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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2276


Senator PETER RAE(9.38) —Perhaps I could give some background before asking my question. There has been a quite long saga in the Department of Transport relating to the unmanning of lighthouses, the payment for lighthouses, the functions of lighthouse keepers, and the continued utilisation of lighthouses around the Australian coast as an aid to marine navigation and for a wide cross-section of other purposes. I now go on to the specific and quite detailed matter about which I wish to ask-the unmanning of the Swan Island lighthouse in Bass Strait. It is actually located on the southern side of Banks Strait, which is one of the most notorious areas of the world for difficult marine conditions.


Senator Gareth Evans —Have you been lost in your boat around there again?


Senator PETER RAE —No, I have not, but Robin Knox-Johnston, when he was planning his trip around the world single-handed, regarded the planning for going through Banks Strait as being more important than the planning for going around Cape Horn. I note that when the problem of the recovery of costs from the major shipping companies reached such a stage that the Department of Transport was considering unmanning, considerable public concern was raised. It was felt that manned lighthouses served a whole variety of purposes, including safety purposes, such as search and rescue, environmental purposes and a wide cross-section of other purposes. Swan Island lighthouse is of undoubted importance as a manned station in the provision of coastal surveillance and a search and rescue function.

I would have thought, as does the Tasmanian Government, which asserts a similar view to mine, that the lighthouse would have rated much higher than it did when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure reviewed the question of the manning of lighthouses around Australia. It was one of the lighthouses which was recommended for unmanning and as being of low priority. Apparently this recommendation was made on the basis that the cost of restoring Swan Island lighthouse was relatively high. On the scale of points awarded its score was such that it was recommended to be placed in the unmanned category. The whole island was listed as part of the national heritage-the lighthouse was listed some time ago-in March and the listing is going through the six-month waiting process now.

The position has been complicated by the fact that the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) gave an undertaking after the House of Representatives Expenditure Committee report was presented that in relation to the question of unmanning there would be full consultation with State governments and also with public interest groups before any unmanning of any lighthouse would take place. However, with regard to Swan Island lighthouse, there have been a series of changes which have caused considerable concern to fishermen, yachtsmen, the Australian Lighthouse Association and a variety of other interest groups that are concerned and believe, as I do, that the Swan Island lighthouse must remain as a manned lighthouse.

Equipment has been purchased for the lighthouse and is in store in Hobart. I raised that matter with the Minister for Transport and received a reply dated 16 May 1985. I had asked the Minister whether he would confirm that the lightkeeper on Swan Island had been transferred and that a temporary replacement had been appointed only until the lighthouse was to be automated sometime before the end of 1985 and, if that was so, what was happening with regard to consultation with the State and the public. The reply I received from the Minister stated:

I can assure you that full consultation will take place with the Tasmanian Government and other interested parties in developing the lighthouse conversion program. The procedures that I outlined in my statement to the Parliament in October 1984 will be followed.

At the time of the inquiry the Department of Transport made it clear in its submission that the equipment at Swan Island was approaching the end of its economic life.

I come to the particularly curious part of the letter from the Minister for Transport. It states:

In the interest of safety new equipment to up date this important light has been purchased and is now stored at Hobart. No decision has been made regarding its installation.

I find it more than passing curious that the equipment should be purchased in the interests of safety and then stored without any plans being made for its installation.


Senator McIntosh —They did not want to damage it.


Senator PETER RAE —I presume that storing it would certainly make sure that it would not get damaged but it would also make sure that it would not get used. If it was purchased because it was believed that it was necessary in the interests of safety, there does not seem to be much point in just storing it, particularly when there are allegations floating around that no spare parts have been purchased for the Lister engines which run the present equipment, that they are likely to be unserviceable in the relatively near future, that the new equipment which has been purchased is for automating the light and that the lightkeeper who has been sent there has been sent there only until the end of the year and has been informed that the light will be automated after that and there will not be any need for his services. All of this is apparently a prelude to consultations taking place between the Federal Government and the State Government and public interest groups. The Minister stated in his letter:

Following the resignation of the Head lightkeeper at Gabo Island the Head lightkeeper from Swan Island was transferred to replace him on the basis of his merits. He in turn has been relieved by the lightkeeper from Bruny Island and a replacement taken on to fill that position.

I do not think the Minister is quite correct in that regard. A certain gentleman from Queensland, who was formerly in Tasmania, is temporarily at Swan Island on a posting until the end of the year. The Minister continued:

These are normal movements that occur in the Lighthouse service and are in no way intended to pre-empt the consultative processes I outlined to the Parliament.

I will shortly be in contact with the Tasmanian Government and other interested parties, such as the Australian Lighthouse Association, to commence the consultative processes recommended by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure.

I ask: Firstly, is it correct that there is a problem in providing spare parts for the existing equipment? Secondly, what equipment has been purchased and is in store in Hobart? Thirdly, where is it stored in Hobart and why is it stored in Hobart and why has it not been installed at the Swan Island lighthouse?