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Standing Committee on Regional Australia
13/06/2012
Fly-in fly-out work practices

HIGGINS, Mr Garry Robert, Manager, Parkview Bakery

[11:13]

CHAIR: Welcome. 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 have the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. I now invite you to make an opening statement and then we will subject you to some questions.

Mr Higgins : Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee. It is great that somebody has actually acknowledged that there is an issue in rural Australia, particularly in this neck of the woods, with the fly-ins in Western Australia and the drive-ins here. I was just listening to Mark and Sharon, and what I have got to say is basically written by the same speech writer because the problems are very common. The most obvious impact is the economic impact. Our business is part of a bakery network that we established about 10 years ago. We have about 25 outlets in that network, from the CBD to Echuca, Tatura, Inverloch, Ballarat, Bendigo, Stawell, Ararat and Horsham. So it is a very broad geographical distribution. We like to think we run a reasonable business. We have been in the game for about 25 years. We benchmark a lot of our figures to get an idea of how we compare. One of the figures that we benchmark is our average customer sale, and out of all those communities our Maryborough store has the lowest average customer sale. I would like to think it has nothing to do with our ability as bread and pie makers or customer service people but more to do with the demographics of the area that we live in.

Following on from what Mark was talking about, I think one of our issues in Maryborough is that the council in the past has been a little bit late in realising that manufacturing is not really the way to go, that it is a sunset industry. Over the last couple of years where the council has changed direction on the type of economic development that it wants in the town I think we have seen a real difference in community attitude. Maryborough was always labelled as being very resilient, and that is another way of saying, 'I'm pretty happy where I am and I can't be bothered getting out of what it's been like for the past 20 or 30 years.' But over the last couple of years our community really has changed its attitude. I think there is a general 'can do' attitude. The council has changed direction and it has allowed business to flourish. It has created the conditions where people want to come here for employment. Places like True Foods, Coles, Kmart and a lot of the other franchises have seen a reason to come to Maryborough.

I think it is the same with the drive-in people. I can recall a chamber of commerce meeting a couple of years ago where I was banging on about these 'fly-ins', as we call them, accumulating really good money and then taking that money out of the community. One member said: 'Perhaps we need to take a different tack with these people. When they're here, let's make it as enjoyable as we possibly can so that living in Maryborough becomes an option.' I think that is what the council has started to do over the last few years. I was born and bred here. We had probably 20-odd years away and we have been back for about 20 years. I have been actively involved in local politics and I think over the last five or six years the council's mix has probably been the best that I have seen. So I think we are heading in the right direction, but we obviously have a lot of challenges ahead.

One of the issues that we are confronted with is the geography. We are smack bang in between Ballarat and Bendigo, but Ballarat and Bendigo are as close to Maryborough as Maryborough is to Ballarat and Bendigo. It is really the way in which we perceive ourselves. Again, I think we are heading in the right direction.

Another of the issues we have, which was highlighted by Mark and Sharon, is that we have an unbalanced economy. It was an economy that was built on two of the lowest income industries—the rag trade with the Maryborough Knitting Mills and the metal industry. We have tended to hang on to that attitude that we are working class and resilient. But I think that particularly within health services there has been a bit of a change. We deliver to one of the aged-care facilities, which is starting to employ a lot of cert II and cert III people. I know those people have never worked in their lives, and now these people are actively involved in not only work but ongoing training. In terms of what can you do about a place like Maryborough, it is to create some affirmative action in training programs and employment contracts, which I will get on to later.

The economic impact is the obvious one. The social impact is where it really kills us. I can remember growing up as a kid where the president of local footy club was the bank manager, the secretary was the treasurer. If you went to the golf club it would be a different bank manager or different copper or whatever. Now probably what we have is the same person doing the footy club and the tennis club. It is similar to what you were talking about in a small community—it is just spread too thinly.

There is a bit of a perception in the community, particularly for professions like teachers and police, that really there is not a genuine concern about the communities that they work in, because they come here and work and nobody sees them after dark—unless you are breaching the law! There is a perception that there is not a genuine concern for the community in which they live. That tends to rub off a bit. I can remember as a kid—and I know things have changed—if you played up and the local copper saw you he would go home and tell dad. 'The lad is mucking up and you've got to do something.' There seems to be a lot of anonymity around the way we live now, and that is really perpetrated by the way we employ people in the town.

Sharon touched on the role models. Our younger kids really do not have those role models, or enough role models, to see that there is a different way of doing things. I have just touched on support for community organisations. Again, the people that we are talking about are the administrators. They are the people who make the community organisations work really effectively. If you talk about footy clubs, Maryborough won a couple of premierships a few years ago, but it just has not got the capacity to do it with local kids; it has got to go out and bring other people in, because it has not got that internal capacity to deliver.

Regarding solutions, I see government all the time create affirmative action programs for areas of need, and I cannot see why our governments cannot create an affirmative action program to allow local government authorities and NGAs to appoint people on the condition that they do live within the general area. You referred to Mark Johnston as probably being the only real administrator who lives locally. He has managed to bring all his kids up in town, educate his kids locally and is also a good operator. Those people do exist. There is a tree change going on in urban Australia. I think that if we were prepared to create an affirmative action program to allow certain communities to employ people on certain conditions then everybody would be a winner.

Long term contracts is another issue. A fair while ago a few of the teachers could not even get housing loans because they did not have long-term tenure. I think that is still an issue. Teachers and police in particular, I suppose because of the promotional structure, tend to lob in one town and move around. I am not sure how you can deal with those issues of things that have been happening for 10 or 15 years. I think it is pretty hard to withdraw them, but it is worth talking about.

Mr GIBBONS: A very expensive tollgate on either highway!

Mr Higgins : Probably you blokes would be paying for it. It would not deter them. The final thing is the liveability. I think that our council really has to be given more incentive to create Maryborough as a better place to live, but it does need the information first to be able to make those decisions. I think the community itself has to make it a lot more enjoyable for the people who do live out of town and work locally. I am a member of our local Rotary club and one of the strategies we have got to try to grow our club is, rather than having Rotary meet on a Thursday night, having a dinner or a lunch meeting so that we can attract people and make them feel part of the community. That is about it for me.

CHAIR: Thank you. We will go to questions.

Mr GIBBONS: I forgot to ask Mark, but do you have any idea what the median weekly family income is for Maryborough?

Mr Higgins : I think it was around about $500 or $600. It is not much, but I do know if you go across the—

Mr GIBBONS: I suspect it would paint the whole picture. They are a relatively highly paid workforce, with large numbers not living here, and that would bump it up, don't you think?

Mr Higgins : No, it is still pretty ordinary. It is one of the lowest in the state.

Mr GIBBONS: In Bendigo it is $769 a week.

Mr Higgins : Well, we are nowhere near that. I think it is around about $400 or $500.

CHAIR: In the graph the median equalised gross weekly household income is $380, compared to $498 for Loddon-Mallee and $600 for the Victorian average.

Mr Higgins : So it is pretty low.

Mr GIBBONS: Can you give us a snapshot of the social ills that are caused by having intergenerational unemployed, like we have here. By comparison with other small towns, are the statistics worse for Maryborough than for a town like Rochester, for example?

Mr Higgins : I think we are at the bottom of the 71 municipal regions for most social indicators.

Mr GIBBONS: Perhaps that question might be better asked of the Maryborough Education Centre when they present evidence.

Mr Higgins : I am sure Sharon and Mark would have that information. There are a lot of issues associated with Maryborough, but I think it is turning the corner. I know that, for the first time since the education centre's amalgamation, student results are heading north. So there are little things that are starting to turn around in the town over the last few years.

Mr TEHAN: I agree with you, Garry, from what I have seen. I have spoken with other retailers who have been away for 20 years and have come back as well because they think the place has got a good future, like you obviously did. Do you see, from state and federal governments, the leadership that is required? Leadership is a key issue. There is no reason why we cannot see more government services provided in regional communities. For instance, the federal government will set up small bureaucracies that deal with the regions and country areas and will put them in the main street of Canberra, where the rents will be about 10 times what they would be if we moved to a decentralised approach. It is similar for the state government: rather than putting a lot of these services in Melbourne, we could see a move to put them into regional areas. Do you see any sign of that? Have you seen a hint of it? Are there any government services, back-office services, that are provided here?

Mr Higgins : There are, but it is not rocket science. Everybody in the bush can see what the issues are. Most people in the bush have just given up. I can recall—I am not sure if I am as old as you—

CHAIR: I just work very hard. I looked young before I got involved with this mob!

Mr Higgins : I can just remember when the federal government had a decentralised industry policy and how Albury-Wodonga was established and then, all of a sudden, it went by the wayside. Government at both levels are the only people who have control on where people do business, whether it is private enterprise or government. I cannot understand the philosophical reason behind governments not considering decentralisation as a really positive option.

Most of the rural towns in Australia already have this unused infrastructure, yet we continue to build suburbs in our urban areas that are not serviced by any form of public transport. It must be just the rest of the population. It must be something about Canberra and Melbourne that insulates a lot of those decision makers. I would assume, with respect to our existing company, it is probably bureaucracy that does not want to research the decentralisation of our country.

CHAIR: We are dealing with a much broader issue but if it gets to the nub of the real issue, in most cases, the bureaucrats that decide these sorts of issues want to live in particular places. I was in the New South Wales parliament for 10 years. Even where governments have decentralised—the buzz word of the day—in the past, in all but one case everybody has seen it as temporary. There has only been one case that I can recall where it was assumed it would be permanent, rather than just a political decision to create some voting focus. It is quite unfortunate.

This is probably digressing a bit but in a place like Sydney, for instance, even though everybody talks about decentralising and the pressures on urban communities and freeways et cetera, it relies on $50,000 a week. This whole economy relies on 50,000 people wanting to get in. You have a housing economy that is built on pressure. Releasing that pressure creates a whole range of economic and political issues because that is normally where the winners are decided—in those outer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Mr Higgins : Probably a really good idea is for some brainy person to sit down and figure out a way of maintaining—

Mr GIBBONS: There's no chance of a politician doing that!

Mr Higgins : Probably not—or a bureaucrat for that matter! It is just coming up with a system where we can maintain our capitalist society without the need for growth and I am not sure that is possible. But surely growth in rural Australia is as economically advantageous as growth within urban areas.

CHAIR: We heard Mark and Sharon talking about demographics and how this was based on historical manufacturing. I think you referred to it as the rag trade. The upskilling of the young people in this community. Do you see enough happening there in how TAFE works and getting people into positions? Certificate II of the aged care premises was mentioned earlier.

Mr Higgins : It is very difficult. I know our business has a philosophy of training our own and we have always trained our own apprentices. Last year we trialled seven local kids for an apprenticeship and could not get one that met our criteria. We ended up employing a young Chinese girl on a 457 visa, because we could not get local people. Even though we are heading in the right direction, there still is an issue with generational unemployment and the attitudes that that creates. I know we are addressing those issues, but again it is a generational issue; it is not going to change overnight. It is little steps.

With the issue of health care that I mentioned, you can just see a spring in these people's step. They are different people because they are engaged, they have got self worth, and that is the way to break the cycle. If little Johnny gets up and sees Mum going to work, it becomes a way of life to them. But if little Johnny is getting up and Mum, Granddad and Grandma do not go to work, it is pretty hard for that kid. Breaking that cycle really is a difficult task.

Mr TEHAN: How often do you see government decisions, especially federal decisions, which may have the right intention but seem to not understand the type of communities that are out in country Australia and therefore adversely impact on them? I was up at the aged-care facility this morning, and because of the median house prices here the aged-care package is going to have a greater adverse impact on this community and other communities than it will on larger facilities in places like Melbourne. Do you see a lot of that occurring, where there is just a failure to understand the type of communities that we live in in regional country areas?

Mr Higgins : I think—and this is my personal opinion—that not enough of them get it, in federal government in particular, because it is so big. I may just have an inferiority complex about living in the bush, and I have lived in Melbourne for 20-odd years as well, but I just do not think that enough of them get it. They really do not understand what it is like to live in a rural area. I worked in state government back in the seventies and eighties, and I can always recall one of the senior managers in our department saying, 'It's your choice to live in the bush; you've got to put up with it.' I know it is a choice but surely we can get a few more people who really understand what it is like living in the bush. I do not think they understand that living in Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, in the main provincial centres, is so different from living in smaller communities like Maryborough. You just have not got that option, if you leave one job, of being able to farm around and get another one, without having to move house. In the bush, if you leave a job that is probably it; you have got to move away. I think that policymakers need to have a better understanding of what it means to live in the bush. This is the first time I have seen this happen, where we have actually had a parliamentary inquiry come out and look at an issue that really impacts on a little community like Maryborough.

CHAIR: You made a statement at the start of this that I wrote down. You made the point: it might be fly-in in Western Australia; here, it is drive-in. What comes across to me is that, even though there are vastly different circumstances with the development of resources, people are coming from one town to another—and in both cases they have a choice. But the pinch-point is the potential loss of community. One of the great things that regional towns have, irrespective of how big or small they are—in fact, in my view, the smaller ones have it more than the bigger ones—is that sense of community. If some of your workforce starts to come from other places, you lose that. If we lose that, we lose the fight.

Mr Higgins : Once you reach that tipping point, it is pretty hard to get it back. As I said, I think we are heading in the right direction. As a kid growing up in Maryborough and going to the local tech school, the phys. ed. teacher would take a bunch of us down to the local oval to do some training for the athletics program or to the pool before school for the swimming program, or they would be involved in coaching something else. They became an integral part of the community. I know there are a lot of issues involved in it now, but that sort of stuff very rarely happens. If you play footy with the local copper there is no way known that you are going to muck up. Similarly, if you play footy, netball or whatever with the local schoolteacher or with the local bank manager, there is a hell of a lot more respect within the community because you know people and they know you.

Mr TEHAN: Especially when the local copper is the coach, too.

Mr Higgins : That does help. I just think that we need to revisit the value of small community living and start elevating it. This is a worthwhile place for people to grow up in. You can get all the options. It does not necessarily mean that you have to sacrifice a lot of the key things in your life by living in a country community.

Mr TEHAN: I want to clarify one thing. You sought an apprentice for your bakery here and you could not fill the position. You had to go to a 457 visa to do that.

Mr Higgins : Yes.

Mr TEHAN: Was that a one-off? Have you heard that from other businesses as well?

Mr Higgins : I was the CEO of the Baking Industry Association. I have just retired from that job and have come back into my business. The baking industry has the highest drop-out rate of any trade. There is something like a 68 per cent drop-out rate of apprentices in the baking industry. It is a general thing of trying to get people into this industry. It is at the point where our association has created a relationship with South Korea to look at up-skilling those people to come into our industry to fill the vacancies, because it is very difficult to get people. This is the first time that we have come across it. We have got some promotion in the local paper. One of our apprentices, who has just finished their training, was dux of William Angliss. We do normally train our own but I needed somebody straightaway. I got pretty disillusioned with what we had to deal with this time. Normally, you go through four or five to get one because it is not for everybody; it is a difficult trade.

Mr TEHAN: Do you employ students before and after school—or did you?

Mr Higgins : Yes.

Mr TEHAN: The reason I ask is that one of the issues raised with me has been sorted out for after school but not for before school, and that is this silly three-hour minimum requirement.

Mr Higgins : That is exactly what I mean—people not understanding the reality of the situation.

Mr GIBBONS: To be fair, there is another side, too, which is that people are entitled to expect to be paid for three hours if they are offered three hours work.

Mr Higgins : If the joint is not open after half past five and the kid knocks off at three. There is a realistic situation here. I can understand if you have seniors coming in and by the time they get here et cetera et cetera. But this is after school kids. We all grew up with paper rounds and those sorts of little things that give young kids a work ethic. It is a bit like the training issue that is happening in Victoria at the moment: somebody has a sore toe, so they shoot the person. Instead of dealing with the sore toe and those people who are rorting the system, the whole system is being ruined. We probably need to acknowledge that there are differences. One size does not fit all.

CHAIR: Before we get involved in the workplace relations of the nation—

Mr GIBBONS: I am happy to go there, Chair.

CHAIR: I am sure you are. That is why I am not going to.

Mr Higgins : There would be five jobs at my place this weekend if I did not have to pay double time on Sunday and I would say that out of my bakery group there would be another 100 jobs. That is another issue.

Mr TEHAN: We had a win on the students after school. They can do an hour and a half, which is good.

Mr Higgins : Yes, that is good. We employ kids at both our stores after school and of a Saturday morning as well.

CHAIR: We might call it quits. Thank you, Garry, for taking the time and for your obvious caring attitude towards the town you come from. I think that is great. It is good for us to hear from real people who are engaged in business and who also live in a community of this size. There will be a copy of Hansard available. If you have any issues with the transcription, please let us know. If you have any other points you would like to raise, please feel free to do so.

Mr Higgins : Thank you for the opportunity. I really do appreciate it.