Vic pilots: an experiment, or simply fair?

A BILL that provides for an open competition in the provision of pilotage services in Victorian ports has been passed in the state parliament – but doubts remain over how the state government sees competition being achieved.

During parliamentary debate on the bill opposition MLA Peter Batchelor attacked the change to pilotage rules within the Marine (Amendment) Bill, describing it as a “bizarre experiment”.

He claimed the government failed to consult adequately with a long list of key industry players, and tried to prevent copies of the bill being made available.

Within the industry itself there are fears safety may be compromised. Frustration with the decision spilled over recently at a meeting of the Company of Master Mariners which saw vigorous questioning of a speaker representing the Marine Board of Victoria, the body which will effectively police the new rules.

The Marine Act relates to the ports of Melbourne, Geelong, Hastings and Portland, where the use of licensed pilots in those ports is compulsory.

Since 1989 pilotage services for the ports of Melbourne, Geelong and Hastings have been provided under an agreement between the Marine Board of Victoria and the Port Phillip Sea Pilots Pty Ltd 9PPSP). That agreement expires on June 30.

With the passing of the bill, the way is now open for pilots, either individually or in a grouping, to compete with Port Phillip Sea Pilots for work in its territory.

PPSP chief Charles Griffiths had lobbied hard to retain the status quo, arguing that the existing pilot service cannot see any real competition emerging in the near future and having a second boarding service provider would only increase costs. It t takes about three years to train a pilot.

PPSP provided information to a competition review of the Marine Act conducted last year, indicating that on its won initiative and on a voluntarily basis it had played I a leading role in the pilotage company in Australia top have done so.

PPSP argue that the concept of competitive pilotage spells cheap pilotage and that cheap pilotage leads to accidents, eventually affecting the environment and the port infrastructure.

Pilotage is very high risk and needs to be highly regulated, but a pilot’s judgement must not be subject to influence by any special incentive.

Speaking in defence of the pilot service during the debate on the Marine (Amendment) Bill, Mr Batchelor asked the government if I thonestly believed competing pilot boats will be available to race out to service ships visiting Melbourne or Geelong.

“Does it imagine competition will manifest itself in this way? I do not think anyone seriously suggests that. However, the real danger for Victoria and the shipping trades that use its ports is that the competition will maniufest itself in falling standards.” He said.

Mr Batchelor said important decisions will be based on expediency and critical considerations such as the height and strength of currents and tides, the strength and variability of wind and the number of tugs to be used will no longer be central to the decision-making process.

“The bill if fundamentally flawed and is a nonsense. It is another bill that comes from those boffins and ideologists in the government who say that no matter what the cost every industry should be subjected to some sort of market competition, regardless of whether that market actually exists.”

Defending the government’s action, Transport minister A Robin Cooper said the bill puts in place the requirements established under the Keating government’s national competition policy.

The minister said there is no requirement or obligation fir anyone to start up a business that will complete with PPSP, but there is an obligation under the national competition policy for monopolies to be removed and for competition not to be precluded.

“I do not believe, and no sensible person would, any organisation will be set up to compete with Port Phillip Sea Pilots,” said MR Cooper. “But if there were Port Phillip Sea Pilots should not be allowed, nor should any other business be allowed to hold a monopoly on what is ostensibly a public service.” He added that the government has complied with competition policy, as all state and territory governments om Australia have done for some years. “The question of the lowering pof standards is a fuphy – it is erroneous and absolutely ridiculous.”