Interview: Terror Australis
Unions: Graeme Beard's Second Dig
Industrial: The Hell of Troy
Organising: Miners Strike Gold
Economics: The Accepted Wisdom
History: Vicious Old Lady
International: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Review: War Unfogged
The Locker Room
Getting Away With Murder
Interview with Peter Lewis
The Howard Government has discovered what you have been saying for quite a while: in terms of national security our ports might be a weakness. What's happened to illuminate them?
Well, remarkably on Sunday 21st John Anderson started reading from the script from the Maritime Union and in fact, mentioning the exact sort of ships, the exact sort of ports that the MUA said could be a potential terrorist operation.
That is fertilizer ships, which have an enormous potential, tens and tens of thousands of tones of fertilizer mixed with their own diesel fuel on the ship is just one of the biggest floating bombs you could ever imagine. The MUA has been saying this for a very long time. In fact for the whole duration of the maritime security legislation and the whole processes of implementing that act, the union has been saying, look out for the big loopholes. So, we've dealt with the security act on one hand but there are other regulations and government strategies that directly erode those security arrangements, and this is one of them.
So is this bill a specific reference to the effective deregulation of Australia's national shipping? Is that the real problem?
We say, and its pretty well supported by all of the evidence around the place, that flag of convenience system allows potential terrorists into our waters. It has allowed crooks, smugglers and pirates in the past the opportunity to hide the beneficial ownership of the vessel absolutely and provide them an opportunity to run ships around the Australian coast with government permits running exclusively on the Australia coast and with very few checks and balances. The classic example is the fertilizer ship, the Henry Oldendorff which is not an isolated example has a crew of 20 with eight different nationalities on board sourced from what the government refers to as the "arc of instability".This ship replaces an Australian ship with secure Australian crews regulated by the Australian governments So there is an obvious opportunity fasicilitated inadvertently by the federal government, its got to be prime area for terrorism concerns.
And what sort of security checks do these people have coming into the country? If they were coming in on a plane; they would have to go through customs - does that occur on a flag of convenience ship?
Well it's a question that a lot of people have been trying to clarify with customs and immigration. They tell us now that 70 per cent of ships that come into Australia on their first port of call are checked by customs. Well what sort of check? Does that mean, a rummage check, or a thourough check, a face to photograph check? We are very unclear on those issues and customs cannot identify those. The best statistics we can come up with from some questions lodged by the Labor Party, is that there's about a 30 per cent face to photograph check of foreign seafarers coming through Australian ports So that really means that 70 per cent of seafarers aren't having their face checked up against their passports and until November last year they didn't even have to have passports.
Now what do we know about people that run flag of convenience ships? Why do they go to a country like Liberia to register their ship?
Well unfortunately, I think the maritime industry internationally is being driven down by the erosive effects of flag convenience and some of the Australian ship owners will tell you that they're being forced to flag out. That's one issue and we're addressing that. But generally and historically, flag of convenience vessels have been the area that allows operators to dodge regulation, dodge any costs of checks and balances of a country. Plus they don't have to pay their crews the appropriate rates, the trade union rates, so they can get away with diabolical abuses of crews. That's not to say all flag of convenience operators are like that but in our experience some of the worse operators in the world use the FOC system..
And do we know the worse operators in the world are coming to Australian ports?
Well certainly, we've seen some evidence of that. Now last year in Australia we had millions of dollars recovered and put directly back into the seafarer's pockets, which was underpaid or just not paid by ship owners to seafarers visiting Australia. So that's one example, we've seen seafarers, I've been on a ship when a seafarer was bashed in the next cabin. And that sort of thing is happening in our ports all the time still.
One of the rumors you hear floating around every now and then is that Bin Laden is running flag of convenience ships. Is that just talk or is that something that we can actually charge?
No, I think its generally accepted everywhere in the world now, that al Qaeda, Bin Laden and a whole range of other terrorist organizations around the world get a lot of money from piracy and from running ships. Whether they be full of dynamite and guns is another thing but they could be just involved in the international trading market running their vessels. Now, the figures that we get is that around 20 vessels are run by al Qaeda. And while the international security community have accepted that that's about the right level they cannot identify the beneficial owners. Why? Because one of the key features of the FOC sytem is that it provides owners with absolute anonymity..
But we could be saying that at any one time there could be a ship controlled by al Qaeda at an Australian port
al Qaeda is one terrorist organization and there's plenty of others around the world. So yes, there could be vessels in our ports right now that are beneficially owned by terrorist organisations.
OK, now this is all quite sensational, but given the Federal Government has raised this issue., what should they be doing if they want to prove their credentials on maritime security?
If the Federal Government wanted to prove to the Australian and the international arena that they are serious about maritime security, they would not just a looking at a single act, they would be looking at how Australian maritime law impacts on other regulation, other legislation and other objectives of the Federal Government. The most important one to the maritime union is clearly, the single most important issue is that the abuse of the permit system as it stands now, directly erodes the maritime security of Australia.
And what practical steps need to be taken here?
Well the Labor Party has resolved at the last national conference to have an immediate review into the Single Voyage Permit system with a particular focus to national security. Security has changed since the SVP system was introduced, and in that time they've blown out to more than 1,000 voyages each year on the Australian coast for the Australian domestic market Predominately these are flag of convenience vessels, so there's a big problem there that has to be immediately reviewed in the context of maritime security.
When you've got a vessel of 20 people and eight or nine different nationalities, you have to ask why there's that many, and if the owners were honest would tell you, the crews can't organize amongst themselves or they don't know who each other are and they don't have common languages.
The other thing is that these crews, and we're very careful not to sensationlise this as well, but these crews, from what the Australian Federal Government have identified, are coming from what they have labeled the "arc of instability". So whether that be true or not, the Government's saying on the one hand that here is a number of countries in an arc of instability, yet we'll encourage those crews to come onto the Australian coast to do our coastal cargos at the expense of Australian seafarers.
It is generally identified that the safest way to carry a cargo from one place in Australia to another place in Australia is on an Australian ship with Australian crews. It goes from one secure area, on a secure vessel around to another secure area. Even more secure than a train or a truck.
So flag of convenience shipping is effectively just opening up our coast line to the worst international excess?
The Maritime Unions maintain that if Australian shipping received the same amount of encouragement from the federal government as does foreign flags then Australia could rebuild a strong reliable and above all secure industry for the carriage of all domestic cargos.
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