Coalition must not walk away from Australia's shipping industry

port_kembla_shipping.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (12:49): I rise to speak on the Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 4) Bill 2014. There are four parts to this bill which is before the House today; two of which Labor supports, and two of which we cannot support. This is in complete contrast to the member for Deakin—who has spent, out of 15 minutes, the best part of 30 seconds talking about what is probably the most important part of this bill: the abolition of the seafarers offset, which he sought to dismiss because somehow it provided a benefit to workers who also happened to be union members. It just goes to show how far members of the government will go to drive jobs offshore, but it also shows what a very clouded view members of the government caucus have not only of economic policy but also of how to introduce policy for the betterment of ordinary Australian workers.

There are four parts to the bill. We will support two of them. We will support the mature age worker tax offset; in fact, in office we started the process of abolishing this, by a number of measures. In our view, it is a high-cost method of boosting older workforce participation, and can be done more effectively through other means. We will also support, obviously, the updating of the conditions relating to deductible gift recipients. These updates by way of legislation are generally bipartisan propositions, and I see no reason to depart from that today. Those will have our support as well.

We will not be supporting the changes to the R and D offset, because we do not think they are in the public interest. We certainly will not be supporting the changes to the seafarer tax offset, and I would like to put a bit of context around that. The bill seeks to abolish the offset, and it does this as a bloody-minded attempt to pull apart the previous Labor government's shipping policy reforms which were contained in the Stronger Shipping for a Stronger Economy package of measures. It is the start of the coalition's systematic attempt to dismantle historic reforms that were put in place to strengthen and revitalise the Australian shipping industry. It has probably been the most significant overhaul of the Australian shipping industry in over 100 years—so it beggars belief that those opposite are coming in here today and advocating the dismantling of these important reforms. In 2012, a bloke who spent most of his life at sea and knows a fair bit about the Australian industry, Paddy Crumlin, had this to say: 'This, without doubt, is one of the most important days in Australian maritime history. It marks the day that Australian shipping was saved from near death.' He was referring to the stronger shipping reforms, the package of bills introduced into this House by the member for Grayndler and former minister for transport and infrastructure—a package of bills that was welcomed by industry and literally gave us the chance to save our maritime industry.

It is worth reminding the House that at that time we were in a position where over the past decade the Australian shipping fleet had gone from 55 ships to 21, with only four operating on international routes. Today there are only four ships operating on international routes, principally in the LNG trade. In a country where 99.9 per cent of our trade is moved by ships, without any action we were going to be left without an international shipping fleet and we were going to be at the mercy of the rest of the world. You have to ask yourself, when we put so much effort into negotiating new trade agreements with other countries, why we would be neglecting the essential link in that chain—our own domestic shipping industry.

Labor wanted to see a bright and prosperous future for shipping in Australia, and the coalition wants to walk away from that. That is entirely consistent with about 80 years of coalition history. The one constant from that spat-wearing Londoner, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, as a former Liberal prime minister of Australia, right through the generations of conservative prime ministers to John Howard and the reign of his minister who did a lot of interfering in this area, Peter Reith, to Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister today, is an absolute hostility to Australians working on the ships that move in and out of Australian ports. The one thing they have been absolutely consistent with is their hostility to a domestic maritime workforce. The policies you see before you today are a reflection of that hostility. We saw it just now in the brilliant contribution from the member for Deakin, who dismissed this important piece of economic policy merely because it provided a benefit—a job—to an employee who happened to be a member of a union. For that reason and that reason alone, those opposite seek to dismiss it as having no benefit to the Australian economy and as something that warrants dismissal and removal.

Let us have a look at the cost of this seafarer tax offset. The seafarer tax offset is absolutely critical to the maintenance of the international register—it is the critical link in the chain. For this offset to occupy so much time here in parliament, and for it to enjoy the hostility it has received from members opposite, you would expect it to be a massive drain on the public purse over the forward estimates years. The cost of the measure which is going to decimate the capacity of Australian workers to work on ships sailing in and out of our ports is $8 million over the forward estimates. When you understand that, you understand that it is nothing short of ideology and utter contempt for Australians working on the ships that ply our coast that has led to this measure before the House today. We oppose it—we will oppose it here and we will oppose it in the Senate, and we will do that because that is in the interests of Australian workers.

Mr Joyce: Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. For the record, Stanley Melbourne Bruce was not in the Liberal Party. He was a Nationalist, and he was in the United Australia Party.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Craig Kelly): I thank the minister. The member for Throsby has the call.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: I am pleased to see that the member opposite who has made the interjection and then walked out of the chamber has access to Google. It took him all of about five minutes to be able to access Google and work out that Stanley Melbourne Bruce was indeed a member of the United Australia Party, the progenitor of the Liberal Party of today. But the point remains the same—the absolute hostility of conservative members of this parliament from the 1930s to today to Australians working on ships that come in and out of our ports.

The object of the seafarer tax offset was to stimulate opportunities for Australian seafarers to be employed or engaged on overseas voyages and to acquire maritime skills. Now, even before the offset initiative is two years old, when it has hardly had the opportunity to stretch its legs, they are moving to scrap it because of a massive $8 million drag on the budget over the forward estimates! You have to ask yourself where the priorities are. It is going to have a devastating impact on the electorates that have ports and are reliant on maritime trade, particularly international maritime trade. I represent such an electorate. The port of Port Kembla directly employs more than 3,500 people and contributes around $418 million to the Illawarra economy every year. Make no mistake about it—this will have an impact. We need a vibrant shipping industry, and we need it in my electorate and in places like the Illawarra, whose economies are going through a transition. We are going to be relying on a viable maritime sector and a viable port sector to regenerate the Australian economy. But we want to ensure that as the port expands there are Australians working on the ships that come in and out of those ports.

The seafarer tax offset has already helped to reduce the operating costs of Australian vessels; we know that. It has increased the competitiveness of Australian shipping and has provided significant opportunities for the employment of Australians in international trades. The Australian Shipowners Association—and I had the pleasure of meeting with Teresa Lloyd, their executive director, earlier today—are pulling their hair out over this. They cannot see the sense of it. And they have been very critical over the years of a number of initiatives of members of this side of the House, but they are absolutely in lock step with us in opposing this proposition, because they can see the fact that this is going to decimate the capacity of Australian workers to compete and to work on those international voyages. The shipowners association has come out strongly against it. They are saying that it is reckless, that it is needless, and that without the offset it is significantly more expensive to employ Australians overseas. They know what is going to happen: jobs are going to be lost. It is as simple as that.

In the time I have left I want to make a few points about the importance of ensuring that we maintain a vibrant shipping industry in this country. Anybody who knows anything about the shipping workforce knows it is an ageing workforce. If we do not move now to ensure that there are replacement workers who are going to be regenerating the maritime industry workforce and if we do not move now to ensure that we maintain the skills, not only for domestic voyages but international voyages, then we will lose those skills forever. These are not things that you can turn on and off like a tap. So, in a country with over 99 per cent of its trade coming in and out of our ports—and in a parliament that gives bipartisan support to the importance of free trade agreements, international trade and ensuring that we are connected to the world—why on earth would any member stand in this place and vote for a proposition that is going to undermine that most important link in the chain: the capacity for Australians to be working on ships that ply our coasts and ply the international trade routes and to ensure that we have a skilled workforce, that we have an experienced workforce, that we have a vibrant Australian maritime workforce? This is one of many measures put in place as part of the maritime reform package. It is reckless. It has no drag weight on the budget whatsoever. All right-thinking members of the House should reject it, and I call upon the government MPs to do exactly that.