The maintenance of Australia's critical maritime shipping and navigation network is now under threat because the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has refused to renew the contract of the existing maintenance provider, AMS Group, and apparently has no back-up plan and no other tenderer to turn to.
AMS Group says the decision is inexplicable and threatens Australia's defence, trade and environmental national interests.
In 2001, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority outsourced the task of maintaining the network - which includes things like tsunami warning; tide monitoring; and navigation hardware, including a string of essential navigation aids on the Great Barrier Reef. AMS Group won the contract in 2001 and has had it renewed ever since, until now.
The authority told AMS Group that the tender would not be renewed because AMS Group was "unsuitable" for technical-capability reasons.
This is despite AMS Group's 22-year record of maintaining the shipping and navigation network with a 99.98 per cent uptime of navigational aids and a 91 per cent KPI award from AMSA. The authority said that that previous record had deliberately not been considered.
AMS Group was the only tenderer. There appears to be no Plan B.
There are obvious defence, safety, and trade implications if Australia's navigation aids are not properly maintained. It is a complex system requiring a technical workforce operating at scale in often treacherous conditions well out to sea. It is highly specialised work requiring skills that simply could not replicated in the seven months left until the contract expires.
Without a renewal, AMS Group will begin losing many of its critical 53 staff; the skill set will be lost to Australia; and national, international and military shipping will be exposed to deteriorating critical navigation aids.
Further, Australia's international obligations with the International Maritime Organisation are now under threat.
AMS Group says that its treatment shows that something has gone seriously wrong with the authority's conduct of the tender process and that the government should intervene in the national interest.
There are also environmental concerns. AMS Group points out: "Forty percent of Australia's navigation aids are on the Great Barrier Reef. The ramifications of an incident caused by a failure of the network appear to have not been considered in AMSA's decision-making process."
More than 18,000 commercial ships transit the Great Barrier Reef each year. More than 200 aids to navigation are on the reef. If a beacon, wave sensor, or tsunami warning sensor becomes inoperable, it creates a huge risk to shipping and the surrounding environment. Shipping Australia and the two Great Barrier Reef pilotage service providers are alarmed.
A separate towing contract has been lost (under AMSA's processes) to a foreign company which has now sought use of the AMS Group vessel that used to do the work. The foreign company has abandoned AMS Group's veterans and Indigenous employment programs. If the existing contract for maintenance is lost about 30 veterans (who are uniquely skilled to do the dangerous maritime work) will lose their jobs.
AMSA is taking this unilateral action at a time when government is reviewing its Strategic Fleet.
AMS Group was awarded "Medium-Sized Employer of the Year" by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for veteran's employment in September.
AMS Chief Executive Glen Marshall says that his company will consider legal action, but that is not desirable and should not be necessary.
"The situation is urgent," he says. "The government must step in to ensure that Australian and international shipping can operate safely in Australian waters and beyond. Australia's defence and trade depend on it. Far too much is at stake to allow a flawed tender process to jeopardise the national interest.
"The Australian Maritime Safety Authority clearly did not like the result that only one tender - AMS Group - was received for this extremely complex work. Under Commonwealth Procurement Rules, the tender must be awarded unless the respondent cannot demonstrate the technical capacity to deliver the maintenance services. To avoid executing the contract, the AMSA Evaluation Committee has fallen back on the preposterous proposition that AMS Group with its 22-year track record of providing that maintenance to the highest standard is now not up to the task technically.
"Something has gone seriously wrong here and the government at the highest levels should intervene before it affects Australia's trade, defence and environment."
Responses to AMS Group's appeals to AMSA and the minister's office have been dilatory. AMSA has said it would develop a plan and the Ministers' office said that it had been advised by AMSA that AMSA was working on a plan - that was six weeks ago and still no plan.
An AMSA spokesperson said yesterday: "The Australian Maritime Safety Authority recently ran a tender process for the maintenance of Aids to Navigation around Australia. The tender was conducted in accordance with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPRs), which must be adhered to when procuring a supplier to undertake services for the Commonwealth. Under the CPRs, AMSA must be convinced that the supplier will deliver a high-quality service for value for money.
"The Australian public's expectation is that government agencies will apply due diligence to tender applications, and the rigorous tender review process was conducted in accordance with the CPRs.
"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 ... The tender for emergency towage capacity is still being conducted and in accordance with the CPRs. AMSA will not provide comment on that tender until it has closed and been awarded."
- Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a volunteer marine rescue skipper.