Funding shortage imperils maritime safety in PNG

MV Rabaul Queen. Credit: PNG Commission of Inquiry

After the Rabaul Queen disaster, Papua New Guinea’s (PNG’s) maritime safety authority is still short of funding to do its job.

Seven years after the sinking of the Rabaul Queen passenger ferry, PNG’s National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) fell dangerously short of the funding needed to prevent a future disaster.

An estimated 171 people perished when Rabaul Queen sank in 2012, according to a subsequent police investigation.

A commission of inquiry was scathing on the authority saying “if the NMSA had properly conducted its duties, it’s possible that Rabaul Queen would not have sunk”. It called for an overhaul of the body.

A key recommendation from the inquiry was that the government needs to provide NMSA adequate funding to do its job.

Although NMSA has received funding from abroad, including the Asia Development Bank, the International Maritime Organization, Australia, and Japan, it continues to rely on self-funding to operate.

“We changed the ship levy to be based on gross tonnage in 2015,” said Captain Krzysztof Orlowski, executive manager maritime operations at the NMSA PNG. “NMSA revenue doubled. This gave us the funds to run the show.”

NMSA had enough income to cover all expenses related to its operations as well as improving its capabilities. It set up Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres transmitting over the Inmarsat network, maintenance of aids to navigation, a Marine Environment Production Department, including new oil spill response equipment, and began training new inspectors to address a critical shortage for ship surveys and inspections.

In April 2017 the former O’Neill government implemented the Public Money Management Regulation Act (PMMRA), taking 90% of all NMSA levies raised.

“It was an absolute disaster,” said Orlowski. “It didn’t even leave us enough to run the office.”

NMSA won a concession in September 2018 to keep 50% of all revenue. But this was still not enough for the authority to fully progress its reform agenda, Orlowski said.

After a change of government in May 2019, NMSA management met with the new transport minister in June.

“The minister was not aware of the impact of PMMRA on NMSA,” said Orlowski, “Our managers said that he promised to help. NMSA will continue approaching the new Marape government to obtain full release from the act.”