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Wednesday, 24 October 1984
Page: 2385

Senator PETER RAE(10.33) —The Opposition supports the Bass Strait Sea Passenger Service Agreement Bill which provides that the Commonwealth, in lieu of the payment of what had been an annual payment by way of compensation to facilitate a passenger service to Tasmania, will now make a lump sum payment in exchange for the State of Tasmania assuming the Commonwealth's responsibility in the provision of that passenger ferry service between Victoria and Tasmania. I am very conscious of the fact that we have very little time in which to deal with this matter, because of the guillotine, but I think it is appropriate to go over some of the history.

History shows that there has been a problem in relation to the Bass Strait passenger service for many years. The first committee ever conducted by the Senate, in 1901, was in relation to Bass Strait shipping. Since then there have been a number of inquiries by a variety of bodies. One of those was an inquiry by a Senate committee which reported in 1970. That committee identified the disability suffered by Tasmania as a result of the fact that shipping had become far more expensive as a means of transport than road and rail. Tasmania suffered a significant disability.

As a result of the recommendations of that Committee the McMahon Government referred the matter of that disability and the ascertainment of its extent to the Bureau of Transport Economics. The Bureau of Transport Economics eventually reported. It was quite clear that Commonwealth Government policies in relation to shipbuilding and the preservation of shipbuilding capacity in Australian industry and which therefore affected the interests of employees in places such as Whyalla, Newcastle and other places where shipbuilding, steel production, et cetera is undertaken, required Tasmania to have probably the most expensive ships anywhere in the world. Commonwealth Government policy also applied to the maritime unions and the conditions of service applying to the coastal trade of Australia. The conditions of manning in regard to the coastal trade of Australia are probably the most generous in the world and the most expensive for those operating a shipping service. Again, they were a matter of Commonwealth Government policy. The Commonwealth Government, as a deliberate decision, with a view to ensuring the free flow of exports and imports, decided to make conditions in relation to the introduction of containerisation and other aspects of the waterfront very much more beneficial than they had previously been for waterfront workers. The net result was that, due to three Government policies, Tasmania, the island State, depended for almost the totality of its transport upon probably the most expensive ships, expensive seamen and expensive waterfronts in the world. It is an established fact that it is cheaper to ship many goods from Tasmania to Singapore than to ship them from Tasmania to Melbourne.

Findings of the Bureau of Transport Economics then led to the further investigation of a recommendation of the Senate Committee for the introduction of a freight equalisation scheme. That inquiry resulted in the introduction of a freight equalisation scheme which covered quite a significant aspect of the transport of goods. However, it did nothing to assist the high cost of transport of passengers. The transport of passengers by sea is an important aspect of Tasmania's industrial growth and economic well-being as well as being a matter of social importance to Tasmania. Many people for various reasons do not wish to fly. Others prefer to come to or leave Tasmania as tourists, taking with them their own vehicles to use for the purposes of their period away. They need the services of a passenger vessel.

In regard to the development of the tourist industry, there has been limited capacity. Ships which have been engaged on the Bass Strait run in recent times have had available a lesser number of passenger places. The Empress of Australia , which undertakes three trips per week, has a capacity of 444 places. That ship also carries some freight. In 1974, recognising all of these factors, the then Opposition first enunciated clearly the principle which has been enunciated again in the transport policy issued today by the Liberal and National Party coalition. I want to read the last words of that because they are important. They are a repeat of the sorts of words used in 1974. They are:

The Coalition will await the report of the Interstate Commission on the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme before finalising its attitude to this scheme. In the meantime, the Coalition confirms its commitment to the underlying principles of the scheme and recognises that as a State of the Commonwealth, Tasmania is entitled to have Bass Strait regarded as part of the National Highway, and treated as such for policy purposes.

Senator Coates —Tell us about selling off the ANL.

Senator PETER RAE —That is the important part of the undertaking which is given, which is to regard Bass Strait as part of the national highway and to have it treated as such for policy purposes. I fail to see the relevance of Senator Coates's interjection asking me to tell him about selling off the Australian National Line. The continuation or otherwise of the ANL's services to Tasmania is of little relevance to the subject matter of this Bill, which is the provision by the Commonwealth of an amount of just under $26m to enable the State Government of Tasmania to take over responsibility, including the risk of conducting a passenger service which will not be conducted by the ANL and which will be for a period of at least 10 years.

What we have is an agreement which has been entered into between the Commonwealth and the State of Tasmania for the provision of what amounts to the cost of purchase and refit of a vessel called the Nils Holgersson which has been the result of an inquiry by a combined Commonwealth Government, State Government and ANL committee of investigation and regarded as suitable for the Bass Strait service. It will be a very much larger ship than has operated on the Bass Strait service, having a passenger capacity of over 900. This will mean that the room for growth in the tourist industry as far as Tasmania is concerned will be very significantly enhanced above that which it would otherwise have been had we continued to have only the Empress of Australia.

There is a possibility that the ANL, whether it is privately owned of publicly owned, will continue to operate the Empress of Australia also. It has indicated that it is assessing the prospects of, for at least part of the year, continuing to operate the Empress of Australia, which is now written down in value to a very significant extent and could be operated not as a cabin type passenger ship but rather as a no frills passenger ship with aircraft type seats and carrying a larger number of people at a lower price. That could be in competition with the Nils Holgersson, whatever that ship may become known as eventually.

There is certainly a need for a passenger service to Tasmania. A further committee to which I wish to refer is the Senate Select Committee on Passenger Fares and Services to and from Tasmania which recently reported and comprised senators from both sides of the chamber. It unanimously reported on the need for the continuation of the passenger service but accepted the recommendations of yet another inquiry which had been conducted in relation to Tasmanian shipping. I refer to a report by the Bureau of Transport Economics, which said:

However, the Bureau's investigation indicates that relatively smaller vessels are likely to provide superior financial results than those proposed by Commissioner Nimmo.

That is referring to the recommendations of the Nimmo Commission of Inquiry into Transport to and from Tasmania. The inquiry which the Committee undertook for a period of a year made recommendations. Those recommendations are known to the Senate. I only hope we can conclude this satisfactorily without any over- tonnaging on Bass Strait, which appears to be the only risk which is being run at the moment. The Opposition supports the Bill.