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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 835

Mr ROBERT BROWN(4.47) —Before the debate on the Australian National Railways Commission Amendment Bill 1987 was interrupted this morning, I had made two essential points in my contribution to the discussion. The first was that I was very pleased to see the extent to which there had been bipartisan support for the issues raised by the legislation. Secondly, I endorsed the comments that had been made by other speakers about the status of the two major Australian National rail services in this country-namely the Ghan and the Indian Pacific-as being among the great rail services of the world. I prevailed upon people-particularly Australians who, as a result of the devaluation of the dollar, are finding it comparatively cheap to take their holidays and tours here in Australia-to visit some of the outstanding attractions that the Australian scenery and social community have to offer, and to incorporate in their tours and holidays in this country a trip on either the Ghan or the Indian Pacific. I urged them not to treat these train services as just a means of getting from point A to point B. The Trans Siberian railway, for example, is not treated in that way. Neither is the Orient Express between London and Venice. The great rail transport links between eastern and western North America are not treated in that way. They are treated by tourists as part of their holiday. We have the same type of facilities here in Australia.

This Bill attempts to do two things. The first is very much related to the matters about which I have already spoken. The Bill will give the Australian National Railways Commission authorisation to provide entertainment and other associated services for its passengers. These services will be introduced first on the Ghan. The second major provision of this legislation is to broaden the powers of boards of inquiry established under section 70 of the Act to examine the cause of accidents and make appropriate recommendations. Fortunately, as far as Australian National and other rail systems in Australia are concerned, that is not a provision of crushing importance but it is an important initiative in this legislation.

Australian National was established on 1 July 1975 to take over the duties and function of the former Commonwealth Railways Commissioner and ultimately to assume control of the former Tasmanian Government Railways in the non-urban sector and also the former South Australian Government Railways. The latter functions required the signing of transfer agreements between the Commonwealth and the States of Tasmania and South Australia respectively. I am sure that most people recall the fact that those developments arose from an offer of a former Labor government, the Whitlam Government, to the States for the Commonwealth to assume responsibility for their rail systems. Had that originated with the start of the development of railway systems in Australia, we would not have finished up with the absurd situation that we have inherited of different gauge railway systems within each of the States. The only two States which took advantage of that offer were South Australia and Tasmania, and both of those States have benefited very substantially from those changes.

Three years ago the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris), introduced legislation to provide the Australian National Railways Commission with a charter which gave AN the task of becoming a commercially oriented business operation. In the year before, AN had recorded its highest ever loss, $106m. The period since then has been a story of continued progress. The credit for that progress can be taken by the Government and in particular the Minister who carries the responsibility of transport for the Government, the management of Australian National and the unions because those improvements have resulted from the co-operative effort and the commitment on the part of government, management and unions to the development of Australian National. The results of that co-operative effort and that commitment are becoming increasingly apparent.

The fact is that, as with virtually every railway in the world, AN's passenger services are not currently commercially viable. This legislation attempts-in a relatively small way, I suppose, in terms of the total range and quality of services provided by AN-to do something about that, to increase its commercial viability, to make it more attractive to those people who use AN for both transport and holiday-tourist purposes. The Government has agreed with AN on a set of increasing cost recovery targets to be achieved in respect of these passenger services. From a level of around 45 per cent in 1984-85, AN now has the task of improving its passenger cost recovery level to a 60 per cent target by 1988-89. Progress in connection with that will be monitored annually. It represents an impressive improvement if it is achieved, and there is no reason to believe that it will not be. It has been based on a realistic assessment of the capacity of AN to do that, and there is every reason to believe that it will be achieved. In addition to the provisions in this legislation, AN has already launched a number of major initiatives to provide better, more efficient services to its customers. It considers that it should further extend the facilities that it provides to its passengers to make train travel a more enjoyable experience in itself.

The particular provision which this legislation will facilitate is that of a special entertainment car so that it will be possible for people travelling on the Ghan to utilise video and sound booths, video games for children, tables for cards and chess, a souvenir shop, a hair salon, and a limited number of poker machines for those people who may find playing them a pleasurable type of pastime.

The rail system in Australia has played a tremendously important role in the development of the nation. It has opened up the interior, the outback; it has provided an efficient means of transport from the great rural areas, with the production of bulk rural commodities, to the ports and the cities around the coast of Australia. Many of the improvements which are taking place today in the relationship which exists between the parties to the AN have been responsible in no small part for the type of commitment which the Minister for Transport has brought to his very special responsibilities within his portfolio, and that is recognised not only by members on the Government side but also, I am pleased to say, by members of the Opposition parties who are prepared to acknowledge it.

Mr Cowan —That is right.

Mr ROBERT BROWN —I appreciate the response of my friend the honourable member for Lyne, who acknowledges and agrees with that comment now. For example, the Minister has conducted about 30 separate meetings at regional, State and national level with the unions that are associated with AN. Not only does the Minister go out to meet them and to discuss with them the sorts of problems which exist within the industry and the issues that arise, in an attempt to seek solutions to them, but he also takes with him the Chairman of the Board and the General Manager. To make sure that it does not appear that the Minister insists on their accompanying him, I add that they do so willingly. It reflects great credit on all those people associated with AN that that is the attitude.

I think we all need to understand that the problems associated with AN and railways systems generally throughout Australia will not be solved just by providing more and more money. We need operational and marketing improvements. As I have indicated, there has been a significant improvement already in attitudes, approach, commitment and the procedures that exist within AN and between the parties to AN to bring about many of these improvements. Rail has had a bad image with customers. More recently there have been very significant improvements in that image. It was indicated as well by some of the other members who have spoken in relation to this legislation that the Railway Industry Council which has been established by this Minister is now representative of not only the Commonwealth but also all the States, with one exception. It would not surprise either members of this Parliament or members of the national community when they learn which government that is. I would prevail upon and appeal to the Government of Queensland to realise that the Australian railway system is a national one. The fragmentation into six States is an accident of history. There is a need for co-ordination and co-operation. I appeal to the Government of Queensland to become as soon as possible a party to the deliberations and the general work of the Railway Industry Council.

This Bill represents, too, an attempt on the part of this Government to bring about a revitalisation of public enterprises. There is no question about their capacity to provide the services that are expected of them and to do that efficiently and as well as is generally done as a result of the competitive situation which exists among private sector operations as well. The AN has shown itself to be just as capable of measuring up to the standards of efficiency that relate to other types of pursuits as well.

In the early 1980s I was a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure when it reported on the Australian National Railways Commission. That inquiry was undertaken because of the concern about the large sums of money that were being voted annually by the Parliament to offset the Commission's operating losses. For example, for the four years to the middle of 1981 the losses had totalled $274m. It then appeared that, even if the Commission achieved its goal of eliminating the losses, by 1987-88 it would still have accumulated losses of more than $500m in the 10 years from 1977-78 to 1987-88. Some very significant improvements have taken place, even in the last two years. The revenue supplement or the taxpayer support from the Commonwealth has been reduced from $87.9m in 1984-85 to $72.5m in 1985-86, and in this year, 1986-87, to $64.5m. The accumulated loss, instead of reaching $500m, has fallen from $101m to about $89m at present, so there have been those very significant improvements. That $64.5m supplement from taxpayers this year will consist of $17.8m for Tasrail's operations and $27m for AN's passenger operations, and the remainder of about $20m represents the losses on the balance of AN's operations. So I commend the Government and particularly I commend the Minister for Transport for introducing this legislation. Again I am delighted that it has bipartisan support.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member's time has elapsed.