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Tuesday, 17 June 2003
Page: 11708

Senator COOK (7:03 PM) —I rise tonight to talk about a quite serious problem that is faced by two of our great north-west cities in Western Australia, the cities of Karratha and Port Hedland. Last week I visited both centres. Both centres are thriving and there is a strong outlook for their local economies. The important element of both cities is that they are located in an area where Australia's great resource development projects are located. Karratha is the main residential dormitory centre for the North West Shelf, and all the offshore development associated with that, and for the Hamersley iron port of Dampier, which serves the inland mining towns of Paraburdoo and Tom Price. Port Hedland is the main centre for BHP's mining operation and serves the inland mining centre of Newman.

Karratha and Port Hedland are the major export earners for resource earnings from foreign trade in Australia and they are quite sensitive from a national security point of view. Their link to the rest of Australia and the outside world is mostly through their airports, although they are served by road and by sea as well. But their airports are the key link. I discovered on my trip that, by virtue of a cynical cost-cutting decision by the federal government, the fire brigade services provided to the airports are to be terminated on 30 June.

Airservices Australia charged airlines a levy on a landed tonne basis to provide for the fire brigade services at the airports. As a result of a CASA regulation, inspired by the cost-cutting approach of this government, the threshold passenger load for each airport has been raised to 350,000 passengers, well beyond what the airports at Karratha and Port Hedland currently bear. Karratha has a passenger load factor of about 170,000 passenger movements a year and Port Hedland has a passenger load factor of 80,000 passenger movements per year at the present time, although I will say something about those figures in a moment. So putting the bar at 350,000 passengers means that the airlines will not collect the levy and, as a consequence, the dedicated firefighting facilities at both airports are to be terminated.

The only alternative now for any firefighting necessary at the airports is to call upon the town based volunteer fire services. People work for these fire services on a volunteer basis. I have great admiration for their dedication and for their skill. Their skill and training is about suburban and country firefighting. The extra level of skill necessary to deal with airport fires based around aviation movements is another matter. They would require extra training in order to bring themselves up to the necessary skill level to deal with airport fires. Those resources will have to be found from the local community.

At the Karratha airport the response time is about 90 seconds, according to an outstanding figure in the north-west of Western Australia, the President of the Roebourne Shire, Kevin Richards. The firefighting unit at the airport can respond to any fire on the premises within that time. If the airport has to obtain the fire service from the town of Karratha, which is located some distance from the airport, then it could take up to 45 minutes, since it is a volunteer service. The same is true if one applies those figures to the major centre of Port Hedland. If there is a fire disaster at either of the airports, there will be a much longer wait—a considerable wait—before there will be the ability to deal with and remedy that situation, and during that time any amount of devastation could be wreaked.

I said that at Karratha the annual passenger load factor was about 170,000 passengers. This is a centre where most of the fly-in, fly-out passengers come to serve on the offshore oil rigs. So now a key work force dealing with an international exporting venture like the North West Shelf is to land at an airport without a proper airport fire service. That is a concern in itself. Of course, I would prefer that the work force lived in Karratha, but the fly-in, fly-out situation is an option that the company has exercised.

The other thing is that, in determining what the passenger load factor might be for the airport—and the figure has been raised to 350,000—CASA does not consider helicopter movements. Rotary-wing movements are not counted for the sake of this figure; only fixed-wing movements are counted. Therefore, all of the passenger traffic—which is quite considerable—to the offshore oil rigs and to nearby Barrow Island by helicopter is not included for the sake of this calculation. Only a Canberra bureaucrat, not someone that lives in the north-west, could come up with that sort of grotesque calculation. Only someone not associated with the difficulties that north-west people find in moving around Australia could come up with that sort of calculation. Nonetheless, they have—and, as a consequence, the funds are not going to be available.

I said that Port Hedland's passenger load factor at the present time was 80,000 passengers per year. That is quite a sizeable traffic. The Port Hedland council want to develop their own region and they see Port Hedland as a gateway to Australia from Bali and from nearby Indonesia. They are negotiating charter flights with Sempati Air and Merpati—Indonesian airlines—to bring passengers into Port Hedland. The fact that, from 30 June, because of cynical cost-cutting by this government, there will not be a full-time, fully trained emergency firefighting service on the ground at the airport—rather than 45 minutes away in Port Hedland—means that the cost of providing that service for international passengers as well as domestic passengers has to be met. For international passengers there has to be a fire service at the airport, which means making a special arrangement just for international flights.

Regional Australia deserves a break, and regional Australia ought to be given a break by this government. This government talks tough about what it is going to do to help regional Australia, but when you actually look at its performance there is very little there. By removing the fire service, it is inhibiting the ability of the town of Port Hedland to successfully conclude an international charter agreement with Indonesian airlines to bolster the regional economy. To not face up to the need to provide an airline service in the case of both Karratha and Port Hedland ignores the very sensitive national security issues for both of those centres, but it is also a brake on their development and means a higher cost and a levy for people living in the north-west of Western Australia.

With this government I always say, `Don't listen to what they say; watch what they do.' In watching what they do here, we see a clear case of a particular penalty being applied to those Australians who perform the role of developing this wonderful country of ours, living in remote areas of Australia and working to develop Australia. Robyn Crane, who is the acting chief executive officer of the Pilbara Development Commission, said to me just last week, `I can't understand how the federal government can sanction not having firefighters at Karratha Airport.' Barry Haase, the member for Kalgoorlie, spent $416,000 on postage prior to the last election. If that money had been spent on providing airport fire services, those two airports would have a fire service now able to meet the needs of the local community and give the reassurance necessary for passengers. (Time expired)