The recent ferry tragedy in Kiribati, the second in nine years, reminded me of the obvious opportunity that exists for Australia to contribute to the elimination of such distressing events.
Our overseas aid organisation, AUSAID, is involved with numerous assistance programmes in many of the “Happy Isles of Oceania”, as Paul Theroux ironically called them.
I’m sure that many of them are very worthy. However, from my observation, of some of them, I note that most of the money involved, apart from the usual large slice that goes to Canberra, is spent beyond both the islands themselves and Australia. I suspect that Toyota, for example, is a major beneficiary of our aid.
While, rather than being “happy”, many of the isles of Oceania appear more likely to be as impoverished and dysfunctional as Kiribati unfortunately is. And, worse, most of the aid programs aimed at them appear to be “finger in the dyke” exercises of little lasting economic benefit. I am sure we could do much better.
All of Oceania is extremely archipelagic in terms of geography. In other words, the only practical way to get around is by boat, more specifically by ferry. Here lies a major problem. Many of the ferries operated in such countries are unsafe. Indeed, over the past fifteen years there have been at least five significant fatal ferry accidents in the region that we know of. Those accidents have resulted in at least 400 fatalities, a big slice of the small local populations.
There are three main causes of those safety deficiencies. They are all, obviously, driven by poverty. The islanders cannot afford to buy and maintain safe vessels or to have them competently crewed.
We will probably never really know why the latest Kiribati tragedy occurred but, given the similarity of the vessel concerned with that in the last such event in 2009, it is a fair bet that an unsafe, incompetently crewed vessel proceeded to sea in unsuitable conditions. Most such accidents in developing countries occur for one or more of those reasons.
From my travels and observation in the area, as well as the recorded facts, I have learnt that such problems are endemic. I also know that far superior solutions to the latest Fijian one are readily available in Australia and, for that matter, in New Zealand.
To explain: a Fijian company has recently purchased a more than sixty-year-old monohull Ro-Pax ferry from BC Ferries of Canada. That ferry was designed for the sheltered waters of British Columbia, not the trade wind exposed seas of Fiji. It also happened to be un-saleable in North America because it is riddled with asbestos. However, it was cheap.
So too were the Princess Ashika and Rabaul Queen that sank in 2009 and 2012 in Tonga and PNG respectively, with at least 300 fatalities between them.
There lies part of the problem. The other part is crew training. They are both areas where Australia has considerable expertise and resources. We are renowned for designing and building safe, economical ferries, mostly catamarans. We also have a number of excellent maritime training organisations including the Australian Maritime Academy and the Australian Maritime College.
So, we do have excellent potential solutions. But, as obviously the islanders cannot afford to purchase Australian vessels and training themselves, that gap must be bridged by aid. Such aid would benefit both the islanders and the Australian maritime industry, rather than Toyota.
We have numerous naval architects and ship builders for whom the design and construction of simple, strong, safe, low-maintenance and comparatively cheap ferries would be straight-forward. Our maritime schools are already training islanders, just not enough of them.
We already supply many of the island nations with Pacific Patrol Boats and their trained crews. Why not do something similar with ferries? They would be much cheaper than patrol boats and, arguably, more effective. For the same money as we spend on patrol boats we could supply many more ferries.
I realise that the patrol boats have their uses. They have improved the island nations’ incomes from fishing access fees and they have rescued lost fishermen and helped in disaster relief operations. However, new safe ferries could help prevent significant loss of life and assist in rescues and disaster relief. A Pacific Ferry programme could be developed using the patrol boat programme as a model although, hopefully, with less chaotic and expensive Canberra input.
Rather than funding cultural centres and basket weaving classes that have little or no economic or social benefit, how about we renew our aid programme focus to something more practical and valuable? Something, co-incidentally, that has more direct benefit to Australia and not Japan, China or Korea?