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Standing Committee on Regional Australia - 02/11/2011 - Fly-in fly-out work practices

BURGESS, Mr Mark Anthony, Chief Executive Officer, Police Federation of Australia

Committee met at 9:50

CHAIR ( Mr Windsor ): Welcome. We appreciate your attendance. You are the first witness in this inquiry. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. These proceedings are being broadcast and televised on the internet. Mark, thank you for your submission. Would you like to make some introductory comments and then we will ask questions?

Mr Burgess : Thank you, Chair. I might just elaborate on a few points that have come to my attention post our submission. I am sure the committee would be aware that the Police Federation of Australia represents the professional industrial interests of Australia's 56,000 police officers, so it would come as no surprise that I have spoken to a number of police officers in your electorates over the last several weeks about this very issue. PFA has not taken a position either in favour or against the notion of fly-in, fly-out or drive-in, drive-out workforces. But, as I said, in preparing for today's hearing I have taken the opportunity to discuss the inquiry not only with a large number of members who work in remote mining locations, such as north-west Western Australia, but also with members who work in locations where a large number of family members of those workers are domiciled, particularly around the Central Queensland coastal areas.

Whilst most of my evidence has been obtained anecdotally, the information has been provided by members actually on the ground. Regardless of which part of the country information comes from, there are a number of recurring issues. I am sure they would be similar issues not just for policing but for a number of other services in these communities.

The main issue is obviously the difficulty in attracting and retaining police and, as I said, other essential service workers in those locations. Police numbers in many of these locations are a major issue. I am advised that research being undertaken in Western Australia alone indicates in a number of areas that police numbers are down by 15 to 20 per cent whilst, at the same time, calls for services have increased enormously in those areas. Part of the problem with police numbers is that in many locations no-one is exactly aware of how many people are drawing on the town services at any one time. There have been a number of suggestions in both Western Australia and, in particular, Queensland that police should also be employed on a fly-in, fly-out or drive-in, drive-out basis, which may alleviate some of those problems.

I am aware that research is being undertaken in both Western Australia and Queensland regarding such proposals. In fact, I have spoken to some of the researchers and I would be more than happy to provide the committee with contact details of those people, if you so wish.

If there is a view that fly-in, fly-out for police may be appropriate, I am advised that one place where such a practice could be trialled is on Barrow Island, off the Western Australian coast. I am told that Chevron are currently building a police facility on that island and that there will be two police officers stationed there for periods of 12 months at a time whilst the rest of the workforce will be on a fly-in, fly-out basis, two weeks on and two weeks off.

Another issue is the difficulty police and their families have in finding reasonable, affordable accommodation, which I am sure is the norm for others. Obviously, there is very little infrastructure in many of these communities and many police officers' families do not want to relocate there. The cost of rental is extremely prohibitive and whilst accommodation is by and large provided by the employer, the rental costs and accommodation pose serious budgetary problems for those employers.

There are a range of other cost-of-living inhibitors, of which I am sure you are aware. A few of my colleagues who work up in north-west Western Australia spent last week at CHOGM in Perth. In my discussions with them they joked yesterday that it was great to be in Perth and be able to buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee in the morning and actually get some change, as opposed to what it would normally cost at home in parts of north-west Western Australia.

I am sure the committee has read numerous other submissions about a range of social issues that have been raised and many of those social issues have been raised with me by my members. I am sure you are aware that probably more than half of the fly-in fly-out workforces are males aged between 20 and 40. They are bored; they are lonely. Police, generally, in smaller, regional communities—which I am sure you would be well aware of—know the people in their own patch and who they might need to keep a closer eye on. It is called community policing. In these communities it is the unknown factor. With an ever-changing group of residents it is hard to keep track of who is who in the community and who might need closer attention.

I am also advised it appears that a number of companies and contractors have a mindset of, 'We don't care what happens after-hours as long as they show up for work and don't misbehave in the camps.' A number of my colleagues also suggest that the old concept of 'one fight; next flight' does not seem to exist in many locations nowadays and perhaps this is because so many companies and contractors are desperate for staff and they are prepared to turn a blind eye to such behaviour. So it is clearly a very complex issue. If I could just start by saying I commend the committee on the decision to inquire into such an important matter and I offer any support the Police Federation might be able to give in your efforts over the ensuing 12 months or more.

CHAIR: If you are able to give us the contact details of those people who are doing research that would be handy for the committee.

Mr HAASE: Mark, it is great to see you here. Thank you. I am terrified by your suggestion but, by the same token, I know full well that many police officers would very much like to fly-in fly-out. I suggest that it would be disastrous for community policing but a bonus for police families because relocation is a major problem. If you speak to any long-term spouse of an acting police officer they will tell you about the constant shifting—the upheaval of kids from school, the disruption of social contact and so on and so forth—but it is part of policing in regional Australia. The local police officer who comes to town and is part of the community for a period of time is part of the glue that keeps that population together. I am frightened by what you suggest but not surprised to hear it being said.

Once again, it would seem to me that it is police departments having the revenue to create the ambience of good housing, good rosters et cetera and support for family, just as is the case for companies that want local residence. I wish I could find a question in here, Chair. It is a message that I hope will enter our report that we need to do more to encourage local residence, not facilitate the absence of local residence. There are a whole range of processes that have been mooted to me. One is the FBT and the suggestion that if the cost of flying in and flying out were not able to be written off to production—this is from the mining sector—it would be less attractive. Have you contemplated—see, there is a question, Chair—what the impact would be on the police department funding if the cost of transporting police officers in and out of towns was not able to be written off?

Mr Burgess : We have not and I am not sure how in-depth is the research being undertaken into those issues at the moment, whether it delves into that area. To go back to your earlier statement, the issue about community policing in our original submission was one of the key points we made—that it is very difficult. When you are working in locations where there is very little infrastructure and very little in the way of other social services, where you have family and your wife, your husband or your partner may have previously had reasonably good employment in a capital city somewhere and you then find yourself in one of these remote locations where there is no work for the partner, I can understand police officers asking, 'Why can't I be domiciled in a major city where my family wants to live and I fly in and fly out?' I totally agree it has a whole range of other ramifications attached to it, which people really need to think seriously about, but I can understand members asking the question.

Ms LIVERMORE: You talk about the difficulties of using traditional community policing methods in some of these locations. Is any work being done or have any initiatives been developed with police to overcome some of those difficulties or new methods trying to engage with the companies of the camps?

Mr Burgess : I could not tell you all of what is happening on the ground. One of the things raised with me is that there are obviously people coming into and moving out of these communities often with interesting criminal histories. Police are not always aware of that until they have interaction with the person. While I may not want to give details here on evidence, I have been given some interesting examples of how those things have unfolded. There is a whole range of issues in that as well. One raised with me in the area you have talked about is the lack of volunteers in some of the other community activities such as rural fire brigades and those sorts of areas. When the bulk of the community do not actually reside there, they are not likely to become volunteers to work within the community itself. As the member for Kalgoorlie said earlier, police often find themselves to be the glue that binds the fabric of the community together and if they are one of the few people who are domiciled there on a permanent basis, it falls on their shoulders to do so.

Mr CROOK: If the police were to be a fly-in fly-out workforce, are you assuming this would be just to mining communities? It would be very hard policy to implement site-specific. I would suggest to you to do that in remote Aboriginal communities would be of massive detriment to the communities. Police go to those places for 12 months stints. They build up a rapport with the communities and know what is going on on the ground. If you were to have a fly-in fly-out arrangement, I think they would lose touch. Do you see a problem with implementing a policy like this, fly-in fly-out, it being to the detriment of some communities but to the benefit of others and the police?

Mr Burgess : I am not suggesting that it happen. What I am saying is that it has been suggested and there is research being undertaken in two parts of the country—one in Western Australia and one in Queensland. I do agree with you that there is a range of ramifications, should we proceed down that path. Has it been suggested in Indigenous communities in the past? It has been, but it has not happened.

Mr CROOK: Good.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM: Thank you—you are able to help us tease out things we do not readily think of. To what extent do you understand are your association and the police forces themselves part and parcel of the negotiation and planning of these sites and camps and relationships between some of the major proponents, and you as a major service provider for community policing? To what extent are you involved in the planning process and incorporated into it?

Mr Burgess : From a police union perspective, I am not aware that there is a lot of dialogue between the police associations, or police unions, and the mining companies. I might be proved to be wrong. I would think that most of the dialogue would be between the employer, the police department, and the mining companies. Hence, I suggested also to the committee secretariat that it would be within the interest of this committee to encourage as many police employers in states like Queensland and Western Australia, in particular, to appear before the committee. They could talk to you about a whole range of the ramifications, not least of which is the planning, including the cost implications for police departments of decisions that companies might make.

In respect of dialogue between the police associations, or police unions, and probably the police employer it is more around accommodation, allowances, infrastructure for families and those sorts of things. We do that, more often than not, with the employer as opposed to the company. We would hope and trust that the employer would be doing that sort of negotiation with the company.

Ms LIVERMORE: If fly-in fly-out became a standard feature of policing in some of these areas, would you be concerned as representatives of police that you would almost be setting up two different groups within the police force? Do you think that having two different groups within the force could create difficulties for your association or for the general cultural structure of the police force?

Mr Burgess : Before I start, the last thing I want to read on the front page of tomorrow morning's paper is that we are advocating a fly-in fly-out police force for parts of Australia. For any media listening: that is not the case. We are saying that it has been discussed, research has been done and people are putting it forward as an option for the future. It is to alleviate some of the problems we are finding around encouraging people to work in those locations and ensuring that we have sufficient numbers. I used Barrow Island earlier on, I don't know a lot about Barrow Island except what I've been able to ascertain off the internet—quite clearly, in some of those cases, if you are going to have a large workforce that works two weeks on and two weeks off and almost the only people who are permanently domiciled on the island are two police officers, you might ask whether that is an appropriate place for a fly-in fly-out arrangement for police or at least for it to be trialled. I wouldn't envisage that, even if we did get to the point of some fly-in fly-out arrangements with police officers, it would be the permanent arrangement for a handful of police officers for the rest of their policing career. It would be to alleviate some of the concerns that exist in the current situations about enticing enough police or about being able to meet fluctuating demands in policing at certain times based on the stages of the development of mining sites et cetera. Again, as I said, this is just in early discussions. Research is being undertaken, but no-one is doing anything until such time as we at least see what the research might say.

Ms LIVERMORE: We have had other submissions raising issues of antisocial behaviour and increased criminal type activity in some of the locations where there is a lot of fly-in fly-out. Some of that uses documented material, others are just making assertions. For the committee's benefit, where would you point us for information? What is the best source of information for us to corroborate some of that evidence and put some hard figures around it.

Mr Burgess : You're probably like me. I'm looking to see where I can find that information. Like yourself, I've had a number of examples given to me, very much anecdotally, about some of the antisocial behaviour. This isn't the norm, but someone said to me the other day that if you watch them getting on the plane at Perth airport to head to a mine site, it is almost like watching a group of blokes going on a football trip. That's the mentality of some. That's not to say that the mine companies and the contractors don't do a great job in trying to maintain appropriate standards and appropriate behaviour, but that's the reality as it's told to me. As to how we are going to actually confirm that in some more formal sense, I am not sure myself. I have not had a chance to read all the submissions, because there is quite a number of them on your site. Perhaps there are groups that have done some more formal work on that, or it may be that you need to engage somebody to actually undertake that sort of research.

Mr HAASE: Mark, to perhaps clarify it and to put the collective mind at ease, there is some fly-in fly-out policing being done in Western Australia already, in the mid-west of Western Australia where towns are very difficult to start and infrastructure is minimal. Geraldton has been a base for a number of fly-in fly-out officers rotating on a regular basis. So I do not think you can anticipate a headline tomorrow. My question is: do you have any process in train about or any increasing concentration in relation to companies being encouraged to do alcohol and drug testing at the workplace on either a routine or a random basis? Is there an effort by police forces to encourage that more readily?

Mr Burgess : Some of those questions might be best put to a police department, but my understanding, and the committee may correct me if I am wrong, is that I thought at most mine sites compulsory drug and alcohol testing was now the norm. I say this as someone who 25 years ago, before becoming a police officer, worked 10 years as an underground coalminer, so I understand the rationale behind the notion of drug and alcohol testing in such a dangerous occupation. But I can only say that my colleagues do tell me that some of the other antisocial behaviour after hours suggests that perhaps people may be able to elude that. I do not know whether that is the case or not. But you would think that if someone were partying all hours of the night on drugs and alcohol they would be picked up at the mine site the next day in some form of test. I am assuming that tests are done in most of these sites. I would be surprised if they were not.

Mr HAASE: I was alluding to the new chemicals that are being used as recreational stimulants and to the difficulty in detection. To you knowledge it is not something to be aware of?

Mr Burgess : Again, I think those are probably questions that you might want to put to the mine owners as well as the mining companies and the mining unions.

Mr HAASE: Thanks, Mark.

CHAIR: As there are no further questions, thank you, Mark, for taking the time to give evidence today. You might be able to provide that material in terms of the research. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence to which you can make corrections, if there are any. We do thank you for the evidence that you have given and, on a broader level, for the work that your people do right across the nation. We all respect and admire the work that they do on our behalf. Thank you for coming.