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Speech on the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:02):  I rise to speak on the Marine Engineers Qualifications Bill 2013. The Australian Greens are pleased that this bill is before the Senate today. This is a bill which we supported in the House of Representatives, where it was introduced as a private member's bill, debated and recommended for a vote. Unfortunately, even though there is only one sitting day left in the House, the government has not brought the bill on for a vote there, even though the list of speakers was exhausted and, indeed, the House's selection committee recommended this bill for a vote back on 5 June. We look forward to this fully-debated bill going to a vote here in the Senate today.

Before I come to the particular provisions of this bill, I would just like to take this opportunity to reflect, at nearly the end of the 43rd Parliament, that there have been some excellent outcomes from this minority parliament and that those outcomes have been very good for the people of Australia. I think that, among all the recent media activity and debate, it has sometimes been easy to lose sight of that. Because of this minority parliament, we have seen $13 billion put into clean and renewable energy, which is an extremely important step for Australia in this very challenging 21st century. We have also seen that the tax-free threshold will be lifted to $18,200 for many, many people from the start of next year. I am also proud to say that the Greens have been able to negotiate that, from 1 January 2014, parents will be able to take their kids to the dentist and use their Medicare card to get free dental treatment. Just yesterday, through the hard work of the minority parliament, we saw the Gonski school funding reforms pass this Senate, providing the framework for needs-based funding of schools in Australia-a long-overdue and transformative change to the schools funding system in Australia of which I think all those involved can be justly proud. We have also seen a lifting in the standard of protection offered to firefighters around this country. Because of the minority parliament and the Greens' bill in the House of Representatives, we have been able to increase the protections for and compensation available to those firefighters. And now we have the opportunity to do more for the Australian community and lock in some further protections for people right across this country.

The Greens have been approached by members of the Maritime Union of Australia who have said that their long-running campaign for a national stevedoring code of practice, to ensure safety on the docks, was threatened to be stymied at the last minute and now may not happen at all as a result of the intervention of some large employers. One thing that we, here, could do right now is to enshrine the standards for our marine engineers.

First of all, I would just like to indicate what the basis of this bill is. This is a bill designed to prevent a reduction in marine engineering training and certification standards in Australia. This bill will do this by requiring that any marine regulations, such as marine orders, must be amended by the issuing authority so as to comply with and give effect to the existing Australian standards for engineering training and certification. This bill also implements the engineering improvements which were agreed to on 22 October 2009 between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the AMSA, and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, the AIMPE, and which include, among other things, the establishment of separate regulatory requirements and ratings to assist with regulatory certainty.

Importantly, with the passage of the Navigation Act 2012, existing Australian standards will no longer apply to a vessel in Australia's merchant trading fleet if the vessel does not trade internationally. However, only seven of the approximately 20 merchant ships left in the Australian fleet actually trade internationally, so the Navigation Act 2012 does not apply to the remainder of the Australian trading fleet. The Navigation Act 2012 also does not apply to the more than 150 commercial vessels which are currently engaged in the Australian oil and gas industry or to other relevant operations. So there is a problem.

The Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012, which I will refer to as the national law, has given rise to lower training and certification standards than those required by the Navigation Act. The national law sets lower standards. It counts only half the defined propulsion power in certifying the level of training and certification required for a given vessel. It no longer triggers Navigation Act standards when a vessel exits state waters. It does not mandate the three-year training requirement for a marine engineer watch-keeper. It does not mandate the AMSA oral examinations. It does not ensure that the AMSA directly audits college course providers. It does not maintain the academic entry standards for engineer cadets.

To ensure this reduction in training and certification requirements does not progress, the bill we are debating today proposes that, in addition to the seven vessels covered by the Navigation Act 2012, where a commercial vessel is either 500 or more gross registered tonnes or has propulsion power of 3,000 kilowatts or more the engineer on the vessel shall also be required to meet the marine engineer training and certification standards set out in this bill.

It is reassuring to know that this bill has been scrutinised, as is the requirement for all proposed legislation and regulations, by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a proud member. The committee and the statement of compatibility in relation to the bill noted that the bill engages with some important human rights. The bill engages with and recognises the right to enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work, as described in article 7 of the International covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 7(b) of the article makes particular mention of safe and healthy working conditions. This bill helps to ensure that all persons have the right to safe and healthy conditions at work by ensuring a minimum competency standard. Maritime working environments have the potential, of course, to be hazardous, and the competency of maritime workers can directly affect the health and safety of others. The bill was found to be compatible with human rights.

We have a good shipping industry in this country. It faces its challenges, as do shipping industries around the world. In Australia that is in part because successive governments have not understood the importance to our trade and to our defence, let alone our economy, of having a good Australian owned shipping industry. We have a safe shipping industry. It is safe for the people who work on the ships. It is safe for the people who are out at sea. And it has to be, and generally is, safe for our environment.

One of the reasons for that safety is the high standards and level of qualifications and professionalism of our marine and power engineers. We have a good track record. Unfortunately our good safety regime and track record has to be defended against attacks and undermining. We have seen some of those attacks in recent years with the attempt to reduce the minimum time of study required to become an engineer from three years to one year. We have been able to stop that. One thing that is worth noting, though, is that the attempt to reduce the time from three years to one year was, in essence, reneging on an agreement that had been reached with the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers.

The Greens have had the privilege of working closely with a range of workers and their unions, as well as with a range of organisations that might be described as craft unions. These are often smaller unions, organisations and professional institutes. They are often non-political and non-partisan in the sense that they do not necessarily hitch their wagon to a particular star but are prepared to work with those who will understand, listen to and advance their interests. When an organisation comes knocking on your door and says there is a real concern about safety and we need you to stand up in parliament and fix it, the Australian Greens are very happy to work with them. It is a fundamental responsibility of all of us in the parliament to be looking at what needs to occur in the national interest and to give a voice to those interests the Australian community who look to us for leadership and look to us to rectify threats to safety.

There is a continuing move to erode protections and minimum standards, and we must always be vigilant in Australia. This is not about enshrining a closed shop. If anyone who is a member of another union, or not, wants to come in and work as an engineer they should be able to. But that should not come at the expense of reducing minimum standards, which are important for health, safety and the environment. The minimum standards should be the minimum standards, and whoever meets them can then go and get a job.

There are a number of things we are still waiting for from the government but this legislation is something that we can implement right now. On behalf of the Australian Greens I commend this bill to the Senate and congratulate all members of the AIMPE on their advocacy.

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