Great seasonal conditions and an anticipated bumper harvest is putting smiles on the faces of farmers in many parts of the nation, and in NSW and Queensland it’s a welcome continuation of the recovery from years of crippling drought.
But in Western Australia, the excitement around another big winter harvest is being tempered by the reality that new farm machinery ordered for the season – combine harvesters and tractors – may not be delivered in time due to ongoing disputes at the Port of Fremantle.
In recent weeks it’s been reported a number of ships loaded with agricultural machinery were forced to turn away from Fremantle due to ongoing industrial action between port operator Qube and the Maritime Union of Australia. Machinery companies are now having to make alternative arrangements to transport the machinery back from either Adelaide or Melbourne, leading to lengthy delivery delays and fuelling concerns the machinery won’t make it to farmers in time for the critical harvest period.
The Port of Melbourne is also confronting its own challenges at present, with ongoing strike action and the impact of COVID-19 threatening its processing timeline for freight and potentially pushing out delivery times even more for this important ag machinery.
The situation playing out at some of the nation’s biggest ports should sound warning bells for the entire agricultural industry. Farmers are familiar with the challenges of weather, natural disasters, price fluctuations and trade disputes, but striking wharf workers and the implications for producers’ harvest plans is something else again. There’s a lot at stake here and the questionable actions of unions shouldn’t be able to effectively hold the nation to ransom.
Obviously it’s not only machinery being impacted by the disputes, with a raft of other products and materials languishing in containers waiting to be processed. Impacts on meat and wool have been highlighted in the media in the past week, but shortages of toys, electronics, furniture, and construction materials in the lead-up to Christmas have also been flagged.
Waterfront disputes are certainly not new, but in this day and age it’s incredibly frustrating that they are still occurring – over weeks, months, and even years in some cases – and that we as a nation remain so vulnerable to the impacts. It’s something governments, port operators and unions must address as a matter of urgency because it’s unacceptable that the actions of a comparatively small pool of workers can have such a catastrophic impact on so many other industries, like agriculture, which employs hundreds of thousands of Australians, contribute significantly to the value of our exports and help economically support so many rural and regional communities across the country.
The terrible impacts of the current disputes – to which all our container ports are vulnerable – are already far-reaching, but many have predicted things are only going to get worse if a resolution isn’t found soon and more ships are forced to divert from their initial destinations. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for many farmers in WA who were depending on new harvesters and tractors to maximise harvest returns. But the reality is many more industries, operators and consumers will suffer too if those at the heart of these disputes can’t see the bigger picture and work to find an immediate solution – not only to the current situation but one which could ultimately prevent these devastating consequences into the future.