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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities

HOOD, Ms Diane, Chief Executive Officer, Central Desert Regional Council

Committee met at 11:30

CHAIR ( Senator Sterle ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee. The committee is hearing evidence for its inquiry into the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities. I welcome you all here today. This is a public hearing, and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, but under the Senate's resolutions witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera.If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed.If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all those who have made submissions and sent representatives here today. We know that people have travelled quite a distance to be here, and the committee is greatly appreciative of your participation in this inquiry. I'd also like to take this opportunity on behalf of the committee to acknowledge the traditional owners both past and present of the land on which we meet today, the Arrernte people.

The committee has received requests from the media to film and take photographs of today's proceedings. The committee has resolved that the media will be permitted to film and photograph the proceedings. However, the committee reminds media representatives that this permission can be revoked at any time, and the media must follow the directions of the secretariat staff. If a witness has objections to being filmed or photographed, could you please advise the secretariat, and the committee will ensure the media does not film or photograph you. Media representatives are reminded that they cannot take images of senators' and witnesses' documents, or of the audience. Recording must not occur from behind the committee or between the committee and witnesses, and must not otherwise interfere with proceedings.

With great pleasure, I call Ms Hood from the Central Desert Regional Council. I'm going to invite you to make a brief opening statement before the committee goes to questions. The floor is yours.

Ms Hood : Thank you. As an opening statement, I've canvassed the councillors and looked at three areas that are most pertinent that we want to raise today. One is within the Central Desert region; that is, the importance and critical nature of the airstrips—they're not really airports, but airstrips—in the regional plains primarily for health reasons but also connectivity reasons such as delivery of mail and access to those services that are available to the broader Australian public. The other issue is in terms of family and the social disadvantage of the central desert region. I have some statistics that I'll leave with the secretariat in relation to that.

The high airfares from Alice Springs to the coast make it next to impossible for family members, if someone is flown out to a larger hospital for medical reasons, to visit or accompany them, because it's prohibitive in that sense. I did note—which is a self-story—Qantas's reply that there are very cheap airfares available. I'm never seen them available to individuals, but I have discovered how you get access to them, having recently booked an overseas trip for myself. I can fly from Alice Springs to Helsinki, return, for $2,039. That includes the internal airfares out via Brisbane and in via Cairns. I think what's happened is that those links to international airfares are where the cheaper fares are used, so to speak, and I'd respectfully suggest that it's the wrong way round and giving the advantage to people—I might be disadvantaging myself here!—who don't need that lower airfare if they can afford an overseas trip.

The third point we wanted to raise was the future. Having just completed community consultations across our nine communities, one of the key things that were raised by various people was not quite prosperity but wellbeing and how they achieve growth and stability within the communities—and tourism is recognised as a major impact on that both from a microbusiness point of view and as something that aligns with a lot of the cultural activities. If people can't get to Alice Springs cheaply, then they're not going to get out to the communities. So one of the things we're looking at as a key factor is how the Central Desert communities can link in to many of the great initiatives that are underway at the moment, in terms of an art gallery in Alice Springs and various other things that are getting people to Alice, to then get those people to, in particular, some of our art galleries and centres, to help the communities grow and become more economically independent as well.

So they were the key three things the council wanted raised today.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Hood. I will just introduce the committee. Senator McCarthy is a North Territorian, as you all know. I'm from the wild West. Senator O'Sullivan is from Queensland, and Senator Patrick is from South Australia. We thank you very much, Alice Springs, for having us today, and we are very keen to hear your stories. I'll just go to Senator McCarthy. I'm sure you will have some questions, so you lead off.

Senator McCARTHY: Hi.

Ms Hood : Hello.

Senator McCARTHY: How are you, Di?

Ms Hood : I'm good, thanks.

Senator McCARTHY: Good to see you. Thank you for that. I think it's important for the senators to appreciate the geography of the Central Desert Regional Council in terms of what you're referring to. You were talking about the state of the airstrips. What is it specifically that you want this committee to understand about that?

Ms Hood : The airstrips are really critical for the communities for two reasons. One is emergencies; it's really about emergency services, and, in particular, health. There is a lack of health services in the communities. While many have clinics, they don't have all the facilities there. We don't have dialysis, for example, in the majority of the communities. So people frequently need to travel to Alice Springs, both for emergencies and for ongoing treatment. Those airstrips being maintained and available is just critical to allowing people to continue to live on-country and in those communities, and have access to medical services.

The other reason is connectivity, and the primary one that gets raised with us is the mail service, getting mail delivery to the communities, which seems like something fairly basic in other parts of Australia, but it is problematic in the remote communities.

Senator McCARTHY: Apart from the Flying Doctor Service and the medical flights, are there passenger flights? And how many airstrips are you talking about within the regional council, for the benefit of the committee?

Ms Hood : Each of our nine communities has an airstrip, and the airstrips provide for all those things I talked about, and passenger services. Our area is actually bigger than Victoria. To try and put it in perspective, it is precisely 282,064 square kilometres, so it is bigger than Victoria. Our furthest-away community is Lajamanu, which is 900 kilometres by road, at least half of which is dirt. In order for us to get to Lajamanu, flying is often the most economical option, despite the large prices, because either it's a three-day trip if you drive—one day there, one day working and one day back—or you can fly out and spend two days on the community carrying out services. There are numerous small companies that provide those services. We do have to carefully weigh up within our budget the balance as to when we spend the money to use the air services and save time and spend more time on communities versus driving, which saves hard cash but takes up more time.

Senator McCARTHY: How much are the flights?

Ms Hood : I'd have to get back to you on that, but, if you like, I can email recent examples to the committee secretariat.

Senator McCARTHY: You mentioned people needing to go interstate for hospital. For the benefit of the committee, how often would that occur?

Ms Hood : It's a hard question to answer. For example, in the last six months, out of 12 councillors, we've had one councillor in Adelaide for a substantial amount of time seeking medical services. I believe his family could not get down to visit him. That was Councillor Billy Liddle from Atitjere. Those are the kinds of ratios we're often looking at.

CHAIR: I just want to follow on, if I can, with the communities and discuss rural communities in the Territory, of course. I'll be keen to get some feedback. We picked up some information in Broome yesterday about the Kimberley through a submission that came from a well-respected and highly regarded pastoralist, Susan Bradley, who is well known through the Kimberley. What she brought to our attention yesterday was that, in the good old days, when these communities were all about communities and everyone was out to help their fellow man or woman rather than putting profits first, mail runs and the like used to be able to hook up—people could leave communities and jump on the mail plane and get a lift back to Broome, Kununurra or wherever it may be for health or other reasons. Firstly, is that what happens in the Territory? If it has stopped, I'd like to know why. In Broome, we were told there was a transfer of contracts to another aviation company who just wiped out the goodwill stuff and thought everything had to be based around making a dollar.

Ms Hood : I am not aware of any services in the Central Desert area that allow people to more informally take advantage of those flights. That doesn't mean it's not happening, but I'm not aware of any.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator O'Sullivan.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Thank you, Ms Hood, for your attendance and your evidence. You referred to nine airstrips. Who owns those airstrips?

Ms Hood : The airstrips are owned by the Northern Territory government. Council does have contracts over most, if not all, of them to provide some services in terms of slashing the grass and keeping that down, reporting faults et cetera, but that's on a service basis.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Would that include maintenance and grading the strip?

Ms Hood : All the strips are bitumen, so most of the services of that nature are done directly by the NTG.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: If a strip required capital works, for example, that would be done by the Northern Territory government?

Ms Hood : Yes. And we might seek to win a contract, if that went out on a tender basis and if we had the people and equipment in the town, but it's variable, if you like.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Do any or all of those strips have any full-time staff or is it done on a needs basis?

Ms Hood : Not to my knowledge, no full-time staff.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: So, for example, if there's a commercial aircraft coming in, the company that provides that commercial service—whatever it may be, freight or passenger—has to provide their own reception, their own ability to fuel and all those sorts of things?

Ms Hood : Yes, there is fuel at some of the sites. I'm not quite sure how that works and who they pay. I believe the national company—I think it's Avdata; I'm not quite sure of the name—provides the service for small plane pilots to register and check and advise where they're going.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Could you take some of those questions on notice? One of the early defences, if you like, that has been made by some of the national airlines relates to additional costs or extraordinary costs associated with some rural and regional air services, which they say are imposed on them by the owners of airports. It's important we know whether or not there's any substance to that.

Ms Hood : It would only be small commercial operators that use our airstrips. The larger ones would be Alice Springs airport, and I would not have access to that data but I will check.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: We will talk to Alice Springs when they come to give evidence. Do you know are there any charges associated with landing or taking off from these nine airstrips?

Ms Hood : I believe there is but we don't have any control or visibility of those.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: In order that we might direct our inquiry somewhere, have you got any sense of how any of that works? If I were a pilot going to one of the airstrips to pick up passengers, where would I go to understand what my charges might be? Who would I notify that I'm landing there? How would I be billed?

Ms Hood : I'm probably not the best person to answer that because councils aren't involved in that. I do know from being in outback New South Wales there is a national company that registers who lands, who doesn't and sorts out the payments of landing fees et cetera to the owning body of the airport or the airstrip, which, in this case, is NTG. I can certainly see if we can find some more information on that for you.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: This in my mind is slightly different to air services in and out of a hub like Alice Springs or Darwin or Longreach. I imagine that there are quite literally hundreds if not thousands of these types of strips across the country. Your concern is that goods and services that come via these strips are extraordinarily expensive or were your comments directed at Alice Springs to destination flights?

Ms Hood : It is basically both. I agree they are separate things. In terms of the airstrips, the criticality is the availability for emergency use—medical—

Senator O'SULLIVAN: What does that mean?

Ms Hood : It means they are upgraded, maintained and available for use.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I misunderstood you before. So is there a problem with the upgrading and maintenance of these nine strips owned by the Northern Territory government?

Ms Hood : Not at the moment but because there are many and they are dispersed, there are always funding concerns about their ongoing longevity.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Have you seen evidence of that to date with any of the nine strips that they haven't been properly maintained?

Ms Hood : That is a difficult question. There is often fighting between the various agencies that might own different contracts in relation to the airstrips because there is not always a unified approach. To give you a small example, the council owns a contract with the Post Office for the distribution of the mail at Yuendumu and another company owns the delivery of the mail to the airstrip. There were disputes over who should be doing what in relation to the airstrip and the mail wasn't delivered for a period of time by the third-party because they wanted to force council to take on more work. We basically developed a keep-it simple-approach and went back to the owning body, the post office, and said, 'You need to sort out the delivery of the mail.' But because there are many parties involved in the use, management, servicing of those airstrips, it is sometimes very difficult to get a unified and cohesive position and that is probably what causes a lot of the concerns.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I'm not sure this committee will turn its mind to that level of granulation of problems because they clearly are solvable if two grown-ups were able to reach an agreement about how the mail gets from the post office to the airstrip. We are interested in the delivery of the services, as to whether they are adequate, and we are interested in the cost of the delivery of those services to see that it is not prohibitive.

Senator PATRICK: Ms Hood, it strikes me that the services you are talking about are all provided by what could be termed 'general aviation', as opposed to regular public transport flights.

Ms Hood : That's correct in relation to the airstrips on the community, yes.

Senator PATRICK: We've heard evidence in other forums that general aviation is in decline in Australia. Would you share that view about general aviation here in the Northern Territory?

Ms Hood : I don't really have any statistics on that, so I cannot comment.

Senator PATRICK: You have not talked to pilots or any of the companies, or found a lack of competition among the general aviation community here?

Ms Hood : The only comment I can make is that when, on a council basis, we seek flights to the communities we have always been able to source them.

Senator PATRICK: Do you do that through some sort of chartering panel? Or do you have a preferred—

Ms Hood : We will get quotations from local companies—ideally, from three of them—and go forward with the cheapest and most effective.

Senator PATRICK: Do you have any difficulty getting quotes?

Ms Hood : Not to date.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: This is the last time I'll ask this question. I am looking for a specific example as to whether the owner of the airport—in this case, the Northern Territory government—has failed to maintain any of these nine 'airstrips', as you refer to them, in an operational fashion. Do you have a contemporary example or a historical example where one of these airstrips could no longer function because the owner had failed to properly maintain it?

Ms Hood : No.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: We can work out the commercial operations—the Flying Doctor and the like—but can you run through who might use them in terms of the categories of operators? There is general aviation. The Flying Doctor uses them. Private people land there and take off. Are there any other categories of users?

Ms Hood : Yes, that's right. The only other category of users would be businesses such as councils or organisations—to get staff out for specific projects or work.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: This is a market environment where there is competition. By the sound of it, if a council wants to get a quote, they have any number of people. So there are market forces at play. I am isolating the nine strips. I want to come to Alice Springs for a moment. We have a market environment where people can compete, and one assumes you will get the best price from that competition in terms of the use of the commercial operations of these strips.

Ms Hood : That's correct.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: One of the keys to this is a marketplace. By the time we get to the Darwins, the Alice Springs and some of the other small communities, we don't have a market; we have a regulated operator and there is some mystery, to us at least, about how pricing may occur. I will come to Darwin. You raised the example of a flight that was attached to an international flight, where it would seem that you were either flying overseas for nothing or on that occasion you could fly from Darwin to Cairns, Darwin to Brisbane or Darwin to Sydney for nothing. Is that the effect if it were to be compared to the general cost?

Ms Hood : I think that is a fair comparison. The price I quoted was from Alice Springs to Helsinki return. As an individual looking for a good return fare to Brisbane or another east coast city, I would be paying in the order of $1,200 to $1,500, which is a large proportion of that $2,000 overseas airfare.

CHAIR: That's return?

Ms Hood : Return.

CHAIR: So Alice Springs to Brisbane or Sydney is $1,200?

Ms Hood : Often the best price you can get is around $600.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: One way?

Ms Hood : Yes.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Are there any concessions for residents of Alice Springs and the region?

Ms Hood : I have never discovered any!

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Obviously, other operations to have what are called 'resident fares'—not many of them, mind you. They too operate as a mystery, but I'm hoping to get to the bottom of that. So you don't get any concessions whatsoever? You might just competing with whoever wants to be at the airport and get on the plane?

Ms Hood : Yes. Another thing which is a mystery to me is that I have never been on a plane that hasn't been at least two-thirds full. So I do find it a bit of a mystery that one of the reasons often quoted is the lack of traffic, the amount of people on the planes. Every plane I have ever got on to go to the east coast has been relatively full.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: How many operators come into Alice Springs?

Ms Hood : Qantas is the primary one. You've caught me out here. Virgin did, but I do not know if they have stopped. And there has at times been a third airline coming in, but often they start and then stop.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: You say Qantas is the primary one. But you don't have any particular definition of what you mean by 'primary'? You just mean that they are the ones that provide the most services?

Ms Hood : That's right.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: So they are not identified as primary by a regulation or law in the Territory?

Ms Hood : No.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Do you know whether they codeshare? Do you understand what codesharing is?

Ms Hood : My answer would be yes. Often there is a codeshare—for example, if you fly to Perth with Emirates—because of the extensions overseas. So there are various codeshares that occur, yes.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Where there is more than one operator—and my colleague has just pointed out that Qantas, Airnorth and Virgin operate from Alice Springs—do you know whether they share staffing arrangements? If you are going to board a Virgin flight, are you likely to bump into an attendant who had just boarded the Qantas flight or the Airnorth flight?

CHAIR: Senator O'Sullivan, we do have the Alice Springs Town Council and Tourism Central Australia. Your question might be better directed to them.

Ms Hood : Yes. I was going to say that I have no knowledge about that.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: In relation to the nine airstrips, I have exhausted myself with those questions.

CHAIR: Ms Hood, thank you very much for coming. How far have you travelled to get here today?

Ms Hood : Our headquarters are in Alice Springs, so I haven't travelled far.

CHAIR: Ms Hood, thank you very much for your time today. We know where to find you should we need to follow anything up.