Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Regional Australia
Fly-in fly-out work practices

FRASER, Ms Sharon, General Manager, Go Goldfields, Central Goldfields Shire Council

JOHNSTON, Mr Mark William, Chief Executive Officer, Central Goldfields Shire Council

Committee met at 10:32

CHAIR ( Mr Windsor ): I declare open this hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia. The current parliament is the first to have a committee on regional Australia. The first inquiry that this committee deliberated upon looked at the Murray-Darling issue. This inquiry is looking into fly-in fly-out, drive-in drive-out and bus-in bus-out work practices—a whole range of circumstances. One that we heard about in Moranbah was called LIFO: live in and fly out for the holidays. That may resonate here; I do not know. This has been an extraordinary issue to look at because what becomes very clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all.

Essentially the committee has been looking very much at the impact of FIFO or DIDO work practices on communities. In parts of Western Australia, for instance, it is pretty obvious that fly-in fly-out is probably the only way to go in some very remote areas, not totally where the construction of mines are actually taking place. On the eastern side of Australia there are different dynamics at play, particularly in established communities and with the impact of the high-speed economy on the slower speed economy: mining versus agriculture. I am not suggesting that they are the issues that we are going to be talking about here today—probably not—but that is the broader context. The other context we have been looking at is the provision of health and allied services to parts of rural and remote Australia and the use of fly-in fly-out work practices to provide services and how that impacts on either residential communities or practitioners—and whether that becomes a preferred option for the future—and the potential impacts that that can have on various communities.

We thank you for the opportunity to be in Maryborough today. We had a great trip up in a small bus from Melbourne this morning and they are having hearings back in Melbourne tomorrow. I ask the deputy chair and local member, Steve Gibbons, to say a few words and welcome the community.

Mr GIBBONS: I am delighted that the community has decided to come to Maryborough and have a look at this issue, which has affected this region for probably 30 or 40 years. As Tony pointed out, we are looking at the fly-in fly-out drive-in drive-out concept right across the board. Predominantly, it is in the mining sector but it also affects communities like Maryborough. That is what we are here to find out. Welcome to all and thank you for coming. I am not sure how often we get a federal parliamentary committee here in Maryborough but I am sure it will not be the last. Thank you for the opportunity, Tony.

CHAIR: Thank you, Steve, and also Dan Tehan. Dan, I think you are going to inherit—or you hope to inherit—this part of the world soon. Political competition is always a very good thing! It is good to be here and both MPs have been very good members of this committee. The committee will call witnesses to the table as per the program. Before introducing the witnesses I refer members of the media present at this hearing of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee. I am sure that will not be an issue here in Maryborough.

Mr GIBBONS: I am sure it will not.

CHAIR: We thank the media for their attention. I did a few interviews on the way in this morning and there is obviously some degree of interest in the issues here. I will introduce the committee, starting on my left.

Ms LIVERMORE: I am the member for Capricornia, which is in Central Queensland.

CHAIR: I am the member for New England, which covers Tamworth, Armidale and Inverell. They are the main centres in the New England area of New South Wales.

Mr GIBBONS: I am the federal member for Bendigo here in central Victoria.

Mr TEHAN: I am the member for Wannon. As Tony mentioned, following the federal redistribution this area will become part of Wannon as of the next election. I would like to thank Steve Gibbons, who currently has it, for working so cooperatively with me to make sure that the area transitions well from one electorate to the other. Steve and I both thought it was a fantastic idea to have this committee come here today. I would like to thank you very much, Steve, for the way you cooperated following the redistribution.

Mr McCORMACK: I am the federal member for Riverina in south-west New South Wales, which takes in the cities of Griffith and Wagga Wagga. It is nice to be here.

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of the Central Goldfields Shire Council to today's hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. I invite you to make some opening statements. Normally we have received submissions, so we tend to question the witnesses on the submissions that we have received. We are dealing with it a bit differently here today, so we ask you to make some statements. We would like to keep this as informal as we can; so, if the committee butts in occasionally and asks if you can explain a bit more or what you mean by something, feel free to have a rolling contribution. If you would like to open.

Mr Johnston : Thank you. We are delighted to have you here in Maryborough, so welcome. What we have for the committee is a handout, which I think you have in front of you. We will quickly run through that and then can get to some questions and discussion if that is the way the committee wants to go. We understand, as you commented, that the inquiry has had a large focus around the mining industry and fly-in fly-out. We hope to present a different perspective. We thank Steve for his cooperation in arranging that. We will run through a brief presentation. Sharon will then add some issues around health and wellbeing.

There is a contents page there for you which is a bit of a brief background. It is probably important for context and reinforcing why drive-in drive-out has an impact on us. We go through the extent of that impact and then propose a way forward. Page 2 shows you our place in the world in respect of Bendigo, Ballarat and Melbourne. Page 3 has a little bit about Maryborough and a snapshot of the drive-in drive-out context. We are an 8,000-strong population, which is a significant subregional service town with all the services that go with that sort of a population. We are an equal distance from Bendigo and Ballarat—less than a one-hour drive.

Historically we have been a strong manufacturing town. It is not so now. We have certainly been impacted by global economic forces over the decades and we are now what you would say is a transitioning economy. Out of that we have experienced generational unemployment, and with that comes social challenges that you will be familiar with. We are experiencing some real community renewal at the moment across a number of fronts, and I will touch on that in a moment, but one of the things we are challenged with in moving forward is the issue of a drive-in drive-out workforce.

On page 4 I have mentioned the challenges of disadvantage we have. To put it in context: the Australian Bureau of Statistics advises that Central Goldfields Shire can be classified as the 79th out of 79 municipalities in Victoria in terms of overall SEIFA score, and that has been the situation over many consecutive years and probably needs no further explanation. If you look at the stats in the middle of the page you will see that Central Goldfields Shire ranks lowest in Victoria in terms of average household income, average educational attainment and employment rates, which is all fairly compelling material. Our labour force and community are not yet work ready or engaged, and it is a bit of a cruel irony that we cannot fill available jobs or create new jobs if we do not have a work-ready workforce. That disadvantage is either compounded by or caused by that manufacturing decline. We have been left with a large pool of unskilled workers. We have community resistance to change; so, whilst we have a fairly resilient community, it probably also reflects our levels of educational attainment. And all of that is compounded by those working in the town and not living here.

On page 5 I have a slide showing a copy of a recent presentation—in fact, many presentations we have done—where council said we need a game plan to address this disadvantage. It is a fairly straightforward game plan. We are saying that what we are doing is assessing our current reality; you need to know where you are starting from. At the top we articulated a vision of where we want to be. In the middle we need to identify and work with those levers that can close the gap for us. There were two things there that were obvious to us. One was long-term place based solutions. It was interesting that you said at the start, chair, that it is not a one-size-fits-all; it will be a Maryborough solution. We also need change management to do that. So it was a situation of saying more of the same will not work and we need to do something different here to tackle this disadvantage. So we did that body of work—over the page on page 6 there. That body of work produced a place-based, evidence-based approach, which is now known as Go Goldfields, and subsequently there was Sharon's role. So again we knew where current reality was and we knew the vision that we wanted to get to. Five key action areas were identified. If you read across them, they are the things that we are saying we want to do to close that gap. There are probably no surprises there when you look at them, but it was how they are to be implemented in Central Goldfields. Of the two actions that are required there in the middle, one was 'Preparing for gold', as we called it, which was that research or planning. The second one, 'Going for gold', is the implementation—so the Go Goldfields strategy.

Over the page, it just touches on community culture as being aligned. We referred to change management there. Our current community culture has served us very well in the past, but we now face these new challenges, so therefore we need new approaches. With some of that shifting emphasis, it will be local strategies that do that, and it will be quite subtle strategies. It could be around positive articles in the newspaper, recognising and celebrating successes and achievements—those sorts of things. To do all that requires real leadership, and that is again one of the challenges we have.

Moving on, as I said, in recent years we have seen real community renewal. We have new industries coming to town. We have major retail chains coming. We have had unprecedented housing development in the last three or four years, and social capital is an area we are addressing full on through Go Goldfields. But all of that could be greatly assisted or accelerated if those people, or a significant percentage of those people, who work here actually lived here and were part of that community.

That is a bit of the scene setting. Let's look at the extent and the impact of that drive-in drive-out workforce. On page 9 I am talking about the extent of the drive-in drive-out workforce. A lot of it is anecdotal, but we do know our patch, so we know the quantity, I guess. As I said, Maryborough is an 8,000-strong service town, so we have major education sectors and major health sectors and the jobs that come with them. When you look at quantifying the extent of drive-in drive-out and you look at those stats I have there, the second one is the percentage of the working population—that is the people who live here—with a bachelor degree. That is seven per cent. Our shire is half of the Bendigo region and it is about a third of Victoria. If you go over the page, that stat helps to quantify what we suspect in terms of the anecdotal evidence. This comes from the 2006 census. If you look at our highly skilled workforce numbers—they are the persons working in Central Goldfields—53.4 per cent are in a highly skilled occupation. So, with the people actually working here, comparatively we are almost the same as Loddon Mallee and Victoria. So the jobs are here and there are people working in them.

If you look at the next stat, the employment rate, of those that are living in Central Goldfields there are a significant percentage not working. If you go on to the household income, we are way below the average or the median for Loddon Mallee and Victoria. Then over the page, with educational qualification, of those living in Central Goldfields a significant number are not qualified. So you almost think: how are we filling those highly skilled jobs, which we have in equal number? The answer is that they are not with residents; they are with drive-in drive-outs. So the anecdotal evidence is backed up.

In terms of trying to quantify, my gut feeling is that the number is around 200 people who commute in and out daily. How significant is that 200 in our context?

I look back at that household income figure, which is on page 10, and say that if we were able to increase that average household income—the $380—even to $480, a bit under the Loddon Mallee figure, an extra $100 in 4,000 households in the shire that would make $400,000 a week or, in round figures, $20 million a year. If you take the $20 million and look at the 200 people who drive in and drive out and who, I think, earn around $100,000 each, I think that works out.

When you think of the $20 million that would be in our economy each year, and our council rate revenue of $8 million annually, you see that there is an extra 2½ times that that is probably leaving the shire each year. So that gives an overview of the extent.

I turn to page 12. The impact of drive-in, drive-out is well known to the committee. Local Government Focus magazine had an editorial in their March 2012 edition about the inquiry. It talked about the three impacts generally. One is the economic drain, which we know about and have just talked about. The second one is the labour supply, whereby resident workers often have a partner who can further add to the skills but can also just add to the labour supply. The third is the social impact, with lack of community leaders and community capacity.

That covers a lot of the impacts. The other thing I will mention, the second last point there, is the resentment or even the suspicion about the decision makers. I think it is important, when you are making decisions that impact the community, that you live with the outcome of those decisions. I think the community sees that as important too, and that does not always happen in our context.

The other point I would make there is the long-term strategic commitment. We need leaders who are in for the long haul. The earlier example I gave, about the place based or evidence based approach—the Go Goldfields strategy—was only possible because of long-term commitment. So we started the process of a new education precinct which led, then, to the Go Goldfields strategy in 2000. We have a new school and new development and social capital but it has been a long haul to get to that point. So you need a long-term commitment.

On page 13—there are only two pages to go—I asked, 'Why does the drive-in, drive-out scenario exist?' Obviously the very attractive location of Maryborough is one point. Bendigo and Ballarat are attractive, and we want there to be dynamic, regional cities around us. So we are not in competition with them but they are relatively close.

I turn now to limited-tenure employment contracts and all the inherent issues that go with that. We have the traditional roles of teachers, police and health and local government folk who are now on limited-tenure contracts. It is easier to travel, with the improved vehicles, roads and everything else. That is a good thing but it makes it easier for people to come in and out. I think one of the reasons it exists is the perception of Maryborough. We talked about that SEIFA score. People are happy to work here but not live here. Once the first person makes that decision it is easier for the second, third and subsequent to follow. But it is perception only, and we need to do something about it. The other point I have not mentioned there is that professional people typically bringing partners. We cannot always offer the second job, and that becomes a real challenge for us.

So the final slide asks, 'What are we going to do about all that?'—a response or a way forward. We need to understand better the levers that impact drive-in, drive-out and how we can change the practice, or at least the extent of the practice. In an ideal world we would have some resources, similar to the Go Goldfields, where we could undertake a piece of place based—Maryborough specific—and evidence based research that would then result in a place based, evidence based response. That would include some practical actions or strategies. It might come to a conclusion that says, 'We need to do work around that perception of Maryborough.' Or it might be around recruiting practices, so that the second job might be on offer, because there might be a way of parcelling up all the professional opportunities in Maryborough so that the public sector and the private sector work together and present a Maryborough package of professional offerings—some way we could get people who would find it attractive to live here. I guess that is the takeaway: we need to understand the levers that impact and the responses available. That is our presentation as such, and the takeaway parcel, Mr Chair. I might ask Sharon, with your agreement, to give us a quick overview of the health and wellbeing aspects of the drive-in drive-out.

CHAIR: Okay. We would like to leave some time for questions.

Ms Fraser : Because we do not have community leaders living in our community, we do not get the discretionary effort of, say, a part-time partner or out-of-hours worker to build the resilience, capacity and capability that a community like ours needs to address some of the social issues that we have. We do not have people starting up community groups that add to the liveability of the community and attract more leaders. The other thing that happens as a consequence of that is that the community lacks a layer of mentoring and aspiration—the aim to achieve—because we do not have that modelling. We do not have those leaders living in the community making people think: 'Yes, there is a better way. I can have a better life. I can have aspirations; there are things I can achieve. I don't have to keep doing what the last three generations of my family have done.' For us to have an impact on some of the generational unemployment and other statistics in the shire, we need to work with the community to move them from the position of resilience that they are in to a position of aspiration to achieve. To do that, we need to leaders living in our community. That is my take-home message.

CHAIR: Thank you, Sharon. Before I throw it open for questions, I would ask witnesses to think about—and I will ask you about this at the end—the specific things they would like this committee to try and address in terms of its terms of reference.

Mr GIBBONS: Just to flesh out some of the things that Mark was saying, something like a couple of thousand jobs have been lost over the last 30 years. Just in the last six years, the companies involved have included Nestle, Penney and Language, Pyrenees Press, Mid State Food, Davis Poultry, Matisse Foods and one or two others. Prior to that were Maryborough Knitting Mill, Phelans Homes and Patience and Nicholson. A fair estimate of the jobs taken away from the community would be 2,000 to 3,000.

Mr Johnston : It would certainly be 2,000-plus.

Mr GIBBONS: That exacerbates the problem we are here to look at, because they were predominantly well-paid jobs, and most of the people who were employed in those jobs actually lived here in Maryborough. The other thing I am interested in is the social consequences of the structure here. I would imagine you would find that kids' sport, for example, would suffer because of the professional people working here but participating in kid's sports in either Bendigo or Ballarat because that is where they live. Could you just give us a brief outline of what your community activity is like in terms of sport? I know you have a strong football team here, but I think kids' sports are important because participating in community based activities from a very early age is the background to becoming a good citizen.

Mr Johnston : I think you are going to hear later today from the sports association but certainly we have a reduced capacity. We do not have the people in the community and strategic leaders who make professional, objective decisions all day and then can do that in the evening when they go to the footy club meetings. We do not have people to run the events. We do not have disposable income to support the teams. As an example, two years ago Maryborough played a final in the Bendigo footy league and, to their credit, the 21 guys in the team were all educated in Maryborough. It was a wonderful thing, but wouldn't you think that a town of 8,000 people would have a teacher and a policeman et cetera all on the way through who would be living here and participating? When those people come and participate, they bring with them different learnings and cultures from a different community—an aspirational culture or a winning culture; all those sorts of things that we do not always get left with.

Mr GIBBONS: House prices and rental prices—how do they compare with other similar sized populations of about 8,000 that might be 120Ks from their nearest major city?

Mr Johnston : House prices are either very affordable or very modest, depending on which way you are looking at it. A median house price is around $185,000, and if you looked at some recent stats Maryborough was identified as one of the advancing communities in terms of where median house prices had shifted in the last 12 months. Of course it is starting from such a low base that is 10 or a 15 per cent increase was coming from a 170 to a 185 or whatever that might have been. The house prices are low, so it is affordable to buy in but one of the issues has been that there has not been appreciation. So if you are buying in at $200,000, in five years time you are probably getting $200,000. That has started to change just in recent times, but we do not have a housing rental stock either so professional people can think: We'll rent with a view to buying.

Mr GIBBONS: One final question: how many new home permits have you issued in the last couple of years—that is, to build a new home?

Mr Johnston : That is an area, as I said, that has really been a success for us. We have probably got 50 to 60 new homes a year in the last couple of years, but predominantly they have been internal like upgrades or whatnot.

CHAIR: A lot of these positions that you are talking about where people drive-in drive-out are taxpayer funded positions so whether it be schools, the health network or the local government. Do you see some sort of requirement in the way people are employed, which says, 'If you have two people of same ability who might be going for a position that these boards or whoever is employing them should take into consideration where people will be or are residing'. I do not know whether it is or is not the answer. I was out at the local school this morning and you have someone there who does not reside in the shire who is the Victorian cricket captain for underage girls. They have come in, are attending that school and bringing resources and skills into the community. Is that where we need to head; or what else can or can't we do?

Mr Johnston : It gets into a bit of employment legislation law obviously too, it almost is like that with the caretaker resident's position where at the moment we cannot take that into account where the person resides but you would if they were in an operating facility that required the caretaker to live on site. If you extend what you are saying a little bit, as a community, we almost require those people to live on site to better perform and contribute to our community. I think something needs to be taken into account but, having said that, obviously over the years we have had some robust discussions with health, education and others—is there a choice between having an average school teacher living in Maryborough or a terrific one living in Bendigo? We say, 'We want the terrific one in Maryborough; we do not want to compromise.' But you are right: most of those are taxpayer positions, and there ought to be some provision for the entity doing the employing to look at the big picture.

Ms Fraser : Can I just add to that as well. Part of the reason that we have so many taxpayer positions is that we have become a very service-driven community, and a part of that is the very profile, the social profile, that Mark has outlined today. Part of tackling the balance between what are service positions and what are private positions is addressing some of these very issues that we are talking about—and some of that needs to be by getting leaders into the community. You do not get good social capital, good groups for people to join, art exhibitions and all sorts of things happening unless you have those leaders in the community. Their very presence then helps create more liveability in the community and creates more leaders coming here. So, really, for us it is finding the levers that tips that to start getting more leaders in. If you look at the large employers in our community, Mark Johnston would be one of the few who actually live in the community; the rest do not.

CHAIR: So when it comes to local government, for instance, and you are looking for an engineer or a senior person, if you advertise that they have to be resident here, what would be the impact of that?

Mr Johnston : We cannot advertise that, as such, because we cannot dictate where they will live. But within the employment legislation we do everything we can to try and get them resident here. And that can be through other methods like using cadetships, with our young people who go away to uni—getting them home to do vacation work back with us. The state government has supported some of those sorts of strategies.

CHAIR: Just following on from Dan's point as to how you actually—you talk about levers in your submission—drive that. A lot of that stuff is state based as well. I am old enough to remember when all our teachers—I lived near a small railway town; probably not that dissimilar to this one, only a lot smaller, but its reason for being has diminished over time in terms of steam trains and train services—when I was at school, lived there and the principal was the secretary of the golf club and treasurer of something else. Only one teacher lives there now; the rest of them drive about 50ks, and you never see them of a weekend. I can identify very much with the circumstances there. There is a way of reversing that, but it is a state based issue that no government would probably ever address. The (inaudible)they did was that you live in the town if you want the job. A lot of people would say, 'Well, I don't want the job'—or they may, in some towns. So, in terms of our committee, what sort of mechanics do you see in terms of making those things happen? You talked about scholarships et cetera.

Mr Johnston : In an ideal world, we would have access to some resources to let us do much more detailed work. So, to the extent of interviewing all of those who currently work here and do not live here—get all those reasons. Everyone will have a different scenario; we understand that—and we will not get all of them. But to find out: is the bottom line the second job for the household—is that the issue? Therefore, what factors can we introduce to address that? As I said, it might be around parcelling up professional opportunities or what not in Maryborough. Is it around the perception of Maryborough, that it is seen as a manufacturing town and somewhere to work but not live? So, therefore, do we have a lot of work to do around selling Maryborough. In that case there would have to be a promotional package or whatever put in place—again, it is about the resources to do that. So we would like to do a piece of work which identifies the factors and then comes up with some actions that we can put in place to try and address that.

CHAIR: Are there any other questions?

Ms LIVERMORE: I have a question about schools. How many schools have you got here at the different levels?

Mr Johnston : We have one major school, the Maryborough Education Centre, which is a P-12 college. It has nearly 1,200 students. We have a private secondary college, Highview College, which has around 450 students, We have a Catholic primary school with around 200 students and there are a number of smaller primary schools.

Ms LIVERMORE: How early does the drive-in drive-out thing start? Is it very common for students to go in and out of Ballarat or Bendigo for schooling in those towns?

Ms Fraser : Yes, it is definitely two way. We have students come in, particularly to the Maryborough Education Centre, which is the larger public school, or to Highview, which is the private secondary school; and we also have students go out, particularly to private schools.

Ms LIVERMORE: So there is not really a system whereby state governments would provide housing for teachers who get transferred into Maryborough?

Mr Johnston : No.

Ms LIVERMORE: I am asking you questions that it would really be better for the state education department to answer. Do you have a transfer system here in Victoria whereby you do country service and then—

Mr Johnston : Not that I am aware of.

Ms LIVERMORE: Thanks, I just needed to get that background.

CHAIR: Thank you to you both for taking the time to come along this morning. Thank you for having us in your community. Madam Mayor , thank you for being here as well. A copy of Hansard will be made available to you. If there are any issues with it or if there is anything you would like us to follow up on in terms of the questions you have had today, please let us know. Thank you very much.