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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 181

Senator WEBBER (12:01 AM) —From time to time in this place, all of us have come to boast of the uniqueness of our various states and territories. Those of us from Western Australia take particular pride in the unique contribution that we make, particularly these days the significant contribution we are making to Australia’s economy. Perhaps it is to do with the isolation that those in Western Australia, particularly those in Perth, associate with, but we do like to proudly boast, sometimes to the point of being accused of being parochial.

The Western Australian economy and those who live in Western Australia are unique in several ways, one of which is our more outward focus on the rest of our region rather than on other parts of Australia. Indeed, our economy, tourism and a lot of our population is focused on the Asian region. We often talk about the fact that it is easier for us to do business with Asia, being in the same time zone, than it is to do business with Sydney. When trying to explain to those from overseas the isolation that we face when we live in Perth, I will often use the example of Indonesia. It was interesting to note that a delegation from Indonesia was in the parliament today. I will often explain to our guests from overseas that, living in Perth, it is easier for me to get to most parts of Indonesia than it is to get to Canberra. It is easier because we are in the same time zone and because it is closer. It is also easier because of the treatment that is meted out to some of our regional centres by the nation’s major airline, Qantas. Indeed, judging by the comments that Senator McEwen made earlier, Qantas is not having a good night tonight.

As part of my duties as a senator from Western Australia, I have cause to visit the township of Port Hedland on a regular basis—a town that I know Senator Eggleston is particularly proud of. Port Hedland is making a substantial contribution to the economic growth and development not only of the Pilbara region and Western Australia but of all of Australia. Port Hedland is not seen as a tourist destination as such, but people commuting to Port Hedland usually do so for some form of business, so airline schedules are built around the standard business day. It is easy to commute there, leaving Perth at what I regard as an unseemly hour of the morning—but then I am not a morning person—and returning on the same day.

Unfortunately, two out of the last three times that I have had cause to visit Port Hedland, I have been stranded there because Qantas have not turned up to take me home. They are never straightforward and honest with those who are stuck at the Port Hedland airport, which, I have to say, after five hours has limited attraction. It is always a delay for another hour and another hour and then you find that you are stuck there overnight. Whilst I do not in any way begrudge being in Port Hedland overnight, you probably like to get notice before 11 pm that that is what you are doing.

As I said, two out of the last three times this has happened. When I have mentioned this to the residents of Port Hedland who I deal with, they have said to me, ‘At least this time it’s happened to a politician, so someone might actually do something about it.’ I have spoken to people in the airline industry who assure me that the planes that Qantas uses to fly to Port Hedland are serviceable, if not old. I do not claim to know much about aircraft. Therefore, the problem must be maintenance—not maintenance of the aircraft as much as their expenditure on maintenance and their employment of local maintenance staff. Perhaps they are stretched to the limit, so they do not have the capacity to adjust quickly and repair.

On Tuesday last week, when I was reading the Financial Review, I was struck by a front-page article that talked about Qantas trying to do a deal with Air New Zealand where they would jointly decide what services they run between Australia and New Zealand. This has apparently prompted warnings to the competition regulator of the prospect of fewer flights and higher fares. If the experience in Western Australia is anything to go by, that is exactly what will happen. One of the reasons Qantas can treat the Port Hedland route with the cavalier approach that it does, like it does with lots of regional services, is that it is essentially a monopoly these days. With the collapse of Ansett it lost its only competitor, and Skywest, although it is doing a valiant job, does not offer the same regular service and is therefore not able to offer adequate competition.

I want to place on record my concerns about the lack of competition in the airline industry and the complete disregard with which Qantas treats its Australian customers and Australian businesses. The route to Port Hedland and Karratha and the like would be one of the most successful and profitable routes of all that Qantas has in Western Australia. I want to place on record my concern that if the way Qantas treats regional places in Western Australia is anything to go by then we have to be wary of any proposed joint venture between Qantas and Air New Zealand on this side of the country. In fact, perhaps what we need to do is look at opening up the whole show.