Politics plague ports

Australia’s ports – that vital link with our overseas trading partners – remain disadvantaged by short-term political decisions despite moves to distance themselves from government through commercialisation and corporatisation.

This view was espoused at the Australian Association of Port and Marine Authorities conference in Fremantle this week when speakers addressed the myriad of social, political and environmental pressures ports must contend with.

While ports accounted for more than 99 per cent of goods traded in and out of Australia, their efficiency was often hampered by political and bureaucratic interference to serve short-term needs, the conference heard.

The Federal Government was rarely pro-active on port issues, unless they were of an industrial nature and ports often had a low ranking in state ministerial hierarchies.

In WA ports have been commercialised since 1996 and, generally, have been subject to less interference than their east coast counterparts.

Many east coast ports have been corporatised, while Portland and Geelong have been privatised.

Transport consultant Steve Meyrick said ports had an extremely constructive role in identifying trade opportunities for importers and exporters.

However, their ability to do this as state-owned corporations was often limited by the government’s interests in maximising returns to treasury.

On the other hand, governments wanted to foster economic growth by reducing costs to port users.

Mr Meyrick said there were three possible futures for ports. They could muddle on in the way they were, port corporations could be redefined with intrinsically aligned objectives or they could be privatised with an appropriate regulatory framework.

The quality of board appointments at some port corporations was questionable and had led to a “markedly imperfect performance”.

Former National Rail Authority chief Dr Fred Affleck referred to the “cappucino-isation” of Australian ports as lack of land buffers resulted in greater urban encroachment on to land that was once industrial.

An example of this was found at Fremantle where port authority management had performed well in balancing its role as a working port with the needs of port users, nearby residents, tourist operators and heritage groups.

Urban encroachment at Fremantle has seen nearby residents complaining about the noise levels of some port activities and the smell emitted from live-sheep carriers.

Port management also struggled to progress plans to expand container facilities and build a rail terminal when a heritage group unsuccessfully fought to save some disused grain silos.

AAPMA executive director John Hirst said WA shippers had shown a complacency towards shipping matters through their lack of representation at the conference.

“Sure all the WA ports are represented, but there isn’t one single shipper group here from WA,” Mr Hirst said.

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