Govt loses its way over navigation

National security is often cited as the No 1 priority of government. Without that, all else becomes meaningless. It is why we are spending billions on nuclear submarines and other defence hardware.

It is why the Government last week put forward a major initiative on cyber security. These days cyber-attacks can be as damaging as physical attacks and a great deal more difficult to find out their source and how to respond.

Cyber Security Minister Clare O’Neil warned about cyber-attacks holding digitally connected cities to ransom, hitting power, water, health care, emergency responses, and so on.

She said the government would move to better secure critical infrastructure by strengthening the security obligations of critical infrastructure operators. The government would help overworked and under-staffed agencies respond to “the large number of cyber-attacks launched at Australian organisations”.

All very laudable. Submarines and ships to protect our vital trade routes; cyber defence to protect our critical infrastructure.

But a glaring example of the gap between words and intentions, on one hand, and actions and inactions, on the other, has emerged in recent weeks: the maintenance of Australia’s maritime navigation aids.

That task is the responsibility of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. In 2001 it out-sourced the task and the contract was won by AMS Group, a private company, and held by them ever since.

AMS Group tendered this year for renewal of the contract when it expires on 30 June next year. It was the only tenderer for this extremely complex and specialised work. Other companies put in expressions of interest, but on seeing the details realised they would not be able to do it and so did not tender.

Bizarrely, AMSA did not renew the contract, citing a technical inability of AMS Group to perform the task. This is a task that it has run with a 100 per cent KPI performance and numerous awards for the past 22 years – including state and federal government awards for veterans and Indigenous employment.

AMSA says: “AMSA’s approach to market did not identify a suitable contractor and AMSA is pursuing an alternative strategy to continue maintenance of the Aids to Navigation network.”

AMSA has not revealed what its alternative strategy for the network is; when it began to develop it; when will it be completed; or who is going to implement it.

A lot depends on that network. Each year about 18,000 vessels use it to navigate the international shipping lane that runs between the Great Barrier Reef and the coast – virtually the totality of Australia’s eastern seaboard trade.

You know, the sort of stuff we are spending billions worth of submarines and ships on to defend.

AMSA lost the staff and skills to do it when it was privatised. There is a good argument that the Howard Government should never have instigated the privatisation in the first place. In most other countries such critical navigation maintenance is done by government, such as the US Coast Guard.

But having privatised the task, it remains a government responsibility to ensure the task is done and to ensure the skill set to do it is not lost to Australia as might happen because AMS Group employees, in the face of AMSA’s action, quite reasonably will seek work elsewhere.

But the Albanese Government seems to not care; not to understand the threat; or be totally beholden to a statutory authority which is behaving in a most inexplicable way.

It is understandable that government’s do not want to be seen interfering with operational matters of statutory authorities; nor want to be seen influencing the tender and contract processes of statutory authorities. Indeed, this is why we have statutory authorities – to remove political influence, patronage, and favourtism.

But that does not relieve governments and politicians from the overall responsibility for ensuring that critical matters of national security do not go off the rails. When things look awry, it is the Government’s job to find out what is going on.

If things go wrong – at best the loss to Australia of key skills at worse a halt to maritime trade, as happened this month with the cyber-attack on our ports – a government cannot excuse itself by saying it was the fault of the statutory authority

The Opposition seems uninterested, too.

There was a brief mention of the matter in the four-minute hearing of the Senate Rural & Regional Affairs and Transport (RRAT) Legislation Committee on 23 October at which AMSA fell back on its “we are working on it” stand.

The threat to the navigation aids, and therefore Australia’s trade and tsunami-warning system, comes first through wear and tear and the need for physical upkeep in a difficult maritime environment. 

But a further threat arises because many these navigation aids are linked digitally. AMS Group has developed a highly effective cyber-security system for them. That will be lost on 30 June.

It does not sit well with Minister O’Neil’s statement last week that the Government will “better secure critical infrastructure” from cyber-attack.

The Government’s very inaction is doing the reverse: exposing critical Australian infrastructure to cyber-attack.

So far, the issue has been aired in eight Australian Community Media mastheads and one interview on ABC Far North (Cairns) radio program. The ACM mastheads include those that serve port cities and ABC Far North is always interested in the Great Barrier Reef.

Incidentally the international shipping lane is as narrow as five nautical miles wide inside the reef. If the navigation aids are not properly maintained, the potential for a ship hitting the reef is obvious, as Captain Cook found out – but he didn’t have thousands of tonnes of oil aboard.

I have asked the offices of the Ministers for Defence, Cyber Security, and Infrastructure about the issue and been met with silence. But it won’t be any good saying sorry after the event.

It seems in Australia that, unless News Ltd finds some anti-Green; anti feminism; anti-leftie agenda in a story, no-one in the Government or the Opposition cares less, however important the issue.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 28 November 2023.

3 thoughts on “Govt loses its way over navigation”

  1. Albanese in many respects is the Clayton’s ALP PM. He might as well have been selected by the Liberal Party for a big swag of the policies that he’s (not) pursuing.

  2. Good morning Crispin. Thank you for pointing this situation out. Why is it that every disaster – real and potential – somehow always comes back to the Howard era?

  3. Telecommunications (IT) have grown as a modern form of industrial revolution since the mid 1990s. With this growth across finance, security, sales, business, government and industry has grown risk. How many Ministers, CEOs and Boards in government, departments, business et al have knowledge and experience in cyber risks? How many have modernised their Cabinets, Boards and leadership to provide high level strategic advice? How many integrated national capabilities have been built?
    There was a recent news item on Microsoft providing services in this national requirement, I believe. Certainly, it might be the beginning of a necessary debate. Our past 30 years have been a worked example of “ignorance is bliss.”

    BTW, our political parties (unlike banks) clearly struggle with real time financial accounts for their donations received. I picture that old, bald accountant wearing a visor and sweating under a lamp with a feather pen and a ledger.

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