Shipping line CEO Morris Scotson has revealed himself to be a surprisingly good company head honcho but to keep crucial government contracts he’ll need to pull off an industry miracle, opines our transport and shipping writer Bevan Shields.
A wave of dread washed over Greg Hackney when the Queensland sun woke him up on Wednesday.
“It’s the 12-month anniversary since my previous employer tried to force me to join one of those criminal maritime unions, so I really escaped the bullet there from those thugs and I thought I would celebrate with a nice coffee,” says Hackney, a ship repair “everyman” at the Cairncross drydocks in inner-Brisbane. “Luckily the urge for a caffeine hit coincided with our weekly smoko break,” he says with a grin.
God, Hackney believes, was looking out for him that morning. Not long after sitting down with work colleague Guy Price-Waterhouse, the only other English speaker on site, a posh Lexus rolled up and a man both men admire greatly, Liberal Lines CEO Morrie Scotson, bounced out of the back seat for a chat. The ship repair and maintenance firm the men work for is a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberal Lines.
“What you see if what you get, isn’t it?” Hackney says after the encounter during which Scotson appeared genuinely interested in repair work being done on the Liberal Lines’ No1 ship of state, the Janette Howard.
“I like the cut of his jib,” Hackney says simply. “I pray for him and I know my church prays for him.”
His mate Guy concurs: “All this flip-flopping and changing of senior management at Liberal Lines as been very unsettling for the company and I just want someone to get on and lead.”
Scotson chatted easily with these working-class people before ordering them back to work before their allocated crib time was over, revealing himself to be a surprisingly good communicator.
Indeed, he comes across as a down-to-earth, fair-dinkum, no-nonsense sort of chap, extending a welcoming hand and saying “hello” with a lopsided grin that some might mistakenly call a smirk.
“The thing about my faith is it teaches you humility and it teaches you about your weaknesses,” he adds as he invites me up to the dock office to explain the reason for what is obviously expensive maintenance and repair work going on in the drydock below.
Scotson has a mountain to climb just three months out from a federal election outcome that could adversely affect the company’s profitability. For the past six years, Liberal Lines has had the contract to transport the government’s economic policies around the nation; a loss could see the lucrative tender going to the company’s chief rival, Labor Shipping.
Straightening his baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Righting the Ship of State”, Scotson says that while he is doing everything in his power to make his principal vessel – indeed his entire fleet undergoing similar work at ports around the nation – as efficient and competitive as possible, he’s unafraid to run a negative campaign against Labor Shipping’s own transport model.
“Sure, I’d prefer to talk positively about our shipping achievements. But I’m not going to sugarcoat the risk of letting Labor Shipping handle the nation’s economic stocks,” he says.
“I’m going to be pretty honest with people. I am going to talk to people pretty bluntly about what is coming. I’m unafraid to run a negative campaign against Labor Shipping.
“It might be a scare campaign but it will be a very honest scare campaign. I just don’t want people to wake up a year later and go, ‘Oh, oh, I really didn’t think that was going to happen’.
“Fair dinkum, if worse comes to worst, what were they expecting? Those Labor Shipping vessels will be loaded down to their gunnels with $200 billion worth of tax policies. I want to make sure they can’t go on bleating: ‘Why didn’t someone tell me Labor Shipping’s fleet would founder under that tax burden?’.
“Fair dinkum, we simply can’t allow that to happen. Would I care normally if Labor Shipping all sank to the bottom of the ocean? Of course not. But if they’re also carrying the nation’s economic policies, then they’d take this great nation down with them. And as someone who is as patriotic as I am and believes Australia Day must always be celebrated on January 26, and wears a little Aussie flag pin, I’m simply not going to let that happen.
“It won’t happen on my watch if it tries to happen while I’m watching,” he says simply.
Scotson’s enthusiasm for the work being done on the joy of his fleet is infectious.
“See those four barnacles left on the portside there. That’s the species Manusislander childabuseii; a terrible parasite that can multiple so quickly and capsize a ship through sheer weight of numbers. There were a lot more of them but those final four will be blowtorched off today.
“In fact, we’ve removed all sorts of barnacles over recent times. It’s going to be like a brand-new vessel once we’re finished.
“That awful looking bastard over there,” he said pointing to the ship’s portside near the stern, “that’s the ocean borer Michaelia casheii. The mouth on it! And those teeth! Can chew its way through 20cm steel plate and scuttle a ship in no time. My goodness, we’d like to see that one gone before our work is done here but it’s incredibly resistant. We may have to blast it off.
“We’ve got a few more types of barnacles to tackle yet, like that one near the rudder that you can’t really see unless you look closely. It’s called a foreign donation and can affect what course a ship of state takes. We’ve yet to work out what to do about that one.
“Plus there’s the religious freedom barnacles that live in schools. Not sure how we’re gonna go with that one either.
“The real biggie of course is that festering looking monster you see up under the bow, it’s scientific name is the Hayneous royal commish and contains all sorts of nasties that run off in all directions once you open it up.
“It also affects the navigation of the ship by seeking out banks and running up and over them.
“I for one never wanted to touch it at all, and would have preferred to leave it well alone but the previous CEO made a commitment which we all now have to live with.
“There’s rust-repair work going on too, especially on the starboard side. My Christian faith prevents me from speaking ill of anyone, but let’s just say our previous CEO was a bit port-centric and ignored the right side of all of our vessels, including this one.
“Our captains always complained their vessels tended to want to veer left all the time,” he quips.
Scotson says the company’s vessels are all going to be shipshape and ready for sea by early April but this is the first time in the interview that Scotson’s normal enthusiasm and confidence appears ever so slightly diminished.
“One of the reasons we could come into drydock for this extended period is because the government has no economic policies that need shipping right now,” Scotson admits.
“For almost three years, the Liberal Line has been steaming all around this nation delivering two vital economic policies: our container ships have been overloaded with NEG which the government claimed was absolutely vital for the nation’s economic future and security, as it would give power industry investors confidence and produce cheaper energy for businesses and residential users alike. It was the only way the nation was going to get ahead.
“And our bulk cargo ships have been pumped full of tax cut promises to the big end of town this entire election cycle; they were absolutely crucial if the Australian economy was ever going to steam ahead so workers could be trickled down on and reap the benefits through higher wages.
“Then a few months ago, the government threw those policies overboard,” says Scotson with an exasperated flourish of his hands. “Jettisoned them without warning. Just flotsam and jetsam now. The shipping orders dried up overnight, hence the maintenance work. Luckily the money has been pouring in since I became CEO so we can afford it.”
Asked if he had faith that the government would have new economic policies for Liberty Lines to ship around the nation well before the expected federal poll in May, Scotson replies simply: “They simply have to.
“Otherwise when we tow this bugger out of drydock, it may as well sink without trace into the stinking mud on the bottom of the Brisbane River for all the fucking use it will be to us.”