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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1514


Mr SNOWDON (-Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Communications)(11.20 a.m.) --I am very pleased to be able to speak in the debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the debate has canvassed a whole range of issues. Honourable members have come at it from very different directions. I cannot say that I agree with many of the propositions which have come from Opposition members, but I acknowledge the sincere interest that they have in the subjects they have addressed. I note that speakers have canvassed the gamut of responsibilities that come within the transport and communications portfolio.

One particular area of interest which was raised during the debate is road transport reform. It is that issue which I want to cover, at least briefly, in the context of the way in which the road transport reform agenda is being addressed by the various governments around Australia and, more particularly, how it is being addressed in the Northern Territory and how it is perceived in the Northern Territory to be addressed.

Honourable members will recall that this thrust for road transport reform came as a result of this Government's setting in place the Inter-State Commission to provide a report to it. That report was tabled in May 1990. It addressed the issue of road user charging as well as a range of other issues around the administration of reforms in terms of regulations, vehicle licensing, et cetera.

It is the issue of road user charges which has been at the heart of much of the opposition that has been expressed by some elements within the transport industry and certainly by the Northern Territory Government. I wish to briefly retail to the Committee the concern I have about the position which has been adopted by the Northern Territory Government in relation to this particular issue. The Northern Territory Government has been present at and participated actively in the Premiers Conferences which have endorsed the recommendations that there be support in principle for the issue of full cost recovery for roads. On two occasions the Northern Territory Chief Minister has been present at the Premiers Conference at which this issue was discussed, firstly, in October last year, when he endorsed it, and again in July this year. After the July meeting the National Road Transport Commission was set up. I will demonstrate in a moment the difficulty which this is causing people in remote areas in coming to understand what the implications of these proposed changes will be for them, their industries and their communities.

I have to commend the Minister for Land Transport (Mr Robert Brown) for his effort in attempting to ensure that all people who may be interested and have a concern about the changes that are being proposed as a result of this reform package are aware of its impacts on them. He has gone to great lengths, in conjunction with the industry and his Department, to ensure that research has been put in place so that we can gather information about the impact of proposed increases in charges.

The concern I have is that in the Northern Territory, despite the fact that the Northern Territory Chief Minister had in October 1990 endorsed the concept of full cost recovery, on 7 November 1990 the Northern Territory News carried an article, unsourced, indicating that the Northern Territory Minister for Transport and Works, Mr Finch, saw no harm to the Northern Territory from the fact that the Northern Territory Chief Minister had committed the Northern Territory to the adoption of a heavy vehicle charging scheme at the 30 October 1990 Special Premiers Conference. Mr Finch is quoted in this article as saying that the Northern Territory accepts the position of recovering the costs of damage done to roads. That is what is known as marginal cost recovery, not full cost recovery.

All at once Mr Finch was at a divergence with the position which was endorsed by the Northern Territory Chief Minister at the Premiers Conference last October. There is a very fundamental and obviously serious difference between the Special Premiers Conference agreement and what Mr Finch was reported as having said in the Northern Territory News. That is a matter of concern because it demonstrates that in this instance the Northern Territory Chief Minister went to the Premiers Conference and put a point of view which supported the view which was being expressed by the Prime Minister, the Premiers and the Chief Minister of the ACT, but which was not supported by his own Transport Minister.

Subsequently, there has been a great deal of debate on the figures which were put out by the Inter-State Commission in its report about the impact of road user charges. The interesting thing about that report is that as early as February this year it was made very clear that the proposals which had been posited by the Inter-State Commission were all but dead in the water and that the cost which it had been estimated would accrue to industry as a result of the Inter-State Commission charges would not arise.

In March this year, as a result of a desire by Minister Brown, the senior Minister, the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Beazley), the Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support (Senator Collins) and myself to ensure that people in remote areas were involved and understood the proposals which were being put--firstly, by the Inter-State Commission and then, lately, as amended, by the various meetings of the Australian Transport Advisory Council and the Premiers Conference in October the States had a meeting in Alice Springs. At that conference the Northern Territory Government, in a gross use of misinformation, said to the people who were present that every Northern Territory family would stand to lose in the vicinity of $1,750 per year.

Not only did Mr Finch then know, as he now knows, that those figures were based on the Inter-State Commission's initial recommendations--which were not the recommendations that were being accepted by the Government at that time--but also, in July 1990, the Northern Territory Minister had indicated that Northern Territory consumers would stand to lose $100m a year as a result of the report by the Inter-State Commission.

First, despite having a different view about what was meant by the October Premiers Conference decisions, he endorsed the position adopted by the Northern Territory Chief Minister. Then he went on further, in a meeting in Alice Springs, to indicate to the people of remote Australia generally, but particularly people of the Northern Territory, that the changes recommended by the Inter-State Commission and then amended by the Government as a result of discussions at the Premiers Conference and with meetings of Ministers would have an impact upon them of $1,750 per family. He knew that was wrong. Not only did he know it was wrong, but it was demonstrated to him by researchers from the Bureau of Transport and Communications Economics that his advisers had miscalculated his figures by a factor of 10.

There was no attempt by the Northern Territory Chief Minister or his Transport Minister to apologise to the Northern Territory community for this misinformation. What we have seen since that time is the same misinformation and lies perpetrated by continuing the myth that the initial ISC recommendations were the recommendations currently being considered by the Premiers Conference and subsequently by the transport Ministers which were going to be the basis for the recommendations that were going to be received by the National Road Transport Commission and the ministerial council of that Commission about road user charges early next year.

He knows that is wrong. Yet, as recently as last week, the Northern Territory Minister said, erroneously yet again, that the impact on the Northern Territory community would be around $24m per year. Again we have the absurd position of a Minister basing these estimates on the original ISC recommendations of May 1990, which he knows--and I emphasise this--not to be the currency of existing deliberations.

One has to ask: what is the purpose of this misinformation campaign? One can come to only one conclusion: that it is about trying to maximise a community concern that this proposal, which he asserts emanated from and was controlled by the Commonwealth Minister for Land Transport, Mr Robert Brown, will have a detrimental impact on the Northern Territory and that it is a political imperative that it be opposed by the Northern Territory Government.

One has to ask why the Northern Territory Government has said that it will not at present be part of the National Road Transport Commission formed in July this year. One has to ask this question because, remember, the National Road Transport Commission was again endorsed by the Premiers Conference. Here is a Minister who, at the outset, disagreed with the propositions agreed to by his own Chief Minister in October last year and who now, even though the Premiers Conference has endorsed the National Road Transport Commission, has said that the Northern Territory will not be part of the proposal at this stage because of the negative impact it will have on the Northern Territory economy. He does not know what the impact will be, because he has not done the research. If he has done the research, he has not exposed his research to the analysis that is required to demonstrate that he is wrong.

What is of further concern is that a person who is masquerading as acting responsibly on behalf of the Northern Territory community is coming to the National Road Transport Commission and saying that he will act as an observer but will not participate in decisions about the level of charges which will be introduced by the Commission probably in March of next year.

Here is a person who says he is representing the best interests of the Northern Territory community saying that he will not be part of the decision making process which will set the level of charges to apply in the road transport industry around Australia. What sort of responsibilities does this man have? Is that a responsible attitude in terms of the interests of the Northern Territory community? Is it a responsible attitude in terms of the interests of the road transport industry? Is it a responsible attitude in terms of the interests of the beef industry, the mining industry, the horticulture industry or the fishing industry--all industries in the Northern Territory which rely on road transport and are receiving on a daily basis doses of deliberate misinformation from the Northern Territory Government, from the Minister supposedly responsible, about the impact of road user charges, charges which have not been set and will not be set until the ministerial council meets on advice from the Commission next year?

Here we have a person who asserts he is the responsible Minister continuing to say to the Northern Territory community that he is going to fix things up for the Northern Territory. How can he fix things up if in the first instance he has pulled himself out of the game? How could he make a valid contribution to asserting the Northern Territory's interests in front of the National Road Transport Commission, in terms of the ministerial council, if the Northern Territory is not part of the Commission and if, as a result of its not being part of the Commission, he cannot have a voice, have a vote and be one of eight in that ministerial council?

We have had an argument put to us recently that the Northern Territory Government would be disadvantaged by being in this ministerial council because the big States, New South Wales and Victoria, would dominate. I do not know what class this bloke went to; I do not know where he learned his politics. I do know he is an engineer and I know he probably learned some mathematics; but it does not take a lot to work out that if someone is one of eight, if his Territory's population is 160,000 and the population of New South Wales is five million, he has a very large say in the way things are to move. I say to him that, if he thinks he will be outvoted by New South Wales and Victoria, he should talk to his friends from Queensland and Western Australia, who have a common interest in looking after the interests of people who live in remote areas.

The sort of poppycock we are getting from the Northern Territory Government, that it is serving the best interests of the Northern Territory community by not being part of this Commission, is exactly that--poppycock. Under no analysis can it be asserted that he is acting responsibly or that the Northern Territory Government is taking a responsible attitude by pulling out of this Commission and by not being part of this decision making process.

It ought to be understood that what is being proposed at this stage in terms of road user charges is two zones: zone A, which will be New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and zone B, which will be Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. There will now be a third zone, the Northern Territory, because by implication it will not be part of the decision making for zones A and B. That means that every time one of the road trains that are registered in the Northern Territory drives into South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia or Victoria, it will have to pay additional money. No-one can tell me that is either administratively appropriate or economically efficient in terms of the administration of the road transport industry either in the Northern Territory or in Australia generally. It will have a detrimental impact upon that industry.

It may well be that there is a marginal increase in cost to the Northern Territory consumers in some industries, but the point is that, if one does not know the level of charges or if one has not done the research to establish what the range of charges would be, or what the implications would be for the community and industries, one should not make irresponsible statements like, `It will cost us $24m this year', or, as he was saying last year, $100m.

As a measure of the concern of the Government and of the concern of the Minister for Land Transport and myself, and, of course, in the first instance the previous Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Kerin, and the current Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean), the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, together with the Bureau of Transport and Communications Economics, will be undertaking research into the possible impacts of a range of charges on industries, particularly the wheat and beef industries, and on communities in remote Australia. I would have thought that the responsible attitude for the Northern Territory Government to take would be to make a submission to the BTCE and ABARE on what it believes the implications will be for its industries and the community of the Northern Territory, instead of peddling this misinformation and creating the scaremongering which is going on about the implications of these charges for the Northern Territory population. It is irresponsible.

I invite, as I have done before, the Northern Territory Government to cooperatively meet with the BTCE and ABARE to discuss its concerns and to show them the research on which it bases these allegations of an impost of $24m. It is yet to happen, but it is something we are looking forward to. I am sorry if I have taken time, but it is very important that we lay these matters in front of the community. It is of concern to me that, whilst the six State Premiers and the Chief Minister of the ACT are all acting responsibly, safeguarding their communities' interests by being part of this process, the Northern Territory Government is doing nothing to assist this process and doing absolutely the wrong thing in terms of representing the best interests of the Northern Territory community.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Department of Employment, Education and Training

Proposed expenditure, $3,720,166,000.