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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

LEWIS, Mrs Helen, General Manager, Outback Highway Development Council


CHAIR: Welcome. These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be deemed as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today is being recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we can fire off some questions.

Mrs Lewis : What I want to talk about today is predominantly the concerns we have with the Entrepreneurs Program, the Northern Australia Tourism Initiative, which is the Tourism Partnerships Program, and the limited capacity for a percentage of Northern Australian tourism businesses to engage in that process.

CHAIR: Which program is this?

Mrs Lewis : This is the $750,000—

CHAIR: We have asked this question of every witness since the beginning of this inquiry because we were fortunate enough to have had a heads-up on this. We invited the extension officers that manage this program, Cam Charlton and Graham Poon, to come to Canberra at the beginning of this process. They gave us some information, and since then it has been confirmed everywhere we have been that the $750,000 starting point makes it totally inaccessible for the majority of those that are likely to benefit from it and that it is, in effect, not worth a cupful of cold water. I think that is a fair analogy. In fact, we have asked every single witness the same question—even the last ones we had prior to you coming here today. So, if you are going to tell us that it is not effective, I'll just share with you what they are saying. They're saying here that the greatest opportunities in relation to tourism for small operators are going to come as we roll out the bitumen, and you have all these little businesses, including family businesses that have been operating for decades. They create a living for the family. They may not make a huge amount, but they've been sustainable, because they've been there for decades. The $750,000 ceiling means they can't get anything.

Mrs Lewis : Yes, and I actually think the program's in the wrong spot. It needs to be—

CHAIR: Tell us what we should be doing with the program, because I can tell you there will be a focus on that.

Mrs Lewis : I would like to suggest that the program be shifted to the minister for northern Australia, because its core purpose is to develop northern Australia. It should sit with the minister for northern Australia, not in the department of industry. I think it's getting buried there, and I also think it's bureaucratically laden. You look at some of the applications and the process and all the layers which you have to go through. It is inappropriate for ease of access. I just think it is in the wrong spot, and it actually needs to be with the minister for northern Australia. It should sit under his portfolio.

It is easy to fall into ineligibility because of the structure of it—the fact that it is not allowing individuals, partnerships or local government. We have just heard that over $400 million is spent by local government on tourism nationally. It is not allowing local governments to get involved. For example, on the Outback Way, when we saw the $750,000, we tallied up all the tourism money that each of our five councils provide to tourism, and we just made 750,000 bucks. That is five shires across Australia. But we're completely ineligible anyway, because we're a local government association—well, we're not a local government association. The Outback Highway Development Council isn't, but we are—

CHAIR: We were talking to RAPAD, the Remote Area Planning and Development Board, which is eight councils in the central west.

Mrs Lewis : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: The amount of investment that they put in and the focus they have on tourism is phenomenal, and they are totally ineligible.

Mrs Lewis : Yes, that is right. The only other way we could possibly get around it is to recruit one of the large roadhouses like Erldunda or Curtin Springs or someone like that, who might have a turnover of $750,000, and say, 'Lindy, would you like to be our guinea pig and charge this operation?' Then they can potentially fold us in, but to do that is awkward, because you're not even confident about the program itself. You don't even know what it's really going to deliver, because it's suggesting that you then get a consultant for $20,000. What are they delivering for that? There's nothing tangible. It's just more information.

CHAIR: And you've got to tap it up, because its fifty-fifty.

Mrs Lewis : Yes. Well, there you are.

CHAIR: So you have to get a $40,000 consultant with money you can't afford.

Mrs Lewis : Yes, that's it, and there you are. If you don't really need one, why are you going down that path anyway? So it's very limited. Frankly, the program probably just needs a bit of a rehash, because it would be great to—

CHAIR: No, a very significant—

Mrs Lewis : A significant adjustment.

CHAIR: Let's get it on the record.

Mrs Lewis : A very significant adjustment and rework. I'd like to see where Indigenous Business Australia sits in this. There's no mention of their involvement, yet we've heard about ecotourism. We have amazing potential for Indigenous development in tourism, and Indigenous Business Australia had some really good programs a few years ago. However, I have not seen any evidence of any more of those programs around. They started to get some projects off the ground in Alice; I know that. I know that Ricky Orr from Rainbow Valley was a beneficiary of that way back when. Then there were a few other projects that got going, but then I don't know what happened, and then IBA created this hub which had great—

CHAIR: It's gone back into their shell and don't give it to any bugger.

Mr SNOWDON: Now Nigel wants to put them in with ILC—not flash.

Mrs Lewis : I guess I am interested to know that Indigenous Business Australia may have a role to facilitate some more Indigenous tourism product.

CHAIR: Providing they are ready to write cheques for those small businesses and not just lock it up.

Mrs Lewis : Sure. I saw some evidence of it working a few years ago. It may also be part of who is in the seat who does that to you. It may be the personality as well. I do not know what the structure is or how it works—

CHAIR: We will be meeting with them.

Mrs Lewis : Excellent. The other point is the whole promotion and local capacity. My view in regard to this whole national, state and regional tourism split is that the regions should be developing product and developing capacity. They should not be promoting. They should be highlighting what needs promoting, putting it all together to be promoted, putting the message together and the whole spin because they are the local people who know. The state organisation should be promoting. The local guy should be developing products and preparing, identifying and developing but also building capacity—like customer service courses, like social media courses and all those things. Front desk people need to know how to do it well. You only get one chance to make a good impression. That is what they are getting and if that is not up to scratch then the product is not going to be super, and the experience starts to deteriorate from there.

I do not think there is enough capacity building within regions. No region could ever have the budget big enough to do their promotion justice. That is why we do not know about all those small people because they just go for the big things that are easy and people who are prepared to pay some bucks to contribute to it. Every now and then, Outback Queensland Tourism Association might get an offer to be part of an advertising campaign. To just enter into it is still two grand to get any decent coverage and two grand out of a business is quite a lot of money. If the state was actually spending money on that and actually building capacity within regions and product within regions that would be a better way to distribute it.

The other big thing is Queensland drive. It is a nightmare. We have been trying to get the Queensland Drive for years. QTIC may have spoken to you today. I do not what their role is. It keeps changing in Queensland. I am probably not up-to-date with exactly how it flows. But my experience is they set up a drive committee or a drive alliance. We were involved with a meeting of that. Tourism and Events Queensland have this ridiculous, it would seem, ruling that they are only allowed to produce a map with 10 routes on it. If you go onto the drive routes of Queensland, Google will give us Outback Way. If you then go to the actual Tourism Queensland site, it will only have a map of 10 drive routes in Queensland—that is it, apparently. We have been trying to get on the map and they will not put any more but 10 on the map. Savannah Way is on it and Matilda and a few others, but Outback Way is not on the map and will not be, according to this. They only update it every three or four years, so you have to wait three years before you get a look in. I have been trying for five years to get on the map. It seems to be a very limiting policy in regard to the ever-growing drive market in Queensland, particularly North Queensland where you have that expanse and you have that self-drive market absolutely in the palm of your hand. That is where they are travelling.

CHAIR: You cannot afford to fly to a lot of these places. Driving is the only way you can afford to get there.

Mrs Lewis : That is right.

CHAIR: The grey nomads have the time; they do not need to fly.

Mrs Lewis : That is it, and they want to see everything. They want to see every tree and get out there and immerse themselves in it.

CHAIR: Do you have some more ideas for us? We are not asking any questions here. Are you a seamstress?

Mrs Lewis : No.

CHAIR: Can you sew?

Mrs Lewis : I can sew a little bit.

CHAIR: I tell you what: you are doing a bloody good job of stitching it all together!

Mrs Lewis : Good.

CHAIR: So keep up the good work.

Mrs Lewis : Fantastic.

CHAIR: It is brilliant. I love it. Keep going.

Mr SNOWDON: I thought he was going to ask you to do his shirt or something!

Mrs Lewis : So the insurance point is fantastic, but we are organising a media famil for the entire Outback Way. We are driving from Cairns to Perth. We asked the normal everyday hire-car companies, like Thrifty and Hertz, whether or not we could hire a four-wheel drive one-way, and the companies' policy is that they cannot hire a one-way vehicle to Alice Springs because of insurance.

Mr SNOWDON: To go from where?

Mrs Lewis : From Queensland to cross border. They cannot cross border because of their insurance. It obviously takes them right out of the ballpark. Britz, on the other hand, have obviously worked out how to do it, or they have got someone backing them or underwriting them somehow. But this one-way hire is critical. We have hired two Britz Toyota Hilux vans for this entire route and it is only going to cost us—for two vehicles for 28 days hire—eight grand. One vehicle is about four grand. If I am a grey nomad, why would I sell my house and set myself up on a $180,000 rig—vehicle and van—and then take off when I could hire a vehicle which is fully kitted out with camping and picnic gear with an awning for four grand for 28 days? I could travel anywhere for 28 days, get it back and then do it all again. There are a lot of $4,000s in that $180,000.

CHAIR: Save some savings.

Mrs Lewis : Yes. There is a huge opportunity that makes it doable for so many more people if we open that up and if we actually really check.

CHAIR: That is a good message to put out there.

Mrs Lewis : So if we get this one-way hire sorted—both ways, obviously—and the more we do it the easier it becomes for hire-car companies because there is always someone coming back other way. So it is, eventually, not a big deal for them. They just have to have volume to make it worth their while. If we can get this one-way hire sorted and that cross-border insurance—it may just be a personal company policy because of the risk associated with travelling in the Territory and the perception of the Territory, but I think that is a huge blockage to progress in regards to the drive market—it would open it up for a lot of people, particularly for international tourists. Imagine if an international tourist could fly into Cairns, hire a vehicle and go across Australia and leave it at Perth Airport—excellent.

CHAIR: It is interesting that you talk about insurance. In this Northern Territory government submission they say:

At present as vehicles move around the country national operators must comply with eight different state and territory regulatory regimes.

And you wonder why it's difficult to bloody set a business up. Here we are looking across the Top End with no barriers. There's a cracker, and you have picked up on it. Good on you. Keep going; we are all ears.

Mr SNOWDON: Is that vehicle for off-road work?

Mrs Lewis : Yes, that is a four-wheel-drive. I think it is a 300 kay a day limit, which is over 28 days so it is no big deal.

CHAIR: You cannot take a little Nissan Micra there?

Mrs Lewis : No.

CHAIR: Keep going; you have got some ideas there.

Mrs Lewis : The other thought was about tourism skills in regions—spending some money on boosting the VET, the vocational education and training, in our regions, for apprenticeships, for operators, and actually giving operators the chance to take on tourism apprenticeships and teach the skills of the trade, in region. This even extends down to the shop assistants in regional towns. If there is a good experience when you walk in there, people really respond to that. Local tourism offices and our local visitor information centres are information distributors, but there needs to be something at the back end there. It is probably the regional tourism body's responsibility to improve that service delivery. If you have covered all the issues as to this application and the whole program, I think the program needs a complete revisit.

CHAIR: We have got that message loud and clear.

Mrs Lewis : So that is good. I just see some untapped potential in regards to the Indigenous—and also, and I think this could actually come from a northern Australia perspective, we have, for example, Winton and Borroloola. Winton has all the dinosaurs. Borroloola has the plesiosaurus. Alcoota has just got a dig site of very old animals. They are brand new; no-one has seen them before. That whole site links perfectly along. It is a bit like breaking down the state boundaries to actually make those connections. It is obvious dinosaurs route. Then there is another layer of tourism potential for the plenty that is not been tapped into and also not being developed. There was money allocated in the Northern Territory budget. Then it was pulled and then reallocated. So they take some of the fossils into town and promote it in town. That is okay. And I appreciate that operators are not that disturbed by it. However, as long as there is a longer term commitment to open up that whole dig site, then that will start to make some really good tourism sense along that route as well. But that is an example of what could happen.

I guess in a way the RDAs who are doing that Northern Alliance, that whole notion to me, if they have involvement with the tourism component and all of the tourism interests—and where is that business registry of all the tourism businesses along so that we can start breaking down some of those state boundary barriers which seem to stop development like that happening? They do not see it. They all operate in their own silo and then they do not look next door to see who is doing what to say, 'Maybe we can link in together.' I am just thinking there are some artificial boundaries there because they are not provoked to think beyond their own little boundary. That causes those limitations.

The Northern RDA Alliance, to me, have a huge capacity. They have done a great job with actually earmarking all of the various projects in that Northern Alliance. They are probably more economic projects. So, maybe, we run a tourism layer in there as well. That would be a pretty good register of activity.

CHAIR: We have met with the Northern RDA Alliance and they actually suggested that they could have the capacity to do that. We have asked them for an additional submission asking how they could do it.

Mrs Lewis : That is good. We are just running through the CSIRO TraNSIT modelling tool. We are running through a whole tourism modelling project with CSIRO for the Outback Way. So we are actually looking at the value of tourism along the entire route.

CHAIR: Since we spoke to you guys in Canberra—

Mrs Lewis : In February—yes.

CHAIR: can I say that your experiences and your issues in relation to this funding have been used as an example right through the whole inquiry to date, and we have had no arguments at all. Do you have any other bright and brilliant stuff?

Mrs Lewis : I do not think so. I think I am done for the moment.

Senator DODSON: I was just going to ask about that sealing of the highway. I know that when I met the mayor of Laverton—

Mrs Lewis : Patrick—yes.

Senator DODSON: he was concerned about where he may be able to start, because the expenses and fundings. Do you know if he has resolved the ILUA question?

Mrs Lewis : No.

Senator DODSON: He hasn't as yet?

Mrs Lewis : No. That is still pending. It is still preventing. Ultimately, they are looking at rebooting the road, if they have to. So that Yilka claim is still underway. No result has happened. But it is concerning quite a lot of the TOs. Patrick actually met with them last night at a dinner for NAIDOC Week. They raised it. They said, 'What's going on? We want the road done.' Everyone else wants the road done beside the people who are involved in the claim. Anyway, that is a little bit problematic at the moment. Luckily, we have lots of other bits of road to do first.

Senator DODSON: Yes. I think he is starting from the border and—

Mrs Lewis : Yes. So he is working out from the Ngaanyatjarraku border back to Laverton—

Senator DODSON: The legal impediment that he was concerned about has been resolved by the parliament through the amendments to the Native Title Act. So there is no legal impost now to stop the negotiations proceeding. So they should just get on with the negotiations.

Mrs Lewis : Okay, so the negotiations can proceed? Well, that's good.

CHAIR: After talking with you and others, we actually called the transport people in to raise concerns and find out where we were in relation to the Tanami highway. We expressed some concerns about the fact that there hadn't been at least a start on that one as well as part of the whole—at the end of the day you put your foot on the sticky paper to get things started. We had a good meeting with them as well.

Mrs Lewis : I think some of the costings were a bit problematic with that.

CHAIR: Yes. Thank you very much indeed. As I said, you're a great seamstress. A lot of what you've done here ties in beautifully with what has been raised over the last few days and earlier, and it will be very, very useful for us—

Mrs Lewis : Sorry, one thing before I finish: enables digital capacity; internet and phone.

CHAIR: That one's also been raised.

Mrs Lewis : It is huge, massive.

CHAIR: That's been another constant.

Mr SNOWDON: Seventy per cent of the Northern Territory's land mass: no telephone.

Mrs Lewis : Yes, there you are.

CHAIR: Okay, thank you very much.

Mrs Lewis : Thank you very much.

Mr SNOWDON: And no ABC shortwave.

CHAIR: If you have anything else you'd like to continue to forward on to us from those brilliant ideas, please don't hesitate to do so. We've got a 21 July deadline, but I think we can make concessions for the brilliance of what you're likely to create. Thank you very much indeed.

Mrs Lewis : Let's see how we go!

CHAIR: I would now like to thank my colleagues and the witnesses for their time today.

Committee adjourned at 12:07