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Changing tides: a return to Australia’s shipping industry


(Last Updated On: March 18, 2023)

From 1851, paddle steamers could transport up to 2,000 bales of wool along the Murray River, with engines that were predominantly 20hp steam engines with side paddles fueled by local logs, with no price cap!

Today, to transport 2,000 bales of wool, requires 20 semi-trailers, each with 400 hp turbocharged diesel engines. To a simple Scottish migrant like me, this doesn’t make much sense financially or environmentally.

With the Murray being navigable for 970 kilometres and to a height of 36 metres above sea level, the settlements along south-eastern Australia’s Murray River system have exported and imported cargo to and from Adelaide for 70 years until 1925.

Government negligence in addressing safe ocean access through the mouth of the Murray River, meant ongoing tragic losses of vessels and human lives by illogically economically, and environmentally irrationally forcing the cargo onto an emerging road system, despite waterborne transport emissions being 95 per cent lower per tonne/km than road emissions.

At that time, why do you think that the South Australians never engineered a safe outflow location of the Murray, as the Victorians did at Lakes Entrance fifteen years earlier in 1910? Lakes Entrance and the Gold Coast, with engineered ocean accesses, both continue to be used safely by commercial and recreational vessels up to 100 metres, employing thousands of people.

Unlike most other maritime nations, Australia failed to embrace coastal shipping and we are myopically focused on road transport. A quick look at Australian Bureau of Statistics and you will see that we are back at pre-covid tragedy levels, where road deaths are at 1,300 per annum and serious injuries are at 18,000 per annum, with the latter costing the nation much more including families providing rest of life care.

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Add road congestion and road repairs, which all of us know too well, sitting in a stationary traffic queue trying to quell anger management. Then sprinkle that with road transport emissions and we have a total of $50 billion steady outflow, confirmed by ABS.

12 years ago in Cancun, I caught up with my friend who is a significant global ship and port owner. We were sitting and chatting together with our wives, cooling our heels before an industry conference and he was astonished to find out that Australia did not have a coastal roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) shipping service.

I explained to him that we used to have a coastal ro-ro service, which was government-run. His eyes rolled, as he knew all about bureaucratic organisations, full of people who either don’t know or don’t care.

Despite its great potential, the combination of lazy seafaring unions demanding high salaries for low performance, bureaucrats demanding unrealistic operational schedules, and lack of infrastructures for modern ro-pax (roll-on/roll-off passenger ships), the Australian National Line (ANL) collapsed in an untidy heap in 1989. I actually worked in the ANL head office in Melbourne for exactly three years and three days in the mid-70s and required three lots of exorcism to get it out of my system. I bailed, as I recognised the dumb policies cascading constantly from hermetically sealed Canberra and could foresee the collapse. I headed to Queensland as the new boss of a one-man marine empire.

My shipping friend confirmed that the Motorways of the Sea (MOS) program, only required financial subsidy for the first two years, but during that time, removed 60 per cent of the truck traffic from coastal roads. The resultant cost for trucks to travel from Italy to France or Spain by ship was then, and is now, less than the combination of road tolls and fuel for a truck by road.

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For over twenty-five years I have been peddling the Australian Motorways of the Sea (OZMoS) concept at many venues, even sending a powerpoint presentation to all parties every two years, including in 2021 to the then-Opposition leader Albanese. No response from him, Morrison, Bandt, or Wally the Goose.

Think about it! If we reduced coastal truck traffic by 60 per cent, wherein trucks are the predominant culprit of road deaths, accidents, road maintenance, and road emissions – wouldn’t you come to the conclusion that we could also reduce road deaths and road accidents and the road issues costs of $50bn by at least 50 per cent?

$25bn is an enticing figure and deserves national focus, or at least near the top 30 Best Things to do for the Australia’s economy. A compelling strategy indeed and a leap towards low emissions.

Alas, it would appear that Team Albanese is working from the bottom upwards, with The Voice and Climate Change (numbers 30 and 29 on my list), capturing his team’s total focus. My fellow Scot, Colin Hay, would be delighted to known that the whole Australian economy is viewed from Down Under as he wrote the song.

So, Albanese has established an expert committee to investigate the best course of action for Coastal Shipping. There appears to be rules for establishing such committees. They must be party aligned. They must have an open mind, which means that experienced operators are eliminated as they would be singularly focused on a successful solution. The committee should be gender balanced.

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With this lacklustre team being appointed, most of whom I know but wouldn’t employ, I did send them all a copy of OzMoS. Again, no one replied. I can understand them ignoring a fringe proposal for lower emissions by banning travel by pogo stick, but stuff that is a no-brainer for safety, emissions, and the economy, hello!

So next time you are sitting in a traffic jam, sandwiched between trucks that are belching out fumes even at idle, or stuck at road repair red traffic lights where no one is working, or watching ambulances carting bodies away from a road accident, daydream about being the Prime Minister for a few days. Do you immediately implement a policy that could save 650 Australian lives each year and reduce serious injuries to 900 Australians, or do you focus on the Voice and Climate Change that won’t save anyone or their pets?

Australia’s got talent, but it’s missing leadership.

As reported by The Spectator Australia