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RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT REFERENCES COMMITTEE
22/07/2009
Investment of Commonwealth and state funds in public passenger transport

CHAIR —I welcome our first witnesses. The Local Government Association of the Northern Territory has lodged submission No. 120 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to that submission?

Mr Tapsell —No.

CHAIR —Do you wish to make an opening statement before we move to questions?

Mr Tapsell —Just a brief one. In our view, transport planning is one area that needs a great boost in the Northern Territory. Certainly in local government’s view it has probably been lacking a lot to date. We do not think that the level of planning, particularly for the provision of future services within urban areas, has been adequately done. We are worried about land corridors not being set aside for things like bus services and, potentially, light rail. We know that light rail is a long way off because we do not have the population base, but, if we do not have plans in place for such services in the future, we will do what Sydney does, which is put tunnels under urban areas and all that sort of stuff. I think we are at a position here, particularly in Darwin, where, if we do not have proper plans in place for these kinds of services, we will make the same mistakes that Sydney and everyone else has made in terms of congestion. We are on a peninsula here and you only have to look at the development of roads in Darwin itself to see that increasingly we are building more and more roads into the centre of the city. If we lose all the land that potentially could be used for the provision of future services like that, then we will never get around to doing it. It will be too cost prohibitive to make the change. Those are some of the issues. We raised a number of issues in our submission and I would like to talk to them when you are ready.

Mr McLinden —I have nothing to add. In my position I am only dealing with remote rural areas, and certainly with the airlines it has been brought out in the submission that there has been some impost put on local government in regards to regulation and maintaining RPT services. The capacity to honour those commitments, both legislatively and asset preservation, is a risk for the shires and has an impact on the RPTs and regular passenger transport, especially by air. There are about 10 island communities for which air is the only mode of public transport.

CHAIR —Thanks. Senator Ludlam, I am aware you have to leave us at nine for a little while. Would you like to kick off with questions.

Senator LUDLAM —It was a little bit tricky to hear your opening statement, but thanks very much for coming in and giving evidence. Can you tell us the state of public ferry and boat transport particularly outside Darwin? Is there much service around the community?

Mr Tapsell —No, there is not. There are ferry services across the harbour in Darwin and there is a ferry service to Bathurst Island. I have limited knowledge on this but those are the only ones I know of.

Senator LUDLAM —Is there potential there, do you think, or is the population too low?

Mr McLinden —My view is that the population is too low. I know the services to the Tiwi Islands and Mandorah are subsidised, so I would say the population is not at the level there where it would be commercially viable. I know there have been moves with some of the barge services to those remote communities to look at passenger services as well, but once again there are legislative requirements and occupational health and safety issues that have to be addressed. That focus would be more on the tourism rather than public transport for the community.

Senator LUDLAM —You mentioned in your submission that in urban areas at least public transport is being run by private operators under contract or licence. You mentioned that a lot of that is for the benefit of students going to and from school or university. Can you tell us a bit about how the privatisation of public transport services has impacted on Darwin in particular and what kind of level of service you have there?

Mr Tapsell —There are a number of firms that are providing these types of services. They are probably doing it more so than the government service. There is a Territory government bus service and there are also private bus services. I think the Territory government representatives would probably be able to answer that better than I can, but as far as we know the private sector is a large provider of bus services but also that those services are largely confined to the transport of students.

Senator LUDLAM —Thank you. I will be back in about 15 minutes.

Senator O’BRIEN —With the main population centres of Darwin and Alice Springs, can you tell us what roles the appropriate local government bodies play in relation to public transport in those areas?

Mr Tapsell —A very limited role. Usually any form of public transport provided by local government is of a very specific nature. It might be the provision of a bus service for aged care people to go shopping. That happens with a couple of our shires. I know that Darwin City Council was looking at assisting funding a bus service from the terminal at the wharf where the passenger ships come in into the city. That is about the extent of it. We are generally not in the game of public transport, I guess.

Senator O’BRIEN —In terms of the usage of public transport versus the private vehicle, can you assist us in any way with information on the proportion of the population that would rely on public transport in each of those localities?

Mr Tapsell —I would not have the accurate figures on that. My observation about public transport generally is that if it is an excellent service people will use it but if it is in any way deficient then they tend to use the motorcar. I will give you an example. I have a friend who lives at Moil in the northern suburbs. She told me that to get to work she would have to go to the local bus stop and the trip to Darwin in her view was close to an hour, so an hour to get from the northern suburbs to here. That is because the bus service goes all around the place before it actually comes here. There are alternatives. She could go to Casuarina and get the express service but she would have to park her car or whatnot. In the end she does not do it, she says because the effort to try and get onto the service is too great for her. She reckons she has lots of friends who do the same. To drive from the northern suburbs to here at the moment is only about 15 minutes. Unless the services can compete with that then people will tend not to use it.

Senator O’BRIEN —What about the cost of parking?

Mr Tapsell —That is going up. We now have parking meters in Darwin, so particularly in the CBD Darwin City Council is regulating parking. It is definitely getting harder to park in the central business district. I know Darwin is making plans for future parking developments, and that is going to be inevitable while we continue to build more roads into the centre of Darwin. Alice Springs is also heavily dependent on the use of the motorcar. We will also potentially have some issues when Roxby Downs starts taking product through the town, because the rail goes right through the town. It divides the town and the train is one and a half kilometres long, so getting from one side of the town to the other in an emergency could be a problem. There are those kinds of issues for Alice Springs.

Senator O’BRIEN —And are the private bus operations in any way subsidised?

Mr Tapsell —I think the Territory government people could tell you but I am not sure. I believe they are. They certainly have contracts with the government to provide the service, so presumably they are getting it for the price at which they are prepared to do it.

CHAIR —Mr McLinden, you mentioned regulatory issues. Do you want to expand on that for us on what the impediments are and how that does work and how it could be improved?

Mr McLinden —Yes. If I could give you an example. With the regional aviation security legislation that has come in, the infrastructure has been provided by the Australian government but the impost on the shires has been the operational management of that legislation in regard to ATSIC clearances for people. There is no capacity for shires to earn revenue from those airstrips and landing fees. The shires are in the middle a bit. They are trying to look after the community needs by keeping prices down for freight and passenger airfares, but they need a revenue stream for the management and running of airstrips. There is funding for maintenance that comes from the Northern Territory government. That is mainly for slashing and general maintenance, and not the day-to-day operations and having someone there for the RPT flights coming in. There is also an impost on the shires in regard to CASA standards and safety on airlines. The shires work very closely with the operators. They need to because it is critical for the social fabric and for the education, health and other services. They work with the operators to ensure that it is commercially viable, but the industry is struggling as well.

Mr Tapsell —The whole landscape for these airstrips is changing because of the Northern Territory intervention. A lot of these airstrips are on Aboriginal land and some of them are within the confines of the new township leases that the Commonwealth has been involved with.

CHAIR —How is the intervention affecting it? What are the changes?

Mr Tapsell —The shires have to make a big decision soon, certainly in the next few years, about their role in the provision of the maintenance of these airstrips because the Commonwealth now has a lease for the airstrips. The Territory government funds the shires to maintain the airstrips and at some point in time somebody is going to approach the shires over their future responsibilities, whether they take a lease or not. They are probably not going to take a lease if they are going to inherit all the future costs of maintaining those airstrips. So that could affect whether or not they are going to be involved in the future. They are tossing that up at the moment.

CHAIR —What then happens if they decide not to do it? Will the strip cease running? Will somebody else have to do the job that the council previously did?

Mr Tapsell —Either the Territory government or the Commonwealth government will have to step in to do something about it.

CHAIR —Have either jurisdiction made any indication that they would be prepared to do that if the shires pull out?

Mr McLinden —The Northern Territory government have a 10-year transition plan for airport, barge, landing and road assets for the shires. That has been done in consultation with the shires. The view of the shires at the moment is that it is not financially viable or sustainable for them to take on those assets without additional funds. We are only talking about the assets not the operation of the airstrips. But there have been discussions about it. The Northern Territory government have funded a significant capital upgrade of a number of the remote strategic strips, upgrading them from gravel and sealing them. So there is recognition of the importance of airlines in remote areas. But the question is about the capacity of any sphere of government to take responsibility for that and the shires are not in a position to do that at this point in time.

CHAIR —Surely the more remote shires would have even less capacity financially to be able to run them and they are the ones who probably need the strips as much as anyone, if they are going to have contact and communication with the rest of the state, and indeed outside the state.

Mr Tapsell —Local government are prepared to take on lots of services provided it has the financial resources to do it. This is a key issue for local government at the moment. Potentially, they could turn around to the government and say: ‘Hey, you’ve got the lease. If you’ve got the lease, it’s yours’ or ‘If you can provide us with the funds, we’ll look after it.’ That is the quandary they are in at the moment.

CHAIR —Transport is a public good. To allow all of the responsibility to fall on shires, who probably have the least capacity to financially support the public good, is quite a conundrum.

Mr Tapsell —We are getting similar issues with other types of assets as well. The Commonwealth is starting to issue grants to councils, and some of the conditions of those grants are that they take a lease, that they pay and that they have asset management practices in place. That means that for something like an airstrip, if you have to reseal it, say, every 10 or 15 years, it would cost millions, particularly if it was something like the Maningrida airstrip.

CHAIR —How many strips through the Territory are used reasonably regularly?

Mr McLinden —Certainly the Northern Territory government would be able to get more accurate figures, but from my understanding there are 17 RPT strips. That includes some mining strips, like the McArthur River mine, that come under the aviation security legislation. My understanding is that there are some 73 that are funded by the Northern Territory government, and they are mainly in remote areas. Once again, the accurate data would be more appropriate coming from the Northern Territory government.

There is a heap of other strips that are not licensed or that are tied up with resource centres in outstations. They are usually gravel; they are certainly not up to Canberra standards with regard to RPT flights. It is all charter flights.

CHAIR —Do you have view on whether or not the Commonwealth should play a role financially in any of the changes, whether it should be a Territory government responsibility or whether the shires should have the responsibility and somehow gain access to funding? Do you have a view on how it should work?

Mr Tapsell —At a national level the Australian Local Government Association has a view that local government nationally should have a fair share of federal taxation. One of our major platforms is that if we are going to deliver everything we have to get it right. We have to fix federalism, we all know that, but if we are to play a role in those sorts of things we have to aim for a level of funding that is going to enable us to do it, and a fair share of federal taxation is one of our major platforms.

CHAIR —There was some discussion in the association about having a percentage of the GST go straight to local councils, wasn’t there? Is my recollection right or is there something, just getting back to this idea of—

Mr Tapsell —We are not saying the GST. Some councils are saying GST, but nationally the Australian Local Government Association is not. We are saying a fair share of taxation. We are looking for a change in the distribution of the financial assistance grants as well.

Senator STERLE —I apologise for missing your opening statement this morning. We had a car mishap on the way that led to all sorts of delays. In terms of public transport around Darwin, there is no railway line here, is there?

Mr Tapsell —No.

Senator STERLE —So it is all by bus?

Mr Tapsell —Yes.

Senator STERLE —How efficient is the local bus service in Darwin? If you have mentioned that in your opening statement, I apologise.

Mr Tapsell —It is a pretty good service, but you have really got to make any public transport excellent if you want people to use it. If it is always going to be a bit of a hassle to get on a bus or the timing is not right or anything like that, people tend to go back to the motor car. It is incumbent upon the provider to make sure that it is an excellent service. It is a chicken-and-egg thing. If you make it an excellent service people will use it, then you will get the economies of scale and everything else. In Darwin a lot of people would say it is a pretty good service for getting people to work. It is certainly a good service for getting kids to school.

Senator STERLE —Is it a regular service?

Mr Tapsell —Yes, as far as I know.

Senator STERLE —And it is well serviced on weekends and after hours, to the best of your knowledge?

Mr Tapsell —I am not sure on those points. Probably not, I would think.

Senator STERLE —What has come out with this inquiry around the country is that even those areas that have very efficient, sustainable, safe and reliable public transport systems still have trouble attracting commuters out of the car and into the public transport system. Obviously, you are not only a capital city; you are also regional, and to an extent you must rely very heavily on the buses. How could the Darwin service be improved, in your view?

Mr Tapsell —I think the infrastructure and the planning are the key things—if we did have bus lanes and things like that. If you look at the bus lanes in Sydney, particularly around the eastern suburbs, you see the buses going flying past and all the cars just sitting there. That has got to be attractive.

Senator STERLE —So Darwin does not have designated bus lanes?

Mr Tapsell —No. The transport economists will probably say that it is not warranted at this point in time, because we do not have the population. But we continue to build roads. We are going to widen more streets here in Darwin to bring more cars in. We may not have the population at the moment, but I would hate to think that 2030 or 2040 will come and suddenly we have got a big congestion problem. We have not planned for public transport to do things like we are talking about. Plus, the worst thing that could happen would be if the land were gone because we have sold it to developers or we have used it all up so it is impossible to put it in. I think that is one of the real dangers we have got to watch for Darwin in particular.

Senator STERLE —I have not been here for a few years, but I was here regularly every second week, and there has been an explosion in population and housing—and who would have thought you would have high-rises to the extent you have in Darwin? The town is on the move. Today I said to Senator O’Brien: ‘What slowdown?’ It certainly does not apply to Darwin. In terms of planning, are you having those conversations with the Territory government? Are they progressing in what you just mentioned to us about future planning, land and infrastructure?

Mr Tapsell —We probably have not done the level of consultation that we should have. We understand that the Territory government is now going to release a draft transport plan strategy, which I think is great. We only hope that that strategy will encompass some of the things that we have been talking about. We did make submissions to a draft transport plan some years ago—that was quite some years ago—and we have not heard. We made similar comments then, but this is probably the first time since then that anything has come out of it.

Senator STERLE —To the best of your knowledge, Mr Tapsell and Mr McLinden, how old is the bus fleet? Is there one company or are there a number of them?

Mr Tapsell —There are a number of them, as far as I know.

Senator STERLE —And they are franchised to certain runs?

Mr McLinden —Yes, they are under contract with the Northern Territory government. It is probably more appropriate that that question is directed to DPI. They would have more accurate data. The other thing is that, unlike other major centres, in Darwin there are not the impediments of the cost of parking and getting into Darwin. There are no disincentives, if you like, to take the car in. That will change. The congestion is starting, and Darwin City Council is looking at that and at parking and they are thinking about how they are going to handle it. The impost on the driver of the car is not there as it is in other major centres.

Senator STERLE —That is a very interesting point, because the same questions were asked in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. In Sydney you can walk past a car park and there will be a sign out the front saying, ‘All day parking, $40’ or something, which seems ridiculously overpriced. You would think that would be a disincentive for someone to use a car, but they are full. They still keep coming in and out all day. It is amazing.

CHAIR —Gentlemen, one of the suggestions that you make in your submission is about broadening the remote areas subsidy scheme—obviously to improve the viability of the air services. When you say ‘broaden’, what do you actually mean? Do you mean more dollars or changing how it works? Could you run through what you would like to see in that?

Mr McLinden —We all want more dollars! The subsidy scheme is brilliant, but I think there needs to be more public education about the fact that it exists and who can access it. The impact is not so much on the council directly, because any community group, or even an individual pastoralist, can apply for the subsidy and an airline is contracted to provide the service. The focus is mainly on the provision of mail, health and education services. With regard to supporting the airline industry, we can open it up to, say, Pax so that they can carry passengers. There should be a bit more flexibility in how the subsidy can be used, and it should have more exposure so that the public knows it exists. With our reforms and shire amalgamations, there are a lot of new managers who probably are not even aware of the remote area subsidy. Our association has a role to promote that as well. We need to increase the flexibility to encourage and make airline operators more viable to provide those services. They are under a lot of commercial risk at the moment to provide services. There have been a lot of communities trying to set up airlines, but it is not sustainable. With landing fees and the like, it is just not commercially viable to run those services.

CHAIR —You also mentioned the potential grants to councils for cycle paths. Are there many cycle paths in the towns at the moment? How much scope is there for improvement? Have you done any work on what the uptake would be if cycle paths went in?

Mr McLinden —There is certainly a significant increase. The Australian government has recognised that and, through the stimulus package, has indicated that money will be available for cycle paths. There has been extensive work and an extension of the Darwin network. There is a network within the major centres of Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs as well. As to the take-up, Darwin City Council would probably have more of an idea. But when you drive into town you see a lot more cyclists around. Among the defence forces there are a lot of cyclists riding from the Palmerston area out to Robertson Barracks, and they are being accommodated.

Mr Tapsell —But not in remote areas generally. The Commonwealth and territory government proposal for Working Futures is going to look at developing 20 towns in the Northern Territory outside of these major centres. Hopefully we will see better planning in those areas for things like cycle paths. A lot of the remote areas are exemplified by a lack of infrastructure of that nature.

CHAIR —Do you think cycle paths would work in those areas? We travel around a lot and it certainly seems that, if you build a path, people will hop on it—whether they are walking, cycling or whatever. Just looking at the Esplanade this morning, it was chockers with people walking up and down. Do you think it would work in the more remote areas?

Mr Tapsell —I think it will work for these 20 towns. What appears to be happening in some places is that they are starting to spread out, so it would make a lot of sense to have cycle paths. In Maningrida, for example, they are talking about developing a housing precinct over the other side of the airport. It will be quite a distance from the rest of the town, so a cycle path would be an obvious thing.

CHAIR —To link it all together. Mr Tapsell, you mentioned earlier that you had put in submissions to a draft transport plan some time ago and nothing had happened. In your view has there been a bit of stalling on a concrete or focused transport plan? If so, why? Is it just that it has not been a high enough priority to get a concrete transport plan together?

Mr Tapsell —I think so. I would not say that the desire to have a plan is not there, but I would suggest that the getting of the message out to the public and to local government is not there. I think that is probably why the government is putting such a focus on it now. We did the submission, the plan went out and we never heard any more about it after that. That was some years ago.

CHAIR —Was that disappointing at the time?

Mr Tapsell —Yes. These are becoming increasingly problematic, particularly for Darwin. The Territory government is spending $100 million, probably using Commonwealth funds, between Darwin and Palmerston. Our roadworks are increasing markedly. They are some of the concerns that people have. In some of the northern suburbs, I would think, it is going to be quite difficult to introduce rail services at some time in the future. Most people would say, ‘You are never going to have rail services in Darwin.’ You might in 2050, but if we have not got the plan in place it will never be done. I guess that is the main point we are trying to make.

CHAIR —As you say, you actually have got an opportunity when you look at it compared to, say, Sydney, which is pretty much done and dusted. But you are in a much earlier stage, so you have the opportunity for that planning to be put in place.

Mr Tapsell —That is right, yes. I am hopeful the Territory government will come along and say, ‘We’ve done all this—

CHAIR —Give us all the answers!

Mr Tapsell —and we are sorry local government did not know.’

Senator STERLE —With the new suburbs that are popping up around Darwin, does the Territory government sit down with local government to start planning public transport routes?

—Lots of times we have to chase both the Commonwealth and Territory governments for details of their plans. Trying to keep up with all the things that they are doing and having input into them is, I guess, a challenge for us.

Senator STERLE —Sorry, I probably did not word it how I meant to. When there are new suburbs being created—

—Up here, unlike in other states and territories, we are not involved in building regulation or planning.

Senator STERLE —Aren’t you?

Mr Tapsell —No. We are probably the only state or territory where local government does not play a major role in those functions. Having said that, though, we do have representation on some planning authorities. The Darwin City Council, for example, does have representatives on some planning authorities, but we do not play a direct role in planning.

Senator STERLE —All right, let us ask the hard question. Does the Territory government do a good job when planning new suburbs of taking into account public transport needs?

Mr Tapsell —That is a hard question.

Mr McLinden —They could do it better.

Mr Tapsell —They might argue that it is not necessary in a lot of centres because we do not have the populations, so the need for that kind of planning is not as great.

CHAIR —Gentlemen, thank you very much for appearing today.

[9.26 am]