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Time to pay way for safe Pacific maritime highway

By Anthony Bergin and Neil Baird

King Charles has assumed the crowns of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Via New Zealand, he’s the head of state for the Cook Islands and Niue. More than half the members of the Pacific Islands Forum, the key regional body, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a strong influence for democracy that’s much needed in our neighbourhood. Australia should now draw upon common values within the Pacific family, warm feelings for the Crown and the Commonwealth, to put more grunt into our Pacific “Step-Up” policy.

Marine safety and sea transport are major concerns for the region. The island states have a high level of dependence on inter-island transport for the movement of goods and people. All Pacific peoples benefit from their access to affordable, safe and reliable sea transport. Maritime safety is a neglected aspect of maritime security. It’s a topic that will be discussed on Wednesday at the White House when Joe Biden hosts the first ever US-Pacific Island Country Summit with Pacific leaders.

Taken as one nation with a total population of about 12 million, the forum countries have suffered the highest rate of ferry fatalities per capita of any countries globally. In the past 30 years there’s been eight known fatal ferry accidents in five island countries, resulting in 613 fatalities. There’s been many more involving smaller craft. These tragedies shouldn’t happen.

Many Pacific Islands are recognised archipelagic states. They’re largely reliant on ‘sea highways’: many of their outer islands have few roads, no rail and very expensive aviation. Most of the island nations can’t afford safe, modern, but expensive, ferries.

Most domestic ferries in the Pacific are operated on minimal budgets, not by government marine departments. The vessels are usually old, poorly maintained and badly modified. They’re ill-equipped with safety and communications equipment. Generally, they’re not very safe.

This country is a world leader in small ferry building. Our naval architects and shipbuilders lead the world in the design and construction of safe, comfortable, efficient and economical roll on/roll off passenger and cargo ferries and dedicated passenger vessels. We’re renowned for our ship repair and maintenance skills and maritime training expertise. Australian designed “Fast Cat” passenger, car and cargo ferries have revolutionised ferry safety, comfort and service in The Philippines. Similar, but slightly smaller and slower, vessels would be ideal for the Pacific.

Australia has several excellent free enterprise ferry operators that have safely and profitably managed significant fleets of ferries for many years. One or more of them could be contracted to establish and initially manage Pacific safe ferry services and train personnel to the highest international standards prior to passing established businesses to national government control. They could then be managed in a similar manner to successful Pacific Islands-owned airlines, such as Fiji Airways and Air Niugini.

An Australian program of donating safe ferries along with associated logistic support and maritime training would be a logical development of our successful Pacific Maritime Security Program: we’re donating 21 Guardian-class patrol boats to 12 Pacific Island countries and East Timor.

The costs of a safe ferry program wouldn’t be huge. If we included nine Pacific countries in the program, plus East Timor, a donation of two 40m vehicle and passenger catamaran ferries, ideally suited to tropical island conditions, would total 20 ferries. The current price of such vessels is around $12m each. A total of $240m for 20 vessels.

Infrastructure berthing and loading facilities would require simple, cheap concrete structures. Operator mechanic and marine ticket training could be provided economically. The total cost for infrastructure and training support for the ferry program would be around $26m.

The total cost of $266m for a Pacific Safe Ferries Program could be spread over five years. Our island neighbours would receive a useful “sea highway” providing them with safe, efficient and reliable transport of people, goods, vehicles and liquids, including drinking water. The ferries would be particularly useful for disaster relief.

For a comparatively small investment, Australia would be rewarded with significant kudos and appreciation at a time when the region is increasing geopolitically contested.

Originally published by: on 27 Sep 2022