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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

CATCHLOVE, Mr Craig, Director, Corporate and Community Services, Alice Springs Town Council

CHAIR: Welcome. We do not have your submission in front of us but we are very keen to hear from you. Do you have anything to add on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Catchlove : I have been asked to attend on behalf of the mayor, who is unavailable—I believe he is in Darwin at the moment—to give the council's views on the rollout and the situation in town since that time and to give any assistance I can give with regard to how it was rolled out initially, the good bits, the bad bits, what worked well and what did not.

CHAIR: Thank you. If you would like to, please make an opening statement, and we will go to questions afterwards.

Mr Catchlove : The first thing that needs to be said is that Alice Springs Town Council has been a strong supporter of the initial rollout and has seen absolutely no evidence that would change its position in regard to the incredible change we have had in the issue of petrol sniffing within Central Australia. We believe it has been wholly positive, and the amount of petrol sniffing—you obviously would have had more expert witnesses giving you this data—has collapsed to almost minimal proportions. We hear of the odd case now and again, I believe there is a little bit happening out at Karnte Camp at the moment, but on the whole the issue has almost totally disappeared from Central Australia. I can certainly say that it has certainly disappeared from Alice Springs.

CHAIR: We hope that other things will disappear as well, but we will work on this one today.

Mr Catchlove : That is right—let's not bite off more than we can chew!

Senator SIEWERT: I will go to your recommendations first. You recommend that unsniffable premium replacement fuel has been introduced into Alice Springs as available. How big a problem is the issue around premium versus regular fuel?

Mr Catchlove : It is a source of sniffable fuel, so it does mean that people can get access to it. With vehicles becoming more prevalent in their use of premium—high-end vehicles, European vehicles et cetera, which have that requirement for premium—there will be more vehicles which can be siphoned. At this stage I do not think it is a very large issue, but, should a non-sniffable premium fuel become available, it would fill one of those gaps in what is happening at the moment.

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of the general rollout, you said you could go through the problems. What were some of the problems? A lot of them have been dealt with. Are there some ongoing problems that need to be dealt with?

Mr Catchlove : To my knowledge there are no continuing issues that we have had. During the rollout I was general manager of what was then CATIA, the Central Australian Tourism Industry Association—the local RTA. So there were extreme worries from that industry reflecting the community issues with regard to a belief that Opal was going to be damaging to vehicles and all of those kinds of things.

At the time of the rollout, the most remarkable way of addressing that was that representatives from the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia, the RAA, came up and investigated every single rumour that they could possibly come across with regards to damage to vehicles due to Opal fuel. They were quite tenacious. They were tracking people who had heard from their uncle who heard from their aunty who heard from her first cousin et cetera. They actually followed every single lead to try and track down whether they could find any examples where Opal fuel had damaged a vehicle. They were unable to come up with a single example. That kind of exercise really put the entire issue to bed. There were always people who were anti the other thing, but they could not use the argument that the rollout was damaging to vehicles, because they investigated wholly and no-one could come up with a single example. So that put the entire issue of Opal fuel damaging vehicles to bed at that point, and it has never risen its head again in Alice Springs.

Senator SIEWERT: You said there was a bit of sniffing, still, in one of the town camps. Do you know where that fuel is coming from?

Mr Catchlove : No, I do not, sorry.

Senator SIEWERT: I will follow that up later. We are hearing reports that there are about 10 communities where there is still petrol sniffing occurring. Are you aware of those communities?

Mr Catchlove : I think that will cut this off pretty shortly. No, I am not. Based in Alice Springs and being a municipal council, we do not have responsibility for any of the communities outside of the town boundaries, so, no, I do not.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I slip back to the issue around premium. Access to it has been enabled in Alice Springs. What is being done to ensure that premium is not being accessed?

Mr Catchlove : To the best of my knowledge, there is no special way of accessing premium above and beyond any normal petrol. So any vehicle can access premium within the town itself. There are no special conditions, to my knowledge, with regard to that.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I go on to your second recommendation, which is about increased funding being provided for new support structures in Alice Springs. Can you give us a bit of background for that and why you think that is important?

Mr Catchlove : This is probably expanding into that area we do not really want to go into, because it is bigger than Ben Hur. One of the reasons put forward for sniffing is general boredom amongst the youth. So any sort of youth services that can be brought on board to alleviate that issue would take away the need that there might be for people to sniff to relieve that boredom. The other youth services with regard to support and all those kinds of things are an integral part of what is required. You cannot just cut the supply and then expect that people will automatically fix themselves. There needs to be a lot of work there. We have a lot of disadvantage in this town with youth with dysfunctional parents due to alcohol and other drug misuse. Those youth services are an integral part of not losing another generation to those issues.

Senator SIEWERT: Given that you have said there should be increased funding, you obviously believe there is not enough funding going into such services.

Mr Catchlove : There is never enough funding going into those services. I guess our point is a general one. I could not point to specific services and say, 'That one's underfunded. That one's not.' But it has been generally agreed that resourcing in that area does need improvement. I also know from my experience on other committees within this town that finding adequate staff to provide those services is probably as big an issue as the money available. So I guess we can bring it down to this: we need increased and better resourced youth services, which may or may not mean more money but may mean improved resourcing due to staffing.

Senator SIEWERT: One issue I forgot when we were talking about the numbers of petrol sniffers and which has come up through the submissions is access to data, or not just access to data but having accurate data. Are you, as the council, involved in any processes that do any survey work that feeds into any collection of data?

Mr Catchlove : No, we don't.

Senator SIEWERT: So when you are saying there is a small amount in one of the camps, is that from anecdotal evidence?

Mr Catchlove : Yes, from one of the meetings I am involved with, which is a roundtable of all the authorities in town which have skin in the game, for want of a better expression, with regard to dealing with antisocial behaviour issues in this town.

Senator SIEWERT: Who that you are aware of collects data or is responsible for coordinating the collection of data?

Mr Catchlove : I would say that, with regard to youth issues, first cab off the rank would probably be YSOS, the Youth Street Outreach Service. Simone Jackson I believe is the head of that down here and she would probably be first cab off the rank, but there are a number of agencies which deal in that area and I assume they all have their various levels of data collection.

Senator SMITH: From your submission I take it that the town of Alice Springs regards the intervention as having had a positive contribution to reducing petrol sniffing.

Mr Catchlove : The issue of the intervention is controversial in this town, but certainly within town council, yes, that is true.

Senator SMITH: In your submission you talk about $55 million and complementary measures having been promised to support the Opal rollout. You say that the money was not allocated evenly through the region but that four communities received excellent youth programs. What makes a youth program excellent? What features of the youth program do you see as having been positive contributions?

Mr Catchlove : I would judge that a youth program, or any program, has been successful by the number of people it interfaces with, the effect it has had on those people, whether it produced the results it was looking at and then ongoing, at the completion of that program, did the community reverted to where it was or has there been a lasting improvement in the area and with what was happening with the youth in that area.

Senator SMITH: Is it your experience that petrol sniffers often find themselves drawn back into Alice Springs? Is Alice Springs a bit of a catchment centre for petrol sniffers?

Mr Catchlove : That is probably a little beyond my direct knowledge. All I can say is that with the rollout of Opal in town the number of petrol sniffers reduced dramatically. When we did not have Opal, I believe, we were certainly a catchment. Since Opal has been here, I am not sure whether we are a catchment or neutral or whether people are moving out to do their sniffing; I really do not know that. What I do know is that before Opal we certainly were a catchment.

Senator SMITH: Is the education program that was undertaken by the motoring organisations still underway?

Mr Catchlove : No, that was at the time of introduction and immediately afterwards in an attempt to bed it down. We had the issues that I believe are happening with one of the other shires, where there is a lot of negativity towards the rollout. They are using the same reasoning that was used at the time of the rollout here in Alice Springs, which was shown to be entirely fallacious. I believe that a similar program in those areas where there is a new rollout would go a long way towards disabusing people of that belief.

Senator BOYCE: What shire are you talking about?

Mr Catchlove : Reading in the paper, I believe that it is Central Desert. The people around Harts Range, I believe, are saying that they do not want it for these reasons—but that is anecdotal, from my reading it in the paper.

Senator SMITH: From your submission, it looks as though people are more inclined to trust a public education or information campaign about the effect of Opal on their cars from a motoring organisation than from government.

Mr Catchlove : Absolutely. Being in local government, I can tell you that we are just as untrusted by the population as everybody else. It is that independent viewpoint and the fact that they were experts. They had strings of letters behind their names longer than your arm, and they were seen to be independent. They made themselves available at public forums, certainly the tourist forums. They came and had discussions. It was the case that people had nowhere to go if they were trying to promote the proposition that Opal fuel is dangerous to their engines.

Senator BOYCE: There is really not a lot of profit to be made out of selling half-an-inch of petrol for petrol sniffing. What do you think are or were the motives of people trying to talk down Opal?

Mr Catchlove : Fear of the unknown? When something new comes along and there is something negative attached to it, people grab a hold of it. There really was quite a concerted campaign in that initial part which said it was going to be a problem. In my industry at that stage, which was tourism, people were putting a lot of kilometres on their vehicles. In Alice Springs, you could have a day trip to Uluru, which is in excess of 1,000 kilometres in a day. So they were very concerned that this was going to have an immediate impact on their vehicles. Why do these fear campaigns start? That is probably one for the psychologists more than me. Certainly my industry believed that it was going to show up very quickly because of the kilometres that are undertaken by their vehicles.

Senator BOYCE: You have spoken about the lack of funds for the council to run youth support programs and the like. Have you approached the Northern Territory government for funding for these programs?

Mr Catchlove : In the past, we have approached the NT government with regard to that. We talk to them with regard to youth programs quite regularly. Ins d of general applications for youth programs to fill the void, we tend to work on specific issues. Rather than saying, 'Give us X number of dollars and we'll solve all your problems for you,' we say, 'We want to run this; we want to run that; how about it?' So we do not apply for general funding; we only apply for specific funding.

Senator BOYCE: How do you fund what you run now in the way of youth support programs?

Mr Catchlove : We do not have very much in the way of youth support programs. We have very little. Our budget for youth services is probably in the range of $40,000 to $45,000 per annum. That does not include staffing. That is for projects as well. That is where we are working—

Senator BOYCE: It does not include staffing?

Mr Catchlove : It does not. That is on top of that. We have people who do that. But we are attempting to get up youth councils. We are working with Desert Knowledge on their youth leadership projects. We are operating probably at the high end with our youth services, rather than at the low end.

Senator BOYCE: So you are not delivering services; you are trying to coordinate and encourage others to do so.

Mr Catchlove : Encourage, lobby—all of those kinds of things are our role. That is right.

Senator BOYCE: Are you aware of youth services being provided by Territory or federal government funding in Alice Springs itself?

Mr Catchlove : In some cases, yes, we are. We are co-owner of the Gap Youth Centre. It is half-owned by the Commonwealth and half-owned by Alice Springs Town Council. So we do know what happens down there. We had some involvement in there when they went through financial difficulties. As I said, I am on various committees where we deal with youth service providers—the education department et cetera. So we are across, in a general way, what is happening but certainly not in any great specific way.

Senator BOYCE: You have made the point that people drift into Alice Springs from communities, particularly if their dysfunctional behaviour is making them unwelcome at home. Have you spoken to, or attempted in any way to deal with, the roadhouses near communities that are the cause of concern because they are not stocking Opal fuel?

Mr Catchlove : No, we have not. Again, as I said before, because the bailiwick of Alice Springs Town Council is actually physically quite small—we stop just about at the airport, going south and very little going north—they are not in our areas. I did a little bit of work with them when Opal was first rolled out in the region, but it must be said that I have not had much to do with them at all in the last five years since I have been council.

Senator BOYCE: Does that indicate in any way that it is simply not considered a problem by the council—these people drifting into town? Is it a problem for the council or isn't it?

Mr Catchlove : Oh, yes. Urban drift into Alice Springs is probably the biggest issue that we have to deal with in this town. We are not Robinson Crusoe here; urban drift happens around the world, and it is not something that we are going to stop. People aim for the bright lights, and in this region we are the bright lights. The movement of people into town for reasons such as the partaking of alcohol et cetera certainly has been obvious and ongoing. There is no doubt about that at all. With respect to petrol-sniffing, as I said, I really do not know if people are coming to town to do petrol-sniffing or not. The raw numbers would suggest that they are not. But certainly for other reasons we do have people coming to town to partake of things they cannot do on the communities. But there is also the general issue of urban drift—of everybody from communities coming into Alice Springs.

Senator BOYCE: Sorry, I had taken from your submission that Alice Springs had to deal with the imported problem of sniffers from the communities.

Mr Catchlove : We certainly did at the time of the rollout. Since the time of the rollout the problem has, as I said, dropped down to almost miniscule proportions within the town itself. You get the occasional breakout of a couple of people, and that is dealt with immediately—everyone jumps on board that issue and it is dealt with.

Senator BOYCE: How is it dealt with?

Mr Catchlove : They are actively case managed by the youth services involved and there is education and all of those kinds of things.

Senator BOYCE: Which youth services would they be?

Mr Catchlove : I could only direct you to have a chat with Simone Jackson, who could tell you exactly who deals with that. Just to let you know how I know this: in the ITCG, the Interagency Tasking and Coordination Group, meetings that I was talking about, we have the representatives from those services there. It is a very tactical grouping and we talk about what is happening around town and that is where this issue has been brought up. The last instance I remember is that they were saying that there were four female sniffers, that they knew who they were and they were actively trying to case manage the issue et cetera. So that is how I know what is going on.

Senator BOYCE: This bill, if it were to be passed, would give the minister the power to designate an area for Opal fuel to be mandated. Does the council support that proposition?

Mr Catchlove : We certainly do. We believe that the very huge success that we have had here in Alice Springs with the reduction in petrol-sniffing and the harms related to that could be rolled out in many other areas. We certainly are not an island with regard to petrol-sniffing, and those areas which require it may require the mandatory introduction. Thus, we do support it for those areas as well as supporting what has happened here in Alice Springs.

CHAIR: I am really interested in the way that your council was able to introduce this across an area which has had some difficulties in the past and how you were able to so successfully have the voluntary process work in Alice Springs. Your submission is quite open about the fact that people were scared about when it was going to happen and it was not easy. In terms of the number of outlets in Alice Springs, how many were you dealing with in getting people to come on board with Opal?

Mr Catchlove : The number of service stations? I could not tell you exactly.

CHAIR: There were quite a few.

Mr Catchlove : Definitely there are quite a few. We have had a reduction over a couple of years, so back in those days there were more than there are now.

CHAIR: When did you go through the rollout in Alice Springs?

Mr Catchlove : I have been on council for five years. It was a good couple of years before that, so it must be in the range of seven to nine years.

CHAIR: And from your perspective, there has been no-one getting weak since—

Mr Catchlove : As I said, the whole issue of Opal fuel has gone away. I am not in tourism any more, so it is hard to have my finger on the pulse. The only people who might be looking askance might be tourists coming through with their vehicles. A lot of them towing rigs et cetera are diesel anyway so it just does not worry them. There might still be those issues—I do not know. Certainly within Alice Springs it has not come up in any discussions I have had in the last three or four years. It has gone away totally.

CHAIR: I am interested in looking at the geography. You have seen the maps brought out about where the zones are and where the particular places are that are continuing to sell the fuel. In the evidence we have had from some of the providers they have listed a couple of reasons. One of them is the ongoing stuff about damage to engines and your evidence has identified what happened. I do not know whether you did have the very important issue of whipper snippers but that came up in one of the providers as well—that it could damage the whipper sniffer.

Mr Catchlove : We certainly have not seen dramatic numbers of whipper snippers heading to the service department. Again, that was the issue. They were saying that all the two-strokes could not utilise the fuel. To my knowledge, that has not been an issue. I am not an expert on small engine maintenance but I certainly have not been hearing that everyone has to get premium unleaded to run their whipper snippers. Again, I believe once the fear and the hype was over people just got on mixing Opal with the two-stroke oil and the foliage has been none the worse for it.

CHAIR: I know there are some vehicles which are recommended to use premium. Are you aware whether there are any guidelines at the outlets about locking down bowsers and limitation on whether it can be sold in cans? Has that come up in the various discussions you have had?

Mr Catchlove : I have not had those discussions. To my knowledge I do not believe there are any special procedures or protocols out there, but I could be wrong. It must be said that all my vehicles run on Opal so I have not had to purchase PULP for six or seven years.

CHAIR: It is one of those frustrating elements for our committee that exactly the same reasons for not doing it which we heard seven years ago are still being put as a reason not to do it. The evidence you have given us about the expert advice from the automobile places and also from BP in particular has been out there for that whole period of time, yet there still seems to be a push back. From our experience in Alice, was it just maintaining the pressure that you were able to bring people on board? From your memory, what was the period from the time these issues were raised and all the work you did to when it was actually a non-issue?

Mr Catchlove : It was fairly soon after introduction so it must have occurred in the six- to 12-month mark. There were discussions about the petrol bowsers, that some of the little rubber rings inside them rotted away because of this and all those kinds of things. This was all being chased down as well and turned out to be more like the 12-year-old ring was due for its lifecycle replacement anyway. Since the absolute refutation of damage to engines, it just has not come up again—it went away. Those who were suggesting that there was this problem had nowhere to go. No-one was listening any more because there was the absolute evidence on the table that no-one could point to a single example and that was it. After that it just went away as an issue.

CHAIR: One of the other issues is the fear of commercial damage that people will not go to service stations or places that sell Opal. You are unaware of any station in this city that had to close because of the use of Opal?

Mr Catchlove : No.

CHAIR: Do you know where the nearest road station is to Alice Springs? If you were a determined motorist who did not want to use Opal how far away would you have to go?

Mr Catchlove : I do not know whether they sell Opal or not, but you have Aileron Roadhouse to the north, which is 130 kilometres. The closest one to the south would be Jim's Place, which is around 80 kilometres to the south. Again, I do not know whether they sell Opal or not, but they are the two closest roadhouses.

CHAIR: I am interested to see whether any of the stations about which we are talking, which we have been told are not transferring to Opal fuel, would be able to point to some commercial process whereby a large number of people have bypassed other providers, such as those in Alice Springs, to get to them so they can get standard petrol. I do not know.

Mr Catchlove : All I can say is that in Alice Springs I do not believe a single person has suffered a detriment due to selling Opal—not being able to sell standard fuel. As I said, in the town nobody talks about it. Nobody cares. As far as everyone in this town is concerned it is unleaded. There is no distinction. Unless you see the little star symbol on it it does not even register anymore. It is our unleaded; that is what we use.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Catchlove. Congratulations to the Alice Springs community. I think it is an example of where the community has been able to exercise real pressure.