Port in a storm? Power to the people!
Labor backbencher Nick Champion has stated that the Chinese lease on Darwin Port should be discontinued and placed in Government hands.
His proposal is related to the impending US-controlled commercial/military port in the NT – probably at the environmentally-vulnerable and popular Glyde Point site. As the ABC report points out, it is implied this is quid pro quo for the Chinese lease of Darwin Port. (1)
The other relevant context is Andrew Hastie's comments today attacking China as a threat to Australia. It seems both major parties have trotted out right-wing back-benchers to send the US a message of obsequious loyalty, whilst trying to avoid responsibility for Chinese anger by not using front-benchers.
Australia has been engaged in the privatisation of major Ports since 2010 under the guise of funding other infrastructure projects and reducing Government debt, but it’s only now that Mr. Champion has raised concerns.
Mr. Champion told the ABC: “I think there was not enough consideration of the national interest in that particular privatisation of this port.” (2)
Chinese company Landbridge was granted a 99-year lease of Darwin Port in 2015 by the Northern Territory Government in a $500 million deal.
Whilst on the surface, Champion’s stance may seem reasonable, it reeks of hypocrisy and subservience to the United States in their ever-increasing posturing against China, their main imperialist rival. Mr. Champion who is the deputy chair of Federal Parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, fell just short of saying as much when he told SBS: “"This is an important port, it's our gateway to Asia and it's strategically very important. We now face a period of geopolitical uncertainty so I think it would make sense to have this very important port in Australian hands." (3)
All capital city and major regional ports should be nationalised
Most people who are reading this article would not disagree with the idea of Australian ports being controlled by Australians, in the interests of Australians, but Champion fails to extend the call for the nationalisation of Darwin’s port to a call for all city and major regional ports to be nationalised.
State or territory governments have historically owned port authorities; however, there is a trend toward privatising these assets on a long-term lease basis. The private sector is the major player in port operations and investment, with the regulatory framework set by government. If Darwin’s port is the geo-politically most strategic, the busiest is in Melbourne. In 2016 it was sold to a consortium which included Australia’s Future Fund, a Canadian pension fund, and a New York-based firm, Global Infrastructure Partners whose investors include the China Investment Corporation and a South Korean pension fund. (4) The world’s largest coal export terminal is the port of Newcastle. In 2014, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced it had sold a 99-year lease to a consortium which included Westpac Bank’s infrastructure investment arm, Hastings Funds Management Ltd., and a Chinese state-owned firm, China Merchants. In 2018, Westpac sold Hastings to London-based Northill Capital LLP.
Australian ports are represented by the peak body ‘Ports Australia’ which work on behalf of both Australian port authorities and private corporations as well as the Department of Defence via the Royal Australian Navy. This clearly should be seen as conflicting interests if the Government was to apply the best interests of the Australian people as its main concern, but this cannot be the case if private interests and lobby groups have equal (if not more) control over how our vital infrastructure is run and for whose benefit.
Every time there is a push from the Government for privatisation we are given the same tired out reasoning: “the money will fund new infrastructure projects”, “State debt will be reduced”, “better management and lower costs will be ensured under private ownership”. Few Australian citizens accept these catch phrases as fact anymore, and if they do, one wouldn’t need to dig too deep in order to find that personal gain is the motive. If this country contained even a semblance of democratic control privatisation would be thrown into the rubbish bin of history as a failed concept.
Professor Alfred Baird from the Transport Research Institute, at Edinburgh’s Napier University, states that since privatisation of ports in the UK, investment has slowed in port infrastructure leading to a loss of trade in favour of changing routes to better run ports in places like Rotterdam and Hamburg.(5) Rather than stimulate regional development the main objective of these now privately-owned ports is to maximise shareholder profits. Maintaining a highly functioning piece of infrastructure is quite often not the way to maximise these profits.
Australian ports and Australian shipping
Given that Australia is an island nation, our reliance on ports and their upkeep is of paramount importance both now and in the future. Putting them into the hands of corporations and foreign governments is extremely negligent and short sighted.
One particular example of our reliance on ports is the fact that by 2030 Australia could be completely dependent on imported petroleum (6). Australian oil stocks are at an historic low of 32 days total. The government is negotiating with the US (in the context of their request for Australian ships to join patrols in the Straits of Hormuz) for access to US reserves – thereby making the country even more dependent on the US. The Maritime Union of Australia dismissed the proposal as a "fundamentally flawed solution", arguing a lack of Australian-flagged oil tankers meant it would be difficult to source the fuel quickly in an emergency.
"Trying to game the system by negotiating access to another country's fuel reserves — yet having no strategic fleet of tankers to bring that fuel to Australia — is nothing more than a stop-gap solution that has the illusion of taking action while leaving the country no better off," MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said.
This is just one example of our heavy reliance on foreign-owned shipping. Imagine not being able to access certain foods and medicines because of a breakdown in the management of the ports or because the arrival of these imports no longer serves the interests of the foreign power which wields control of the ports.
To illustrate the importance of control of our ports, Australia imports about 83% of the crude oil it uses in its refineries from over 17 different countries. Asia (40%) being the largest supplier with Africa (18%) and the Middle East (17%) being the next largest suppliers. (7)
The only acceptable form of infrastructure ownership, the only way for infrastructure to benefit the Australian people, is for it to be in the hands of the state, a proletarian state that uses its assets for the benefit of its people and for their ability to grow and prosper. Under capitalism, it can only be used for private capital accumulation or foreign geopolitical interests.
Another aspect of outside control of ports is the historic negligence of these agencies when it comes to environmental controls of both the development of ports and their upkeep. Making an operation environmentally viable is the least of their concerns when it comes to private capital accumulation and imperialist geopolitical strategy. Private enterprises also put on a P.R. mask when it comes to valuing their workers and the safety of workers. If there is a chance to cut corners, they will, if there’s a way to lower wages, they do. These are the inevitabilities of the capitalist system. Only state control under working class leadership can maintain an industry safely and fairly.
Opposition to imperialism must be systematic and thorough
Back to Mr. Champion and his concerns about Chinese ownership and only Chinese ownership. It must be said that the CPA (M-L) has its own concerns in regards to China. They were made clear in our publication Explaining China: how a socialist country took the capitalist road to social-imperialism which references Chinese control of the port of Darwin (see the Downloads section of our website).
However, our concerns do not end there. It’s not good enough to be siding with one or the other imperialist superpower. Mr. Champion’s words come from the lips of the US imperialists; they speak for the global hegemony of a rotten empire. Why does the “geopolitical uncertainty” mouthed by Mr. Champion not extend to US-owned infrastructure and land in Australia? Why does it not extend to U.S military bases in our supposedly sovereign land? It’s because the Australian Government is a mere subsidiary of the United States Government and it has been so for a long time.
One need only look at this nation’s history to see who it follows onto the battlefield and the various peoples who we’ve helped to annihilate in the name of American “freedom” and “democracy” (access to resources and regional control). Australia must no longer play the role of regional aircraft carrier for the U.S military and no longer send our sons and daughters to die on battlefields for the wealthy in Washington. Any call to nationalise major ports should be linked to complementary demands for the removal of all US military bases in Australia, and for the prevention of US plans to build a new port near Darwin.
The phoney patriotism bellowed from the halls of bourgeois parliament, should fool no one as to where their true interests lie. A real patriot wants a peaceful and independent existence free from the ties that bind us to future conflicts between imperialist powers. We must demand that what was built by the Australian people, belongs to the Australian people and serves their interests and preference trade with nations that share our peaceful ideals.
(2) Push for Darwin Port to be nationalised to end Chinese ownership of strategic northern asset, ABC 5/8/19
(3) Government rejects federal MP's call to buy back Darwin port from Chinese leaseholder, SBS 5/8/19
(5) Are we selling off the family silver by privatising Australia’s ports? The Conversation 2/5/2013
(6) Australia imports almost all of its oil, and there are pitfalls all over the globe. The Conversation 24/5/2018