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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan Working Group

BRITTON, Councillor Eric Charles (Rick), Chair, Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan Working Group and Mayor, Boulia Shire Council

GILMORE, Councillor Mr Thomas (Tom), Deputy-Chair, Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan Working Group; and Mayor, Mareeba Shire Council

McNAMARA, Councillor Jane Beatrice, Deputy-Chair, Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan Working Group, and Mayor, Flinders Shire Council

SCHUNTNER, Ms Glenys, Secretariat, Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan Working Group; and Chief Executive Officer, Regional Development Australia Townsville and North West Queensland

Committee met at 08:55

CHAIR ( Mr Entsch ): Welcome. This briefing is a formal proceeding of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading information is a serious matter and may be seen as a contempt of the parliament. Evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliament to privilege. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and we can go from there and ask some questions.

Councillor Britton : The IQ-RAP is a local government working group in Central, Northern and Southern Queensland. There are 33 local government members, eight regional road groups and five RDAs across Queensland. Up until this time, because we have made a proposal here before, those partners—and RACQ is also a partner—have invested $400,000 into getting this plan to where it is today. The IQ-RAP Working Group has put in a prebudget submission for $2 million to take it to the next step. We're requesting a letter of support.

This IQ-RAP plan is a long-term plan for funding for roads through regional and remote Queensland. It's something that gives vision and to which we can make a commitment. It's forward planning instead of ad hoc spending. It prioritises areas that need to be done to have some roads meet today's standards. There are some roads that already have that standard. They are priority roads that meet those standards and other roads that it will take a period of time to get those roads up to a set standard. There are roads out there that need to be done here and now. It's a thoughtful progress that is not a big burden on any budget. The goal of it is to improve our road and corridor network for what we produce. As you know, we're proposing that Australia has that clean, green image. The people who are producing our produce need roads to deliver that product to a high standard. That's how this proposal has come up. That's where I'm going to leave it. I'll hand on over to Glenys.

Ms Schuntner : Councillor McNamara, did you want to make a comment first?

Councillor McNamara : Thank you. As vice-chair, I came onto this committee after they'd done the bulk of the work. I'm very pleased to be part of this committee so that we can look at the whole of regional Queensland. We can all work together to build better roads. The first stage of IQ-RAP identified 3,000 kilometres of roads and 300 bridges within that area of the 33 shires that were substandard out of 16,000 kilometres of roads.

CHAIR: So just under a quarter?

Councillor McNamara : Yes. So this planning is a great tool, and now we're onto IQ-RAP2, which will be published before the budget. We're wanting to take this to the next step where we can pull together all of the reports that are out there into one document that can be used as a planning tool by all levels of government and across all of Australia. I'll just read something on a letter that Glenys has organised: 'The Australian government and regional Australia can benefit through the support of this prebudget submission. It's scope and goals align with the government's work on the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, the white paper on developing northern Australia and the government's goal to encourage decentralisation, close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage and increase Australia's productivity, particularly in exporting.'

CHAIR: Can I just say there is another sentence you need to include in there which is absolutely critical. And I've seen Senator Macdonald squirming and working towards me! 'It will also build capacity for diversity in tourism in the region.' You need to have that in your first introduction. I remember you first came here as part of our tourism inquiry. A bit further down, you talk about strategic freight and tourism routes. We have spoken about strategic ring-roads et cetera and safety. People driving these roads are not used to the conditions. It needs to suit tourism and safety. You have been very comprehensive across the whole outback network. Further on you talk about increasing tourism in regional areas that have relied heavily on agriculture. So you need that in the first sentence, because that's what it's all about. Of course, down the bottom you should say you need 'up to' two years, not two years. And a rather modest investment will basically give a blueprint for making sure that the road opportunities in relation to tourism can be captured for all of your 28 shires. Is that a fair assessment?

Ms Schuntner : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Chair, I suspect others have already spoken to this group about their principal purpose, but this is a tourism inquiry that this committee is doing at the moment. So I wonder if, for the record, one of you could give us a very short summary on the importance of your road plan not just to other economic factors that we've spoken about previously but particularly related to tourism. The chair mentioned some of it, but it would be nice if you could make a very short comment.

Councillor Britton : I would like to make a comment on that. You would be aware of the Outback Highway. A lot of these roads interlock with that, from Cairns down through to Boulia itself and in through the Territory. Boulia shire had beef and wool and now we're just totally beef. Tourism for our local communities—the Boulia township and Urandangi themselves—is their lifeblood. I've spoken to our business owners in town when there is drought relief, and they said, 'Ric, whether we have a good season or a drought now, we have tourism coming through, so that keeps us ticking over.' Twenty years ago they would have been feeling the pinch. Once the rural industry got drought and everyone shut down their budgets, those businesses did do it very tough.

CHAIR: They shut down and finished.

Councillor Britton : They finished up. Now they have realised that tourism is their second industry, and it's probably now taking over their local businesses. Tourism is now their No. 1 trade.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: In most of your areas the tourists come by road; they don't fly in?

Ms Schuntner : Yes.

Councillor Britton : There are very few that fly in, and that's right across the 33 councils. I'd be bold enough to say, in representing them, that those 33 councils would be in that same boat.

CHAIR: The outback experience is a drive experience, because you—

Councillor Britton : And it's untapped.

Ms Schuntner : One of the challenges we're addressing with IQ-RAP is to identify the roads that could be upgraded to better suit tourists, to attract more tourists into areas that are currently off bitumen, for example. As we all probably know, hire car contract insurance gets invalidated if you go on an unsealed road, so that's not good for fly-drive tourism. Those who invested in very big expensive Winnebagos or caravans and so on don't like to go on extensive corrugated roads that will increase wear and tear and, of course, their costs of getting from A to B. By sealing and upgrading roads that are currently unsealed, to even get them to bitumen level would make a significant impact on tourism in the outback region in particular. By being able to seal those roads, where we haven't got them sealed, we're creating more and more loop opportunities to distribute those tourists right across the region. The last thing I'd add is that Tourism and Events Queensland does have a very high priority itself on developing drive tourism in the outback and in regional Queensland as a whole. We're basically doing some of that groundwork in terms of how we look at the road network to support, encourage and grow their industry.

Councillor McNamara : I'd just like to add that I'm also now the chair of the Overlander's Way, which is from Townsville through to Tennant Creek. One of the benefits of that is that we're trying to get tours off to the side. The same thing—the OQTA this year is really pushing for drive tours, and they would not consider any that have to go over any roads that are gravel. We've also got two new drive routes that are being pushed through MTEZ coming in through Cairns. They won't consider coming down the Hann Highway at the moment because of those stretches of gravel. They all have to follow a bitumen road. So they've gone right out through to Normanton and Karumba, down to Mount Isa and back along the Flinders. The other one goes along Flinders Highway and down to Boulia and around that way, and back to Winton. Every one of those is following bitumen roads.

CHAIR: With the new Crocodile Dundee tourism thing, which is clearly providing drive tourism in the area, if we don't take advantage of this sooner we're going to miss out later on.

Councillor McNamara : Especially with OQTA—they would back us to the hilt on this as well because of that drive tourism that they're pushing for this year.

Ms Schuntner : It goes without saying that we've got letters of support for IQ-RAP through our engagement with Queensland Tourism Industry Council, campervan associations and the Outback Queensland Tourism Association. They've all been highly supportive of what we're doing to help enhance their industry. Yesterday, we met with Ms Karly Abbott from Minister Ciobo's office to also express how this would support objectives with trade and investment and also, importantly, tourism.

CHAIR: I think it's fair to say also that the safety aspect of it is absolutely critical, because most of those people who embark on this adventure have little or no experience at all in driving on—

Councillor McNamara : Long distances.

CHAIR: long distance outback roads, and dirt can be a challenge.

Councillor Britton : And the triple road trains out there and the size of machinery is another thing.

Councillor Gilmore : If I might just make a comment for the record. I think it's important for the committee to understand the work that's gone into this process. To identify those 3,000 kilometres of road was a complex and sophisticated multi-criteria analysis that was applied to 16,000 kilometres of road and the bridges associated with it. I'm making this comment so you understand the underlying reasons and philosophy behind it and the methodology. Having then filtered out of those 3,000 kilometres of road and then identified the process by which they can all be brought up to being fit for purpose over a period of 18 years—they've been identified as 'critical' through to 'can be done then'. I think it's very important, if we're going to have these roads set aside for safety reasons, for economic reasons, for the tourism industry, for the minerals industry et cetera, that we follow the work that was done here, and that's the reason for the request for $2 million. That is to take this work and then build, with the extra money, the extra nine projects, to confirm, in a business case, that it's worthy of the work that's been done. It's an important statement of fact that we know there is an issue and we believe that we know how to resolve it, but we need to be able to go to Treasury, state government or any of the funding agencies and say: 'Here it is. It's a whole package, including the full business case that justifies the work that we've done and justifies our request for $270 million a year for 18 years to resolve these issues.' It's long-term; we know that and recognise that from our discussion yesterday. There's no question about that. But if you don't have a vision and you don't do the work, it won't ever get done.

Ms O'TOOLE: I'd like to commend you on your work. I've spoken to Glenys about this, and to bring all of the regions together—as you have—is fantastic. Even bearing in mind that, yes, we are a bit dry at the moment, with a wet season and all of these unsealed roads, that would significantly limit your tourism, for months at a time, without this work being done. Is that right?

Councillor Britton : It disables the liveability of those communities—not just for touring but for those people who you want to come and grow the community.

Ms Schuntner : I think it is a major impediment to further investment, whether it be in tourism or other industries. If you know it is for only six or nine months a year that you can get your product to market or your customers to your place of business, it really hampers the ability to see a year-round investment and make it viable. So, this work is long-term. We are quite confident that by improving the road infrastructure we are going to improve the opportunities for private sector investment.

Ms O'TOOLE: Just on the tourism, have you noticed or is there any way of knowing whether the majority of the people you are attracting are grey nomads? Are you seeing families come through, or are you seeing a mixture?

Councillor Britton : In Boulia last year we noticed that there are a lot of families coming through now, because the roads are sealed. When you talk about liveability, go down into Diamantina Shire and talk to the residents of Bedourie. They've just sealed the road from Boulia down to Bedourie. They've got a sealed access road and they've got mobile phone service now. They are the people who have lived in those remote areas with no sealed road. In 12 months time, go down and ask every resident how their liveability has changed because of the sealed road and the improved communications, and see if you don't get 100 out of 100 points for that. It is an example of making a community liveable. Their standards have gone from a very low level to something that you would live with in a city. That is a prime example.

Councillor Gilmore : My shire, Mareeba Shire, is right at the top of this. We are very great fruit and vegetable producers: bananas, mangos, lychees, avocados—the whole lot. We don't want smashed avocados before they get to the truck, or banana smoothies when they go across the road! But the cost of industry is important to us, for both input and output: the product out and the material inputs coming back in, the fertilizer and everything else that comes in. The cost to industry of broken down vehicles is enormous, at the transport end. But have a look at the cost to families—the community cost—of broken vehicles. They have to get their kids to school. I have a school that's operating with four or five children in it, because the school bus refuses to go on that road. So they're running a school, at Irvinebank, with four or five kids in it. Imagine the cost of that. If we could get our budgets sorted on a global scale and say, 'We'll close the school and spend the money to bitumen the road,' life would be much easier. But it doesn't work quite that way. So, everybody gets a benefit from what this work is doing.

Ms LANDRY: We were just talking previously about some funding you had for the beef roads program and other projects, but there are hold-ups. Where do you see the biggest hold-ups with that? Is it getting the funding through? Is it the planning or construction of the roads? Where do you think the big obstacles are in getting the roads done?

Councillor Gilmore : There are a number of answers to that. I will just touch on beef roads and my own personal experience in Mareeba Shire. We have beef road money allocated to the Burke Development Road, which is, essentially, Mareeba to Chillagoe—$8 million. It is now 18 months since that money was allocated in the budget. We're still trying to get agreement to get it on the ground. I am told by main roads that that is a matter of concern. They blame the federal government in terms of process.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Whose money it is.

Councillor Gilmore : Whose money it is. I am not on the inside; I can only reiterate what I am told—it can't happen because of this this or it can't happen because of that. I have spoken with Barnaby and other ministers about that. I would expect that somebody was going to get a higher level conjunction of state and federal to try and work it out. So what is the issue and how do we make it work? Simply, if there is money allocated then it needs to be on the ground because it is absolutely fundamental to the future of our rural parts of Queensland. That this IQ-RAP is for areas west of the Bruce Highway and out of South-East Queensland. These are the areas that need the money. If it is allocated, we need it on the ground.

CHAIR: Are we finding the same level of tardiness with the strategic roads funding as well? There are two streams of funding. There is the beef and then there is the strategic roads, which the Hann Highway is funded under. Are you finding the same level of frustration and tardiness?

Councillor McNamara : Probably not to the same extent as what Tom has because obviously the Hann Highways is between Flinders and Etheridge shires. I'm the mayor of Flinders Shire. We've already done the first project that we were allocated and so have Etheridge. They had to widen a section of bitumen. To my knowledge, they've been working on that. I know that our first amount of money is on the ground; it is finished, completed.

CHAIR: Do you have trouble getting it through the whole contracting practice through to doing the job and receiving the money? Was it all done in a timely manner or were there areas where it could be improved to accelerate the process?

Councillor McNamara : We were finished by December, within the time frame that we were given. Our biggest problem was the Indigenous component that comes with the federal funding because we couldn't find the traineeships that were needed to fulfil that criteria. So that was the biggest hold-up for us and it probably took us four months to be able to access enough Indigenous trainees.

CHAIR: You only needed four.

Councillor McNamara : Yes, we ended up with four. I think we really only needed two but we did end up with four. We ended up having to source them. We got two from Richmond Shire and two from Kowanyama. We think that that is probably going to help us in the future because with each time you get money, the percentage rate goes up. So every time you get the next amount of money, you have to find more of these people and they have to be trainees so you can't have the people you had last time. Because they have already done a traineeship, they might not be eligible for the next lot.

CHAIR: The ones that you are training this time, have they completed the traineeships yet?

Councillor McNamara : They were put on for a term appointment so that once that was finished, their term is finished.

CHAIR: So there is no job for them at the end of it?

Councillor McNamara : No, unless we employ them as a permanent full-time on the Flinders Shire. But we can't use them within that criteria.

CHAIR: That's a little bit of a disincentive.

Ms O'TOOLE: I would be curious about that. Would not the aim of putting these young people or any person for that matter into a traineeship be that it leads to a job at the end of the day?

Councillor McNamara : That's what we would have liked to have seen. Obviously we can offer them a job if there is a job available.

CHAIR: Which is why it is important that you have that continuity of work and no gaps in between.

Councillor McNamara : That's correct. But also there is a component there for Indigenous businesses. We are fortunate in that we have one of those within our shire and they do concrete so that was probably the easiest thing. The main concern for me now is that other people are jumping on that bandwagon and I just want to know that there are checks and balances in place, that the people who were now being ticked as Indigenous businesses are actually Indigenous businesses.

Ms O'TOOLE: One question on the traineeships: do you find there's a problem with young people who may have done a cert II or cert III—cert III particularly—in year 11 or 12? Does that exempt them from a traineeship?

Councillor Britton : I can answer that: yes, it does.

Ms O'TOOLE: That is a real problem.

Councillor Britton : We had an employee at home. There was a loader certificate coming around which was supported and paid for if they wanted to do the training. I said to this young bloke that we employed that I thought that would be an opportunity, because we operate a loader on the station but we don't use it on public roads. I said, 'You will be able to get your ticket so that will enhance your employment if you happen to leave here.' When they went into sign up, they said, 'You are on the record that you've done a traineeship in years 11 and 12.' He was ineligible.

Ms O'TOOLE: That's a real problem.

Councillor Britton : He didn't even realise that he had it.

Ms O'TOOLE: It's happening across a number of industries.

Councillor McNamara : I'm glad you brought that up, Cathy, because I didn't know that.

Ms O'TOOLE: Yes. It is a real issue.

CHAIR: Is it a side issue for what we are doing now?

Ms O'TOOLE: If you were even putting young people into traineeships that were tourism related and they had done something school, would it exempt them from a program for tourism?

Councillor Britton : It was a cert II and cert III in agriculture.

CHAIR: But the same could apply if they did something that was tourism related and that would disqualify them.

Councillor McNamara : Or in our workshop.

CHAIR: So I think it is something we can raise as an issue.

Councillor McNamara : That's right. Because as you have said, tourism is not just about people visiting. It's the whole gamut of things including the infrastructure that you need in your community to enable those activities to happen—that is, people need to be working on roads for maintenance. These traineeships are available but you can't have one because you've done one.

CHAIR: That's something we can raise.

Councillor McNamara : The other issue we had was that we had the big solar farm going in.

CHAIR: This is something that, in Western Australia, they should be doing in the northern area. The comprehensive network of roads is much greater in Queensland. It's about bloody time. I hope you have got a note, says our deputy.

Councillor McNamara : Just as well he came or we wouldn't have had a quorum.

CHAIR: That's alright; once we have on, we can continue to operate.

Ms Schuntner : We have had discussions about the opportunity to translate it to Western Australia.

Councillor Britton : That is exactly right. This template here could go right across northern Australia.

CHAIR: That is why I'm glad electorate have got our West Australian here and we have got our Northern Territory guy here. I would like it noted that this is a Queensland initiative.

Ms Schuntner : But we are caring and sharing.

CHAIR: And we are happy for that. I notice there are some gaps. Looking at all the councils, I understand there were a few that were not involved in the second round. I notice there are no roads north of Cairns. Are there any reasons for that?

Ms Schuntner : To put it simply, when we established the project, the decision was made and the RRTG from Far North Queensland in Cairns supported it, but then the map of what was included in IQ-RAP depended on the councils contributing financially. So that road network reflects the councils that have money put money into the project.

CHAIR: So there are a few little gaps. Most of them are regional councils. I notice that all the regional development associations right across the whole region have contributed, which is good to see.

Councillor Britton : That has got to be given credit on its own. When you have such a large number of councils working through remote rural area, eight regional road and five RDAs with one goal, I don't think you would find that anywhere else in Australia.

CHAIR: There is a problem with trying to work it out with the beef roads in that you've got the bureaucracy trying to prioritise and do all sorts of other things. What you guys are doing here is identifying that priority and giving us an idea on the costs so it makes it much easier to start the work and it gives you that continuity of work.

Councillor Britton : The unique thing about it is that usually most of these plans come the top and work their way down. This has come from the grassroots—the people closest to the community.

Mr SNOWDON: We can't have that! We can't have people telling us what they think!

Councillor Britton : This is a commonsense plan.

Mr SNOWDON: I'm not across the detail, but I will be.

Councillor Gilmore : Just to follow on from what you just said, Warren, it's a credible process. Everything about it can be verified and justified.

Mr SNOWDON: I haven't read the detail, but it's smart and you'd think that the people who are allocating resources might actually talk to you.

CHAIR: This one here is what it's all about. It's something that I'd like to see as we do our recommendations and finalising it here. It's a cost of up to two years and $2 million to put this together as a completed plan so that you can go ahead. That's what I want the committee to recommend.

Mr SNOWDON: We can do that.

Councillor Britton : If the committee could write a letter of support for our $10 million—

CHAIR: The letter of support will come in the way of a recommendation of our committee. It will come, definitely. My other colleagues also agree on it.

Mr SNOWDON: If they don't, we'll tell them to agree. It's okay.

Councillor Gilmore : I like your attitude!

CHAIR: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Councillor McNamara : I'd like to comment on the prioritisation. We were number four on the list with the beef roads. We had to suck it up and say 'That's great' because the data showed that the first three should be funded.

CHAIR: Eighteen months down the track and up here there's still no money for the beef roads.

Mr SNOWDON: There's buggerall money going out. There's no money.

CHAIR: A bit of money going in the strategics, but nothing in the beef.

Councillor Gilmore : There's a bit of planning that's happened, but nothing on the ground.

Councillor Britton : That's exactly what happened when there was that announcement about $100 million for the Outback Highway on the Friday before the last federal election. There was $5 million taken out of that straight away and allocated to the Bulloo Shire. It just got lost. We couldn't find it anywhere. Now we've actually found it. It's our shire road. We've planned it; we've got it; we're sitting there. We had crews that had finished the last job ready to go straight on to that because of the announcement. We've had to bring them back in and find them other jobs. Now it's slowly progressing.

CHAIR: This is where that continuity is absolutely critical with jobs. There is Indigenous participation. You can't keep them on unless you have the work.

Councillor Gilmore : There is also the cost of establishment and re-establishment of your plant. You have to get all your men and all your gear.

Mr SNOWDON: We know all that.

CHAIR: That will be part of the preamble. Thank you for your time.

Councillor Britton : Thank you for allowing us our allocated time. It's much appreciated.

CHAIR: Thank you for coming today.

Committee adjourned at 9:28