From the Sydney Morning Herald: Reef safeguard sacrificed secretly for US, Singapore
THE federal government has secretly wound back a critical environmental protection for the Great Barrier Reef against shipping accidents in order to avoid a diplomatic stoush with the United States and Singapore.
Leaked US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks have revealed that the government has "weakened" the compulsory pilotage regime for large vessels, including oil tankers, chemical tankers and liquefied gas carriers, sailing through the sensitive maritime environment of the Torres Strait.
Owners and masters of vessels that fail to use a pilot to navigate the narrow and hazardous channel will not face any penalty if they do not subsequently call at an Australian port.
Advertisement: Story continues below On learning the Torres Strait pilotage regime was quietly amended 17 months ago, the chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Don Henry, said it was "absolutely essential'' that all shipping [through the strait] has pilotage.
The cables reveal that the US and Singaporean governments reacted strongly against the Howard government's October 2006 announcement of a compulsory pilotage regime in the Torres Strait designed to reduce the risk of oil and chemical spills in the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
Singapore's Foreign Minister, George Yeo, wrote directly to his Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer, "to complain about the decision and its negative impact on larger strategic interests".
The leaked cables show the US shared Singapore's concerns and served as Singapore's "closest ally on the Torres Strait issue". American diplomats lobbied other countries with large registered merchant fleets such as Panama and Cyprus to protest to Australia as well.
The Howard government was unmoved. In early 2008 the new Labor government under Kevin Rudd would not change its position either.
However, in July 2008, the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's international law branch, assistant secretary Adam McCarthy, told the US embassy in Canberra that "Australia recognises that it has not handled the Torres Strait pilotage issue particularly well" and indicated Canberra was prepared "to explore ways to address US concerns".
After detailed talks between US and Australian officials in Washington in August 2008, the department sought American agreement to a compromise formula that would allow Australia to save face while meeting US demands.
This would involve leaving the "compulsory" framework in place while in practice reverting to a voluntary scheme for many vessels by not enforcing penalties against ships that passed through the Torres Strait without a pilot, but which did not call at an Australian port. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority formalised the change on April 17, 2009.