Support our Merchant Navy

Many don't realise the strategic and security importance of having a merchant navy. It's particularly critical for an island nation like Australia

Support our Merchant Navy

As a lad I was enamoured with the term merchant navy. I didn’t really know what it meant but it conjured up images of an armed naval force with a capitalist esprit de corp.

I later found out that those that pursued a trade such as I imagined were actually known as ‘privateers’...or in some cases pirates.

Since then I have learned that the merchant navy is nothing more glamorous than reference to a commercial shipping fleet.

These are the vessels that supply most everything that is critical to our society. In Australia, there are just 13 such vessels that bear our flag or are domestically controlled. A few decades ago there were over 100.

So why is this important?

Well in an emergency, the capacity of a government to legally requisition merchant vessels can be critical.

They can do that over ships bearing their own flag but they have no authority over foreign flagged vessels.

Are you starting to see the problem?

While we are heavily reliant on china for too much of our trade, we are even more reliant on foreign ships keeping us afloat.

Without them we can’t send or receive the vast bulk of our cargo requirements. In such a circumstance, it wouldn’t take long for the entire country to grind to a halt.

They’d be little or no fuel, Agricultural equipment, fertiliser, motor vehicles coming in. They’d be no iron ore, coal or other exports going out.

As an island nation, heavily reliant on trade we’d be enormously vulnerable.

As Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said :

A country with no capacity to control its cargo shipping leaves itself at the mercy of the international environment

In an increasingly uncertain world, it doesn’t seem wise to be so reliant on the largesse of others for our nation to function.

But there is a solution, it’s just one our government hasn’t had the foresight to introduce. Let me explain.

Right now, many ships carry flags of convenience mostly for regulatory, cost or tax reasons. They are also crewed by low paid international workers.

We can’t compete with that but we have to find a way to secure our cargo fleet in the event of a national emergency.

Other nations have done so.  Usually that involves a ‘second register’ of ships that may be flagged in one country but are controlled domestically.

The crew will still be sourced from low cost overseas jurisdictions but the officers in charge are citizens of the controlling country.

Australia doesn’t have such provisions while countries like the UK do. That explains why they have a 470 strong merchant navy fleet while we have just 13.

These ‘second register’ provisions are the only way a country like Australia can sustain a commercial cargo shipping industry.

It’s no good trying to do something like this during a crisis. When it comes to national security a gram of prevention is worth a ton of cure.

That’s why the government needs to act now. A failure to do so is an abrogation of their responsibility to safeguard the supply lines that are so critical to all of us.

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