by RADM Andrew Robertson AO DSC RANR (Ret'd)

July-Sept 2005 "The Navy"

Much has been written lately concerning the state of the nation's infrastructure, particularly road, rail, water and electricity. However, while the effects of transport - bottlenecks to, and in, our ports - have been well publicised, one important area which has been almost completely ignored is Australian-owned shipping. Following many decades of major problems in our merchant ships and in the ports, Australia has largely walked away from shipping, leaving the carriage of our goods to others. However, times have changed. Crews in the few remaining Australian-owned vessels are now down to the average of those of OECD countries. Our ports are much improved in efficiency. There is comparatively little industrial unrest and our international trade, particularly in commodities, has grown greatly. We are among the top 20 trading nations in the world: Our imports and exports by sea (over 99% by weight of the total) are now in the order of 600 million tonnes per year, of which some 500 million tonnes are exports (say about 6,000 ship loads). However, very little is carried in Australian ships. There is now little interstate coastal trade and foreign vessels are taking a proportion of the trade available. Meanwhile our roads and railways are having difficulty in coping with requirements and, while unavoidable, the costs to upgrade both these forms of transport are astronomical. And the serious road toll in human lives continues, often involving heavy transport vehicles, a proportion of whose loads could be transported by rail or sea. We are one of the few countries to be blessed with almost direct connections by sea between all of our major centres of industry, and sea routes require no maintenance and negligible update costs for navigation. And yet this form of interstate transport is now hardly used. What would be the advantages in developing our merchant marine? . We currently have a serious balance of payments problem. A share in our overseas transport would be beneficial and aid the economy overall, with a proportion of the huge transport value flowing back to Australia. . An increase in interstate shipping would ease the pressure on our roads and railways. . An increase in Australian shipping would lead to an increase in local ship repair, ship management, ship providoring, and even ship-building and insurance,. with clear benefits to employment and the economy. . In any future major war involving our nation, Australian- controlled shipping would be needed to support our Defence Force and to ensure essential supplies reached Australia. . A healthy merchant marine is required to be able to produce skilled mariners to crew our many pilot and port services required in our approximately 70 ports. . A strong merchant marine would provide a source of partly-trained personnel to help crew our Navy in time of war (as proved so valuable in WW2). And the disadvantages? On the assumption that, given suitable incentives, capital would come from the private sector, there would be some Government outlay on infrastructure and perhaps some temporary loss of tax revenue. There therefore seems a strong argument that this matter should be addressed to set in place taxation, crewing, flagging, port infrastructure, and other measures to encourage Australian business to re-enter this field. We have a splendid Maritime College, excellent innovative naval architects who . lead the world in some forms of ship design, some fine shipyards, and the example of several small countries with high standards of living including Norway, Denmark and Sweden, who have created great merchant fleets. There would appear to be every reason for a maritime nation like Australia to develop its merchant shipping in a major way. This will need a concerted Government initiative to get the ball rolling.

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