Managing Uncertainty: Supply Chain Integrity, COVID-19 And The Future Of Australian Ports

26 June 2020
Caption: Fremantle Port has the fastest average container turnaround time on landside and the fastest average truck turnaround time of the five largest Australian container ports. © Fremantle Ports.

Key Points:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of securing Australia’s supply chains, of which Australia’s economic livelihood rests upon our ability to trade.
  • By adopting decisive measures Australian ports have successfully implemented safeguards to ensure their workforce remains protected from COVID-19 related disruption.
  • Promoting resilience and supply chain integrity at the port gate has markedly strengthened both public and industry confidence in the Australian economy’s ability to persevere through uncertain times.

The challenge of COVID-19 for our national supply chain is ongoing, the results of which we may not see for some time. The positive out of all this? The recognition of our supply chain as something that Australia would crumble without. As an island nation, our livelihood depends on our ability to trade.

Without that ability, we go underfed, unable to drive our vehicles, and without a strong economy heavily funded by the resources we export in massive quantities. The easiest way of understanding how ports fit into that picture is by acknowledging the fact that 98% of Australia’s trade will pass through our ports.

Port Security

COVID-19 or not, supply chain integrity is a focus ports cannot go without. At any time, it could be compromised by biosecurity risks, cybersecurity attacks, environmental threats, or economic instability.

Fortunately, our freight enablers at the port gate have built a strong resilience so even when these threats emerge, trade through the port continues. At any port, you’ll have personnel with the role of monitoring the natural environment so operations are sustainable for the future, security officers protecting both the physical and cyber parameters of the port, all while the harbour master keeps the operation running safely and smoothly.

Despite the current pandemic, all of that is continuing. Ports Australia has maintained constant dialogue with Commonwealth and state governments from the initial threat of COVID-19, ensuring the measures enforced around the country address the safety of port staff, biosecurity needs for managing cargo, and necessity for maintained trade.

We are extremely fortunate yielding the ability to dip into the vast knowledge pool filled by our members and provide that knowledge to government as they craft and update protocols. The result of a strong relationship between the ports industry and our various levels of government, paired with the professionalism of port staff, has meant no major disruptions to any port’s operation to date.

Economic & Workforce Considerations

It is difficult to provide a perspective on Australia’s current trade numbers while the pandemic situation remains in flux. It’s unquestionable the crisis has placed a strain on production across the world which has a flow-on effect to trade numbers.

Positively, we’re seeing promising signs for imports as overseas trading partners slowly come back online. In the West, Pilbara Ports have reported record-breaking throughput numbers in recent months. Australia’s largest export port at Newcastle has reported steady numbers which is a success for the economy of NSW.

We have seen resilience come in many forms at our ports, however the one going unnoticed comes from the recognition of mental and social wellbeing being which is just as important as physical safety.

Just like any other business, our ports have enacted business continuity plans which tackle what is required to keep the operation moving. While new sets of working conditions create a safe and hygienic environment for staff, it may well isolate them from the workforce community they are a part of.

Considering the challenging times, these necessities have been met with creativity. Such initiatives are justified by the ports based on their importance with instilling a sense of normality while all necessary safety controls are in place. Some initiatives include:

  • virtual group lunches,
  • regularly producing and distributing video updates to staff,
  • a morning coffee program which sees two people in the organisation matched three times a week in the morning to virtually share a coffee,
  • e-newsletters (some produced daily) outlining the safety measures in place as well as recognition of strong work performances.

Supply Chain Integrity

Resilience and supply chain integrity at the port gate instils confidence on many levels, whether it be international trading partners, shipping lines, government policymakers, or the general public.

Confidence in our supply chain avoids wide-spread panic which only creates additional problems, most recently seen in the form of unnecessary bulk buying and hoarding, leaving supermarket shelves empty.

How can confidence be achieved? Most simply through collaboration between government and industry, as well as active transparency in what’s being done to maintain safety, security, and trade.

Success in response to COVID-19 can’t be measured right now. One thing is for certain, the continued focus on the safety of port staff is paramount. Without them, we don’t have ports and we don’t have trade. If we keep them safe, we secure the integrity of our supply chain.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.