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Wednesday, 21 August 1996
Page: 2766

Senator BOB COLLINS(11.29 a.m.) —I move:

At the end of the motion add "but the Senate is of the opinion that:

(a)   Other than at major capital city airports, where a local community has indicated a desire to acquire the airport lease, the Government should make every effort to ensure that the local community acquires the lease.

(b)   In order to achieve the maximum economic benefit from competition within the general aviation sector, the Government should maximise the diversity of ownership of airports within each capital city other than in relation to Sydney Kingsford Smith and Sydney West.

(c)   The draft EIS guidelines for the proposed Holsworthy site are entirely inadequate, particularly in relation to

   (i)   the defining of Holsworthy as a "semi rural location",

   (ii)   the lack of any detailed runway configuration and publicly available master plan,

   (iii)   temperature inversion problems over the Cumberland basin,

   (iv)   the explicit exclusion of the environmental effects on other parts of Sydney from relocating existing defence facilities, Bankstown airport and the 2000 Olympics shooting venue.

(d)   Until a solution that is satisfactory for residents to the current aircraft noise problem in Sydney is implemented, including the operation of a second Sydney Airport, the Government should not proceed with the sale of leases at Sydney Kingsford Smith and Sydney West Airports.

I note in moving this amendment that there are a significant list of speakers who wish to contribute to this debate on the airports legislation. I am pleased to see that because it is an important issue. I am sure that a diverse range of views will be expressed as has been the case in the past.

The government's position, the previous opposition's position, on this legislation in the past was about as disgracefully opportunistic as you could have seen with respect to any kind of rational program for the operation of Australian airports, particularly the operation of Sydney airport. Honourable senators would recall that when we proposed the sale of the airports the Prime Minister (Mr Howard), who was concerned about the possibility of loss of support in his own seat, blocked the sale. Proposals were introduced into parliament on the pretext of being concerned about the effect of noise on the residents of Sydney, particularly the residents of his own electorate.

We pointed out at the time, in some detail, the unblushing hypocrisy of that particular decision, considering the number of times people like me—former transport ministers with direct experience of the need to construct, at the earliest possible time, the third runway or second parallel runway at Sydney airport—had been berated by the coalition parties. To then see people who were at the vanguard of that debate protesting about noise at Sydney airport and wanting airport sales deferred until the noise problems could be sorted out we thought was a bit rich, but we did not know at that point what was going to happen with Holsworthy. If you thought that the double standard, duplicity and deceit that was involved with the general public concerned with this issue over the third runway was bad, Holsworthy was a blinder and remains a blinder.

You would recall that the now Minister for Transport and Regional Development, Mr Sharp, presented, as his case for not saying anything about this, the unbelievable—literally unbelievable for those of us who had been transport ministers—story that he was prevented from saying anything about the meeting he had had with the proponents of Holsworthy because it was a commercial-in-confidence arrangement. Of course, as I was well aware, the people who had been pushing this proposal for some time were not concerned in the slightest about any commercial-in-confidentiality with the fact that the proposition was actually around. They had no difficulty with it. So that was the thinnest and the most transparent of the deceits that were committed by the now government—the then opposition—on this particular issue.

I find myself in an interesting position in respect of debate on this matter in that I have a slight degree of freedom now in opposition that I did not have in government. I am a strong supporter of the proposition that has underpinned our Australian democracy since day one—of a collegiate government and cabinet solidarity. It is absolutely crucial although, at times, individually uncomfortable for all of us who operate within it. It has been one of the great contributors to the stability of the Australian political system and, with all the faults and failings of two major political parties—the same kind of system that operates in the United States, but entrenched to a greater degree in the US than it is here—has provided a degree of that stability.

The reason I make those digressive remarks is that I have to confess to Almighty God, and to you here present, that I was not an enthusiastic supporter of the sale of the Federal Airports Corporation and I remain an unenthusiastic supporter of the sale of the FAC. As minister, I was a very enthusiastic proponent of the amalgamation and complete sale of our two airlines. For a period of something in excess of 20 years, those airlines between them had not contributed sufficient dividends to their shareholders to build a decent high school. They were always, understandably, with their hands out for more money from the budget to increase their requirements—legitimate requirements in an expanding, volatile and very difficult aviation market. You really have to like the smell of kerosene to be in the airline business. It is difficult at the best of times to make a quid out of it.

In terms of good public policy, I was a strong supporter of that decision. It was the correct decision and I supported it. However, I was not at all happy about the situation with the FAC. Senator Tambling, who is in the chamber, would be very well aware of the domestic political reasons why I would not have been happy about the sale of the FAC; that is, the absolutely crucial role that the Federal Airports Corporation played in having the magnificent airport terminals constructed at Alice Springs and Darwin.

Territorians such as Senator Tambling and I—long-term territorians as we both are—can now say, absolutely unblushingly, what an enormous asset both those terminals have proven to be. We knew the old facilities were bad and we protested loud and long that they were. In fact, they were so bad that they were inhibiting the growth of the tourism industry to the Northern Territory. I want to give great credit to the Federal Airports Corporation and to the then minister, then Senator Gareth Evans—and to his senior advisers, whom I got the ear of; in many ways that is far more important in lobbying terms than getting the ear of the minister—for the support that I got for having the Federal Airports Corporation put both of those airports on their list.

The reason that I give this example and am not talking about the ones that are always in the news—Sydney and Melbourne, understandably—is that it is a classic example of the real national benefit that, in my view, the Federal Airports Corporation provided to Australia as one of the, in my view, most successful publicly owned enterprises that we had in Australia. There was, no doubt, a cross-subsidisation involved in that operation—no question about it; right up front—within that network of quality terminals across the length and breadth of Australia. I felt then, and I still feel now, that there is a national benefit in real terms, particularly for overseas visitors, in having such a national network of high quality airports.

I know I would get no argument from Senator Tambling by saying that prior to the establishment of the FAC we did not have that. We had some reasonable terminals around Australia but in other parts of Australia, where international visitors are visiting in increasing numbers, we had some shocking facilities. The ones in the Northern Territory were abysmal. People used to complain about Darwin. But Darwin was nowhere near as bad as Alice Springs, which was standing room only most of the time and a very busy airport indeed. The Federal Airports Corporation constructed two world-class facilities at Darwin and Alice which absolutely transformed the face of Northern Territory tourism. It did it without any impost at all on the budget but by the cross-subsidisation that goes on inside that network.

I was, of course, bound—just as I undertake to be bound when I choose to join a mainstream political party such as the Australian Labor Party—by the collective decision taken at the end of the day. That was not a debate I won, but I was happy to abide by that decision. My loyalty to the Australian Labor Party is absolute. I might tell you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that is a loyalty that will never waver. No matter what might happen to me in the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that descend on us all from time to time in this business, and no matter how aggrieved I might feel from time to time about decisions that do not suit me within the Australian Labor Party, I will take that loyalty to the Australian Labor Party to my grave.

Senator Herron —You have a closed mind.

Senator BOB COLLINS —Senator Herron, I happen to have that view and, quite frankly, I do not think you would disagree with me in respect of, as I said, the major political parties in Australia. That view, in my opinion, would apply to members of the Liberal Party and the National Party. We are at the end of the day none of us here as a result entirely of our own efforts. Independents, of course, who choose to become independents have to foot their own bills, pay their way themselves and go out and do the hard slog. Those of us who go under a party banner have some loyalty to that party when we get into parliament.

I am not complaining, I want to make it clear, about being bound by a collective decision regarding the FAC that did not suit me at the time. I loyally supported that decision. But—again I am not embarrassed to say this—I make no bones about saying, particularly from a parish pump territory perspective, and I am a territory politician, that the FAC did a great job by the Northern Territory. It was particularly in respect of those smaller regional airports that I think the FAC did Australia a major national service. The reason I said that was to get the smile on Senator Murphy's face that I see is now there.

Senator O'Chee —You have to do something to improve the image, don't you, Shayne?

Senator BOB COLLINS —We could all do with a bit of an image improvement from time to time, Senator O'Chee. The fact is that those of us who do live in an Australia which is outside of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne are very conscious of the sensitivities attached to the operations of regional airports—and I know Senator Murphy will have a lot to say on this in his contribution to the debate. They are legitimate concerns and remain legitimate concerns. They are certainly concerns of mine. I have an intense personal interest in the future disposition of those major assets in the Northern Territory, Alice Springs and Darwin airport terminals.

I am not a person who is silly enough to believe that, by shouting `privatisation' at something, it instantly becomes a more efficient or effective operation. That is not always the case. The Federal Airports Corporation, I think—and the record is there out in public in their annual reports for anyone to see—have done a superb job in constructing a network of world class facilities that are a credit to this country. They have done it off the budget. They have done it by commercially operating within their charter. They have turned around a lot of absolute lemons. It is to their absolute credit and I feel that this should be placed on the record: they had some absolute duds on their books when they first started operations, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President.

To the great credit and commercial acumen of the people who operate, and continue to operate, inside that organisation, I believe that a superb commercial job has been done by them in bringing in that bottom line; in staying in the black; in servicing their debts in an effective way; and in operating airport terminals around Australia with, at the same time, some of the world's lowest airport charges. And a comparison with other major airports around the world will show that.

One of the reasons I make that point, on behalf of the employees of the Federal Airports Corporation, is that I understand the potential might exist for local ownership by people who want to own the airports—and I am talking about city councils now—who have no expertise in actually operating and managing airports but who wish to use an organisation like the Federal Airports Corporation to run those operations. I repeat: I believe that the FAC have done an absolutely superb job for Australia in operating those airports.

I have mixed feelings indeed about rising in this debate on propositions that will actually see that network disbanded. I am delighted that the government at least has caved in, as Senator Conroy has said quite correctly, under the pressure put on them by the opposition about the cross-ownership propositions which I thought were absolutely appalling. Had the original government proposition gone through this parliament to effectively replace what is a very effective public monopoly with what would have effectively and simply been a private monopoly—and that would have been the result, had they been allowed to get away with it—it would have been a disastrous result indeed, particularly for rural and regional Australia.

Having said that, I refer again to those of us who do choose to live outside of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra who once again have been kicked in the teeth—this time by the budget that was delivered last night—with those places being made even more difficult to live in. I noticed in passing that on transport issues—and I recall the caning I got as transport minister but, I might also add, particularly as primary industries minister from coalition politicians and organisations like the National Farmers Federation on the hypothecation of fuel excise—

Senator Woodley —And roads!

Senator BOB COLLINS —Yes, and the fact that we were not spending enough on roads—there was an absolutely whopping $600 million reduction in the budget last night for the national highways system, without there being, to the best of my knowledge to this point, one peep of protest from the National Farmers Federation.

Senator Woodley interjecting—

Senator BOB COLLINS —Did the NFF protest? The NFF last night put out a press release saying what a fantastic budget this was for the bush. Perhaps they have put out a supplementary release, but I have seen nothing. I used to get belted around the flat by organisations such as the NFF about things like proper transport for regional Australia—roads as well as airports. The fact is that life has been made, again, far more difficult for regional Australia, as you have noted, Senator, by the NFF's blinding hypocrisy on this issue.

To be honest, I could not believe it when I saw in the budget papers that $600 million has been taken out of the national highways system by this federal government that pon tificated on this issue right around regional Australia. I say again to the government and indeed to my own colleagues that, for those of us who live in regional Australia, concerns about what is going to happen to our airports remain.

The amendment to the second reading that I have moved in this debate on behalf of the opposition is self-explanatory. I refer honourable senators particularly to paragraph (c) of the amendment, which specifically points out the completely inadequate draft EIS guidelines for the proposed Holsworthy site. The shadow minister for transport, Mr Tanner, has at some length gone into the debate on the stupidity and duplicity of the Holsworthy option, so I will not unnecessarily detain the Senate by going over that ground again.

But I do want to put this on the record for a second time: I was speechless at the now minister's unbelievable explanation that the only reason he said nothing about Holsworthy—until it was too late for the electorate concerned—was because of some commercial-in-confidence obligations he had. I knew about that proposition when I was transport minister, as Laurie Brereton has said he knew about it when he was transport minister. The proponents had no difficulty in it being known that they wanted to develop that site. Forget the details of the proposal; it was a transparent piece of duplicity by the now government and the present transport minister on that issue.

You cannot sensibly proceed with this debate until the question of Holsworthy has been absolutely determined. The EIS guidelines are utterly inadequate for Holsworthy. The reasons why Holsworthy was even put up as a blind, as I suspect it was by the government, and for all the machinations on KSA would probably still not be known publicly.

I say again in conclusion—other speakers from the opposition will speak for themselves about their own particular parts of the country—the opposition's real concern about what happens at airports around Australia other than Sydney and Melbourne remains as acute as it was when we were in government. That concern, of course, when we were in government is on the public record in terms of the process that was required to get the decision to sell the FAC. None of that concern has abated, as Senator Murphy will tell the Senate shortly. We certainly want to hear as much detail as possible from the government in this debate, particularly when we have a Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Development (Senator Tambling) in an ideal position to tell us what is going to happen to airports like Alice Springs and Darwin. (Time expired)