The Guardian 15 June, 2005

Witch-hunt on the waterfront

The Federal Government last week made baseless accusations about corruption on the waterfront. The Guardian spoke to Robert Coombs, Secretary of the Central NSW Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, who made the following comments:

First and foremost ó the Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister, John Anderson, through the week in an effort to try and deflect all sorts of criticism that the government is copping, and his Department is copping regarding alleged drug smuggling at Sydney airport, has said that any new measures that would go into place at the airports would also go across to ports.

And it would also include criminal background checks for all employees both at airports and at ports.

And in doing that he made an incredible and quite extraordinary comment that he believed that there was a wide range of criminal activity and a great number of people who are employed in Australian ports who have criminal backgrounds.

That sort of statement is at best quite misguided; at worst though, which it is on this occasion, it is just a malicious attempt to try and malign good and decent and hard-working citizens who simply wish to go to work to pay for all those things that modern society demands of us.

It was a highly inflammatory statement and without any justice or without any qualification whatsoever.

Itís an incredibly provocative statement. Not only has he offended the union, and not only has he offended the whole of the decent and honest Australian citizens and workers. It is an attempt by the government to deflect away from some other issues regarding this particular problem.

Flag of convenience

There are a couple of fundamental issues here. First is the continual abuse by the federal government of encouraging flag of convenience vessels into Australian ports.

Ten years ago we had a very, very healthy Australian shipping fleet which serviced our coast line and also a very, very healthy overseas fleet.

Now weíve got very, very few overseas vessels and our coastal fleet has been cut quite significantly.

As a result of that there is an ever-increasing reliance on flag of convenience vessels to transport our products.

Flag of convenience vessels are the worst sort of vessels in the world. They are set up as a tax fraud, they donít employ national seafarers and by-and-large donít have to comply with strict navigational provisions and regulations that countries like Australia put into place.

They also exploit their workforce and take incredible environmental risks because of their non-compliance with safety regulations and provisions.

From an economic point of view all they do is tend to increase our negative balance of payments.

Security not addressed seriously

If the government is serious about addressing the security problem, the people who sail on those vessels have very dodgy paperwork supporting them and itís basically impossible to either correctly track who these people are or track the sorts of cargoes that these sorts of vessels are carrying.

Secondly you have got customs. Itís a very under-resourced government department there.

Once upon a time when an overseas vessel tied up, as an example, there would be a customs caravan put at the foot of every gangway.

So an overseas vessel would tie up, the gangway would go down and there would be customs there for the entire time that vessel would be in port.

Of course those customs officers had a duty to check the vessel, to check its contents and manifest and also check the people coming up and going on board; checking that they donít carry contraband.

That does not happen anymore.

It leads to the third major problem.

That is, of the millions of containers that come in to the country on a yearly basis only three per cent are inspected.

So 97 out of every 100 containers that come into the place go without any sort of visual inspection or any sort of X-ray.

If criminal elements are not exploiting this particular element, then I must say that I donít think we are looking at the whole thing in any sort of objective way or trying to do any sort of objective analysis at all.

Putting the boot into workers

But then again the government is just putting the boot into the workers, and especially the maritime workers. They hate this organisation [Maritime Union] something unbelievable.

They have a hatred for unions and they have an abhorrence of militant unions around the place.

It carries from the Cole Royal Commission into the Building Industry, and it comes from completely non-democratic principles that were put in place in relation to regulating the building unions. Theyíd like to do the same with us.

Youíve got the situation now where on 24 hours notice from these overseas vessels the government is giving them a licence to carry Australian produce.

Itís even enshrined in the Navigation Act that cargo being moved from one Australian port to another should be Australian flag vessels and manned by Australian crews.

These overseas flag of convenience shipping companies have found loopholes in the current Act which the government is encouraging them to exploit and therefore bring guest labour onto our coastline.

On the other hand theyíre trying to enact a political witch hunt against the Australian workers who continue to remain in the industry.

The union has been participating in a very cooperative way with a body called the Department of Transport and Regional Services.

We had agreed that all port workers would be issued with security cards. And those security cards would say who you are. To get one issued you would have had to have passed a terrorist background check being completed by the Australian Federal Police.

However, it appears Cabinet has jettisoned that.

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