OPINION

What's the point of inland rail if there's no freight on the trains?

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack's inland rail promises sound empty in light of the discussion paper. Picture: Getty Images
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack's inland rail promises sound empty in light of the discussion paper. Picture: Getty Images

When he unveiled plans for an inland rail project linking communities up and down the eastern seaboard, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack promised it would be a 1700-kilometre "corridor of commerce".

Now, however, the federal government's showpiece transport infrastructure project could be left as a massive white elephant - before it's even built.

Transport departmental officials have been working on a secret plan to deregulate coastal shipping. This plan will undermine inland rail and leave the entire intermodal rail freight sector at risk.

The plan opens the way for foreign freight vessels to ply the Australian coast, competing directly against Australian ships, planes, trains and trucks.

In itself, this may not sound alarming. But the problem is that competition between domestic freight-movers and overseas ships doesn't occur on a level playing field.

Overseas ships do not pay Australian wages and conditions, do not pay Australian taxes, and do not operate to Australian safety standards.

In this battle, the overseas ships are MMA fighters playing by their own rules, while Australian companies are boxing with their gloves on and one hand tied behind their back.

The losers, of course, are Australian workers, and the towns in which those workers live.

We're talking about towns like Kalgoorlie, Port Augusta, Albury, Parkes, Narrabri and Moree.

The secret plan came to light in a departmental discussion paper that was selectively distributed to stakeholders in the maritime industry, presumably in the hope that other groups (such as rail operators) would not find out about it.

Many of the proposed changes sound technical, but would have a profound impact on the freight sector.

For example, the current five-voyage minimum for temporary licensed international ships would be scrapped. This means that ships do not have to commit to staying in Australian waters for a period of time, and essentially opens up Australian domestic work to any overseas freight ship that happens to be going past.

The working standards on many of ships, especially ships that are based in so-called "flag of convenience" countries like Liberia, are disgraceful.

Just months ago, for example, The Newcastle Herald revealed Burmese crew members bringing alumina to the Tomago aluminium smelter were underpaid by $93,000.

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The question for our politicians is whether or not opening the door to dodgy overseas shipping operators is in the national interest. Is it worth the long-term cost to the Australian economy from the loss of transport jobs? Is it worth the risk to Australia's sovereign transport capability to become dependent on passing foreign ships to get goods from one side of the country to another?

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union is extremely concerned that the long-haul intermodal rail sector could ultimately become unviable if foreign ships take a dominant slice of the containerised freight market. That means up to 10,000 direct and indirect jobs would be placed at risk.

But our concern is not just the potential damage to existing jobs, it's also the opportunity cost to regional communities.

The inland rail project is a beacon of hope to regional Australia - a once-in-a-century opportunity to create a real economic boost for a number of regional communities across Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Communities where rail is not just a vital part of their history, it's now a key to their future.

Regional Australia is struggling after a devastating year of bushfires and COVID-19. It desperately needs the support of federal and state governments.

Rather than offering support, Mr McCormack's own department has been caught secretly working to sell them out.

Regional communities just want a fair go and the opportunity to rebuild their local communities with local jobs. That shouldn't be too much to ask of a Deputy Prime Minister whose party's core purpose is supposedly to represent rural and regional Australia at the cabinet table.

  • Mark Diamond is national secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.
This story What's the point of inland rail if there's no freight on the trains? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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