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Australia: Antiquated laws threaten to cut off vital trade in lockdown scenario

Australia would be cut off from international trade in a COVID-19 lockdown, unable to import consumer goods and export commodities which underpin the national economy, unless state governments declare port operations an essential service.

Ports Australia and Australia’s stevedoring companies are pressing the Morrison government to address a historic anomaly in state legislation which would prohibit wharfies, marine pilots and other port employees from going to work if people were confined to our homes during an outbreak.

DP World Australia chief executive Glen Hilton told The Age each state needed to move to ensure that, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, trade can keep moving through our ports.

“DP World is urgently seeking the formal designation of stevedoring and the associated freight and marine services as essential services,’’ Mr Hilton said.

“It is critical to the supply chain that trade keeps flowing through our ports, or else Australia risks further, catastrophic economic disruption.”

Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallacher said that if port operations were not designated as essential services, Australia risked a return to the kind of panic buying that accompanied the early days of the pandemic.

“If we have people in lockdown and unable to leave their homes we don’t want to go back to where we were a week and a half ago,’’ he said. “We need to ensure that should the balloon go up and we go into lockdown mode, our people can continue to go to work and keep the supply chain going.”

In 2019, 8 million containers moved through Australian ports. About 98 per cent of our international trade arrives and leaves our shores in ships, rather than by air.

The omission of port operations from the 1988 NSW Essential Services Act and the equivalent, 62-year old legislation in Victoria, is a throwback to our industrially fractious past when governments required laws to protect public utilities and transport from strike action.

They were never envisioned as a protection against the kind of global threat represented by the coronavirus pandemic and move to include ports as essential services would have been fiercely opposed by waterside unions.

Even now, the demand by Australia’s largest stevedoring companies – including Patrick Stevedores, the bete noire of the union movement – may be resisted by the Maritime Union of Australia.

The declaration being sought by the companies would give their workers priority access to surgical masks and COVID-19 testing and exemptions from home isolation orders. It would also allow the companies to cancel all leave and operate beyond the limits of their enterprise agreements.

It would require a declaration by the governors of each state, adding port operations to the gazetted list of essential services.

Tim Higgs, the president of the executive council of the Australian Maritime Officers Union which represents marine pilots and stevedoring supervisors, said the declaration was desperately needed.

“You have got port employees in critical roles and need to make sure there is some form of protection for them and they are considered essential services so if we do go into lockdown,’’ he said. “The real worrying thing is that from a federal point of view, no one has stepped in.”

The push to secure our port operations throughout the pandemic comes as global shipping confronts significant disruptions to its operations. In Australia, one of the difficulties faced by shipping companies is the ad hoc application of COVID-19 quarantine laws by different states and different ports within states.

A directive issued by Australian Border Force on 20 March makes clear a prohibition against all crew members of commercial vessels coming ashore until they have spent 14 days at sea since their last port of call. Under this provision, ships can be safely unloaded and loaded so long as the crew stays aboard.

In some states, most notably, Queensland and Western Australia, port authorities have taken these restrictions further and are prohibiting ships from docking until they have spent 14 days at sea. This means that a ship travelling the usual, eight days from Singapore to Bunbury or Fremantle is forced to spend a further six days at anchor, before it can dock.

Western Australia has also unilaterally introduced the forced quarantine of crew members who fly into Australia to join a ship.

Shipping Australia deputy chief executive Melwyn Noronha said the additional restrictions and piecemeal approach were starting to bite.

“The bottom line is, why can’t the states when it comes to shipping and freight apply the national standard? That is all we are asking,’’ he said.

“Cost of freight is going to blow out enormously and everyday Australians are going to be impacted by goods not being on the shelves.”

On Monday this week, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a national shut down of non-essential public businesses and some states and territories closed their borders to limit the spread of COVID-19, a European shipping company ceased its operations in Australia and sacked its entire, Melbourne-based staff.

On the same day, the International Chamber of Shipping and International Association of Ports and Harbours wrote an open letter to G20 leaders urging them to protect global supply chains.

“Shipping is the lifeblood of the world,” ICS secretary general Guy Platten said. “Without the efficient and safe transportation of food, medical supplies, raw materials and fuel, countries could face an even more difficult situation than the one we are all facing.

“We need nations, led by the G20, to work together to provide coordinated rather than knee jerk restrictions to protect us all from COVID-19.”
Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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