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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

COOK, Ms Sarah, Member, Northern Territory Isolated Children's Parents' Association; and Private capacity

QUILLIAM, Pastor Benjamin, Member, Northern Territory Isolated Children's Parents' Association; and Private capacity

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives from the Northern Territory branch of the Isolated Children's Parents' Association. We have received your submission as submission No. 70, but we'll talk about your own submissions as well. Do you wish to make any additions or amendments to your submissions before I invite you to make a biref opening statement?

Ms Cook : No, thank you.

CHAIR: All right, Ms Cook, you can open the batting.

Ms Cook : Thank you. My name is Sarah Cook and I live 140 kilometres north of Alice Springs, where my husband and I manage a cattle station as PAYG wage earners. All of our parents were involved in the agricultural industry, and it appears our son will also make a career in the bush. Both my husband and I were educated on School of the Air and went to boarding school for our secondary education. We live, love and work for regional and remote Australia. I am actively and proudly involved in many organisations in our community, one of them being the Isolated Children's Parents' Association. Today I am here wearing two hats, representing both my own submission and ICPA's submission to this inquiry.

Before I talk about how airfares and airports affect education in the bush, let's start with how education happens when you don't live near a town or city. Firstly, living remotely means you're not close to a town or city. In fact, some NT ICPA members are almost a thousand kilometres away from their nearest service centre. I know it's hard to comprehend, but that is our reality. For most, primary education takes place via School of the Air, at home, in the home schoolroom under the immediate care of parents. For secondary, we have two choices: distance education or boarding school. Many of us choose boarding school because it provides opportunities that bush kids rarely experience, such as socialisation, sport and subject choices. For tertiary, almost all students will study away from home and often interstate, given the Northern Territory has only one university, located in Darwin.

Last year, ICPA asked our Northern Territory members why they chose a school away from home. The top three reasons were: affordability; location, where family support is reasonably close by; and the facility with curriculum and values that suit the student. I imagine these are the very same reasons as a metropolitan family would give. However, the Territory has a limited number of boarding and tertiary facilities; therefore, regional and remote families have a limited choice and, certainly, none of them close to home. In addition, many of us have extended family interstate—remember: affordability, location and curriculum that suits the student.

Regional and remote families have to travel to access a choice in education, and that is how airfares and airports affect education in the bush. If I could borrow a quote, 'In the regions, air travel is not a luxury; it is an essential service akin to buses and trains in the metropolitan areas.' Air travel is not a luxury in our part of the world. For us, it is simply a direct and practical way to reach face-to-face education.

So as to educate your children in the bush, air travel is a very, very expensive necessity, and our family has rationalised sending our son to boarding school in Toowoomba. Toowoomba has many agri-focused boarding schools, but mostly we chose Toowoomba because my husband's parents live in the vicinity and, between them, are suffering dementia and other age related illnesses. This way, if there is an emergency or celebration with either my in-laws or our son, we get to see all of them on a single trip.

In 2017 we paid almost $10,000 in airfares: $5,700 getting our son to and from school and over $4,000 in dropping him off to boarding school for the very first time and then visiting him once during the year to watch him play the only rugby game we have ever watched him play. This year we are limiting ourselves to a single family trip, as we simply cannot afford these airfares. We have gone from having our son in our schoolroom in our home to talking to him on the phone sometimes not for 11 weeks at a time.

We might have chosen an affordable boarding school, but we cannot access affordable airfares. While we have made an education choice in the same way as any other metropolitan family would make one, our choice is not subsidised by student fares. Because our travel is at peak times, being the start and end of school holidays, we actually pay a penalty. Northern Territory ICPA have example after example of bush families paying spectacular fare prices because school holidays fell near Easter, the Commonwealth Games or the Darwin Cup, for example. I know people who have purchased fares months in advance to get the best price only to find the school calendar has changed or a school sports event has been announced or the student has got sick and been sent home early, loading fares up to incomprehensible amounts. I don't even know if that's a word—but it's big!

CHAIR: It'll do!

Ms Cook : I am here to ask for concessions for regional students using air travel for education purposes. Our city cousins receive student discount fares every day. Air travel is not a luxury to us. Air travel is simply a direct and practical way to get to school.

CHAIR: I have written down 'student fares', so, Ms Cook, you've made that very clear. Just to make sure I haven't got your interpretation wrong, school buses and other things that are subsidised for city kids to get to and from school is what you are talking about?

Ms Cook : That's the comparison, yes.

CHAIR: Has there ever been in the Territory relief for remote students in terms of subsidisation of airfares?

Ms Cook : We receive a Northern Territory subsidy of 45c a kilometre if we board interstate at the nearest airport.

CHAIR: Let me just explore that a little bit more. It is 45c per kilometre. What does that do, sorry?

Ms Cook : It's to the nearest airport.

CHAIR: So, from your property, that's 140 kilometres north?

Ms Cook : Yes.

CHAIR: So you get 140 times 45c per student?

Ms Cook : Four times a year.

CHAIR: That's just to get them from your place to Alice?

Ms Cook : That's right.

CHAIR: That sounds attractive, but the truth of matter is it's—

Ms Cook : It's about $360 a year, I think.

CHAIR: What's typical for you? You said $10,000 in airfares.

Ms Cook : Yes.

CHAIR: You said $5,000 the first time your son went to boarding school—you and your husband went with him to set him up, which all parents would want to do.

Ms Cook : It was $5,700 for his airfares alone—four return airfares in the year.

CHAIR: And that's four times?

Ms Cook : Four return airfares, yes.

CHAIR: So the little relief that you do get that's provided by the Northern Territory government, I would assume, is about 300 bucks for the year?

Ms Cook : Which covers fuel and wear and tear on the vehicle to get to town.

CHAIR: Yes, let alone your time out. As a parent, I actually can relate to this. I'm from the city, and I couldn't imagine the challenges of sending your kids up at the tender age of 12, is it?

Ms Cook : Yes, sometimes 11.

CHAIR: The kids may be clicking their heels, but for the parents it's not a heel-clicking—

Ms Cook : Or you drag them, crying.

CHAIR: Sure, okay. That explains that. There is one senator from Toowoomba here—see if you can get your discount at the school!

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Where are they going in Toowoomba?

Ms Cook : Downlands College.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I have a couple of quick questions. Is there any support for isolated parents in other states that you don't get because you're in the Northern Territory?

Ms Cook : Yes. There is state support, off the top of my head, in Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia, and I believe some in New South Wales. We receive state support as well; however, our state support ends at the airport.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: It would seem that, when one starts to think about isolated parents, the northern part of Western Australia and the Northern Territory is where your mind would go first. So is there some reason why the Territory government does not support your organisation in line with best practice or best support from other states?

Ms Cook : The Northern Territory Isolated Children's Parents' Association has been lobbying the Northern Territory government for more support, and we believe that they are considering our lobbying. However, no offer has been forthcoming yet.

CHAIR: Have you been able to garner political support for that? Is that part of your strategy? We have a couple of local members in the room today—you shouldn't miss the opportunity!

Ms Cook : I'm not really sure how to answer that question. I can say that, federally, the Isolated Children's Parents' Association receive motions every year from all of the states, including the Northern Territory, along the lines of lobbying our airlines for a student fare. I'm not aware of us getting anywhere at a local level with that.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I think this would be one of the very valid considerations of the committee in terms of recommendations, without trying to pre-empt the committee's decision. How many parents in the Northern Territory do you think are affected by this?

Ms Cook : I can't be precise. We have 140 member families with ICPA, and I believe more children in the Northern Territory receive the assistance for isolated children, which is a federal support for boarding—so perhaps 200, maybe not even; I'm not sure, to be honest. And I guess I have to also mention that many of those children as well won't receive the AIC but will receive ABSTUDY, alternatively.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Pastor Quilliam, are you able to put a perspective on this in terms of pastoral care for the impact on families? We're not just talking about the cost but the isolation from the children.

Mr Quilliam : It's definitely something that weighs heavy on people's minds. When you look at families who are living out bush, there are a few things that they're concerned about. Some of the top things would be the socialisation of their kids and having other kids to play with, to get those social skills. Another is the education of their kids, and another is business concerns. So, yes, it's high up there. If you're having financial difficulties already to do with the business side of things or whatever else is going on financially, then, if you also have the huge added financial burden of trying to send your kids to a proper boarding school or whatever, that can add more pressure to the family.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Thank you for that.

Senator McCARTHY: Hello, Ms Cook. I want to go to your recommendation 1:

Enrolled students could be given a code that discounts a fare to 'average cost'—not peak price—for school related travel.

Is that something that parents have decided is a good thing, or is that a model that you've actually seen working somewhere else?

Ms Cook : It was a model that came through compiling the submission. I believe it was discussed in relation to a similar model.

Senator McCARTHY: Do you know where that might be?

Ms Cook : No, I don't.

Senator McCARTHY: Would you like to take that on notice—

Ms Cook : If I could take that on notice, thank you.

Senator McCARTHY: and perhaps provide the Senate inquiry with some further information around that, because we can look into that a little bit more.

Ms Cook : Thank you.

Senator McCARTHY: Obviously you're concerned about the prices at those peak times, which you mentioned in terms of different events going on. You obviously feel that works—have you used a student ID card?

Ms Cook : We just feel, for fairness purposes, if we were to pay a fair and reasonable price across the board rather than peak price fares—because we can't get away from them; they're always there, at the end of the term and at the start of the term. We are always paying peak prices. I guess this was just a proposal to help us bring our costs back to average, which we felt was a fair way to approach it.

Senator McCARTHY: I apologise if you said this in your introduction: have you made these recommendations to the Northern Territory government, or have you discussed it with any of the airlines?

Ms Cook : No, we have not. We are due for another ministerial delegation to the Northern Territory government at the start of May. Our last delegation was prior to putting the submission forward.

Senator McCARTHY: What about any airlines? Have you had any conversations with any airlines?

Ms Cook : Not in my time. I believe NT ICPA have had discussions previously, several years ago. I think we have found that there are some complexities around getting an audience with those major airlines.

Senator McCARTHY: Going to your second recommendation, in terms of the regional centres—Katherine, Tennant, as well as Alice—you make reference to the Local Fare Scheme in the Queensland government. What do you like about that scheme?

Ms Cook : This recommendation was with consideration to students having to fly from Alice Springs to Darwin or from Katherine to Alice Springs—so intrastate travel. What we really liked about that fare scheme is that it brought fairness, or equity, to fare purchases when you were buying an airfare in a remote area, where we often find fares more expensive.

Senator McCARTHY: So, for example, coming in from Nhulunbuy to Darwin, or from Tennant to Alice—

Ms Cook : Absolutely, yes. That's absolutely right.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you.

CHAIR: Ms Cook, I want to come back to the example that you've taken on notice. You're going to let the committee know where that is and what state—but do you know how it works, and do you have pricing around that? You wouldn't just sit there and make a well-thought-through recommendation after consulting widely with your membership, because you're not saying, 'We need a $5 discount'; it must be a set price. Is that what it is? Fill us in.

Ms Cook : As I understand, the code would work where you are making fare bookings on the internet. You would be able to put the code in, and that would just bring it back down to the average cost—to take away the peak price increase. For example, the average cost of flying out of Alice Springs to Brisbane is about $350, and at peak price—last year I think we paid $730. If we had the code, on an internet booking, we would just put it in and it would bring it back down to $350.

CHAIR: And that code would be attached to the student—

Ms Cook : To the student ID as a way of linking.

CHAIR: So that's really what you're asking for—of course, it comes down to Qantas and Virgin—but you're not asking for something for nothing.

Ms Cook : No.

CHAIR: You're just asking for a fair—you know what I'm trying to think of.

Ms Cook : Yes. We recognise that we have made the decision to use air travel. We are happy to pay the average price. We think that is a reasonable request.

CHAIR: For us sitting up the front here, this committee prides itself on its bipartisanship. We pride ourselves at all times that as a committee we want to do what is best for the remote and rural communities that we hear from. There is no argument about that. How long have you and your members been talking about this?

Ms Cook : I can answer from my perspective. I have only been with the Northern Territory branch of ICPA for three years.

CHAIR: Where were you before?

Ms Cook : The Mount Isa Branch of the Air in Queensland.

CHAIR: You don't have to be embarrassed because it's Queensland.

Ms Cook : I was just wondering if I should say 'western Queensland'.

CHAIR: You grow bananas; that's all right.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: You wouldn't be embarrassed about being a Queenslander.

CHAIR: No. That's why I was very keen when Senator O'Sullivan was asking whether you had progressed this conversation. In case I missed anything: is there any opportunity for you guys to circumvent the state government? And I don't mean to be rude; I don't care which colour of government is in, because they've got every other thing they're trying to balance—all governments do. Have you thought about circumventing them and going straight to Qantas?

Ms Cook : Yes, Senator. If I could just explain—you understand, but I think it is an important point to remember—the complexities of a voluntary parent organisation. In some years parents come and go. Also, we just can't commit as much time to these kinds of things as we would like because some of us are in the schoolroom and doing other things. If I sound a little bit like I don't know what I'm talking about that is because I've only been there for three years and also there is a lot of history that I'm not aware of. I'm not one of those members who has been with the Northern Territory ICPA for 20 years; our vice president has. She is not here; she is too far away.

CHAIR: I would like to think her children have grown up and left.

Ms Cook : They have.

CHAIR: Have you got kids at school?

Ms Cook : Yes, and tertiary; that's right. This motion, which is our formal way of taking in member concerns, has come back quite strongly in the last two years. One of the reasons may be, going by some feedback that I received from a member just recently, that at the moment fare prices are going up by $100 a year overall. So, last year, I might have paid $5,700 in fares, and this year I might pay $5,800. It will not long before I'm paying $6,000 just because I'm sending him away. Maybe that is why it has come back to the table. However, it is a motion now and we have a responsibility as an organisation to take that motion forward. So our process will be to talk to the Northern Territory government and, hopefully, Qantas and other major stakeholders. Navigating that environment is tricky. We're not a big powerful lobby force. There are only 140 member families.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Fortunately, on behalf of this committee—the chair and I and other committee members—I guarantee your meeting with every one of those airlines at the highest possible point when you're ready to go and meet them.

Ms Cook : Thank you.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: We will get you in there. They will not say no to us, given the current circumstances, I promise you.

CHAIR: You see, I do all the hard asking of questions and he stands in front of me—

Ms Cook : I know. I feel that I've just been looking at you!

CHAIR: It's incredible, isn't it?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I thought you would have offered that a bit sooner, Chair.

CHAIR: I am trying to get evidence, unlike you, who wants to jump in.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: What you could do is indicate that you will probably get the airlines to sponsor their airfares to go over to Sydney.

Senator PATRICK: I was actually thinking of one of those nice Qantas ads. You could get your kids into one of the Qantas ads and maybe earn a quid along the way!

Ms Cook : Yes. Our tag line is 'I am ICPA', so we could say 'I am ICPA. I am, you are, we are Australian.'

Senator PATRICK: Perfect.

CHAIR: You lot are setting the bar high. Just to put it into perspective: that is for one child.

Ms Cook : Yes.

CHAIR: It would not be unreasonable to believe that there are many who have got two or three—

Ms Cook : Yes.

CHAIR: and you think about how they could do that. Before I go to Senator Patrick, I will leave you on this: someone once told me in Queensland that when he was growing up—this is a bloke my age—if a girl married a pastoralist, she was set for life; now it must be true love.

Ms Cook : Yes. I agree. I wondered where that was going, but I totally agree.

CHAIR: It was a pastoralist. I didn't make that up.

Senator PATRICK: I want to explore this space a little bit, and please excuse my lack of understanding. At what point do you go from school of the air to needing to put a child into a college or a school on a permanent basis?

Ms Cook : I'll explain that from a personal level. We have been, as PAYG wage earners, basically swapping my wage for a governess's wage because we had too much of this going on in the schoolroom between mum and son. In grade 6 all of his peers went to boarding school because they were starting grade 7. We decided to keep him home for another year. Halfway through grade 7 he was begging me for Facebook, Instagram and social media. He was so lonely, and it just stood out. We talk about socialisation being so important. This is one of the reasons. They get to a point where they need to hang out with friends, kick a footy and talk about modern things. They don't want to be bored by parents. They love coming home. It's just a natural progression. It's not very common, although people do do it, that children stay home for their entire senior years through distance education, because they are just yearning for other things.

We offered our son all of us moving into town so that he wouldn't have to go to boarding school. Of course, he feels he has too much to lose because he loves his horses, mustering and cows, so he has made the sacrifice himself. That doesn't stop him crying for a couple of weeks throughout the term. He has his lumps and bumps. We all make a sacrifice. I don't know if that's a soft answer, but that's the reality of it.

CHAIR: No, that's a wonderful answer. I just feel sorry for the poor boy. I hope his schoolmates aren't listening.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I've got a paddock just out of Toowoomba and I often need help with drafting and that. If he gets too lost, give me a call. I'll pick him up. He'll be well fed.

Ms Cook : That's great.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you for describing that. I'm guessing that's a typical situation.

Ms Cook : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: Then you make a choice, and in this case it was Toowoomba. Is that indicative of dissatisfaction with the schools here in Alice Springs or in the Northern Territory?

Ms Cook : No. I'll just talk about my personal situation. The reason for us was that he really wanted to study agriculture, and agribusiness was part of that. At Downlands, for example—and I'm not promoting the school, but this is the truth—he studies goats, sheep, fish, horticulture and viticulture. They've got a cattle show team and they're talking about a rodeo team. It just goes on. I went to St Philips in Alice Springs and my husband went to St Philips in Alice Springs, so we have a family connection there, but he just wanted more out of life. I think in support of our industry, if that's what he wants to do as a career, we've got to respect that and support it.

Senator PATRICK: Yes, sure. I do respect that, but in some sense what you're saying is that that choice was lacking here in the Northern Territory.

Ms Cook : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: I'm just thinking of offsets in terms of the state not picking up that burden of your child studying here and you then bearing the cost of meeting that lack of choice.

Ms Cook : Yes. I sort of struggled with that a little bit personally because in one sense it would be fantastic if I sent him to Darwin, for example, where the numbers would be greater so with economies of scale they could probably build such a facility, but on the other hand flying him to Darwin is of no benefit to me because I'd have to fly to Darwin to see him and I'd also have to fly to Toowoomba. I go back to those three reasons: affordability—and we compared five boarding schools and found that affordable—location of extended family and curriculum choice. That is across the board. We received some good written evidence back from over 20 members to come up with those three. We thought that across the board.

Senator PATRICK: I'm just exploring something. I know it's difficult to get Qantas, Virgin or an airline to come on board at a commercial cost to themselves, but in some sense you are offsetting costs in other ways. You're personally paying a fee to send someone somewhere. Most funding for schools is done on both state and federal levels—there is a shared cost—so in some sense, by doing what you're doing you are releasing the state of a burden.

Ms Cook : I'll assume it would be the state—maybe it's the feds? Who is it that subsidises student ID cards to get metropolitan trains and buses to—

CHAIR: State, but it could be possible that the money does come federally and then it's distributed. The state has the sole responsibility.

Ms Cook : I guess our point is air travel is not a luxury; it's a necessity. We're not asking for a discount; we're asking for an average price. We would like to know who should be wearing those peak prices, because I don't understand why isolated families should wear peak prices, because we've got no choice but to travel at peak times. Am I getting antsy about this?

Senator PATRICK: The story you're telling is fantastic and we really appreciate you sharing your personal circumstances, perhaps as an indication of what other people would be encountering. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. That's very generous of you.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Your pitch is very strong. I suppose the question is whether Qantas needs to absorb it or whether the state—as part of its compulsory providing of education, health services and so on—needs to pick it up?

Ms Cook : That's much clearer, thank you. I understand where you're coming from with your questions.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: It's just a matter of trying to see where it all settles.

Senator PATRICK: And that's the space I was exploring. Thank you, Senator O'Sullivan.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: If you've only got 140 families—

Senator PATRICK: Yes, it's not much.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: and somehow we're able to get an additional subsidisation of $4,000 a year—half a million dollars—it's an investment, as you pointed out, in producing skilled labour of people who are willing and want to come back to the bush to support the economies of cattle exports and all sorts of other enterprises.

CHAIR: On that note, this is not just Northern Territory specific, which we know. It's not just remote families on stations, which we pick up. Very strongly coming through our hearing this morning—and definitely in the Kimberley yesterday—were medical evacuations, medical flights, and then spouses that can't afford to travel. So it is a huge problem for the remote and rural communities as a whole. We do get that. Ms Cook, you've done your association very proud. Pastor, is there anything you want to add before we have to move on, because of time constraints, to our next witnesses?

Mr Quilliam : Yes, a quick thing. It's my understanding that some of the other states do provide subsidies for students who choose to go to an interstate education institution, but the Territory doesn't do that.

CHAIR: Yes. Ms Cook's taken that on notice and is going to provide the committee with that example, so we can explore that a bit further too. Thank you, Pastor, and Ms Cook. We wish you well. Safe travels back 140 kilometres north.