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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

BARRETT, Mrs Helen, Treasurer, Longreach Regional Enterprise

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

[15:06]

ACTING CHAIR: Welcome.

Mr Lowry : With the committee's forbearance, I'll sit here in support of Mrs Barrett.

ACTING CHAIR: If Mrs Barrett is happy to have you there, you are welcome to stay there.

Mrs Barrett : Most certainly.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. You are last but not least of the day. Are there any adjustments, amendments or changes that you would like to make to your submission?

Mrs Barrett : No, there are not at this stage.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mrs Barrett : Yes, if it pleases the committee.

ACTING CHAIR: Of course.

Mrs Barrett : Longreach residents and businesses alike are grateful for having this opportunity to make notice of the flight issues and things that are happening. We are grateful for having the daily flights to Brisbane and twice-weekly flights to Townsville for personal, business, medical and emergency travel and also the knowledge of potential resident fares being available. However, it does not seem clear at this point as to how many or how often these residential fares are available. It seems that oftentimes they are the first tickets sold, if and when they are available. The scheduling of flights means that we, the western Queenslanders, are always out of pocket for at least two nights accommodation whether travelling for conferences, training or medical appointments, as the flights dictate. Oftentimes with the flights, you have to get there the night before for your appointment. Then you've got your night's accommodation. The conference might finish after the plane has left, so you've got another night's accommodation on top.

Recently, air travel has been below average due to sudden cancellations of flights, leaving passengers stranded and, again, out of pocket due to loss of wages. Air fares are restrictive for most travelling, with flights currently costing anywhere between $235 and $506 per adult seat. However, in February, it has been recorded that flights were between $234 and $608, and I have documentation to support this.

It's also a concern of our members in the tourism industry that they're unable to secure fare packaging for their clients to make Longreach and central west Queensland more open to tourist traffic. If the tourism operators were able to get firm commitment from airlines, that would make more money not only for the tourist operators, the communities, the region but also for the airlines. One of our members, Alan Smith from Outback Aussie Tours, has been in conversation with airlines for a few years and not getting anywhere, whereas he's been in consultation with Queensland Rail, and they are onboard. And both organisations are thriving due to the increased traffic.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator PATRICK: In your submission, you talked about the difference between a regulatory and a regulatory subsidised link—so the Rex flights are subsidised and the Qantas flights are not. Do you have any visibility or understanding of how they determined that one would be regulated and one would be regulated and subsidised?

Mrs Barrett : I, personally, don't know.

Mr Lowry : That's under the ownership of the contract and the contract owners. Back in 2014-15, when they did review those contracts, that was part of what the carriers came back to—the tender process—and put forward. So Qantas did put up and took it as a regulated route but apparently didn't take the subsidy up, whereas Rex took the full subsidy up. They can put a plane in the air with one person and still get their costs covered.

Senator PATRICK: I presume that maybe it worked, that, in responding to the tender, on one of the routes no-one was prepared to do it on a single airline basis; it had to be single airline and subsidised in the response to the tender.

Mr Lowry : That would be my belief, yes.

Senator PATRICK: Once again, I guess it comes down to understanding the policy and the way in which that's done with the state government, which, of course, we discussed in the previous section.

Mr Lowry : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: I found it amusing—not amusing, perhaps a little bit sad—that, in your submission, you chose to write the words, 'The residents are grateful for a daily service,' almost as though Qantas is the customer and you are the supplier. And you chose to underline it.

ACTING CHAIR: It's the people of the bush. It's how they are with everything.

Senator PATRICK: Just grateful for everything.

Mrs Barrett : For every little bit we can get, we're very grateful. And we're not here to bag anyone. We're just hoping to help towards a solution.

Senator PATRICK: I guess it's one of those things. As we travel around, we pick up the sentiment, and no-one in the city would think like that. No-one.

Mr Lowry : That's a Longreach thought. If we go back to the submissions you've heard today, Longreach, in the central west, is the only town that has a daily service. Blackall and Barcaldine only have three per week. When Mayor Scott from the Barcoo region and also Mayor Morton—they only have two services per week out of Brisbane and then two return. That's why Longreach and Longreach residents and those close to us—we're actually grateful that we can fly every day of the week.

Yes, we're appreciative that the contracts allow that plane in the air every day of the week. It's inconvenient when it arrives in Brisbane at 4.30 in the afternoon and the next one departs at 9.30 in the morning or 11 o'clock in the morning. We can't do meetings in Brisbane without that double-night stay, but at least we can get down there every day. So, yes, we take the positive out of it rather than throwing the mud.

ACTING CHAIR: You weren't here to look at the joy on their faces and the Prime Minister give $24 million towards the $65 million worth of ratepayers' money and borrowed money to put fibre optic in for three communities south of here, right? They were just, 'Thank you, God!'

Mr Lowry : Yes. It's only 12 months since some of these little towns out here have had a mobile service.

ACTING CHAIR: It is the culture of the bush. Our strengths are our weaknesses.

Mr Lowry : Yes, very much so.

Senator PATRICK: As I said, it stood out in your submission and I wanted to explore that and, perhaps, get it on the record, so thank you.

Senator COLBECK: I'm interested in your thoughts around the impacts of, say, increasing service into one of the other regions. We're talking about bringing more people in and increasing regularity or the number of seats. I suppose, to a certain extent, I'm trying to think a little bit how the airlines think about it so that I can interrogate what you're saying to us. Do you think there's the possibility of a negative impact on some of the smaller less-regular services from an increase in service to the major services?

Mrs Barrett : It's the case with the western people that we gratefully embrace anything we're given. Recently, in my employment, I had the question put to me whether I thought people from Longreach would travel to Barcaldine for their banking business. People of Longreach already travel to Barcaldine, Blackall, Tambo and Winton for sports and to catch flights. So it's, really, our mentality out here. We will go that extra mile. If we've got to travel a mile—

Senator COLBECK: Relationships with distance are very different here from, say, where I come from where if there's not something every 15 minutes there's a bit of a fracas. The relationships with distance, I do understand, are very different in regions like this.

Mr Lowry : In reference to that, an hour out of Longreach you're really nowhere. You haven't made it to the next town. You've made it through Ilfracombe, but an hour out of Longreach you, literally, haven't made it to the next town. For a short trip to Winton, for example, Winton's 170 kilometres away. If we have, say, a one-hour or 1½-hour meeting we'll go over there and back in a day; we won't stop overnight. It's just part of doing business.

If I understand you correctly, Senator Colbeck, if there is a change to, say, the central route, where it possibly takes out one or two of the smaller towns and most of the services come into Longreach, will that impact on those small towns? Yes, it will, to a degree. What the central west will do is work out how we renegotiate and use the junior carriers to bring improved scheduling. If it's not three days a week via someone like Qantas, can we influence one of the smaller ones—like an Airnorth, a JETGO or a Rex that would use a smaller plane but might come in four, five or six times a week—to improve that service into that smaller community? Originally, it may have impacted on some of the services, but out here we will adapt to go, 'How can we improve this?' By changing what we do.

Senator COLBECK: I note in some of the submissions they talk about the concept of hubs that provide service out from those hubs, which is obviously a mechanism that could deal with some of those issues.

Mr Lowry : Yes. What we could use is smaller commuter planes that come into an area like Longreach, as that central hub, and the larger plane heads back to that port of Cairns or Brisbane or Darwin, linking those people together to those ports.

Senator COLBECK: Is that how you deal with some of the issues that crop up in the submissions around interconnectivity?

Mrs Barrett : The Waltzing Matilda Centre's reopening is a perfect example of this. We are able to get 737s on the ground here in Longreach. The airport in Winton is not big enough, so they are landing the larger planes here in Longreach and then bussing or training people over to Winton. Out west, we're all one big community, so everything we do impacts on others, and we strive to become all-encompassing.

Senator COLBECK: What's a reasonable distance in that context between, say, two hubs in the region? How would you identify those?

ACTING CHAIR: Major hubs would be six to eight hours.

Mr Lowry : Yes, our next major hub is Emerald, which is four hours away. It was a town of 20,000 people before the change from mining construction to mining production; it's down to about 12,000 people now. That's our next major hub. The other ones are Mount Isa, seven hours away; Townsville, seven hours away; and Rockhampton, seven hours away. They're our three large major hubs.

Senator COLBECK: That's effectively sorted itself out anyway?

Mr Lowry : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: In a locational sense?

Mr Lowry : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Some of the routing seems to defy the potential community of interests for the people who live in the central west. You'll go to a point where the majority of people start to turn their eyes to Townsville and you'll go far enough south to where the majority of people turn their eyes to Toowoomba-Brisbane. But then there are the others—their dentist, their accountant, their children who are at the University of Central Queensland or at the Rockhampton Grammar School. There does seem to be—the term was used earlier—a complete black spot over these services. That was Neil's submission to us. How are people compensating for that now? Would it be fair to say the volume of road traffic from the central west to Rockhampton would be much greater than on either of the other routes?

Mr Lowry : No, the largest one is actually the central west to Townsville.

ACTING CHAIR: Is that right?

Mr Lowry : Yes. They're actually picking Townsville over Rockhampton because Townsville actually has more services than Rockhampton. The health services have a direct link from the central west to Rockhampton. As we've discussed previously here today, there's no ability to return out here unless they go through Townsville or Brisbane, but the RFDS retrieval is directly to Rockhampton because of the agreements.

If we talk Townsville versus Toowoomba, there's an actual radius between Barcaldine and Blackall. If those in Blackall won't go to Emerald, they will then go to Townsville. Tambo and south, they will then naturally gravitate towards the Toowoombas. It's rare that there's a lot of traffic that pushes through to Rockhampton. I'm ex-Rockhampton based, so that's not anecdotal. Even though the federal government and state government services originate out of Rockhampton, there's not a lot of residential push to Rockhampton or from Rockhampton to the central west.

ACTING CHAIR: That surprises me. After a lifetime of connection with central west and Central Queensland, that absolutely surprises me.

Mr Lowry : That's probably 10 or 15 years of history of me living in and around Central Queensland and coming out here for services. The residential stuff is a lot less. For leisure, they will go towards the Townsvilles and/or the Toowoomba-Brisbanes.

ACTING CHAIR: That surprises me.

Senator COLBECK: I have one last question. You talked in your submission about Outback Aussie Tours working with the rail on train packages and how that has seen an increase in revenue from rail travel. You mightn't be able to tell me now how much that growth rate is, but can you do it on notice? Can you give us a sense of the scale of growth in that, which is a bit of an indicator?

Mrs Barrett : I wish to take that on notice and get back to you with that.

Senator COLBECK: Okay. It would be interesting to know where that's going, because that is an indicator of growth in the market without some of the other numbers that we were talking about earlier.

Mr Lowry : I was talking to Queensland Rail a couple of weeks ago, and they're just collating those numbers now on what happened in the 2016-17 season, when they first introduced the two-for-one, and also the uptake in the 2017-18 season.

ACTING CHAIR: You might explain the two-for-one and any other elements of initiatives that you think have contributed to the—

Senator COLBECK: What is the journey from, say, a common port to here?

Mr Lowry : If we use Brisbane as that common port, because that's where all the bus, the rail and the air comes out of, it's a two-hour flight direct from Brisbane to Longreach; it's a 16-hour drive, because it's 1,270 kays, and that's literally if you've got two drivers or you push all the way through; it's 26 hours on the train, because it goes via Rockhampton; and it is an 18-hour bus trip as well.

ACTING CHAIR: But, of all of them, the train's the most pleasant, party-time sort of journey, isn't it, in a sense?

Mr Lowry : At least you can have some sort of sleep, yes. And it is—

ACTING CHAIR: But people are attracted to it to sit and have a wine and look out the window. They're not time poor necessarily; they're on a leisure trip. They're not coming here to do business or build a house and then go home; they're on a leisure trip.

Mr Lowry : That's right, yes. To clarify the point about the two-for-one deals, in 2016, to generate patronage on their train and to encourage people on the train, Queensland Rail offered two seats for one price—you buy the second seat free—between November 2016 and February 2017. Their patronage had dropped to below 50 per cent over the previous summers, and it did actually generate a huge increase in the utilisation of that train.

Senator COLBECK: So it's also an off-season thing as well.

Mr Lowry : It's only an off-season thing. You pay full price during our winter—April to September-October. It's only for low season.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you know what the impact was, Mr Lowry? Do you know whether it was up 10, 15 or 20 per cent?

Mr Lowry : I'm just waiting for those figures from Queensland Rail now.

ACTING CHAIR: But do you have a sense of it?

Mr Lowry : Anecdotally, it was a 20 to 25 per cent uplift in patronage.

ACTING CHAIR: Was there anything else happening?

Mr Lowry : Nothing.

ACTING CHAIR: I believe some of the tourist operators have contributed to the experience a bit. Did I hear a story that they now board the train at Ilfracombe and crack a whip or throw a sheep up the hallway or something?

Mr Lowry : They used to do that, but they haven't done it recently. Again, coming back to the experience, we're talking to Queensland Rail about it. We need to start the experience before they get here. The train or the plane or the bus should actually be part of not just the experience of arriving but also the experience of going home. If the experience of the travel back home is negative, then that's the part they remember, and we're working with those carriers to ensure that the experience of travelling home becomes a positive part of the experience of being out here.

ACTING CHAIR: Once again, Mrs Barrett, thank you for your effort with your submission and your cooperation with the committee and everything that you've had to say and contribute. It has been valuable and we'll take it on board. As is our tradition, we wish you all the best and a safe journey back to wherever your destination is, even if it's just a couple of blocks away. Thank you again, Mr Lowry. It think that's the third time I've thanked you today. We appreciate your contribution as well.

Mr Lowry : I wear multiple hats!

ACTING CHAIR: Could you convey to the mayor and, through him, the council my apologies for not having publicly thanked him earlier. We thank Hansard, as always—without you, we'd be silent—and our secretariat for their assistance. A lot of preparation goes into organising our lives to get us here and get us out of here, so we thank you. To the good people of Longreach and the district and region: thank you.

Mr Lowry : On behalf of Longreach Regional Council, thank you senators and Hansard for making the effort to come to the region to engage with the residents and the people out here. Thank you very much.

ACTING CHAIR: It's our pleasure.

Committee adjourned at 15:30