idle as large multinationals dumped Australian flagged and crewed vessels so they could hire cheaper overseas crews,” he said.
“Our nation (relies) on foreign governments and companies for our essential imports … including fuel.”
A Labor government would initially close regulatory loopholes and establish a taskforce to inform the fleet building initiative. The taskforce would also advise on how to enforce current coastal shipping laws and what reforms would help energise the sector.
“What we need to do is to stop the abuse of foreign labour on foreign ships who are not paid decently,” Mr Albanese said.
“We know the exploitation in the international shipping industry … is a major issue. The current legislation provides for that to occur. There are abuses occurring and we know that’s the case.”
The opposition leader also touted the local knowledge of Australian seafarers, saying they understood the country’s coast and ports better.
“All of the incidents around Australia’s coast that have involved potential environmental disasters, including on the (Great Barrier) Reef, have all involved foreign flagged ships,” he said.
“Australia seafarers understand how to … ensure protection of the natural environment here.”
While the ships would likely be privately owned and operated on a commercial basis, Mr Albanese says he would ensure they are available for the defence force to use in times of national crisis – be that natural disaster or conflict.
“In times of conflict and crisis, our economic sovereignty and national security are dependent on Australian seafarers working on Australian ships,” he said.
Mr Albanese pointed towards Australia needing to rely on a Norwegian ship to held deliver supplies to the Victorian coastal city of Mallacoota during the bushfires as lack of sovereign capability.
“We were reminded of it during the bushfire crisis, where the lack of an Australian fleet meant that we didn’t have the capacity to introduce supplies, we had to rely upon a Norwegian flagged vessel to deliver food, water and diesel to Mallacoota,” he told the ABC on Monday.
When asked how such a fleet would improve fuel shortages, Mr Albanese said it would make an “enormous difference”.
“You can call upon that Australian flagged vessel as part of an agreement of establishing the fleet,” he said.