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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 96


Senator IAN MACDONALD (7:30 PM) —In speaking in support of the Aviation Transport Security Amendment Bill 2006 I first of all congratulate my colleague Senator Nigel Scullion on a very erudite and clearly visioned contribution to this bill. I thank him for the contribution he has made.

This bill will improve the operational arrangements for aviation security in two areas: regulation of cargo inspection and handling of special events at airports. Those of us in this chamber who, perhaps, on average, fly more than most other Australians do, very much appreciate the complexities of transport security and the absolute necessity for it to be done in the most precise way, and I congratulate the minister and the government for their focus on aviation security over the last several years. A lot of smaller airports will be brought into the government’s security regime in the months and years ahead, and I understand that Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville, where I am based, is one of the airports that will be looked at for aviation security upgrades in the rollout of these enhancements in the years ahead.

Talking of Palm Island brings to mind the difficulties that the residents of Palm Island face in getting to and from the mainland. There is a barge that comes across from the island a couple of times a week, but the main and consistent method of travel is by aeroplane. For those senators who are not aware, Palm Island is an Aboriginal community about 20 minutes by plane off the coast of Townsville, between Townsville and Ingham. Many years ago some people, who in those days probably thought they were doing the right thing, collected groups of Aboriginal people from all over the state and set up the community on Palm Island, and the island has been an unfortunate and unhappy place ever since. There are traditional owners of the Palm Island group, but the main people on the islands are not the traditional owners; they are people from various clans and tribes right throughout the state. This has, of course, caused a lot of trouble over many years, but the community attempts to deal with the problems.

The Queensland government have imposed an alcohol management plan on the island, even though the island council, the elected people there—most of whom are Indigenous—had their own alcohol management plan which was working quite well. The state government came in and, without any consultation with the local people, did over the island council’s alcohol management plan and imposed their own. That has caused a lot of unhappiness amongst the people of Palm Island, not so much because of what the state government’s plan says but because their own plan, over which they had laboured, about which they had consulted and which they had got to a stage where they believed it was appropriate for the island—and many other people, including me, thought that as well—was cast aside by the Queensland state government without any consultation. That is something the people of Palm Island feel very poorly about. The island itself is one of those places in Queensland—and there are many—which keep getting promises from Premier Beattie and his ministers, but the promises are only for show. They engender a warm feeling for Mr Beattie and for the media who accompany him when he goes near the place, but when he leaves the action stops and a lot of the problems that should be addressed by the state government are never addressed.

I digress a little from the subject of the bill and my comments on airport security and on transport to and from Palm Island, in particular. I live about an hour south of Townsville. If a school or a group of people in my region want to get a football team together to go to Townsville to play in the Townsville competition, they hire a bus for $300 or $400 and go up, play the game and come home. The people of Palm Island would also like to participate in those sorts of events. As well as that, they would like to send groups of school children from either the state school or the Catholic school there over to the mainland to do various things that children do when they travel on school excursions. But, for the people of Palm Island, the cost of getting to and from the island is prohibitive. It prohibits the island people having as many student visits and student excursions as the people on the mainland would have, and it certainly prohibits any group of young people getting involved in a sporting activity and playing on the mainland, where the competition would be. This form of discrimination, this form of substandard facilities and lack of social justice for these people, is quite appalling. This occurs because the cost per person of travel to and from Palm Island—a 20-minute exercise—is $160, so to send a team of 10 people would cost $1,600, which makes it prohibitive.

I am aware that, in many parts of Queensland in the aviation industry, the Queensland government does subsidise travel to remote areas. That has been an initiative of the Queensland government, I think—dare I say it—since Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s time and it has been continued by successive governments. But it seems to me unfortunate and unusual that, for a place like Palm Island, for which the state government has sole responsibility, something has not been done to date to, in some way, subsidise the air travel between Townsville and Palm Island.

I was over on Palm Island just last week visiting both schools. Talking to the Catholic school they said they would dearly love to bring in relief teachers for a couple of days or sometimes for a week or so at times as is needed, but the cost of getting teachers over to Palm Island and back just makes that an unviable option. It means that the schooling provided for the young people on Palm Island is curtailed. It sort of builds on that unfortunate cycle of dysfunctionalism and social injustice that many of the Indigenous people on Palm Island feel. It is not something that would be tolerated on the island but it almost seems that, as far as the state government is concerned in Queensland, it is a bit out of sight, out of mind.

You would be aware, Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin, that there was a considerable amount of trouble on Palm Island a little while ago with the death of Mr Doomadgee. The state government, as a result of that, came up with all of the promises and commitments to spend money to do things but, as I say, very little of that has happened. But if you want to address the long-term problems and difficulties on Palm Island, you do really have to look at some of these underlying disadvantages.

One of the disadvantages that became very apparent to me—as it is to the people who live there, because many of them in all different sorts of fields mentioned it—is the cost of getting to and from the island. I am not blaming the airline of course. The airline has a business to run and it costs so much to buy the plane, pay pilots and staff, get systems in order and pay for the fuel. I do not think the airline makes any enormous profits out of that run. But what I am surprised at is that there is no subsidy from the Queensland government for travel to that community. It is an underlying facility, concession and support that should be available to that community. I have mentioned sporting teams, I have mentioned schooling but across the board it just makes things so expensive and difficult.

It is difficult to get health workers to the island. I met the local doctor and the ambulance man and they do a fabulous job and are totally committed to their work on the island. But occasionally they would like to get off the island to experience a bit of the social and recreational life on the mainland. But that sort of airfare makes it very expensive to do that and this is a disincentive to health workers to volunteer for a place like Palm Island and so, again, it reinforces that cycle of disadvantage that the people on that island suffer. If you were able to subsidise that airfare—as I think the Queensland government should do because they do in other parts of the state—then I think you would find a huge difference in the community and outlook not only of those on the island themselves but of the people who could get to the island to help out.

During my visit, I was shown around by the Deputy Chairman, Councillor Zac Sam, and his assessments of the problems there in relation to the airfare, the cost of getting to and from the island, were very perceptive. Zac and his council do a great job—they are in touch with the community and they know the problems that are there, but they cannot seem to get the assistance from the Queensland government. Again and again they have sought help; the help is talked about when Mr Beattie is somewhere around the area or when it is coming up to a state election. Of course, there are always a lot of promises and commitments then, but the reality is that the island does suffer disadvantages and continues to suffer disadvantages because of the inaction of the Queensland government.

I certainly would urge, and I will be following up with the government of Queensland after this Saturday, some consideration of whether or not the airfares to Palm Island should be subsidised. I certainly think they should be. The cost would be minimal. The money that is sometimes spent on correcting or attempting to ameliorate problems after they have occurred on Palm Island could well be mitigated if action were taken to prevent some of those problems happening. A more affordable air service to the island would help in so many ways, some of which I have mentioned during the course of my contribution to the second reading debate on this bill.

As I say, there is a service to Palm Island. It is a service that I understand is being considered and investigated for an upgrade of aviation security in the times ahead of us. Those security arrangements are the sorts of things that will be made easier by the passage of the Aviation Transport Security Amendment Bill 2006. I commend the bill to the Senate.