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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
Department of Regional Development, Regional Australia and Local Government annual report 2010-11
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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
CHAIR (Senator Pratt)
Secker, Patrick, MP
Parry, Sen Stephen
Bird, Sharon, MP
Burke, Anna, MP
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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
(Joint-Monday, 30 April 2012)
CHAIR (Senator Pratt)
- Senator PARRY
Content WindowJoint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories - 30/04/2012 - Department of Regional Development, Regional Australia and Local Government annual report 2010-11
BUSH, Mrs Juliane, Marketing Manager, Cocos Keeling Islands Tourism Association
CLARK, Mr Alan, Manager, Works and Services, Shire of Cocos (Keeling) Islands
CLARKE, Mr Peter, Chief Executive Officer, Shire of Cocos (Keeling) Islands
MINKOM, Councillor Aindil, Shire President, Shire of Cocos (Keeling) Islands
NOOM, Mr Semat, Committee Member, Cocos (Keeling) Islands Economic Development Consultative Group
Committee met at 15:56
CHAIR ( Senator Pratt ): Good afternoon and welcome. It is really terrific to be able to hold a parliamentary hearing here on Lord Howe Island. As I said in my remarks this morning, as a committee we are able to auspice inquiry into Christmas, Cocos (Keeling) and Norfolk islands because we have terms of reference that enable us to look at the national capital, Canberra, our external territories and Antarctica. This is quite typical of what we do in Canberra and right around the country. We have held hearings on Norfolk Island and, hopefully, we will be able to visit you at Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the not too distant future. We thank the witnesses from Cocos (Keeling) Islands for giving us evidence this afternoon. We will be able to use the evidence and information that you give us to further develop the work that the committee has already done, and that I hope you have found useful, on issues like economic sustainability et cetera.
The proceedings today will be recorded by Hansard and placed on the committee's website, so that information will be available to the whole of the conference. This committee does not require anyone to give evidence under oath. These proceedings are formal proceedings of parliament. They therefore warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The evidence given here today attracts parliamentary privilege.
I welcome our first witnesses. I invite you to make an opening statement and we will launch into questions.
Mr Clarke : Thank you. The four of us are all very new to this process. We received an invitation and it posed some issues. I do not know how you want us to do this, so excuse our—
CHAIR: That is completely fine. You might like to speak to the issues that you think are of priority—that you think should be on the public record and drawn to the parliament and government's attention. Those issues could be anything that you would like to see a parliamentary committee deliberating on. Often parliamentary committees will have terms of reference for an inquiry; in this case we do not, which leaves us a very open agenda.
Mr Clarke : The joint standing committee, I think in early 2010, visited the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and made a number of recommendations that were delivered in October 2011. Recommendation 18 was that the quarantine station on Cocos (Keeling) Islands be transferred to the Shire of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The recommendation was not supported. Although I do not know whether we as the shire have the financial capacity to take on the quarantine station, council is certainly firmly of the belief that something needs to be done in respect of that facility because it has a number of homes on it and also some single persons' accommodation. It has been used spasmodically, I suppose, with contractors on the island but now sits vacant. We have an extreme housing shortage and the availability of that facility would certainly provide additional housing. There is the issue of it being connected to the scheme water, and that is something that apparently the government does not want to deal with at this stage, probably because of cost, but it is disappointing to see a facility like that wasted when there is a serious housing shortage on the islands. That is one of the issues.
CHAIR: Would you like to mention any other issues?
Mr Clarke : In respect of housing, the government has been talking about doing an outline development plan for what is called the Buffet Close extension. We keep on hearing that the outline development plan is happening, but I have been at the shire for two years and still have not seen it. Again, it is an issue because there is a critical housing shortage on the islands. It does affect tourism. Recently, one of our major tourist operators, who brings kite surfers to the islands during the months of July to October, has had to seriously cut back on the number of tourists that she brings. That certainly affects the economic sustainability of the islands. So there is certainly an issue with respect to housing. They are the two issues I have.
Mr SECKER: Is the shortage on both Home and West islands?
Mr Clarke : On Home Island they have more or less indicated that there is to be no further development, although there are about eight lots that could be developed and we are working at the moment with the Cocos Malay community on developing those. That will mean individuals having to financially invest in their own homes, but the main issue is West Island.
CHAIR: Can I ask how big the housing deficit is?
Mr Clarke : It is probably hard to say. If we could have homes available for contractors, whether they be electrical contractors or plumbing contractors and the like, because we cannot entice those sorts of qualified people to come to the islands—
Ms Bush : Also, most of the houses have three or four bedrooms. If you have a single contractor in that house they are then taking up the entire house—you need more of a variety of accommodation types to cater for the different work groups that come through.
Councillor Minkom : There is a big emphasis on attracting young people back from the mainland after their studies. They tend to stay over in the mainland. The way I see it is we need to concentrate on retaining the ones that are on the island currently. Over the years a few young families have left the island because of housing issues, and if we are trying to attract young people back to the island then we need to address the housing issues first, then focus on retaining the ones on the island at the moment. That is a problem I see that we are facing.
CHAIR: Has there been anything particularly innovative that has worked that needs to be duplicated? What kinds of solutions for making more housing available would you be looking at? Changing the types of accommodation and having some diversity of housing types available? Clearly, there is a land release issue, which you acknowledged, but what needs to happen to fix this problem, in your view?
Mr Clarke : In the outline development plan they were talking about having a mix of housing—whether single persons or residential—and even setting up a sort of mini-kampong which could then accommodate the Cocos Malay community on West Island. There are obviously issues around Home Island not having a lot of development in the future, and one of those issues is because of climate change. The climate change report that was presented more or less indicates that there could be inundation problems on Home Island in the future. West Island is really the only place that can be developed, and there needs to be a mix of housing for the different types of people.
Mr SECKER: How long since the quarantine station has been used for that?
Mr Clarke : It was used by the contractor for the Rumah Baru port facility development. When the recommendation came out from the Standing Committee on Public Works it was not supported because, they indicated, it would be used for further contract works. At the moment we are having our airstrip redeveloped and it was indicated in the report that the contractors would be utilising the quarantine station, but that is not going to be the case; the contractors are using the Cocos Motel and its facilities. It has probably been around six or seven months now that it has been totally vacated, and that is by removing everything—the whole place has been cleaned out. Whoever is going to go back in there will have to restock all the houses again.
Mr SECKER: But as a quarantine station?
Mr Clarke : Oh, a quarantine station.
Ms Bush : Was it with the elephants?
Mr Clark : Yes, the elephants in 2004-05?
Mr Clarke : And that was a one-off, really. I do not think it would ever be used for that facility again.
Mr SECKER: It could be, but it is unlikely. They use New Zealand instead now.
Mr Clarke : The government really has to come out to us and say what the future is for that facility. If it is a potential quarantine station then we know the situation, but when it is just used spasmodically that is a problem, and it is frustrating for us.
Senator PARRY: What is the status for quarantine now? What happens when a practical base is zero?
Mr Clarke : Nothing.
Senator PARRY: Do you have a fear about quarantine? Are there quarantine issues that the island could be subjected to without a station there?
Mr Clarke : I do not believe so, because its use-by date as a quarantine station has gone. I suppose quarantine facilities on the mainland are utilised now rather than what they were primarily used for in the past.
Ms BIRD: So it was not used for your quarantine, it was predominantly used to house things which were then going to come to the mainland anyway. It was a nice holding point—a much nicer spot to look out. It is a beautiful spot—why would you not want to be there?
CHAIR: I assume Customs still holds the tenure?
Mr Clarke : It would be the department now—the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport.
CHAIR: We would be happy to talk to you about any other governance issues—issues to do with the Commonwealth specifically, as these are issues we have more influence over as a parliamentary committee. If there is anything you want to give your thoughts on, feel free to use this as an opportunity to get extra issues off your chest.
Ms Bush : There is one issue arising out of my position with marketing and tourism on the island and relating to future sustainability in the short term. I believe the Virgin contract for the flight services to both Cocos and Christmas Island ends in June next year. Given that our marketing material has to go out into the marketplace a year in advance, if we can say it is a particular airline—just the security behind the service—then we can take that message further. Any indication you could give would be helpful. The Christmas Island tourism people are likely to put the same question as well.
CHAIR: That is an interesting question given the exchange this morning about the intersection between local and outside capital and the ramifications of that. I think that is a really important issue and one that we can note.
Ms BURKE: Have you been happy with the service they have provided? That is not to prejudice the contract negotiations, but just to understand how it has actually gone for locals, given that a lot of supplies come in via air as well and given the tourism perspective. We do not have anything to do with the contract. I am just curious to see how it goes because I know there have been issues with different contracts over time.
Mr Clarke : Personally, for me, I think Virgin has been quite good. People who have been there since prior to my arrival always say to me that National Jet was a lot better, but I think Virgin has been fine. The problem we have is that Christmas Island always seems to mess us up with the weather, but we cannot blame that totally on them. To me, it is just like here—Qantas has weather delays and whatever. It is just one of those things associated with living on an island. The only thing is that we were having direct flights, which was great, but then CASA came out and said that that was not to be anymore. We would like to have bigger planes so we could have direct flights, but I reckon Virgin's service is really quite good.
Ms Bush : I would go with that as well. One of the initial issues we were having with Virgin was the freight capacity. The freight plane you mentioned has relieved a lot of our freight issues. Given the season last year, we were finding that the kite surfers that were arriving—their packs are built especially for their boards and they have their weight—were being targeted by the local community, who were saying they were the reason behind fruit and vegetables being offloaded. But the freight plane has relieved a lot of the issues that we have had. And the mail is now coming regularly, whereas previously it was not.
Ms BURKE: I sent something to a mate who had been working on Christmas Island—he got it 12 months later. And I did all I was told to do in order for it to get there. I knew it would take a long time, but—
CHAIR: Have the mail issues been resolved?
Ms Bush : The express mail system works well. The rest of it you know is going to come via the ship. As a local, you prepare yourself for that. If you do want something more quickly, you make sure it is express posted. In saying that, we contacted a marketing company in Perth to deliver on our new rebrand, and, as much as we went to them and said, 'It needs to be Express Post,' some things were still delivered by courier and therefore ended up on a ship. So we have got a two- or three-month delay on letterheads or paperwork or other things that accidentally made it onto the ship because they did not come via Express Post. I guess that this is just par for the course almost.
CHAIR: So Australia Post services overall are as good as you can reasonably expect them to be?
Mr Clarke : I think so, apart from those few things that happen occasionally. But generally it is not too bad.
CHAIR: I know Lord Howe Island has had its issues in the past. Alan, did you have a statement to make?
Mr Clark : I have been on the Cocos Islands for the past eight years. The biggest thing that I saw when I first got there was the waste management issues that we had, and I have been working hard to try and put us in a better position. First, I would like to acknowledge that the Commonwealth has been very happy to provide funding to get our waste management up and running. Just before we left, we received our first two waste management trucks. So again I would like to thank the Commonwealth for supporting us. We have got a long way to go forward. As our shire only has a very small rate base, I am afraid we are going to be very dependent on continuing this kick-start with funding from the Commonwealth.
The issues that we have got are off-island disposal of major products like cars, fridges and air conditioners. The shire is quite willing to prepare these items and deal with them in any way we can to get them transported back to the mainland for disposal. We have tried going through South-East Asia with a lot of our recycled products. Funnily enough, it is cheaper to send stuff back to Australia than it is to send it to South-East Asia, even though for our metal products, say, Sims Metal would buy them off us but then send them to South-East Asia to get remanufactured into other goods.
Perhaps this inquiry can push for some assistance by way of subsidising the shire's efforts to do off-island disposal. We are collecting quite a huge tonnage of stuff we just cannot deal with. In our funding application, we have also put in for some sheds so that we can quarantine the material that we are trying to dispose of so that when it gets back into Australia we do not have the issues with AQIS that we have at the moment. AQIS are doing a good job and they will not let anything back into Australia that is going to be any sort of threat, and that is fantastic. We are trying to do our bit to make sure that what we send back is going to be very much sterile.
With our environmental obligations, as a local government we should be setting the pace. I really admire what Lord Howe Island do. I have been watching ever since 2005 how Lord Howe have been doing things. I really want us to be able to be up there with them, to compete with them, but our isolation makes it really difficult. To send a container back to the mainland will cost us $7,000 just in the freight component. We allow in our budget about $60,000 each year for that, and that is enough to send off three containers. That includes preparing the materials to send back. But it is a drain on our municipal funds. We would be lucky if we get $3,000 back in value of that product once we send it away. We know we are fighting an uphill battle, and it would be good if we could get some sort of assistance through the Commonwealth to help us get ourselves up and running till we find a sustainable way of being able to achieve off-island disposal.
The other thing on which I have been working closely with the Commonwealth, with the Water Corporation, and with the Department of Environment and Conservation is our waste management plan. On Home Island and West Island we have two waste water treatment plants for the conversion of our waste back into a product that is safe to reuse. Unfortunately we live on top of our water lenses, so any product that is produced by the waste water treatment plant we cannot use within 300 metres of any gallery. That pretty much excludes all gardens. So we need to find a better way to deal with that waste component. On Home Island we have practically run out of area left to dispose of that product. The DEC, rightfully, will not let us transport that across the lagoon to West Island, which is a larger island, but we still have the problem over there of disposing of it. We dig a hole 500 millimetres deep and we have already hit water. So disposing of the dry waste into a wet environment is not a good thing. On West Island, at the moment it is stored on dry ground. Nothing has really happened in the five years that we have been trying to push this one along. It is a very difficult issue to find a solution forward.
CHAIR: What is the best practice solution?
Mr Clark : All things being equal, the best thing would be broadacre spreading of waste, which is a common practice in Western Australia. They use this material and do broadacre spreading.
CHAIR: Organic farming.
Mr Clark : Yes, but obviously we cannot do that. Also, we had a lady come to do tests on our waste—it goes back to Perth and returns with a solution for us—saying that it is okay to use this product. One cubic metre of human waste product can be used with 50 cubic metres of green waste. Again, it is not practical for us to start lopping our forests down just to provide enough green waste to mix with the product.
CHAIR: So, are you saying storage is the best practice solution?
Mr Clark : Well, no.
CHAIR: Transporting it somewhere?
Mr Clark : At the moment, Water Corporation and the shire were both trying to get funding for our own incinerators to incinerate the product, then we can use the fly ash on gardens. It is quite safe. That really is the only solution for us. It is the same with our waste management. We can do something similar to what Lord Howe Island does in separating all their types of waste. The waste that cannot be dealt with, which is the normal rubbish waste, is what we intend to incinerate. We have put in an application for funding to purchase two incinerators and we are waiting now to see whether that money will be allowed in the budget.
If I can move on, if there are no other questions, to the light industrial area. Currently we use two sheds that are in the quarantine station. We are on only a year-by-year lease paying a peppercorn $1 a year but our obligation is to slash the two southern paddocks—about nine hectares—which are pretty intensively seeded with siam weed. As long as we mow that down, the siam weed does not have a chance to flower and spread more seeds. However, the power house on West Island burn down nearly four years ago and has not been rebuilt. I understand they are going to rebuild. Part of the outline development plan for all of the vacant Crown land on West Island was allowed to have options for housing or for farming. One of the areas along the RumahBaru road, which leads to the new wharf facility we have there—which is fantastic—is an LIA area which was put aside. If we can somehow convince the authorities that rather than rebuilding the power house within the urban environment, where it can be heard quite clearly in residential areas, we should maybe build the new power house in a light industrial area way out of town. The facility would be a kick start to set up a light industrial area out of town and from where the shire could operate in a better area.
Lastly, one issue that is outstanding, and which I would like to see get going, is the dredging of the Home Island wharf. Recently the Commonwealth purchased the Minti Sedaya, which is a motorised barge, and also a larger dumb barge, the James Capstan, and in June this year we will receive the new ferry, which is yet to be named. Unfortunately, the area on Home Island where these new vessels are located, needs to be dredged because they will not be able to operate—especially the new ferry—out of there on a low tide.
Somewhere, the wheels have fallen off and there is nothing happening. There are two dredges sitting off Home Island at the moment but they are not being used to do the dredging. It would be very important, of course, to do this dredging for the new vessels but secondly, the shire is undertaking some climate change adaptation works along the foreshore and the dredge material would become very handy for us to rebuild our foreshore, which has been weakened and etched away every year from the tide rising and falling. Climate change is something that we need to consider in our yearly program so we have developed a program to rebuild and strengthen our foreshore. It is going to make us resilient—it is not going to protect us but it will certainly give us a few more years—if we can push that dredging or find a solution.
CHAIR: Who is responsible for the dredging?
Mr Clark : The department of regional Australia.
CHAIR: So you are saying it has not progressed to the point that it should have?
Mr Clark : GHD had been commissioned to put together a tender for works. That came out but it has since been put on hold. We are not sure where the sticking point is with that one.
CHAIR: But some bureaucracy will know somewhere.
Mr Clark e : The trouble is, we have been told by the department that funds are extremely tight, and I think everybody is tightening their belt, and especially the government, at this stage. A lot of the projects that obviously were promised have not been delivered. The other issue is the community centre on West Island. When I got there in April 2010 it looked like everything was going to happen, yet we still have not seen anything further on that community centre. That has been outstanding for over two years now, which is frustrating from our point of view when you are given these promises and then the promises do not seem to eventuate for years down the track. That is probably what Alan is alluding to, in some of those areas.
Senator PARRY: You mention $7,000 per container. Is that a 20-foot or a 40-foot container?
Mr Clark : That is for the 20-foot container.
CHAIR: Mr Noom, would you like to add a few things to the record?
Mr Noom : I am a pensioner and I have joined the tourism and economic development group as a volunteer.
CHAIR: Are there particular issues you would like to draw to our attention from a tourism and economic development point of view?
Mr Noom : We all have to work together to help make sure people come to Cocos Islands and jump in the tourism bus so I can take them around everywhere. That is my job.
CHAIR: Is there anything else anyone wants to put on the record? In short, you have given us a very good list to follow up on before we make arrangements to come and visit, hopefully sometime later this year. As a result of what you have said today we will have a bit of a head start on the kinds of issues we can do some homework on before we come so that we can hopefully report and have some real accountability in the process. I hope you have found our previous reports useful from that point of view.
Ms Bush : I would like to thank the government and the Commonwealth for the funding that was put towards the Australian Geographic documentary DVD that Sorel will be producing. I believe she is in Canberra at the moment, and you might be missing the fantastic presentation she is going to give to your colleagues tomorrow, I think. When it goes out into the marketplace it will hopefully do a lot for our tourism on both the islands.
Mr SECKER: Before you go, you mentioned you did not have direct flights. I presume that is to Perth?
Ms Bush : Yes, that is correct.
Mr SECKER: So you have to go via Christmas?
Ms Bush : That is correct.
Mr SECKER: Is it the same for them?
Ms Bush : If you want to fly to Christmas you can do it direct from Perth, but for Cocos you always need to go via Christmas Island, both ways.
Senator PARRY: What sort of aircraft are Virgin using?
Mrs Bush : Embraer.
Senator PARRY: Embraer jets?
Mrs Bush : Yes.
Senator PARRY: Embraer 170. They are good. When does the contract expire? Is it 30 June next year?
Mrs Bush : Yes, I believe so.
CHAIR: If you have any comment on the services that are delivered to you and contracted out from elsewhere from Australia, we would be more than happy to take your comments on that as well. We can follow up that conversation perhaps later in the year. Thank you all for your evidence, it is much appreciated.