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Thursday, 28 November 1974
Page: 2965

Senator DEVITT (Tasmania) - I would just like to make a few observations on the Air Navigation Bill which is before the Senate. I appreciate the fact that the Opposition is supporting the proposals which are under consideration. But in the course of making that clear to the House the Opposition has not resisted the temptation, which I suppose is ever present on occasions like this, of trying to score a few political points. Because I do not want to take the time of the Senate to any great extent, I come immediately to the observation which my Tasmanian colleague, Senator Bessell, was making and which was based upon a newspaper report- I assume it was an editorial- which appeared in the Launceston 'Examiner'. It attempted to induce the people of Tasmania to believe that the Government of Australia at the present time wanted to close down the Wynyard and Devonport airports. I thought that everybody in Tasmania would know by now that that is just not correct. The record has in fact been set straight.

I was intrigued, as my Tasmanian colleagues were, to learn about the story that the Wynyard and Devonport airports were to be closed down. I was as alarmed as anybody else because in fact I have been involved in the development and the sustenance of airports in Tasmania for a great many years. I came to this Parliament in 1950 as a representative of the west coast of Tasmania, sponsored by the Western Tasmania Development League, as it was at that time, to try to press for an airport in western Tasmania. Sub.sequently I was Council Clerk in the municipality of Scottsdale which is situated in the northeastern part of Tasmania, when the Government of the day put forward the proposition for local ownership of airports. In those days we would not have a bar of it. Today I do not accept that the concept of local ownership is the solution to the problem of airports. I have maintained that position. I have expressed it publicly. As recently as 2 years ago when I was attending a meeting in the north-west of Tasmania- I believe it was a meeting of the North-West Municipal League; at any rate, it was a meeting of the significant elements in the communities in the north-west of Tasmania- I made that position quite clear and I expressed the opinion there, as I do now, that it is not a feasible proposition, particularly in the circumstances as we know them in north-western Tasmania, for local ownership of those airports.

But when we heard this proposition, which was floated by a certain Mr Crofts who is the Executive Vice-President of the Australian Air Pilots Federation, that there was an intention to close down these airports, we became very apprehensive. When I say 'we', I mean my Tasmanian Labor colleagues in both Houses of this Parliament. We sought the first opportunity to wait on the Minister for Transport (Mr Charles Jones) to find out whether the Government had put forward this proposition. We learned very quickly from the Minister for Transport that it was not a government proposition at all. It is intriguing when one goes into it.

Senator Poyser - It was a furphy.

Senator DEVITT - It was a furphy but it was floated by Mr Crofts. Mr Crofts is the Executive Vice-President of the Air Pilots Federation. He floated the observation although his organisation had not taken the opportunity which was available to it to present its views about what should happen in the way of the operation of airports in north-western Tasmania to a committee which the Government has set up to inquire into the whole question of airports. A number of organisations concerned with the operation of air services in north-western Tasmania had given evidence to this committee but the Air Pilots Federation did not. Yet, obviously as a consequence of some evidence which was provided to the committee and which was leaked to Mr Crofts- I repeat, leaked to Mr Crofts- by somebody who had given evidence to that committee, the newspapers immediately picked it up because it was a wonderful opportunity for them to set to against the Government in relation to its airline policy.

Mr CharlesJones has given an undertaking to the Tasmanian Labor representatives in this Parliament that in due course of time when the committee of inquiry into this proposition comes down with its report he will give us an opportunity to observe on the findings of that committee. But of course we all know- in fact, it has been very evident in this last week- that there is a contest between the Minister for Transport and the Air Pilots Federation, but I do not intend to go into the details of that. It apparently suited the purpose of Mr Crofts who purported to speak for his organisation to float the story that the Government intended to close down these airports. The Government has no such intention. The Government has not made a decision of this kind. It has not indicated in any way, shape or form an intention to close down the Wynyard and Devonport airports.

But a very interesting thing came out of all of this, and it is that apparently the airlines industry has put a proposition to the committee to which I have referred that it should close down either the Devonport airport or the Wynyard airport. I am desperately concerned with the preservation of the Devonport airport terminal, and I will continue to be so concerned. I have said in no uncertain terms to the Minister, as my colleagues would vouch, that I will oppose most vigorously the closing down of the Devonport airport. But immediately I heard that in fact it was the proposition of the industry, based assumedly on the fact that it does not wish to meet the cost of the operation of these airports, I was so intrigued that I began to think about it, and then I began to wonder -

Senator Bessell - Or carry the cost of government policy.

Senator DEVITT -Senator Bessell interjects and says: 'Or carry the cost of government policy'. That is the recovery. I will come to that in a moment. Eighty per cent- only 80 per cent; not the total cost- of the cost of running the air services is recovered. But then I began to wonder why it was that the 2 airlines were developing terminal facilities at the Wynyard airport and they were not taking similar action at the Devonport airport.

At a meeting at La Trobe about 2 years ago, when this question was being canvassed and various views were being put forward- Senator Bessell was not at that meeting- I suggested that the meeting should obtain, if it possibly could, the views of the airlines in relation to what should happen with regard to the local ownership of airports. The people at the meeting were remarkably silent. I suggested to the Press representative at the time that it might be an interesting exercise for the Press to see whether it could get the views of the airlines in relation to the retention and the further development and upgrading of the facilities at these 2 airport terminals. I did not hear any more about it. But I am intrigued now, of course, to see that the terminal facilities are being developed at the Wynyard airport and not one red cent is being spent by the airlines on the Devonport airport terminal. If ever I saw the finger pointed in the direction of the destruction, the wiping out, of a service, it is in relation to that of Devonport. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the airline industry. Mr Crofts knows all about it too. I wonder, if I may just touch on this briefly, why a person whose responsibility ought to be the development of air services in the interests of the members of the Air Pilots Federation would be floating the proposition, would be putting into the minds of the community a suggestion that there should be the closing down of an airport and so a reduction in the activity of that industry for which he had at least some responsibility.

I want to put it squarely on the record, no matter what the newspapers may say about this, that I think they are playing politics, and I accuse them of playing politics. They probably will not print my name even if they print the fact of what I have said. But I accuse them of playing politics in this matter because they have accepted what Mr Crofts has said despite the fact that not one utterance, not one syllable, not one suggestion that this Government has made would indicate that it is the Government's intention to close down the Wynyard airport or the Devonport airport.

But what would happen if a government, any government- I refer especially to the situation in 1955 when we had a Liberal Government in Australia- put forward the proposition of local ownership, in other words, if it proposed to divest itself of the responsibility and put it into the hands of the local municipalities? What will happen if the committee to which 1 have referred comes down with a recommendation that it is no longer a feasible and sustained proposition that 2 airports should exist in north-western Tasmania. What can the Government do in those circumstances? One, of course, will have to wait and see. It certainly weakens the position of any government, if a committee, after a thorough inquiry makes a recommendation of this kind- if, in fact, it makes that recommendation. I suggest that it is pointing in that direction because not only does it have the support of the airline industry, but it has, apparently, the support of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots. If that is not so, let Mr Crofts as the representative of the air pilots of Australia come out and say that he is against the closing of either the Devenport or the Wynyard airports. I know which one will be closed because, in fact, the finger is pointed at the Devenport Airport right now. Anybody who sets out to close that airport will have my opposition right to the final word.

Reference has been made to the fact that it is a policy of the Government to recover 80 per cent of the cost of airport operations in Australia. At the present time the current losses are anticipated to run to about $65m a year. It is a question of policy, I suppose, but I wonder whether it is proper for the taxpayers of Australia to meet all these losses in the interests of the travelling public or whether in fact there ought to be some judgment that the travelling public of Australia ought to meet some proportion of the cost and, if so, how much? Should the general taxpayers of Australia- notwithstanding the fact that many of them never use air services and that many of them never see the operations of air services in Australia because they may live in the outbackmake some contribution? The Government has made a judgment that it is fair for the general taxpayer of Australia to meet 20 per cent of the total cost and that the airline operators of Australia should recover from the travelling public- those using the services and the facilities of the airline- the 80 per cent that is left.

We may argue that this is a wrong balance or a wrong relationship between what the travellersthe users of the system- should pay and what the ordinary taxpayers of Australia should pay. Let us examine that and ask: Who are the travelling public and who are the taxpayers of Australia? I defy anybody to draw a line which would distinguish one from the other. In fact, what we see is the people of Australia paying for the upkeep, the development, and the maintenance of the airports of Australia.

In conclusion, I point out that the Government has not put this proposition forward at all. It is a proposition floated by the airline industry. They want to operate at the lowest cost that they possibly can and get the most that they can out of the public. I suppose that is fairly normal business practice. They want to float the proposition that we should not worry about the services to the people in outlying areas. The operators are concerned about operating an airline or operating any other organisation at a profit to themselves. The motive behind their operation is a profit motive. While, on the other hand, we are concerned with the welfare of the people in the various communities of this country, the airline operators are concerned obviously with the profit motive. If they can cut down the operations to Devonport Airport- which, as I say, now seems to be so obvious- and require people to travel many miles to get the benefit of the air services provided, it will not worry the operators very greatly. I accuse them of double dealing so far as the Australian public is concerned. Why do not they come out and say that they are urging the closure of these airports? We support the proposition that was put years ago that there should be an airline service from Melbourne to Launceston and to Hobart with some form of commuter service or general aviation service- call it what you like- to be provided to meet the needs of the people in outlying areas. That in effect is what they are saying.

In Tasmania, we claim to be the most decentralised State in Australia. It is not a claim that cannot be sustained. But why should we not, because we are decentralised in carrying on our various operations in these outlying areas, warrant the provision of services which have been available to us for years? I can remember as a very young person seeing the initiation of the airline services in Tasmania to the outlying areas- to Flinders Island, King Island, Smithton and places like that. I grew up in that particular district. We see that with the advance of time and the advance of technology, with scientific aids and developments of that kind, we are being threatened with the loss of services which have hitherto been available because of the selfishness of the people who operate those services.

I think the Government ought to have some say in these matters. I think the Government has a right to expect those who operate those services to make a reasonable contribution to the revenue of this country, particularly when you see that there is a possibility of a loss of $65m this year in the operation of the civil aviation services of Australia. I cannot see anything wrong, frankly, with a reasonable recovery from those who travel augmented by a contribution from the general taxpayers of Australia many of whom never use the air services at all.

I want to allay the story that it is the Government's proposal to close these airport terminals. In fact, to put it on the line, it is the airline industry of this country itself which has put this proposition. It would seem to be supported by Mr Crofts of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, who I think ought to have something better to do than to promote a proposition which can only lead to the diminution of the opportunity for airline pilots to serve in the air services of this country.

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