Opinion: Another ugly pandemic for transport

By: Rob McKay

Misuse of Australia state charges and fines reminiscent of Venezuela

Opinion: Another ugly pandemic for transport
Port Hedland: Much heat and dust, little transparency


Note: the commentary below appeared in the January edition of ATN magazine. About the time the edition lobbed on readers’ desks, we were awaiting clarification from Pilbara Ports Authority on: how the Port Hedland Voluntary Buy-Back Scheme (PHVBS) came to be an issue for shipowners in the same sort of way that stevedores’ container access came to be a burden on container haulage firms; how equitable it is to load that burden on innocent third parties, even if it is meant to be passed on; who was involved in that policy process; and whether shipowners were consulted. We waited for answers to those questions before running the magazine column online, as we were keen to reflect a PPA explanation. PPA appears to have suffered IT problems through January and its return email took weeks to arrive. About the only upshot was an acknowledgement that, after 18 months of planning the PHVBS, only miners were involved in negotiations  for a charge that the WA government and PPA say is to be passed on to them. Now shipowner representative body Shipping Australia Ltd says that is not how the charge will work (see link below). Despite repeated questions, neither the PPA nor the WA government have felt the need to explain the mechanism and the rationale and the decision-making that led to it. Until one of them provides some transparency, the critique of the issue in our column stands.


Freight transport in its various modes is being attacked by a state or state-sanctioned illness previously common merely to corrupt developing nations.

But there will be no internal border closed to keep it from spreading.  Perhaps it is too late.

Nor is there any vaccine available, for it is deep in the political fabric.

Transport epidemiologists will recognise the symptoms immediately as something akin to extortion but it has other manifestations. Misuse of state power is one. Bullying is another. It is inflamed by a searing lack of fairness or relationship.

The latest outbreak is in Western Australia and affects ships but displays hallmarks of contagion manifest in trucking around the nation’s major container ports and in northern Sydney.

As it is increasingly shown to be easy money and lacking in obvious political pain or embarrassment for shameless governments, doubtless it will spread. And as road freight is the predominant Australian mode, trucking faces being squeezed until the pips squeak for the foreseeable future.

The egregiousness of the WA example is in how blatant it is.

Almost all shipowners with ships visiting Port Hedland will be forced to pay $85.4 million to help the state government buy property affected by port-created iron ore dust under the Port Hedland Voluntary Buy-Back Scheme (PHVBS).

It is not ‘voluntary’ for the shipowners.

The otherwise estimable ports minister, Alannah MacTiernan, erroneously describes it as a charge on the mining industry. It is not. Unless it falls on dry-bulk carriers owned by miners, it is a charge on transport.

The ships are not a cause of the dust pollution. That resides with the miners and the state-owned Pilbara Ports Authority. But the shipowners will be forced to pay anyway.

Read SAL’s rejection of WA premier Mark McGowan’s PHVBS explanation, here

It is reminiscent of what used to happen to oil tankers calling in Venezuela to the oil export ports approached through the Maracaibo Channel.

The Venezuelan government refused to keep the channel clear of wrecks and other obstacles but fined tanker owners for any pollution caused by collisions with them.

Come to think of it, that is not unlike governments ignoring the creation of proper rest area and then fining truck drivers who get their hours wrong. That appalling outcome won’t change with even the finest IT solutions, though finally some limited action is being taken on rest-area creation.

This is the level of cynicism infecting various Australian governments and others in charge of logistics infrastructure pinch points.

It comes as no surprise that New South Wales is proving a recidivist with forcing road infrastructure payments on the unwilling.

We have noted before about greed and incompetence that led to the Sydney Cross City Tunnel toll fiasco and a huge blow to the public-private partnership model of infrastructure building.

Some 15 years later, the NorthConnex difference is that only trucks are being forced to use it. Such a cunning plan. As if car pollution and congestion and are any less a risk to health and personal finances.

Those with long memories will recall then-premier Nick Greiner extolling the virtue of risk transference from the state to the builders and financiers, saying "the public ends up with a valuable road" but ignoring the fact that it often continues to pays for it long after the cost is covered, more if the government wants to do more road building. Just ask Melbourne truck and car drivers.

Pity about the planning and the operational detail that Transport for NSW appears unable to discuss in any meaningful way with the trucking industry, if NatRoad complaints are anything to go by.

And, of course, there is the appalling emergence of container access charges at port terminals, which the states are seeking quietly to entrench.

This was an unintended but foreseeable outcome of so-called "infrastructure recycling" made worse by monopoly privatisation and another political pandemic – responsibility evasion.

We are being overwhelmed by cynicism.


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