Politicians are talking a lot of ship!

By Stuart Ballantyne

Who would believe that Australia, with 60,000 kms of coastline ranking in the top seven in the world for coastline length, has the smallest shipping fleet per unit of coastline?

‘Surely this cannot be true?’ my friend Emmanuel Grimaldi, one of the world’s largest ship and port owners, said to me in disbelief back in 2010. But the problem is not just the lack of ships, it is a lack of ports.

Even my home state of Queensland, with 7,000 kms of mainland coastline, only has ten trading ports which is effectively one port every 700 kms on average. For some perspective, Gujarat in India has a port every 53 kms, and the UK has a port every 65 kms. So why do most developed maritime nations have ports 12 times more than Queensland, and likely the other Australian States?

Nationally, our Transport Policy people in both federal and state have been myopically focused on road and rail. They have ignored coastal shipping despite never-ending federal and state government ‘reviews’ over the last four decades urging the opposite. Transport Policy advisors that I have met during that time had less knowledge than my long-dead budgie.

The Monday after Palaszczuk was elected in 2015, the ABC 7.30 Report on Transhipping mischievously showed untidy and dusty coal transhipment operations in Kalimantan Indonesia implying the imminent destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. Inept and gullible Premier Palaszczuk promptly announced that there would be no more transhipping in Queensland, obstructing many regional projects and jobs. She was too lazy to check that environmental award-winning transhipping vessels had already been working in the Gulf of Carpentaria for the previous 25 years.

Queensland’s leadership – ALP with a huge dash of Green – decided to shoot the other foot and passed the Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015 to halt anyone building any other ports. An analogy is the ‘Sustainable Chemist Shop Act’ where, if the government-owned the only ten chemist shops in the state, such an Act would prevent any new private enterprise chemist shop. Socialism at its worst! Yes, the tariffs in Queensland ports are well above the private sector, even the state-owned Cairns marina is one of the highest in the country.

Driven by the paranoia that some evil people would sneak coal through new ports and bring life as we know it to a grinding halt as per the ‘Gospel according to Greta’, the ALP leadership team smugly announced the passing of their new Act on TV, confirming that Moe, Larry, and Curly are still with us.

Never mind the huge, economically trapped resources in Queensland’s north such as 2.8 billion tonnes of phosphate. Never mind that Mount Isa is slowly dying and the region desperately needs opportunities and jobs.

With the South Australia – Western Australia railway line washed out, causing huge logistics problems, Australia is finally waking up to the unused Blue Highway.

‘Never Mind!’ said some other politicians. ‘We’ll build a railway line from Melbourne to Brisbane which will solve the nation’s transport problems!’ Any Transport Policy advisor worth their salt would know that rail volumes in Europe, the USA, and Canada flat-lined in the 1970s while road and sea transport volumes continued to climb steadily.

The proposed rail terminal in Acacia Ridge was mooted to do a quick transfer of containers to barges in the upper Brisbane River down to the port at Fisherman Islands. Oops, someone discovered that since the ALP/Greens halted dredging of the Brisbane river in 1996, the upper river is no longer navigable as it was for the previous 100 years compliments of aggregate dredging. Shallowing rivers have also exacerbated flooding, as we found out in 2011 with the loss of 38 lives. The ALP and Greens should hang their heads in shame with their ongoing nonsense that costs lives and jobs.

Now we have the South Australia – Western Australia railway line washed out, and as the main transport route on this trade the major logistics groups have been scrambling for solutions asking, ‘Do we have any ships available?’ No. Ports like Fremantle, for instance, are so congested that costs are ballooning through demurrage and double handling.

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has promised 12 ships to secure our nation if he is elected. For a nation of our size, we need around 50 overseas vessels and 150 coastal ships. At present we only have 11 coastal ships, but we need so many more ports and expansion of existing ports without the green tape.

Emmanuel Grimaldi was one of the initial participants in Europe’s ‘Motorway of the Sea’ (MOS) program which took 60 per cent of truck traffic off the coastal highways within the first two years. This program only required subsidy during those two years and now is running very successfully by several companies and many roro and ropax ships.

Could the implementation of an ‘Australian Motorways of the Sea’ (OzMoS) program work here? The marine industry supports this concept, which could easily reduce by 50 per cent the appalling road deaths (1,300 p.a.), serious road accidents (18,000 p.a. with ongoing costs to families and government in the care of these victims), road emissions pollution, road congestion, and road maintenance. According to Abstats, these road related costs amount to $50 billion. Subsidising the OZMoS for two years would cost 1 billion each year. But the ports for these ships, essentially large carparks, need to be constructed around the nation.

For defence of our nation, especially in the north, we need many more new ports.

Here’s the problem. We have enshrined the whole nation with National Parks, Marine Parks, Sensitive fish habitats, and assorted nonsense that is policed by armies of State Environment Protection Authority and the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation troopers. Even for small ports or load-out facilities it is at least an eight-year, very expensive exercise, that eliminates all but the large companies with deep pockets.

So, we need to elect a leader that will focus on vision projects for the nation, nuclear energy, the Bradfield Scheme, the Boomerang Line, and the OzMoS.

Where do we find such a leader with spine?

Dr Stuart Ballantyne is Chairman of the Sea Transport Group.


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