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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1449

Senator PETER RAE(7.03) —I wish to refer again to the consultation process with regard to the unmanning of lighthouses and, in particular, the Swan Island lighthouse at the north-east of Tasmania in Banks Strait. This has been the subject of some questioning during Estimates committee hearings, speeches on the adjournment and other matters since the whole question of unmanning of lighthouses was raised as a result of a proposition put forward by the Department of Transport that a large number of lighthouses around the Australian coast should be unmanned. There was reaction to save one of the most important lighhouses in Australia to be manned-I think without any doubt the most important to be manned-namely, Maatsuyker Island lighthouse. It was saved by the former Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Fraser. Soon after the change of government, on 19 May 1983 the present Minister for Transport, Mr Peter Morris, said:

I have called a halt to the demanning program until such time as there has been an opportunity for full public inquiry and examination of all the issues and aspects I have mentioned. I was pleased to learn . . . the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure . . . decided to undertake a public inquiry into what I see as a very important problem.

Subsequently the Standing Committee on Expenditure did conduct an inquiry. At page 78 of the report, recommendation 11.10 reads:

The Committee . . . recommends that:

(a) the rate of unmanning or reduction in the level of manning of lightstations be appropriate to the employment security of those in the lightkeeper's service and without forced retrenchment;

(b) after taking into consideration State government and community reaction to the Expenditure Committee Report, the Minister for Transport develop and announce in the House a Program for the unmanning of the 8 lightstations listed in Finding 28 . . .

I emphasise those words: `After taking into consideration State government and community reaction to the Expenditure Committee report'. Sub-paragraph (b) of recommendation 11.11 reads:

(b) in the development of the Program the following decision-making mechanism be employed:

(i) consultation between Commonwealth departments and agencies . . . to determine the initial Commonwealth parameters;

(ii) referral of that position to a committee comprising relevant Commonwealth departments and State government agencies and other organisations such as the Australian Lighthouse Association.

The committee would take the initial Commonwealth position as given and explore alternatives for continued manning . . .

Those recommendations were accepted by the Minister, and it was announced that they had been accepted by the Minister. Earlier this year during an Estimates committee hearing I raised the question of what was happening with regard to the Swan Island lighthouse. I eventually managed to extract from the Government an admission that the automated equipment had already been purchased and was in storage in Hobart, it thereby apparently anticipating the consultation process and anticipating the result of it by making provision at very considerable expense for fully automatic equipment to take the place of the manned lighthouse at Swan Island. On 12 May 1985 the Minister made this statement in response to statements which I made:

The Prime Minister has given a firm commitment to the Premier of Tasmania that we will consult with the Tasmanian Government before any decisions were taken that might affect the staffing of Tasmania's lighthouses.

We remain committed to that undertaking. When the Government has more specific plans beyond those announced to the Parliament last year, that consultative process will be initiated.

What he had said the previous year was that the consultative process would be with the State Government departments and, as recommended by the Expenditure Committee, with the community organisations. Included in the community organisations and government interests is the State Government of Tasmania, which is strongly opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island. The port authorities of Tasmania are opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island. The Professional Fishermen's Association is strongly opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island. The National Trust of Tasmania and the Heritage Commission are opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island. Yacht clubs and the Tasmanian Yachting Association are opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island. The Tasmanian aero club, Munro Aviation and others who frequent that area are opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island because it has an important landing strip. A variety of other people, including members of the Australian Lighthouse Association, have conducted a long campaign of public awareness creation and a campaign for the preservation of the manning of this lighthouse, for a variety of public interest purposes. The search and rescue organisations, both Commonwealth and State, and those who rely for assistance in search and rescue operations upon manned lighthouses and the observations which come from them are opposed to the unmanning of Swan Island. Finally, the meteorological observations which are available are of great value to those who rely on forecasts before going to sea, including fishermen and others.

The Minister or his Department-I raised this matter during Question Time today-yesterday informed people that a meeting will be held next Wednesday in Launceston for consultation. I rang the State Minister in charge and found that he did not know that the meeting was to be held. I inquired of some of the other interested community groups and found that they did not know that the meeting was to be held. However, I received a complaint from the Australian Lighthouse Association, which is headquartered in Melbourne, that it had sought assistance to be able to attend the consultative process which is to be held in Launceston next Wednesday and had been told that it pays its own way or it does not attend at all. The Association was also told that there would be no meeting at any other time or at any other place and that there would be no way in which it would be consulted if it did not attend Launceston.

If that is consultation, it is an extraordinary consultation. On the face of it, it is an attempt to ensure that a decision already taken to purchase automated light gear for Swan Island is carried through without there being any inconvenience caused by people putting up good arguments as to why it should not take place. As I have said, there is a very wide cross-section of community interests from the State government and various departments, including the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment at the Commonwealth level, as I understand it, and environmental interests as well as the interested organisations I have already mentioned that are concerned that this lighthouse, situated where it is, will be unmanned.

We urgently need an assurance either that full consultation will take place at convenient locations or that the Government will immediately rectify the situation and notify the people who have expressed interest in attending that the meeting is on and that the Government will provide the funds necessary for them to be able to take part. Consultation should take place at reasonable locations, such as Hobart, Launceston or Melbourne, although if it is held at Launceston that is probably the least convenient of places to have it. It is the furthest from the centre where most of the people concerned are located.

Finally, I make the point that, even though the equipment has now been purchased for this lighthouse, it does not mean that the lighthouse has to be unmanned. It was argued that this does not mean that it has to be unmanned, but the cost of buying this new equipment was the stated reason why the House of Representatives Expenditure Committee concluded that this ought to be one of the lighthouses which ought to be unmanned. The new equipment has now been purchased and therefore the case has changed. The priority has changed and the Government's reasoning, as well as the Committee's reasoning, no longer applies. What the Government should do is consult, and consult properly, on the basis of a recognition of the fact that the cost which was likely to be involved in any case has now been incurred and that the lighthouse can retain its manned status with its new equipment already purchased for it.

I hope that Senator Gietzelt, the Minister representing the Minister for Transport, of whom I asked a question earlier today, and the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), who is in the chamber tonight, will ensure that something is done tomorrow. After tomorrow it will be too late for any arrangements to be made in relation to next Wednesday. It is for that reason of urgency that I have raised the matter again tonight and pointed out in more detail than I could at Question Time today the facts of this matter. I thank the Senate.