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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
10/04/2018
Operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities

LOWRY, Mr Russell, Economic Development and Tourism Manager, Longreach Regional Council

MARTIN, Councillor Tony, Longreach Regional Council

WARREN, Councillor Ed, Mayor, Longreach Regional Council

Committee met at 09:59

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator O'Sullivan ): Welcome. Thank you for attending. I notice there is media in the room. The protocol is that we check with witnesses to see that they are not concerned about having their photos taken. Certainly my colleagues have indicated that they are not concerned. I remind the media of just a couple of rules. You can't get between the witness table and the inquiry bench and you can't take photographs of artefacts or documents of any of witnesses or senators to the point where the contents can be identified.

I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee. I extend apologies from our very diligent chair, Senator Sterle, who has a commitment in Western Australia that he just couldn't move. He's a big advocate of this inquiry and a big supporter of the bush. So we extend his apology.

The committee is hearing evidence for its inquiry into the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities in Australia. On behalf of my colleagues on the committee, I welcome you all here today. This is a public hearing, and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made. Finally, on behalf of the committee, I'd like to thank all those who have made submissions and sent representatives here today. We know that people have travelled some distance to be here, and the committee is greatly appreciative of your participation in the inquiry. I welcome representatives of Longreach Regional Council. Mayor Warren, it's always a pleasure to work with you on matters in the west.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that, in giving evidence, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to the committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, but under the Senate's resolutions witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken. The committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time.

To the witnesses before us, I invite any or all of you to make a brief opening statement before the committee asks questions. Does anyone want to make an opening statement?

Mr Lowry : Good morning, Senators. We're very appreciative of having you in Longreach today, undertaking this review. Federal government support for better and increased air access to remote communities changes lives. With your support, we will access the city more to see specialists, visit government agencies, do business, and have them visit us in return. As demonstrated by your support today, this support will extend to more visits by friends, family and business colleagues, all catalysing our local businesses, especially our local tourism industry. To demonstrate what this means to us, the 1,270-kilometre journey that you've made today between Brisbane and Longreach—even further for some of you—can be made in two hours via plane. If you'd driven on the road, it's between 15 and 16 hours straight through. It's 26 hours via train. However, the challenge lies within the pricing of the flights to achieve viabilities for families, larger groups and businesses wanting and needing to travel regularly.

To support the viability of a more cost-effective flight structure, council has been working on a long-term strategic plan to bring people to the central-western Queensland region. Longreach Regional Council is currently developing a cooperative tourism strategy with a neighbouring council to increase the number of travellers into the region. However, one of the major restrictions to the successful implementation of this strategy is the current pricing of air services.

So Longreach Regional Council is requesting the community's support in imploring the federal government to lobby and work closely with the Queensland state government to provide value-for-money air services into remote regional and rural Queensland. One of the recommendations from the Longreach Regional Council is that we are looking for support, from this committee, to develop a specific regional, rural and remote aviation strategy in Queensland and other states, in line with the state and regional transport plans, to increase value-for-money air travel.

Federal government in partnership with state government in Queensland has invested heavily in aviation infrastructure projects, including runway and terminal upgrades. For this, we do thank both levels of government. However, some of these airports are only being used by regular passenger transport commercial flight services, for a couple of hours, maybe two to four times a week, and sitting idle for the majority of the time. Increasing utilisation of these regional airports, through more services, larger aircraft, charters and general aviation users, supports local opportunities for associated business, including car hire, accommodation and hospitality and other tourism related businesses, in particular.

Developing integrated transportation hubs also increases utilisation of these airport precincts and supports regional transport plan initiatives for general aviation and freight services. The federal government has released a national freight and supply chain strategy and, if the outcomes of this strategy can be achieved, there is the option of reducing or removing per-passenger tax, thereby reducing ticket prices per passenger.

The Longreach Regional Council is requesting the Senate inquiry assist regions to increase jobs—thereby boosting economic and social benefits and sustainability—by partnering with the state government to develop multilevel responses to the regional transport plans, thereby increasing the return on their investment into airport infrastructure.

The second important recommendation of the Longreach Regional Council, where it would like support from the committee, is to develop a model pricing matrix for subsidised contracts that ensures the carrier is proactive in maximising utilisation on the route. All stakeholders in a contract need to benefit from an interaction; however, changing times require flexibility in responses. Where there is little or no competition on a route there need to be different factors to encourage utilisation of a service, rather than standard pricing matrices. Value-for-money pricing increases utilisation, reduces subsidisation and maintains relative returns for the carriers.

In Central Queensland, tourism is a factor that has changed the need associated with air travel to and from the regions. This factor needs to be incorporated, in the review, where it hasn't been a previous consideration. Supporting local tourism businesses to encourage patrons into the air, rather than road, decreases the annual cost of road maintenance, saves time and increases the overall experience for the traveller. Pricing a guaranteed service where the timing allocation and scheduling is fixed shouldn't need to be subject to 13 different pricing points, which is under current services.

Longreach Regional Council is requesting that an outcome of this inquiry be at the federal government lobby and work with relevant state government transport department contract owners to ensure ticket pricing is value for money and focuses on maximising utilisation over profit—and that promoting social and community benefit by being a good corporate citizen is a KPI of the successful tenderer. One tool that can be used in this is the ARIA pricing index that the federal government already uses. That supports those rural and remote regions that are deemed to be at most disadvantage, in relation to other regions. Thank you again to the committee for visiting the regions to meet local residents and business owners and operators and to hear their concerns for the vital services that air transport provides.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Lowry. Councillor Martin or Mayor Warren, do you want to add anything?

Councillor Martin : I'm heavily involved in the tourism industry, and, as a council representative, I chair some of our tourism committees and work closely with our tourism committees. I'm sure that senators are aware that it's one of the fastest-growing industries not only in our region but in the country.

Currently one of the inhibitors for us within that industry is that connectivity. What we're talking about is that price point, and freeing up other charters and other operators to get into the region. You're probably aware of some of the price points. It's not an attractive package, for people who want to visit our region, to pay upwards of sometimes $1,200 for a short return visit to Longreach to experience our region. You're probably going to choose an international flight, for less money, heading off to Bali or Fiji or places like that. It's currently a real inhibitor for our tourism industry; as I said, it's one of the fastest-growing.

I needn't mention the drought—well, there you go; I did! Unfortunately we're coming into our seventh year of drought. Our rural and primary industries are suffering, as you know. But we've got to keep supporting an industry that is continuing to provide employment and economic sustainability for small communities like Longreach, Isisford, Yaraka and Ilfracombe.

When we talk about connectivity for our region, we're not Longreach-centric either. We work very closely with all our neighbours—we're packaging with Winton, we're packaging with Barcaldine. We promote a whole regional experience. If we've got the ability to provide more services and better connectivity, those areas are only going to prosper.

We've been invited to speak at the International Mayor's Forum on Tourism in China next month. All indicators from the Chinese market are that the next big catch for that market is the outback. They've looked at the coastal areas, the cities and the food and wine tourism. The next big signature experience—and this goes through the work we're doing with Tourism Australia—is the outback experience. If we can't meet price points and supply connectivity, our regions are going to be hindered and hampered by those effects. Thank you.

Councillor Warren : In support of Mr Lowry and Councillor Martin, on the importance of air travel to Longreach, Longreach has a regional airport that was set up years ago with an investment of the Commonwealth and local government for the sole reason of growing the local tourism industry and supporting the communities. However, they're covered by regulated air routes, and these regulated contracts are not working on a number of fronts. As Mr Lowry has said, the pricing matrix for the airfares is very complex, even though there is an attempt to have residents fares and make it palatable to the communities.

Sometimes those flights, particularly on the Longreach-Brisbane-Barcaldine-Blackall run, are timely. One of the issues that we've probably got to face is if they were better scheduled and timely to meet with other connecting flights so that they could go to other parts of Australia, or even overseas. The way they are now means people, at most times, have to have an overnight stay. If someone were visiting our region for a conference, like yourselves here today, it would be ideal if they could come up in the morning and go back in the afternoon. It would be perfect. It used to happen years ago with other schedules and it worked. We have another run from Townsville to Winton and Longridge. They come here on Tuesdays and Thursdays—the two most unattractive days you could imagine. I happened to be on the plane the other day and, when I checked in at Townsville, the check-in person said, 'There are never many people on this flight anyway.' Well, that speaks for itself. Years ago we made the suggestion to vary the flights, add a bit of innovation and go Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which opens it up. That's on just that leg, and it would make a lot of sense if they wanted to get more people coming in and going out of our communities.

That goes to a bit of the complexity in the existing contracts. They don't appear to be flexible. They're for five years and, at this point in time, there hasn't been very much adjustment made. I think our current five-year period ends next year. In our early discussions with the present government, last year, we urged them to listen to what the communities are saying and make adjustments so that the flights will be much more efficient.

As Mr Lowry and Councillor Martin said, we're servicing our communities, but, if we're going to grow our tourism industries out here, we must look at the flights, the costing and the scheduling, into our region. With major attractions in Longridge and Winton, that's where most of the people are going to go. We have come up with a few solutions, but we need to work out where larger planes could add a more direct route, like Longridge to Brisbane. We also need to add innovation and look at other opportunities as time goes on, linking the major tourist centres like Cairns, Longridge, Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne or, for that matter, Toowoomba. Recently we had discussions with Rockhampton. There are opportunities.

The use of planes is an issue. The bigger the plane, I suppose, the more flexibility there is to keep flights to an acceptable level. The other issue is that, to wholesale our tourism industry out here, prices need to be set at least 12 months in advance. In summary, we've got to have affordable, timely, flexible, competitive air travel. Those are the most significant economic devices that will make a difference to our region. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mayor Warren.

Senator CHISHOLM: Thanks for that, and thanks for the opportunity to ask questions. You made a really strong case around the economic impact of this. Your submission does this, but could you talk me through some of the social impacts: the ability for people to get to Brisbane to visit family or attend educational opportunities and those sorts of things? It's important for the committee to hear those as well.

Mr Lowry : There are the social impacts of not being able to take family to visit grandparents who may be based in the capital cities. One instance that I can give as an example is a family who drove for four hours to Emerald, which is to the east of us, to save nearly $800 per person, return, to visit Brisbane. So nearly $3,000 or $2½ thousand was saved in that one example alone.

The ability to send promising junior sportspeople away to representative level, state level, events is hampered by having to fundraise $800 or $1,200 to just put them on the flight, when somebody on the east coast can pick up that flight for somewhere between $100 and $200, maximum, to and from Brisbane. The social impact is that the youth aren't being given the opportunity, even though they've shown potential within their sport or their academic arena, to participate and to meet their potential. That's one of the major impacts that we have, not being able to get the children away.

One of the other impacts, especially socially, is not being able to get to a medical appointment without having to stay two nights away. There is assistance through some of the patient transport schemes; however, those who are experiencing health issues and mental health issues like to be in their own space. Forcing people to stay away for up to two nights because of scheduling does impact on their ability to interact with people. It's not just the pricing point; the scheduling does impact us and our residents' ability to see health specialists. Around business as well, we need two nights away just to attend a one- or two-hour meeting. So the actual economic impact does hit the social impact. We're away from work. It all suffers as we work through these processes.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the regulated air routes, I understand the case made by the Longreach council—that it might not necessarily work for the Longreach community—but, because of the way it works with the link between Blackall, Barcaldine and Winton, do you think that any changes around the regulated air routes could be managed so it wouldn't have a detrimental impact on other communities that aren't as populated as Longreach?

Mr Lowry : Yes, definitely. The ability to be flexible within the response to the contracts can only allow better connectivity with those smaller communities where we look at not just access directly into Brisbane and not just with the one carrier. By working with smaller carriers, more responsive carriers, the ability for those smaller communities to increase services, either east-west or north-south, does improve by being a little bit more open and flexible with the ability to deliver a contract, yes.

Senator CHISHOLM: I know we've got Queensland Airports Limited on next, who are the owners and operators of the Longreach Airport, but I was just wondering if you could give us an understanding of the relationship between the council and the airport owners, and how functional that is.

Councillor Warren : It's good. Our relationship with Queensland Airports Limited is excellent, and it's in our interest with them being the lessee of the airport and for the betterment of increasing passengers. We work pretty well together. Time to time, when issues arise or opportunities come up, we've got that relationship that's going fairly well.

Senator CHISHOLM: Councillor Martin, in terms of the tourism aspects, I understand that, basically, the three modes to get here are rail, air or road. Do you have an understanding of what percentage of visitors come from each route? And, if the airfares were more attractive to people, is there an understanding of how much more interest there would be, in terms of people visiting?

Councillor Martin : Sure. I think there were three questions there. Yes, there are air, rail and road. There is upwards of 85 per cent or 90 per cent of visitors who come by road. We must never lose focus of that either, because those people who drive tens of thousands of kilometres around this country every year to visit all our little communities, right throughout the outback—I mean the Outback Queensland Tourism Association's reach is something like 850,000 square kilometres. That's their marketing platform, although I think it's a bit bigger than that now. It's really important that we never lose focus of the road. Rail would probably be around 15 per cent. There is a very small percentage currently for air. It's usually the more affluent traveller who can afford to do that at the moment, and those who are willing to come in, hire a car and be that independent traveller.

The need to increase that air travel is there. The legwork has been done. As I mentioned before, there are some great packages in the market at the moment, and about to go to China. One of our operators in our community has spent 18 months pulling together a package that is fly-in one-day one-night fly-out. They're looking at that Brisbane-Longreach-Cairns-Brisbane triangle. So we're starting to kick the ball around in a small field at the moment, but if we haven't got the attraction of competitive prices and allow other operators through, then we're never going to be playing on the big field with the big boys unless we address some of those points right now.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you for the submission. It's actually a very good and detailed submission, and I will work through some of the issues in it. I will start, first of all, with regulated routes. My understanding from your submission, and from other submissions, is that the Brisbane to Longreach route is a regulated route—would that be correct?

Unidentified speaker: Yes, Senator.

Senator PATRICK: Okay, so reading from the Australian Airports Association submission to this inquiry, they say:

State governments regulate a number of routes within regional Australia. They grant specific airlines the rights to operate a route for a defined period, with more certainty and less fear of competition.

From your submission, I take it that they're 3½ years into a five-year agreement. Did your council have any involvement in the agreement with the state government in terms of the set up? It says:

The state will call for interested parties to bid on a fare and subsidy basis to provide capacity on a certain route … in exchange for a monopoly on the route.

My question goes to how much involvement did your council or your organisation, Mr Lowry, have in the input of the negotiation that took place when this particular regulatory route was set up?

Councillor Warren : No, this council did not because it was all in the previous council. This council was elected in March 2016, and the contracts were up in 2015.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Warren, is there any corporate memory here? Were you a councillor back then?

Councillor Warren : No, I'm a newly-elected councillor.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Lowry?

Mr Lowry : No, I wasn't.

ACTING CHAIR: Okay.

Senator PATRICK: I think it would be useful to understand whether or not you had some involvement as a council, not necessarily as individual councillors; what, if any, involvement there was; and how you see that having panned out?

ACTING CHAIR: So to that end, you understand the term of taking a question on notice? It's a term used in inquiries, so could you take that question on notice. I suspect the burden of the question is that if you have anything—correspondence, artefacts, data, empirical evidence, things that you relied upon, submissions you made, exchanges between yourselves and the state government or them with you—could you package that up and provide it to our secretariat, and it will be taken into account as evidence.

Councillor Warren : When they negotiate the renewal of these contracts, they do community consultations and they ask for not only the local council but anyone in the community or operators to put submissions in, so I would imagine that there was. We'll cover that in that request.

ACTING CHAIR: But that wouldn't be a process conducted by local government; that would've been a state government process.

Councillor Warren : The state department of transport conducts that process.

ACTING CHAIR: What we're interested in, Mayor Warren, is your file—the file that you have at council that precedes your representations.

Mr Lowry : I'll take that on notice. We'll do that information gathering and pass it back through to the inquiry.

ACTING CHAIR: We don't need to anticipate any commercial-in-confidence defence from the council on this material?

Councillor Warren : None at all.

ACTING CHAIR: Because that's a discussion I'd like to have now and not by remote.

Senator PATRICK: Flowing from that, it sounds to me like you had some involvement in terms of input into the negotiation or at least the tendering arrangements. Between when the tender—and you may have to take this on notice—was received and when the propositions were put up by presumably Rex and Qantas and any other interested parties, was there any involvement after the tender responses were received, in terms of discussion with council about what might have been the better options?

Councillor Warren : Can I answer that? No, not while I've been here, and in the past, no—it was all done through the transport department, and there was no connection or conversation with council or anyone else in the community. It was all done within the department.

Senator PATRICK: But can't you see a problem exists in that you are actually the end user—the residents of Longreach are the end user—and the state government appears to be negotiating absent the requirements of the residents of your town?

Councillor Warren : That's a good point you make, and that's been going on ever since these contracts came into being. We're not consulted when the tenders are being reviewed.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Patrick's relatively new; he's only been here the last few years. He's still trying to work out how governments function.

Councillor Warren : The bureaucratic system in Queensland is not much different to anywhere else: they tick the boxes by doing community consultation, but when it comes out for the tender process and being open and transparent about it—no.

Senator PATRICK: So, there is an agreement in place between Qantas and the state government that covers your route. Can I ask the question—this is the sort of thing I might do on the weekend for fun: have you put in a right-to-information request to the state government to have access to that agreement?

Councillor Warren : No.

Mr Lowry : Not directly.

Senator PATRICK: If you put in a request, I imagine you won't get all of the data back, but it might give you some idea of some elements of that agreement. I'm just thinking about that, moving forward, because you clearly have an agreement that will be negotiated in 2019 for the next sector. Noting that you have that agreement in place—and this is why I asked the question about your understanding of any limitations created by that agreement—you said you guys are negotiating things like package deals and so forth. I wonder whether or not you're trying to negotiate those in a regime where there's a binding contract that exists between the state government and the airline which almost removes any obligation or desire by the airline to do anything outside of that agreement.

Mr Lowry : There is a condition within the contract—the ability to renegotiate some parts of the terms and conditions. Since I've been here, 12 months ago—

ACTING CHAIR: By whom?

Mr Lowry : Sorry?

ACTING CHAIR: Who has the power to do that? You wouldn't.

Mr Lowry : The two contract—

ACTING CHAIR: So the Department of Transport and Main Roads and the carrier?

Mr Lowry : Yes. Through my role on council, I've started the engagement process between the Department of Transport and Main Roads, the air carriers, some of our regional tourism organisations and the tourism department in the state government here in Queensland to actually look at what conditions we can look to negotiate and influence. If we can't influence them in this contract up until 31 December 2019, it's: how can we change the conditions within the contract for 1 January 2020, moving forward, to ensure that we do have the ability to renegotiate when new conditions come on board?

ACTING CHAIR: How can you do that when your evidence is that you are yet to sight the contract itself? How can you even start the process and architecturally design your submission, if you like, to the airline or the department of transport without having seen the contract and its terms and conditions?

Senator PATRICK: You negotiate with hands tied behind your back.

Mr Lowry : Yes. I've had a look at the act under which the contract has been written, and I've looked at some of the conditions, but, yes, I haven't looked at the contract itself.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you asked state government for a copy of the contract, Mr Lowry?

Mr Lowry : Verbally I have, but I haven't actually done it in writing.

ACTING CHAIR: And their response?

Mr Lowry : Not at this time.

Senator PATRICK: Under your Right to Information laws, if you put that in writing and state that you're doing so for the purpose of that act, they are obliged to respond to you rather than responding to you in kind. That is just a hint, moving forward, that you might exercise the laws of Queensland to get access to that information.

Mr Lowry : Thank you, Senator.

Senator PATRICK: The chair's giving me the hurry-up. Thank you for that; the way that that contract arrangement's set up is very interesting. It's clear in other jurisdictions that they have similar arrangements, but that's the first conversation I've had, thus far, with people directly restrained by a contract. In your recommendations you talk about 'a specific regional, rural and remote Queensland aviation strategy'. I presume that only falls within Queensland for these regulated routes. Is that what you're suggesting?

Mr Lowry : Yes—not directly for the regulated routes, so an overall regional transport plan or air strategy for the whole of Queensland, where it deals with both unregulated and regulated, so that we can achieve the best outcome for all areas of regional, remote and rural Queensland and, in the light of that, Australia as well.

Senator PATRICK: The submissions from Qantas and, indeed, Virgin and Rex basically indicated that the more people that travel, the lower the airfares. So, in some sense, you're constrained in your ability to do very much because you only have so many travellers. That means in some sense an obligation on people other than the airlines to try to increase the population, to increase the number of visitors or to increase the workforce from mining or whatever. You didn't mention migration policy in your submission. I wonder whether the council has a view about migration policies that are skewed to bring in skilled migrants to regional areas. Is that something that has been considered or advocated by council at all—or even just generally in the region?

Councillor Martin : It's not a policy, I think, that's been generated through council currently, but I know through industry that we're very mindful of attracting migrant workers. If I can put on another hat, I'm also the CEO of the Qantas Founders Museum. We have just approved a 457 visa applicant for a chef. We have been trying to attract a skilled chef near on 18 months. There is that appetite within the region as far afield east as Emerald. I have talked to operators down there who are looking at the same skill shortages; indeed, that is something we have been focusing on as a community, if you like. To date, to my knowledge, council hasn't adopted that policy.

Senator PATRICK: I appreciate that it is a federal policy but it is input to policy. The other question I have—noting that I have just left a parliamentary session where tax reform was high on the agenda—is whether or not council has ever advocated or your community has ever advocated for a differential tax rate between regional and metropolitan areas to encourage growth in these regions.

Councillor Warren : Can I answer that: yes. I first became a councillor in 1997. For many years, we have advocated through our state body, through local government, through our federal members—and nothing at all. We are on the same tax scale as what they are in Cairns. However, those west of us at Mount Isa are in a tax zone that is attractive for remote areas. So, no; it's not. It's something that is practical, but obviously we don't have enough votes out here to get it over. We've only got one vote over 60-70 per cent of Queensland. So it's very difficult.

ACTING CHAIR: I want to go back to Mr Lowry. We would like you to formally write to the state government and ask them for sufficient material, including the agreement. I'm just not sure what the reaction would be with the contestability, whether they would allow you to have copies of the tenders. I'm sure that the tenderers might have a view about that, understandably. I know that they are listening, because we broadcast. My message to the state government is: at some stage we will see these contracts, whether it's through your efforts or this committee reluctantly using the powers it has to access those documents. We certainly don't want to go there. That is a little shout-out to the government as they consider your request. If you are successful, we would ask you to take the question on notice to supply the committee with a copy of that. Additionally, is anyone at the table aware that there is a review underway at the moment in relation to the terms and conditions of this regulated route? Are you aware that that is happening?

Councillor Warren : I am aware of that.

ACTING CHAIR: Again, similar to Senator Patrick's questions: have you been invited to be involved in that process?

Councillor Warren : We have had conversations with the department and officials. We commenced that last October. We have asked for a review of particularly the Longreach-Brisbane areas.

ACTING CHAIR: Are you aware that in the last couple of years the state government commissioned an independent oversight of these regulated routes by one of the major accounting firms? Are you aware of that?

Councillor Warren : No.

ACTING CHAIR: I'll try and provide you with some details offline, Mr Lowry. I only learned about it through a state member of parliament yesterday, who has been making some efforts to get a copy of that report, unsuccessfully. We'll try and get that report also. I've got other questions, but they will just be seeking your personal opinions about what increase you think there could be in demand. We've got this chicken and egg situation with the pricing. If they put on a special for the next 12 months at $10 a seat, these aircraft would be full every day and there would be more services applied. But it is chicken and egg. They want more patrons. 'If you give me more patrons,' they say, 'pricing will go down.' But how do you get more patrons with the current pricing system?

What impact do you think there would be, in the event that there was a considerable increase in the number of patrons?

Councillor Warren : I think in the next five years we'll have a little bit of a snapshot of that. With the major attractions in Longreach, together with Winton, it is estimated, alone, there is investment from the Commonwealth of $26 million in the Qantas Founders Museum and the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame. Additionally, next week, we'll see the reopening of the Waltzing Matilda Centre. On top of that, we have the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. They will open stage 4 in about 2020 or 2021. In all, they could generate another 50,000 new visitors.

The question is: how are we going to get these people to this region? That's what we're developing now, together with our fellow council member of the Winton Shire Council. We're developing that economic strategy to put that into plan so when asked these questions we'll know what we estimate the numbers will be in the next five years. We'll even have a look at five to 10 years.

In all, we have plenty of product out here, but we need to be able to market the product. We've got the experience. And from what we're hearing now, the outback experience is becoming quite attractive, particularly, as Councillor Martin has alluded to, from China. There're an insurmountable number of inquiries about coming to the outback and tasting that experience. There's a massive opportunity coming up but, at this moment, the way the air routes are structured, we are severely constrained. To be honest with you, a solution may be that you've got to open up Longreach to Brisbane as an unregulated route or open it up to other carriers. I'm not too sure, but we're not going to grow the business the way we are.

Councillor Martin : I might just add that we appreciate and respect that these things won't happen overnight. We don't expect a huge decrease in the cost of travel or that the white knight will come riding in and everything's going to be just peachy. For us in the industry we have to set pricing points and packages some 12 to 18 months out. I'm not here, and I don't think council's here, to throw mud at the airlines. I think they're open to these discussions around the packaging and the right pricepoints. But I think we've got to try and build an agreement with consistency—a strategy that's going to be a three, five or, potentially, 10-year strategy—totally identifying all the things that Mayor's just raised with all the new product coming online. All of that needs to be considered with our other six recommendations, which are clearly outlined.

You said it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. It most definitely is. If we drop the prices tomorrow, are they going to come? Maybe. If we start thinking about the next packages and strategies for 18 months or three, five and 10 years time, carefully crafting those, we will be having a very long sustainable and viable industry. But, most importantly, it's got to work two ways; it's got to work for our community as well.

ACTING CHAIR: Some of the other councils—we're almost out of time so we'll move onto our next witness—have indicated they've had difficulty in being able to engage with the carriers at an appropriate level. There's been some frustration. They get left with some lower-line executives who might just have a regional focus. So the committee's extended, previously, in its hearings that if you want we are happy to get you in at the highest level with the airlines. I think we would even consider facilitating a roundtable in Canberra, which our committee has the capacity to do, to bring them along with some representative councils—if you want to organise that. Councillor Warren, we've got some colleagues in the parliament who are trying to convince Australians that kangaroos are on the cusp of extinction, so when word gets out that they're going the way of the dinosaurs you'll be inundated with people coming here wanting to get a last glimpse of these rare furry friends of ours.

Councillor Martin : If they could only take a truckload home with them, that'd be great!

Councillor Warren : I can assure you and the rest of Australia that kangaroos are not extinct and they never will be, because with the building of our exclusion fencing we will be protecting the kangaroos forever and a day.

ACTING CHAIR: We'll take that message. Are there any serious clarifying questions?

Senator PATRICK: One of the members of your committee has handed me The Longreach Leader from Friday, and it says, perhaps coincidentally in timing with this committee hearing, 'Longreach, we are listening.' I presume you may have seen that.

Councillor Warren : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: Do you have any comments in relation to that particular advertisement?

ACTING CHAIR: For those who cannot see the ad: it's an ad for Qantas.

Councillor Warren : Longreach Regional Council has been in discussion with QantasLink. We have purposely not entered into any of the media attacks, because, if you want to attack someone in the media and then go and ask for forgiveness, it doesn't get you anywhere. But we are making some ground. They are listening to us, and that's the approach that we are taking.

Senator PATRICK: I understand that.

ACTING CHAIR: We'll be talking with them about the ad.

Mr Lowry : In relation to that last question: on 14 February we did have the last of our air forum reviews. We actually had 22 representatives from all levels of transport in that room. From general managers we had five Qantas representatives at national level, which apparently is the first time that that's actually occurred outside of a capital city.

ACTING CHAIR: When was that?

Mr Lowry : On 14 February 2018.

ACTING CHAIR: Was that post the announcement of our inquiry?

Mr Lowry : Yes, it was. We had five, including the scheduling manager and the revenue manager. We had, as I said, five senior managers from Qantas. We had two senior managers from Bus Queensland. Queensland Airports brought five other senior managers as well. Queensland Rail were invited but were unable to attend that day as well. What I will say is thank you very much for the invite. We will take you and the committee up on encouraging other senators and members of parliament to take on board the rural and remote challenge. We through council have started at a local level and also at the state level engaging our state departments of tourism, transport and main roads; the carriers through Qantas and Rex; and also our local members of parliament, both federal and state, to work in collaboration and partnership to ensure that especially our area of Central West Queensland and, in general, Western Queensland and regional and remote Australia are not forgotten and we can actually keep going. Through these reviews and inquiries, we will get there. Thank you very much for your time today.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance. I'm sure that Senator Chisholm and Senator Patrick join with me in demonstrating our appreciation for not just your submission but your attendance here today. Thank you and safe travel back to your port of destination.