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Thursday, 5 April 1984
Page: 1337


Senator KILGARIFF(6.25) —I wish to speak on the navigational aids in Northern Territory waters. The navaids as they are called in the industry are situated in the Darwin region. Perhaps the matter on which I now speak is in some degree parochial; however, I make no apology for this as I believe the Senate is a most suitable venue to air what I believe is a grave deficiency and what could at any time bring about a disaster of either minor or major proportions.

I wish to speak briefly of the concern of many people in the north, mainly seafaring people and also those very many Darwinites with pleasure craft who have taken to sailing the northern waters, about what appears to be a shrinking of the Commonwealth's most important responsibilities in regard to navaids-that is beacons, buoys and so on-in Northern Territory waters. Off the northern coast there are dangerous reefs, some unmarked such as the reef inside Lorna Shoal and Bass Reef, to take an example. There are shoals, narrow channels, sand banks, all of which are hazardous, particularly at night and in foul weather-which is the norm in the wet, the monsoon period. Yet with more and more movement of boats in connection with the development of Darwin harbour and so on, and also the defence and security presence, together with the fishing industry, it seems too incredible that navigational aids are being removed and not replaced, others considered to be unnecessary, or just plain inefficient with poor light. Port landfall lights are being neglected, despite the growing, not lessening urgency, for such facilities.

I draw attention to specific situations. The Narrows beacon is located at the northern end of Apsley Strait which separates Bathurst and Melville islands. The beacon was erected by the Commonwealth because of numerous requests within the Northern Territory. It has since been destroyed by heavy north-west weather conditions as the site is exposed. I understand that the Commonwealth does not intend to replace it, despite its close proximity to the main shipping channel.

Another important beacon, the Oliver Reef beacon, marks the entrance to an important shipping route through North Channel adjacent to Melville Island and the Vernon Island group. I am disturbed to hear that the Commonwealth does not believe that this aid requires attention or upgrading, despite the fact that the Oliver Reef passage close to Melville Island not only shortens the north bound track by 10 nautical miles but is much beter protected from prevailing north- west weather and avoids the worst of the strong southerly current flow. Depending on tides, the Oliver Reef passage saves upwards of five hours' steaming for vessels on the north bound track.

Surely a careful review of what appears to be the head-in-the-sand bureaucratic attitude is most necessary, particularly when it appears that the requirement for a flashing light is very necessary, and it should be urgently provided. As a result of representations made by the Northern Territory some three or four years ago, the Department of Transport programmed for a light buoy to be placed on either Lorna Shoal or Bass Reef. Both locations are to the south-west of Charles Point. A light on either reef would prove a valuable aid to vessels navigated out of Darwin harbour to and from Daly River mouth, Bynoe Harbour area and Peron Islands, all popular fishing grounds. Such projects seem to have been cancelled, although much of the coast inside Lorna Shoal and Bass Reef is a series of dangerous unmarked reef. The main light at Charles Point does not have sufficient strength to serve as an early warning to vessels approaching these reefs from the west. A light further to sea at either Lorna Shoal or Bass Reef is required not only as a warning to pleasure craft and fishing vessels but for regular shipping route vessels plying from the west and north-west into Darwin. Yet it appears that the Department of Transport, in Adelaide, mind you, says that there is no need to establish any navigation aid in the area and the project, as I understand it, has been cancelled. What a strange divergence of opinion by this Adelaide person who is unnamed and unmarked. He is obviously a maritime hazard himself for the north coast; as I say, yet unnamed.

Take now Emery Point light. Emery Point is an important landfall light at the top of the Larrakeyah Peninsula area. The Commonwealth, as I understand it, has always accepted responsibility for main port landfall lights on the Australian coast. This is quite apparent when one sees the various channels that are being opened up, particularly off the Queensland coast. There is a firm view that Emery Point is such a light even though it is located within port limits. No other feasible landfall could be used further to sea. It was erected by the Commonwealth many years ago and has been maintained by the Department of Transport ever since. I am perturbed to hear it suggested that the Commonwealth is considering reneging on this beacon and even contemplates, of all things, closing it down and actually selling it up, that is, if it has any other value than protecting the ships, their crews and passengers. Any conclusion or even implication that this unit is superfluous or of diminished usefulness should be rebutted in the strongest possible terms.

The light is a very efficient navaid guarding Channel Rock and the Middle Ground through Charles Point and clear of Channel Rock. It opens from Elliot Point, giving a turning cut-off for both in and out bound vessels. It should not be forgotten that Emery Point was the only Darwin navaid serviceable after Cyclone Tracy. From the north and from Clarence Strait, Emery Point is more useful than Charles Point. Structurally the light is in sound condition, despite its age. Very little work would be required to sandblast obvious rust, whipblast existing paint and repaint to good standard. It is understood that all the controls and operating gear were renewed in 1983 and a battery stand-by unit was installed in case of mains failure to replace the former 1920 model acetylene equipment. Being on Commonwealth, that is, Army, land it is not likely to suffer vandal attention. It is interesting to note that most visiting shipmasters are emphatic that Emery Point is a vital component of port and coastal navigational aids. Under no circumstances should it be downgraded or discontinued without an equally useful replacement. Charles Point has a very feeble light too which requires upgrading.

I am more than concerned. The problems I have indicated are very serious. Perhaps there is more hidden neglect which will be revealed only by a tragedy. Perhaps these few examples are but the tip of a mountain of problems underneath. One would have to ask: What is the condition of other navaids along the north coast? Are there areas of dangerous, hidden reefs, et cetera, which are close to sea routes, hazards to small craft, still unmarked in the area? It is apparent now that the Department is standing back from its responsibilities, which could seriously endanger life and very valuable boats and equipment. I would like the Department to accept more responsibility for such matters. I ask the Minister for Aviation (Mr Beazley) to inquire into the matter and at the same time ascertain the views of practical, experienced people of the north, of government , of those who are in daily contact with the sea and the citizens of the northern coast, to ensure that necessary steps are taken to put the navaid system into a secure and required order.