Interview: Agenda 2003
Peace: The Colour Purple
Industrial: Long, Hot Summer
Solidarity: Workers Against War
Security: Howard And The Hoodlums
International: Industrial Warfare
History: Unions and the Vietnam War
Review: Eight Miles to Mowtown
Poetry: Return To Sender
Satire: CIA Recruits New Intake of Future Enemies
The Locker Room
A Call To Arms
A Tale of Two Malls
Talk Back Tom
On The Beach
Howard And The Hoodlums
According to election-mode NSW Police Minister Michael Costa, Port Kembla on the state's south coast is a possible entry point for illegal hand guns. Stands to reason; the port has healthy trade figures, and port authorities are striving to increase these. The local Customs unit was downsized and relocated north to Wollongong during the 1990s. There is a case for a considerable security upgrade.
But Costa was understating the situation when he made his claim during January. More than hand guns could be coming through Port Kembla's open door. Given the hypothetical nature of our times, try drugs, try illegal immigrants, try terrorists.
A week before Costa's claim, The Washington Post quoted US intelligence sources warning of Tongan registered ships being used by al-Qaeda to ferry terrorists and their supplies throughout the world.
Since 9/11 at least five Tongan registered vessels have been involved in, or been suspected of involvement in, al-Qaeda and terrorist related activity in the Mediterranean. Of special interest is the Nova company which uses Tongan flagged ships and is incorporated in the US and Romania. The al-Qaeda fleet is believed to comprise 50 vessels, 15 of which are cargo freighters, all plying the sea routes of the world, their ownership hidden under a blanket of cunning corporate paperwork.
Enter the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). During January the Tongan registered bulk carrier Ikuna loaded a grain cargo in Port Kembla. The vessel was formerly the Australian registered Wallarah, operating out of Newcastle and employing two crew of 18 Australians. Now flying the Tongan flag, the Ikuna employs Tongans who reportedly work for the pocket money wage of $330 per month.
The MUA and South Coast Labour Council protested the use of the Ikuna, a bitter matter going back to complex corporate manouverings last year that took the bulk carrier from Newcastle, and placed it on the Tongan register.
Concerns were raised with Port Kembla authorities about the use of the Ikuna, the loss of Australian jobs involved, and the use of exploited maritime labour. Concerns about national security were also raised in the light of the US revelations. A peaceful community picket line and an airing of the issues involved attracted considerable regional media coverage.
While Prime Minister John Howard and relieving P.M. John Anderson spent the Christmas break disembling through their teeth, denying they were George Dubbya puppets, it was left to the MUA and the South Coast Labour Council to look after the national interest of Australia.
Hoodlums of the Sea.
So how did Tonga get into the terrorist act? Two years ago, hard on the heels of a raft of personal revenue raising scams, the corrupt Royal family of Tonga allowed international shipping interests to register vessels in Tonga--for a price. Thus Tonga became a "flag of convenience" (FOC), alongside notorious veteran players like Liberia and Panama.
Flags of convenience enable unscrupulous shipowning interests to avoid paying taxes to their national governments, and having their vessels meet stringent national regulations designed to protect shipping, seafarers, cargoes, and environments.
Many FOC registered ships, variously known around the world's waterfronts as "rust buckets", "coffin ships'', do not stand up to such scrutiny and should be in maritime wrecking yards. But afloat, registered under a FOC, they are "ships of shame" and ply the sea routes with impunity.
FOC vessels are notorious for running aground, being involved in collisions, sinking, causing loss of life, featuring in insurance scams and in ecological disasters. Exploitation of untrained, non-unionised, labour is also standard fare.
France's President Jacques Chirac, revolted by the ecological catastrophe unfolding as oil from the wreck of the Liberian registered tanker Prestige washes ashore on the coasts of Spain and France, recently described business interests behind flags of convenience as "shady businessmen, the hoodlums of the sea".
A cautionary note: these hoodlums tend to look like corporate lawyers and accountants rather than movie style low life.
Cash Cows and Confetti.
So far as al-Qaeda is concerned, the slackness of the FOC system is a godsend. Tonga was a new player in the maritime stakes, wet behind the ears, and the Royal family was hungry for money.
Not everyone in al-Qaeda is a desperate towel-head hiding in a mountain cave, the familiar propaganda image cultivated by George Dubbya and his media lackeys. Behind the front-lines al-Qaeda is a sophisticated multi-million dollar enterprise involving businesses that operate as cash cows for future operations. Hello Tonga.
FOC vessels work Australian domestic runs because of special Federal legislation that allows the issue of 'single voyage' permits. Trouble is this system is abused by the Howard Government; permits are cheap and easy to get, sort of like maritime confetti.
The result is the guts are being torn out of the Australian merchant fleet. Australian ships variously disappear from the Australian register, taking with them jobs once done by unionised Australian seafarers, and FOC vessels and exploited crews take over. Since 1994 the Australian merchant fleet has been reduced from 90 vessels to 45.
Which is probably the name of the game as the ideologically driven Howard government, committed to anti-unionism, covertly seeks to dismantle the MUA, a bastion of Australian trade unionism, destroying a significant part of the union's membership base by eliminating Australian sea-going jobs.
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