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Tuesday, 19 August 2003
Page: 13968

Senator COOK (7:36 PM) —I wish to commend Senator Watson on those remarks—I think it is a very worthwhile initiative. I want to talk tonight about people who live in outback and remote Australia and the failure of the government to do anything much to meet their needs for better services. What the government does do is smother them in platitudes: it is good on promises but very short on delivery. For example, the people in the Pilbara in the Kimberley region of Western Australia—the far north-west corner of this country— would, in a polite manner, call the government's approach to their needs as `political bulldust'.

Senator Vanstone —That's not what they told me the other day.

Senator COOK —The people of the Kimberley are a rugged lot, and they put up with a lot. They put up with more than they ought to and, in the national interest, more than they should.

Senator Tierney —Senator Vanstone's been out there.

Senator Vanstone —Plenty of times.

Senator COOK —Maybe that is one of the causes of grievance—but I am glad that she was because it is a very interesting part of Australia. The Kimberley region is a growing export earner for the nation. It is an exporter of iron ore, it exports diamonds and it exports food from the plantation production in the Ord River scheme alongside Lake Argyle in the north-west. Tourism is the growth industry of the region. The Bungle Bungles are an outstanding international tourist attraction. The Ord River scheme itself is also an outstanding tourist magnet. The scenic and cultural attractions of Broome are etched, I think, in the national imagination and are known worldwide, and the Broome tourist market is growing rapidly. All of that brings growth and development to a remote area of Australia.

The government, which talks a lot about border protection, perhaps should recognise that in this region of Australia the best border protection that can be offered is to settle those areas with stable industry and with a strong economic base and to encourage people to live and locate there. But, to achieve that, it means that the provision of services has to be significantly improved. The foremost service for that remote part of Australia is airline services. If airline services are not frequent and are not efficient, tourism cannot flourish. Other ventures that require spare parts to be flown in at short notice are stalled in their development, and the equipment and other supplies that you need do not reach their users in time to meet the strategic needs of the business.

When Ansett collapsed, the government said some very brave words about helping country people who were disadvantaged by the reduction in airline services. In Western Australia, the biggest state in the Commonwealth, we listened closely to those words. Western Australia has the longest lines of communication. It has some of the most isolated towns—Broome, Derby, Kununurra and Wyndham are four examples of Kimberley towns along or near the coast that rely absolutely on airline services to survive. Broome is 1,600 kilometres by air from Perth, about 3,000 kilometres from Melbourne and more than that from Sydney. Broome is about 2,400 kilometres by road from Perth. Road trains and road freight take a long time to reach their destination. Where urgency is required or where convenience is needed, such as in the tourist industry, airlines are effectively what people rely on. What we now find is that, despite the fact that Qantas have lifted the load rating of their aircraft to that region, the full loads that Qantas enjoy because of the booming tourist market mean that airfreight gets bumped off the flight and may not be delivered on the day it is needed. It may not even be delivered in the same week. I am talking here about necessary equipment—auto parts and things of that nature.

Let me give you one example of the inconvenience this creates by talking about the need for daily newspapers. The West Australian newspaper, which is the main newspaper in the state of WA, is flown to Broome on a daily basis. The tourist industry—not to mention the local residents of that region— requires a regular newspaper feed into that market. If you are a Fremantle Dockers fan and you miss the coverage of the last match in the AFL round, you are required to read the West's summary on Monday morning to find out what happened and to appreciate the significance of their victory. Often you cannot get the paper the same day or, on many occasions, at all. Broome now is in a situation where daily papers are not guaranteed. The major newsagent in the town estimates that newspaper sales have at least halved since the collapse of Ansett. Newspapers do not arrive at the same time every day. It can be any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. if, as I have said, they arrive at all. This means that newsagents cannot tell people when the newspapers will arrive. That creates considerable bemusement among tourists but a great deal of frustration among residents.

We wrote to Qantas, bringing up these issues, on 15 July. I have to say that Qantas were prompt with a response, replying to us on 28 July. As a result, Qantas say that they have reviewed the procedures that they have undertaken and will now give greater priority to freight—and particularly newspapers—on their flights, effective from 21 July. However, since that date, there have still been several days when the papers have not arrived until quite late in the afternoon. It has been reported to me that, in some cases, they have not arrived on the same day. The newspaper is just one visible example of the type of frustration that occurs.

If you are waiting for a spare part to be flown in to fix your four-wheel drive so you can go out to a remote location and it does not arrive that day, your whole schedule is put out. The people that depend on you to turn up on time in the inland destination to which you may have been heading are also frustrated. That creates major problems for small local business. We hear a lot about small local business being the lifeblood of regional communities—and justifiably, because they are. But these frustrations make the life of small business people in that part of Australia even tougher than it might be anywhere else. The whole thing comes down to the availability of airfreight on a regular and a dependable basis. The office has spoken to a number of mechanical and engineering companies that rely on airfreight to supply parts. Customers are often left waiting for days for parts to arrive, even when the business has paid for expensive priority freight. This can leave people, as I have said, without vehicles, without equipment and, sometimes, without a livelihood.

What is the answer to all of these problems? It is a tough call to readily identify a particular answer, but what it does require is a government more sensitive to the needs of a community such as this. Perhaps the government ought to look at its regional development policies and start to call together the providers of airline services to see whether Qantas can do more to provide a better and more dependable service and to look at the options that Virgin Blue, as a competitor in that market, may be able to take up. Virgin Blue services the Broome tourist market out of Adelaide and other ports, but if it were able to take a higher percentage of freight in its flights to that region, that would be a useful consideration.

The intrastate airline in Western Australia is Skywest, which was part of the Ansett empire. When Ansett collapsed, Skywest continued functioning as an efficient airline service, but it is facing tougher times now than it did before. I am not one to argue for subsidies but, with the need to find a regular and dependable service for this part of Australia, which is so important strategically to us and from a wealth and export generating point of view, that may be needed in order to anchor the growth of the tourist industry and ensure it is stabilised and continues to grow. It is an investment that would repay itself in spades, if it were made. Perhaps the answer is to look at air freight providers like Toll Holdings and companies such as that.

This problem is calling out for some coordination that understands and recognises the real frustrations of living in the north-west and the importance of that part of Australia to the rest of the nation in strategic and economic terms and can deal with those problems that are genuine and serious. We do not want platitudes; we want action. We want to see a positive and constructive approach taken to resolving the problems. This is not an argument about acrimony; this is about trying to find solutions. But it seems to me that at the present time the government is missing in action. It would be very nice if it came back and did focus on these areas and started to look at the real issues that are facing ordinary people in those remote areas of Australia.