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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23702

Mr NAIRN (9:59 AM) —I am very pleased to speak on this motion about the excellent report brought down by the Transport and Regional Services Committee, which is chaired by the member for Hinkler, and I know that the member for Corangamite, who is in the chamber today, was a member of that committee as well. Various aspects of this report certainly have absolute relevance to my electorate of Eden-Monaro, which is why I want to say a few words on it today.

I guess the three airports within my electorate which are most relevant to aspects of this report are Moruya, Merimbula and Cooma airports. Obviously the other major airport that is relevant to Eden-Monaro is Canberra, which services the Queanbeyan region. Quite specifically, the matters taken up in this report are more directed towards those three airports—Moruya, Merimbula and Cooma. Each of those airports is owned by the local council. In the case of Moruya, it is the Eurobodalla Shire; in the case of Cooma, it is the Snowy River Shire; and in the case of Merimbula, it is the Bega Valley Shire. The Moruya and Cooma airports are run by those councils as well.

In the case of Merimbula, a number of years ago the Bega Valley Shire Council put the operation of the airport out to tender, and it is now privately operated on a lease basis. The people that were involved in taking over that lease a few years ago were Ian and Cathy Baker, along with Ron and Lisa Finneran. They got off to a great start when they took over the airport. They put a lot of money into it and upgraded it substantially. There has been a real change from what was there before. They have been quite innovative as well and were starting to attract various other flights in and out of the region. Merimbula is a great holiday area, obviously, and the airport operations were going very well until the Ansett collapse. Hazelton had been flying in and out of Merimbula and that all got tied up in the collapse of Ansett. Through no fault of their own, all of a sudden they were a business absolutely fighting for their life. We saw flights taken off, flights put on and schedules changed. When you do that, people who regularly use the airport certainly lose confidence in it, and that made it even more difficult. But they managed to hang in there and see those difficult times through. They put forward some proposals to possibly buy some of the aircraft out of the Ansett sale to operate their own service from Merimbula to Sydney and Melbourne. That did not happen, but gradually—and ultimately with the arrival of Rex—we have seen better and better services back into that region. It is just getting back to a stage where it is not running too badly, but it has certainly been difficult.

I want to pay tribute to Ian and Cathy Baker. Ron and Lisa Finneran are still there at times but do not have the same involvement now as they did originally, but certainly Ian and Cathy have been terrific in the way in which they have provided that great service into and out of Merimbula. They will be welcoming this report and a number of aspects of it, as will the Eurobodalla and the Snowy River shires with their airports. In particular they will welcome recommendation 5, which in part says:

The committee recommends a new airport ownership subsidy scheme covering capital works and essential maintenance as follows:

... ... ...

For communities with a population under 30,000, supporting a regional or hub airport with RPT services, to receive a 50 per cent subsidy and;

Still smaller communities supporting an airport with low RPT, charter and air ambulance to receive a 33 per cent subsidy.

Each of the councils did make submissions to the inquiry. The Snowy River Shire made the comment about the difficulty of maintaining the airport and the cost of it—they subsidise it fairly heavily. They conducted an independent inquiry into the airport and future options and they said:

Should Council continue to incur losses on behalf of the community owned asset, it will consider implementing whatever options are feasible to lessen the financial risk ... and maintenance burden.

Similarly, the Eurobodalla Shire Council said:

This Council currently subsidises the operation and maintenance of the Moruya Airport by approximately $125,000 per year. This does not take account of the need to carry out extensive rehabilitation of the main runway in 20 years time.

Similarly, with respect to the Bega Valley Shire and Merimbula, the report states:

The major cost of maintenance and upgrade of airport infrastructure is a significant problem for some local councils. Bega Valley Shire, the owner of the Merimbula Airport, claimed that significant capital investment will be needed in the next five to ten years even just to maintain the current airport standards. A move to possible larger aircraft in the medium term will likely necessitate several million dollars of additional capital works for runway improvements, associated apron trafficking areas and increase in the capacity of the airport terminal. The council stated that it can reasonably address the ongoing maintenance issues of its airport asset, yet its funds for major new capital works to support growth in air services are extremely limited.

So the Bega Valley Shire will certainly welcome the committee's recommendations in relation to that assistance in those circumstances.

The other matter that I want to raise is recommendations 20 and 21, as they are quite relevant to my electorate as well. They relate to Commonwealth employees buying airline tickets consistent with `best fare of the day' and `value for money'. This is relevant because Rex planes travel between Sydney and Canberra, as many would know, and this is one of their major routes in terms of volume, but they also operate flights down to Moruya and Merimbula. It is in the interests of regional aviation that an airline like Rex is profitable on those bigger routes, like the Sydney-Canberra one.

A number of months ago, their share of the ticket sales was absolutely minuscule. Out of the many thousands of seats going in and out of Canberra each week, Rex were only managing to pick up a couple of hundred. Fortunately, after representations to government and instructions from ministers and secretaries to departments, a lot more travel is now occurring on that route—and rightly so, because they offer a very good fare and the quality of service et cetera is equal to or better than the other options. This provides much better competition as a result, with Rex getting a bit more business from the Commonwealth. That will then make those other routes down to Merimbula and Moruya much more viable.

I understand that Rex finally got over the line and made a profit in October—they had their first month where they actually made a profit—and I think a lot of that was to do with the increase in usage on the route between Sydney and Canberra. I welcome the support the government has been showing, and I am pleased that I have been able to give some assistance to Rex in their pursuit of a better deal. Recommendations 20 and 21 call for some auditing of these aspects to ensure that the Commonwealth gets the best deal and also shares the business. I know Rex will welcome those recommendations.

I have not mentioned Cooma as much because Rex has not been flying into Cooma. Horizon Airlines were flying into there from Sydney, but they have had some difficulties as well. Unfortunately, they went into administration just recently, but ultimately they have been picked up by a Queensland regional airline. We are still maintaining that service, but it is a difficult area because a lot of the volume happens during the winter period obviously when people go down to Cooma and on to the snowfields, but it is good we are maintaining that RPT service through that new airline. Hopefully, with that area growing and the tourism season getting longer and longer—as the summer season becomes much more relevant as well—those planes which fly into and out of Cooma will have better patronage and therefore it will be more viable. So a number of these recommendations will certainly assist the local council which owns and operates the airport.

I congratulate the committee on a very comprehensive inquiry. It has taken place over a long period of time, but it is very comprehensive when you look at the issues the committee have raised through the report. It is certainly a great step forward. I am sure that the government will consider the recommendations very closely, because the government is a strong supporter of rural and regional Australia. Many of our towns do not have the other public transport connections—I have no rail down the coast in my electorate and there is no rail going into Cooma—and therefore we rely very heavily on roads and RPT flights into those major centres. We want to ensure that they not only remain viable for the future but also grow and provide an even better service for the people in my electorate of Eden-Monaro.