Labor’s claim that proposed changes to coastal shipping laws are “Workchoices on Water” is classic overreach. It is also a signal that the ALP continues to have its economic policy dictated to by its protectionist and xenophobic union paymasters. The reality is that the Coalition government’s sensible proposals for coastal shipping could go much further in addressing this crippling economic issue.
Coastal shipping of bulk commodities is vital for Australian commerce and industry, making up approximately 25 per cent of Australian domestic freight. A free and competitive market is the best way to provide shipping services in the most cost efficient manner. Increased competition, with a trebling of foreign ships in the coastal trade over the last 20 years, has fundamentally been a good thing for Australia — resulting in cheaper freight for producers and cheaper products for consumers.
Chris Berg and I argued as much in a 2013 report published by the Institute of Public Affairs. My repeated view is that while recent changes have made the laws worse, we shouldn’t settle for winding back the changes: the laws should be entirely repealed.
However, Labor and the militant Maritime Union of Australia would have us believe that the coastal shipping industry exists solely to provide jobs for its union members. This is why, in 2012, the Federal Labor government rolled out 250 pages of red tape to “revitalise” the Australian shipping industry by prohibiting foreign competition. The Labor government’s own forecasts predicted that these changes would harm economic growth and result in significant job losses in the long-term. It was clear that Labor was legislating in the MUA’s interest, not the national interest.
Earlier this year Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss announced a range of sensible reforms. These include replacing Labor’s complicated 3-tiered license and permit structure with a single permit system. Burdensome compliance requirements will be deregulated, and Australia’s hyper-regulated industrial relations laws will no longer be imposed on foreign-flagged vessels that mainly operate in foreign waters – restoring the historic norm. Hopefully, Labor’s generous taxpayer subsidies for Australian-flagged vessels will also be scrapped.
This announcement was met by protests from Labor and the Martime Union, with appeals to place “local Aussie jobs” above foreign workers. Shamefully, protectionism tainted with the stain of xenophobia is becoming a recurring theme in Labor politics.
In the lead up to the 2013 federal election, Labor tightened the 457 visa program in response to union demands. In an ugly and desperate campaign, Labor concocted allegations of rorts – which were subsequently discredited. Of course, that did not stop the unions erecting billboards demonising hard-working skilled migrants, and calling for visa holders to be sacked and deported to make way for “local Aussies”.
The theme continued in 2014, when Bill Shorten addressed a union rally in South Australia amidst speculation that Australia’s new submarines may be built in Japan. Shorten claimed that only Labor would “build ships and submarines in Australia because we love this country”. A member of the crowd reminded Shorten that “the last time we had Jap subs they were in bloody Sydney Harbour”. Meanwhile, the AMWU leader warned his fellow unionists that “Japanese subs were on the way.”
Most recently, the 2015 NSW state election campaign saw the CFMEU teaming up NSW Labor to roll out a brazenly xenophobic campaign in a failed attempt to scare voters about the prospect of Chinese investment in the state’s electricity assets. Thankfully, these tactics were scrutinised by a NSW parliamentary inquiry.
On coastal shipping, the Coalition government’s changes simply right the wrongs of the previous Labor government, and aim to restore competition in the coastal shipping industry – a move that will increase Australia’s GDP by over $400 million over the next decade. Of course, to achieve the maximum boost to the Australian economy, the Coalition government should really be repealing these protectionist and anti-competitive laws in their entirety.