Lives at risk under new Australian maritime safety regime, inquiry hears

Lifebuoy ring. Credit: Olev Brovko

While the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) record at port state control is second to none, its role in safeguarding national shipping has been compromised according to submissions to a Senate inquiry into the peak regulator.

The Performance of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority inquiry arose after a man fell overboard on a charter cruise between Fremantle and Rottnest Island unnoticed in 2014.

His family demanded accountability for the death after the charter apparently failed to do a head count when the ferry docked.

A submission by the International Institute of Marine Surveyors (IIMS) claimed safety standards were being seriously compromised and that formal surveys or inspections of vessels had been massively reduced, putting lives risk.

“Many vessels formerly seen annually are now being inspected once every five years, or in some cases not at all,” the IIMS alleged, putting vessels, crew, passengers, and the environment at risk.

“Accidents and incidents are not being properly investigated,” IIMS wrote, adding that its concerns put through official channels were allegedly constantly rebuffed and rejected.

“It is the primary role of our members and marine surveyors in general, using their skills and competency, to protect life at sea at all times,” the IIMS said. “Our members are repeatedly finding sub-standard vessels, which need to be surveyed more frequently due to their operational nature, but there is no appetite within the regulator to research these matters and act.”

A Maritime Australia Industry Limited (MAIL) submission credited AMSA as being “well known as a strict enforcer of the law for port state and flag state control”.

MAIL stressed that AMSA’s ship detention record “left no doubt on the impact on the quality of foreign ships that visit Australian ports”.

However, there have been significant challenges with the transition to a national system under 2012 legislation for domestic shipping, MAIL highlighted.

Unions argue that the new Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act of 2012 have created substandard shipping practices and lowered seafarer skills and training.

The Maritime Union Australia (MUA) noted, “The former robust maritime safety regulatory system for inter-state trade under the Navigation Act has been replaced with much lower standards under the National Law.”

It recommended the government reframe the law with the Navigation Act and the IMO Convention for commercial vessels as the default standard.

In its defence AMSA said it had formed a new enforcement and inspector support team, and that it was developing new measures of accounting for passengers, minimising the chances of them going overboard in the first place and maximising their chances of rescue if they do.

It rebuffed the IIMS claim that there were increased risks under the new survey regime introduced by AMSA as unfounded.

“The IIMS’s assertion that AMSA does not investigate incidents or conduct enough inspections is not supported by any evidence,” an AMSA spokesperson told SAS. “Since July last year AMSA and our partner agencies have completed over 5,600 inspections of domestic commercial vessels across Australia.”

It acknowledged, however, that the National System was imperfect and could be “improved to enhance safety outcomes.”

In response to the MUA submission, AMSA noted the Navigation Act that governs international trading vessels had never applied to the domestic vessel sector.

“As a statutory regulator AMSA does not write the legislation, we implement it, and any proposed changes to the scope of either the Navigation Act or the National Law are a matter for legislators,” a spokesperson told SAS.