Full response from a spokesman for Michaelia Cash and a spokeswoman for Penny Wong

The Conversation is fact-checking assertions made on Q&A around workplace relations in Australian waters. That FactCheck relates to comments made by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and an audience member, Matthew Lawrence.

When asked for evidence to support her statement, a spokesman for Cash sent the following:

Labor’s legislation expressly allows for temporary licences to be granted to foreign vessels to undertake domestic coastal shipping.

The test for granting temporary licenses was determined by Labor in its legislation and has not been changed. The number of temporary licences granted each year – across Labor and Coalition Governments – has largely stayed the same. Recent examples, such as the MV Portland which Senator Wong mentioned, all occurred under Labor’s laws – unamended.

When Labor’s legislation passed in 2012, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) thanked the Labor Party and boasted:

“The Bills [Labor’s reforms] represent over 10 years of work by the MUA… and follows the endorsed support from members at the recent Seafarers Conference and National MUA Conference.”

On the question of wages, Labor and Senator Wong are recklessly misrepresenting the true situation to deflect attention from the MUA’s unlawfully ignoring Fair Work Commission and the Federal Court orders which we saw in the MV Portland example. For weeks, the MUA blatantly ignored two Fair Work Commission orders that industrial action stop and a Federal Court order to the same effect. Labor has consciously chosen to side with the MUA and its mentality that it is OK to break industrial laws, rather than condemn breaches of Labor’s own industrial laws – it just so happens that the MUA also happens to be a substantial donor to the ALP.

The true situation on foreign worker wages is that when a foreign vessel operates domestically (which can only happen under a temporary licence), the crew are paid under whatever existing international arrangements apply on that vessel for the first two domestic voyages only. From the third domestic voyage onwards, crew on foreign vessels must be paid no less than the Australian Award. The Australian Award (set by the Fair Work Commission) expressly includes pay rates for workers on foreign vessels.

As at January 22, 2016, a sample of the base rates of pay for foreign workers under the Australian award are:

Any suggestion that temporary licences are being used to engage a foreign crew on $2 an hour as a permanent replacement for Australian crew is wrong and nothing more than a scare campaign of misinformation being run by the MUA and Labor.

Every international vessel that has engaged in domestic coastal shipping since 2012 has done so under Labor’s legislation.

On the 457 visa comments, these are factually incorrect – a 457 visa, by definition, must be paid at Australian market rate, or the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT), whichever is higher. (See page 28 of the Temporary Work (Skilled) (subclass 457) visa booklet.)

In a follow-up email after The Conversation sought clarification, the spokesman said by email:

The direct answer is that Senator Wong’s suggestion that it is possible to permanently replace an Australian crew with foreign workers employed on less than the Award rate has been shown to be false. The first two domestic voyages are subject to the international arrangements of that vessel. Any domestic voyage thereafter must be paid no less than the award rates. Senator Wong’s attempted sensationalising of the true situation is misleading.

This is not the first licence issued since the Act came into place since 2012 to be used to staff a domestic route. By definition, the purpose of the temporary licence provisions under Labor’s Coastal Trading Act is to enable foreign ships to carry domestic cargo during domestic voyages.

As part of the licence application process under Labor’s laws, before a temporary licence is issued, the work must be advertised locally to give local ships visibility of the work and an opportunity to respond to the work. This has happened in each case a temporary licence has been issued. In the case of the MV Portland, which Senator Wong raised, no notices in response were received.

To be clear, everything that has happened to date of which the MUA and Labor so loudly now complain, has happened under Labor’s laws - unamended. The suggestion that this is somehow because of the Government’s proposed reforms is political distraction.

What is clear is that under Labor and the Labor’s laws:

a. the fleet of major Australian registered ships (over 2,000 dead weight tonnes) with coastal licences plummeted from 30 vessels in 2006-07 to just 15 in 2013-14.

b. The number of ships with Australian Transitional General Licences has dropped from 16 to just 7.

c. Over the first two years of Labor’s botched Coastal Trading Act there was a 63% decline in the carrying capacity of the major Australian coastal trading fleet.

d. Australia’s overall freight task is expected to grow by 80% to 2030, but coastal shipping will only increase by 15%.

When asked about comments by Senator Penny Wong on Q&A in relation to this issue, a spokesperson for Wong said by email:

The Turnbull Government tried to legislate last year to make it easier for foreign-flagged ships to operate in Australia’s coastal shipping trade. The Government’s Shipping Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 was defeated in the Senate on 26 November 2015. Information about the Bill can be found here.

Under existing legislation, the Government can issue licenses for foreign-flagged vessels to engage in coastal shipping. Information about this system can be found here.

The existing system is designed to allow licences to be granted where Australian-flagged and Australian-crewed ships are not available to carry coastal cargoes.

Instead the Turnbull Government last year granted Alcoa a license to use a foreign flagged ship to transport alumina between Western Australia and Victoria. This was despite the fact that an Australian-crewed vessel was available. This has led to the sacking of Australian maritime workers from the MV Portland.

There have been several media reports on the MV Portland case and the Government’s decision to grant the temporary licence.

Part of the MV Portland issue is a dispute about the form of notification to parties in the case. There is a claim that the application was done in an unusual way that meant interested parties missed the notification.

The Act that includes the licence system has a series of objects that form part of the considerations that the Minister applies when determining whether to issue a temporary licence, even where nobody has responded to a notification. Those objects are:

The object of this Act is to provide a regulatory framework for coastal trading in Australia that: a) promotes a viable shipping industry that contributes to the broader Australian economy; and

b) facilitates the long term growth of the Australian shipping industry; and

c) enhances the efficiency and reliability of Australian shipping as part of the national transport system; and

d) maximises the use of vessels registered in the Australian General Shipping Register in coastal trading; and

e) promotes competition in coastal trading; and

f) ensures efficient movement of passengers and cargo between Australian ports.

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