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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

CHANDLER, Councillor Robert, Mayor, Barcaldine Regional Council

MORTON, Councillor Geoff, Mayor, Diamantina Shire Council

RUSSELL, Councillor Lindsay, Deputy Mayor, Blackall-Tambo Regional Council

SCOTT, Councillor Bruce, Mayor, Barcoo Shire Council

WARREN, Councillor Ed, Mayor, Longreach Regional Council

ACTING CHAIR: We now resume this inquiry of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee into delivery of rural, regional and remote community air route services. I welcome to the table our representatives from the Central Western Queensland Remote Area Planning and Development Board. Good to see you back, Mayor Warren, it's been a while. You are all mayors!

Mayor Chandler, do you want to make any adjustments to the submission that has been lodged?

Councillor Chandler : The RAPAD submission?


Councillor Chandler : No.

ACTING CHAIR: Would you like to make an opening statement?

Councillor Chandler : Firstly, I have a conflict of interest in that my great-uncle was the first secretary of Qantas. He resigned because he felt that Sir Hudson Fysh had a very high opinion of himself. I'd like to make the point that, from my point of view, this is not a witch-hunt against Qantas or QantasLink. They are a wonderful carrier. They are the safest carrier in the world. They have upgraded our services, out here, in recent years from the 36-seater to the 50-seater to the 72-seater Q400s, and we've adjusted our airstrips accordingly, in our patch, to cater for those bigger aircraft. I would like to make the point that they are a wonderful carrier and a wonderful service to our communities.

I don't have any answers or solutions to put to you as a committee. What we have to say here you've probably heard through the various forums in Blackall, Barcaldine and earlier on today and will hear it from those following us. I did have a quick read of the Qantas submission to the inquiry and some of the points they make there are quite valid: the high cost of landing fees, passenger charges, security charges et cetera that are added on to the cost of a fare between here and Brisbane and vice versa. I understand that the fuel costs are higher. They are flying in some pretty ordinary conditions, at times, getting up to 45 or 47 degrees. They have to refuel out here rather than carry a full fuel load, which is time and money.

The security service that we oversee as a council in Barcaldine is extremely expensive to us. A lot of that is done by council staff and other staff we pull in. For instance, it might be a 1½-hour turnaround for that aircraft. We pay a minimum three hours. If it happens to be on a public holiday, that three hours can turn into nine hours just for a 1½- to two-hour turnaround, so we have to pass those costs on. Of course, the federal government, down through the states, has thrown a lot of things back to local government and one of those is airports, and the cost of maintaining those airports is extremely high.

It's not just airports on the regulated route; it's the smaller airports, like Alpha, Jericho, Aramac, Muttaburra—all sealed strips. A lot of them have solar lighting, and that's for the RFDS to get in and out and for private aircraft. So it's a huge cost to our budget. And when we're running very small budgets, when it comes to rates and federal assistance grants—that equates to about $10 or $12 million in our council. We consistently run $35 to $50 million budgets. It is a big cost to our local ratepayers.

One of the emerging industries out here is, obviously, the tourism industry, and tourism is economic development. To get designated flights in and out of our major centre of Longreach, to bring in tourists, to fly-fly or fly-drive or train-fly tourists, and make those packages attractive for that three- or four-day stay, we have to have affordable airfares to get them here and get them home. If we start adding on 500 bucks for a four-day stay in the outback—where those tourists with the local operators here are dispersed to our other communities—then, to take the tourism industry forward and to start attracting that overseas market and those people who want to fly-in, fly-out and experience what we've got in the shortest time possible, we need to be able to make that product affordable. Air services to our communities are all about liveability, attracting staff and contractors being able to get in and get out. Communities without an air service are really just marking time, with the way it is today.

When we look at the population of our patch in this census, compared to the last census, we have seen a decline in the population out here of 15 per cent plus. Yet the Queensland growth is plus six per cent. There's a huge divide in what's happening out here, and I can attribute a lot of that to the drought and to failing businesses. But it's something where we, as a RAPAD group and as communities, have to get on the front foot to try and turn it around, or we'll be non-existent in a few years time. We have to look at generational projects that support and sustain not just our major centres but also those smaller communities that service their patch. As I said, the runway lighting, the resurfacing of strips—the whole gamut of looking after our airstrips is a huge impost on us.

That's it for me. I don't have the magic wand; I don't know how we can change those things around. But I'd like to pay tribute, as I close, to Councillor Neil Fisher from Rocky city council, who has been talking to Longreach, Barcaldine and Blackall-Tambo. He is consistently a passionate advocate for east-west services in the Rockhampton. We've talked for as long as I've been in local government—18 to 20 years—about an east-west service. I think the time's right to investigate so we can suck and see how that east-west service from Longreach to Rockhampton would go in dropping in to Barcaldine on the way to pick people up for education and medical services, holiday time, families, friends—and also bringing Capricorn tourism into our patch in a fly-fly situation. I'll hand over to one of my colleagues.

ACTING CHAIR: Councillor Fisher's only able to do that because he pinched half the airport from my great-grandmother's farm in 1942 for just a handful of silver dollars. He and I are having some discussions about seeing if we can't rectify that through compensation! Are there any other mayors with issues more unique; perhaps where you're not on the route, or with difficulties that come with—

Councillor Scott : I could address something. Thank you for the opportunity. Our situation—me and my colleague at the end of the table, Councillor Morton—is the subsidised and regulated route Western 2, which brings life-supporting services into those very remote communities of the Chandler country. My deposition today is about the importance of keeping that system up and running; how the federal government engages with the state government on flows and funds between the two levels of government to maintain those services; and to get you, as senators, to realise that that service is so important to get people to educational hubs and to health services—both secondary and tertiary in education and in health. As Councillor Chandler said, you need to make sure you can attract and retain staff in those remote locations. It enables us to do business in Canberra and Brisbane at short notice, but it also allows us to resupply communities at times of natural disaster, like flooding, when those communities are cut off for sometimes months. You're able to resupply those communities. It carries the mail. There's very little surface mail coming into those communities now by road. It's a service that has been the same for quite a long time, even though a number of providers have changed.

We had quite a lot of input into making sure that the service was sustainable. Originally, the aircraft didn't land at Toowoomba, which is an educational health hub. We sat down with Queensland Transport and negotiated a more appropriate and reliable aircraft and discussed which ports were appropriate to grow that service. We had a small aircraft—a 19-seater—originally on that route 10 or so years ago. It became unreliable, people weren't using it and Queensland Transport's view was, 'If you don't use it, you'll lose it.' So we sat down with Queensland Transport and had some input. You can guess where I'm going with this: the importance of having consultation into awarding the funded and regulated transport services that are social enablers as well as economic enablers. Also, there's the provision of emergency management at times of disaster, such as extreme and lengthy floods.

The other point I'd like to make is about the cost-shift. It shifted from the Commonwealth to local government upon relinquishing the airports all those years ago. It costs our small local government in excess of $400,000 a year to maintain three airstrips and our rate base is only a little over $1 million. So it's considerable. We'll be talking to the Grants Commission next week on their rounds and will discuss the impact on our ability to provide other services since the cost-shift from the Commonwealth to local government.

There are five regulated and subsidised routes in Queensland. Queensland Transport provides that subsidy. I just want to re-emphasise the importance of maintaining those. Through this process, if you're advising the Queensland government, pass on our appreciation of them enabling our services to exist in a non-commercial environment, where the commercial business case fails.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you have any issue with the pricing on the subsidised route?

Councillor Scott : I was going to leave that to Councillor Morton.

ACTING CHAIR: We're interested in hearing about that too.

Councillor Scott : There are some issues, but I'll let Councillor Morton address those.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you completed?

Councillor Scott : I have. Thank you very much for your time and for your presence in our part of the world.

ACTING CHAIR: Our time is your time, really.

Councillor Morton : Good afternoon, senators. Apart from being a director of RAPAD, I'm Mayor Diamantina Shire Council. Acting Chair, I know you've been down there a few times and you would appreciate how far out we are.

ACTING CHAIR: It's a long way from nowhere, that place.

Councillor Morton : Most senators probably think that Longreach is an isolated, remote area; we think that Longreach is suburbia. Air into not only the Diamantina Shire but all remote centres around Australia, whether it be in the Gulf or the middle of Australia, is essential because everything into those remote areas comes in by plane: passengers, mail, medical services and emergency services. There is no train, there is no bus and most of us have no sealed roads. Probably one of the main problems is maintaining the remote airstrips to CASA standard for RPT services. There's a fifty-fifty funding arrangement, a subsidy scheme. I keep using Diamantina as an example because that's the one I know about the most, but this problem is Australia-wide. We have a small rate base. Our rate base is $600,000. We have to maintain two large sealed airstrips. So there's our rate base and our inability to charge a user-pays landing fee. It's going to reach the point where we won't be able to afford the airstrips.

I would like to bring your attention to an example where it is already happening. In South Australia they have a large unincorporated area with no councils. Anthony Chisholm would be more than aware. They had a beautiful sealed strip at Oodnadatta, and the upkeep was too good for them. They had to grade the seal off the airstrip. If that's not a backward step in Australian economics, there's something wrong with the way we're doing things. We've reached the stage where you have to downgrade your airstrip.

ACTING CHAIR: Mayor Morton, when you talk about fifty-fifty with CASA—

Councillor Morton : Fifty-fifty with the federal government.

Senator PATRICK: Airservices or CASA?

ACTING CHAIR: No, it'll be the federal government.

Councillor Morton : Federal government. We have to maintain an airstrip to CASA standards.

ACTING CHAIR: Sure. Are you suggesting that those standards are too onerous, that they're compromising safety?

Councillor Morton : They will eventually and they already have in the likes of Oodnadatta.

ACTING CHAIR: But, leaving that example aside, do you think that there is a lesser standard that those airstrips could be maintained to without compromising safety and without having to seal them. Let's assume they're all-weather to the extent they can be—you know, pea gravel surface.

Councillor Morton : The problem if you don't have a sealed strip is that you can't access the high-performance aircraft—

ACTING CHAIR: which is mainly with the RFDS—

Councillor Morton : and the subsidised service. They have high tyre pressure. They need a really good surface to land on.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes. So the burden of what you're saying is that other local government colleagues of yours—for example, Longreach don't have the obligation for the rate base to contribute to the maintenance of their airport.

Councillor Morton : They have the capacity to raise more funding.

ACTING CHAIR: That's not the question. Mr Warren, do you make any contribution to the maintenance of the airport here at Longreach?

Councillor Warren : No.

ACTING CHAIR: There seems to be enormous inequity with respect to this. How long has this arrangement been in place where you had to contribute to the maintenance of these airports?

Councillor Warren : For as long as I can remember.

Senator PATRICK: Can I ask Senator O'Sullivan's question in relation to safety burdens in a different way? Have the CASA standards changed over time in respect of the airfields that you are required to manage?

Councillor Morton : The changes happened because of the improved-performance aircraft. As the aircraft have got bigger, faster and all the rest of it, the standard of airstrip that we have to maintain has become higher. Because it's fifty-fifty funding, we are going to reach the point where we won't be able to afford our fifty-fifty. There needs to be some change in the funding structure.

Senator PATRICK: Can you tell me where that fifty-fifty comes from? Is that enacted in parliament, by way of regulation or—

ACTING CHAIR: Be careful; he's looking for a way to disallow the regulation here, so I'll have to protect the government! He's got form for this, this fellow!

Senator PATRICK: We won't have to, because Minister McCormack is a National and Senator O'Sullivan has significant influence over the minister. So you don't know where the rule is in relation to the funding?

Councillor Morton : I'm probably a little bit out of my depth here.

Senator PATRICK: Maybe you could take that on notice. Obviously, the council has to pay this cost. Someone in council would know what the legal arrangements or requirements are and where it is that you've agreed to the fifty-fifty or whether it's legislated and you have no choice.

Councillor Morton : I think it's legislated. We had problems identified, so then we have to go to the federal government.

ACTING CHAIR: I think it's probably regulatory by the sound of it.

Councillor Morton : And we have to go to them to try to get a funding agreement. The agreement is fifty-fifty.

Senator PATRICK: Maybe you could take it on notice, because, if it's regulated, that's certainly something that this committee can have some very strong influence over. I agree with Senator O'Sullivan in terms of the inequity of the arrangement. It just seems—

ACTING CHAIR: My initial impulse—I wasn't aware of this. This is bullshit, to be honest and use a word that everyone will understand very quickly. Out in your neck of the woods you've got this problem when you get to Bedourie where you're subsidising the post office and all sorts of other basic community privileges that everyone downtown on Collins Street, Queen Street and Pitt Street enjoy as a matter of course. I'd be surprised if we don't take up this challenge to get this somewhat corrected right across the political spectrum.

Councillor Morton : We'd certainly appreciate that.

Councillor Scott : I think the program that Councillor Morton's referring to is actually a competitive grants program. You have to apply through the grants program for subsidy.

ACTING CHAIR: And it's dollar for dollar? You've got to make up—

Senator CHISHOLM: There's no extra fund?

Councillor Scott : No, there's no extra fund. It's the remote airport program.

ACTING CHAIR: I see. If you're unsuccessful with your application, you're up for the lot?

Councillor Scott : Yes. The point is that cost shift has caused.

ACTING CHAIR: That seems even fairer! Mayor Chandler?

Councillor Chandler : We own our airport and we can't really find anyone to sell it to.

ACTING CHAIR: They're sitting behind you. That mob that was here before are looking for opportunities!

Councillor Chandler : But we had to lift the strip in Barcaldine to what I think is called PCN16 to allow for whatever tyre pressure it was for the Q400s and the runoff on either side of a 30-metre runway had to be flattened out for like 100 metres either side. We had to extend it, widen it, move the lighting attached to it and do all that sort of stuff. For us to take advantage of the Q400s for them to land in Barcaldine would cost us $2.5 million, and the surface was just your normal road seal. It started to break up because of the pressure of the Q400s landing, and that nose wheel when it was touching down was picking up these tiny little bits of gravel as bit as your little fingernail and breaking the safety light underneath the front of the aircraft, which was grounding these aircraft on a regular basis.

Thanks to my colleagues in the Outback Regional Road Group, who forgave me for stealing some of their state TIDS funding unbeknownst to them—I didn't know it was going to happen, all right?

ACTING CHAIR: Sounds like a very feeble defence to me!

Councillor Chandler : I went to the director-general, and the director-general said, 'I'll fix it.' He took it out of our TIDS bucket and paid for it. But it was like $450,000 to put a slurry over the top of it. That is the next best thing to asphalt, and the strip's back up and running again. But there are two major costs just in the last few years.

ACTING CHAIR: To all three of you: was there any opportunity with cost recovery to increase, for example, landing charges to try to—

Councillor Chandler : We've got them increased to par with others in the district. We haven't jacked them up.

ACTING CHAIR: But they're normally formulated on actual costs. Yours are not. Recovery is beyond reach for you.

Councillor Chandler : If we did that, a return fare to Brisbane would be $1,600 a passenger.

ACTING CHAIR: All right. Do you get any recovery charges?

Councillor Chandler : We do some.

ACTING CHAIR: No, I'm talking to Geoff and Bruce. Do you get landing fees and any of that that use the airstrip?

Councillor Morton : No. We made a decision not to charge landing fees, for the simple reason that we'd like to encourage people to come out there, not to discourage them.

ACTING CHAIR: So you guys pay for all your own communications under the ground. You're ploughing the fibre optic and keeping post office going, and now there are the airstrips.

Councillor Scott : And bury everyone.

ACTING CHAIR: I think we're going to have to pay attention to you guys too. Do you have anything to contribute, Lindsay?

Councillor Russell : I'd like to back up what Rob said. First, we find Qantas a very good service and have gone from the 300 to the 400. Blackall-Tambo Regional Council loses about $320,000 a year on their airport. I think they approached Qantas 12 months ago for a landing fee increase, and they said to us, 'You can pick your passengers up in Longreach if you like,' so they won't shift on their landing fees. Our council is wondering if we could do more for the residential fees, because, if you're outside the shire and you ring the local travel agent, you can get a residential fare and the local people miss out. We don't really think that's very fair.

Our biggest thing is that we'd like to see an east-west airline come from Rockhampton. All the patients from Blackall go to Rockhampton. The flying doctor goes straight to Rockhampton. Your patient subsidy is only paid for one way. It's easy for people to get down there, but, when they get down there, they can't get back.

ACTING CHAIR: I've had some contrary advice to this. We need to perhaps distribute more information about that. I had discussions yesterday for nearly half an hour with the head of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. There are some problems with it, but I'm not quite certain. I think some of it is a communications problem, and people don't understand how to access the subsidies.

Councillor Russell : That could be the case.

ACTING CHAIR: But they've got another problem, which is that they're tipping them out on the footpath in Rockhampton—

Councillor Russell : and they can't get home.

ACTING CHAIR: Correct. If they're organised via the hospital for hospital-to-hospital and back, it seems as though that's working better than emergency airlift where the royal flying doctor delivers them but that's the end of their responsibility. But the chairman of the RFDS and I are meeting on this very issue to clear it up, because there is suggestion that the funding is there but the hospital that has to sign off on it, for example, back here may even be ignorant of the fact that you've been airlifted into Rockhampton. So it could be a communications problem. We're looking very closely at it.

Councillor Russell : All right. All patients who fly out of Blackall get one way. It could be a communication problem, but it's a pretty big one, because we're not getting it.

ACTING CHAIR: That is inconsistent with the advice as to what ought to happen, but we'll keep going.

Councillor Russell : For people to get back to Blackall and Tambo, a lot of times they've got to go from Rockhampton to Brisbane. When they catch the plane in Brisbane, they have to go to Charleville. If Blackall's the destination, they go to Barcaldine and Longreach. If you live in Tambo and your relation goes to Longreach, it's a three-hour trip. If you live in Blackall and they catch a plane to Charleville, it's a three-hour trip. There's no bus service. There's no rail service. Blackall's probably the only shire out here on the roads from Rockie that has a dirt road.

ACTING CHAIR: To the east.

Councillor Russell : To the north.

Councillor Chandler : Between Blackall and Jericho.

Councillor Russell : Blackall to Jericho and Tambo to Alpha are dirt roads.

ACTING CHAIR: But your main artery—the one due north—is sealed.

Councillor Russell : Yes. The roads from Rockhampton and other—

ACTING CHAIR: I made your mayor an offer. We are meeting—and my colleagues may join us—with the Deputy Prime Minister on that very issue to try to get priority funding for your eastern connectivity there, because it's essential. It's sort of a blackspot, to use phone parlance, in terms of connectivity.

Councillor Russell : Our other reason for an east-west airline is that Blackall's got the third- or fourth-biggest saleyard in Queensland. It's the only certified organic saleyard in Queensland and is the second in Australia. With the organics, it opens up all the Central Highlands. People don't come out. They won't come out. If they can fly from Rockie to Blackall and then do the Longreach trip and back to Rockhampton, we find it would be very beneficial and economically it would be very good for the west. Thank you very much.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. Before I hand over to my colleagues: we spoke earlier with Queensland Airports Ltd, and I suggested that a representative of your shires or your group, tourism and they get together. I think there are some quite obvious solutions to some of the problems, not all of the problems. If you can get a collective position on it, I've offered—along with my colleagues, who will join me—to facilitate a roundtable conference in Canberra, Brisbane or wherever's convenient for everybody to see if we can't knock some of these problems straight off the table without having to go through the long, protracted business of recommending, going through COAG, going back to state governments and then going back to you. I'm a bit of a shortcut sort of fellow, and I think we can do that with some of it. Senator Chisholm.

Senator CHISHOLM: Mayor Scott, you were quite supportive of the subsidised schemes and regulated routes. I don't want to start playing communities off against each other, but that's probably a bit different from how the Longreach councils see it. I'm just wondering, in terms of when the schemes are up for renewal, is there any formal way that you are involved in discussions with those new schemes, or is it really just an informal role as mayor that you have the opportunity to talk to the state government about it?

Councillor Scott : When one of the operators failed for financial reasons a number of years ago, we had a lot of input in a semi-formal way into what the route might look like, as I said in my deputation. To my knowledge, we weren't called for any submissions as to how that route may be configured. It was working. Any correspondence that Queensland transport had received didn't suggest that the configuration of the route or the aircraft wasn't conducive to that route. We would certainly welcome input every time that tender is let and what KPIs or SLAs are involved in maintaining that subsidisation and contract. I think the importance of community confidence in that service is paramount: it will land at a certain time on a certain day and will leave. Getting people to and from medical appointments is important. Specialists in major centres don't hold up operating lists for people because they have missed their plane. I think the newer aircraft, the Saab aircraft, are probably not as good as the old Dash 8s, but it is certainly better than nothing and it is certainly better than what we had in the past. They just require a little bit more strip for their optimum performance. Most of our strips are around 1,500 metres. The Saab really does require about 1,900 metres to perform at optimum.

Senator PATRICK: There was talk about a Q400 and a Dash 8. Hasn't the Dash 8 got a series 400—

Councillor Scott : This is a Dash 8—the 200, the 35 seat.

Senator PATRICK: So we're just talking about the different versions of the Dash 8?

Councillor Scott : That's right.

ACTING CHAIR: We are going to deliberately extend this period. We're over time. So, to the witnesses who are to come, if you've got any time pressures, like you've got a cheap airfare that if you forfeit you will lose it, you should contact the secretariat here and let us know; otherwise, it is too important, I think, for us to truncate this discussion with these representatives.

Senator CHISHOLM: Not wanting to put words in your mouth, but I get the sense that you are quite defensive of the regulated routes, the subsidy. You want to maintain it. But if you were able to suggest that it could be improved, what suggestions would you make in that regard?

Councillor Scott : I think around some of the fare pricing and around that last minute emergency need-to-fly situation, where you're paying the premium price. I think there needs to be a conversation around levelling out those prices a little bit so they are more palatable. It is usually people who have had some hardship who need to fly urgently. It is either a death in the family or medical attention. They need to see their children, and they're usually copping that very, very high premium fare, where I think—

ACTING CHAIR: Your fares fluctuate as well.

Councillor Scott : Absolutely.

ACTING CHAIR: So the subsidised fares are also dynamic. If you get them six months out they are less than if you get them six days out.

Councillor Scott : Exactly. As the seats fill, the price goes up.

ACTING CHAIR: Just as a guide to what we are examining, the secretary pointed out to me that, with the residents fares, we know there are problems. I already knew before the inquiry that there were problems with accessing that. People who would not be strictly eligible seem to be able to access it. Whilst the fares are dynamic in terms of market forces, such as demand, the allocation of the number of residents fares is not. It seems to be set per flight rather than in a peak period where there are many more people trying to get a seat coming into Easter. You would think the number of residents fares would follow the peak demand arrangement. In one instance, on central 1, which is the route to Roma, residents fares are available up until the very last available seat, which is not true of the others.

Councillor Scott : It's not. It becomes a slight problem when you have got a big port like, say, Charleville on our route, because this aircraft lands in Toowoomba—

ACTING CHAIR: And, remember, you're coming back the other way here. Your flight starts in Mount Isa.

Councillor Scott : Well, it initiates in Brisbane, so the ports are Toowoomba, Charleville, Quilpie, Windorah—

ACTING CHAIR: Oh, it goes both ways; it's not just the return flight. Okay.

Councillor Scott : Yes, exactly. It's a very long haul flight with many ports. So, if I can repeat, it initiates in Brisbane; Toowoomba, Charleville, Quilpie, Windorah, Birdsville, Bedourie, Boulia, Mount Isa; overnights, and then the same ports all the way back. So it comes out on a Monday, returns on a Tuesday; out on a Thursday, back on a Friday. That's why that Wednesday is so important; it can fly out of one of these remote communities on a Tuesday and fly back on a Thursday if anyone has got medical or business.

Senator CHISHOLM: And I imagine, just to get my head around it, the people getting the last-minute fares who are paying a high price are not people who are going, 'Oh, well, the Broncos are playing Friday night,' and want to get to Brisbane. They're often going because—

Councillor Scott : They have to go.

Senator CHISHOLM: they have to go.

Councillor Scott : Yes, that's right.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you got any ideas of how that might be managed? I had a lovely lady in Charleville who convinced me that the good people of Charleville are so wonderful that they'll work this out at the airport. They'll work out amongst themselves who'll fly and who'll stay behind. But Norfolk Island has a mechanism. They've got a regulated route where—I'm guessing, I'm making this up—there's a 1800 number you ring and, whether it's a medical referral or some other consideration, someone has the discretion on the face of it.

Councillor Scott : I think there is a conversation to be had with the operator about just this and also with the regulator and the holder of that contract, so I think there's an opportunity there to discuss it further. But I think advice from this committee would certainly help.

ACTING CHAIR: Rob, what are the chances of getting stakeholders together here and perhaps giving us some late mail on some of these solutions. They seem very sensible, and oftentimes, as much as we're tempted to think the bureaucrats have thought this through and arrived at that, you wouldn't be worried about what they were thinking if you knew how often they weren't, and these are often unintended consequences of the architectural structure of a system. What are the chances of your mob, with the airports authority and tourism, trying to come up and give us a bit of guidance about what ought to happen here, because we're not the font of all knowledge? Collectively, you seem to have thought this through and have the ideas. Do you think you could commission and coordinate that over, say, the next month or six weeks?

Councillor Chandler : Month or six weeks, yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Thereabouts. I don't know; our inquiry will probably go—

Councillor Chandler : We'll just make it happen.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, as you do in the west. If you could help us—

Councillor Chandler : We'll get those parties together.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes. We're talking about the things that we're all hearing regularly: the last-minute notice of unforeseen movement of people who have either a bereavement or a medical need; those who have a regular need to move; issues such as students from remote families, who are always travelling in peak season—they're coming home in the school holidays and going back at the end of the school holidays, which are peak seasons. We've had some issues around freight. We've had some issues around connectivity for communities like Blackall, particularly Blackall and the Alphas, which seem to be black spots in the system. They always have to travel when it's not on the day of their air services. That sort of thing. Are your people able to get with others and give us some ideas that we can incorporate in our thinking in relation to what happens there?

Councillor Chandler : Okay.

ACTING CHAIR: We have gone over time. Any final, critical questions?

Senator PATRICK: I have a couples of questions for you, Mayor Russell. I'm just a little bit confused. You've said that your council area is serviced by a subsidised scheme, which is presumably an agreement between the state government and Qantas.

ACTING CHAIR: They're there on this regulated route.

Councillor Russell : Regulated, not subsidised.

ACTING CHAIR: They're the regulated route to here.

Senator PATRICK: Regulated but subsidised.

Councillor Russell : No.

Senator PATRICK: No, you're not; you're subsidised.

ACTING CHAIR: No, the subsidised scheme is not theirs.

Senator PATRICK: I was just interested—you said that you wanted to raise the price of your landing charges.

Councillor Russell : The council approached Qantas.

Senator PATRICK: Are you in a contractual agreement with Qantas as well?

Councillor Russell : The council owns the airport.

Senator PATRICK: So does that mean you've got a contract between Qantas and the council—

Councillor Russell : As at price—that is, the landing price.

Senator PATRICK: So that wasn't included in the regulated arrangement?

ACTING CHAIR: Can I help here. It would have been three years ago that QantasLink negotiated with the government or won the government award for this regulated route. As we heard in evidence before, they would have spoken to Blackall shire about their charges. Three years in, Blackall have come back to them and said, 'We know you tendered on the basis that we were going to charge you X, but we'd now like to charge you Y.' According to the evidence, Qantas have resisted that.

Senator PATRICK: I'm just wondering about the resistance, because unless you are in contract you actually are free to do as you please. They have an obligation to provide a service to you under a contract with the state government. I'm wondering how they're exercising power over you—

ACTING CHAIR: I'd be astonished if you weren't in contract with them for five years.

Councillor Russell : I've got no idea. The last council or the council before built a new airport at Blackall and put new security in, and instead of having two people to load the plane it takes about six or seven men. As I said, the council loses about $320,000 a year, and they tried to put it onto Qantas in extra charges and they wouldn't be in it.

Senator PATRICK: It seems to me there must be a contractual arrangement in place—

ACTING CHAIR: You would think.

Senator PATRICK: otherwise you wouldn't be bound, by simply writing a letter at a time of submission, to—

Councillor Russell : Can I get back to you on that, please?

Senator PATRICK: Yes, I'd love you to. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Can I ask a question to the back of the crowd—and I know it may be difficult for Hansard to record this. This is to the airports. Is the CPI or some other index increasing your charges during the term of your contract?

Mr Rowe : It depends on [inaudible] so it's not always, no.

ACTING CHAIR: But you do have a contract with the carrier to provide those services at that rate, correct?

Mr Rowe : Correct.

ACTING CHAIR: And you would join me in being concerned in suggesting that Blackall probably has a contract with the carrier dated three years ago?

Mr Rowe : And, even if contracts do expire there are generally rollover provisions, so the old contract would just continue to be in force.

ACTING CHAIR: Mayor Chandler, were you going to make a contribution? Do you have a contract with the carrier to provide landing airport charges and security charges at a set rate for the term of the contract?

Councillor Chandler : I don't know.

ACTING CHAIR: If you could take that on notice.

Councillor Chandler : I'd have to ask someone smarter than me, closer to the operation.

ACTING CHAIR: For you and I both, that's a lot of people, I've got to tell you. Do you have anything else?

Councillor Chandler : I would like to thank the senators for coming out and listening to the people in the west.

ACTING CHAIR: We've done what we can. We've covered all the west now between Charleville and Blackall on Saturday.

Councillor Chandler : As you say, collectively we should be able to make a difference.

ACTING CHAIR: You'd have to think so. There's an answer here somewhere. From my thinking, just finally, we subsidise transport movements of Australians in the billions of dollars away from here—cross-river tunnels, talk about putting in a fast train from Sydney to Melbourne, every bus you put your toe on, every train you step onto. There's the lovely old story with Joh where the railway union said, 'We're going to shut the rail down.' He said, 'Thank goodness for that—stay out as long as you like, because every day you turn a wheel it costs the state X amount of dollars.' I think there is something in here that we can explore. I don't want to anticipate it, but I'll be surprised if we don't recommend things that will ease some of these financial burdens that seem to me to be completely out of whack.

Councillor Chandler : There's also a way to stimulate our economic development and our tourism initiatives out here, similar to the state putting on a two-for-one deal on the passenger train. It keeps the operators running, keeps the motels full, keeps people visiting attractions. Over that November, December, January, February period, it would be really nice to see someone subsidise those flights in total to get people out here.

ACTING CHAIR: As I said to the earlier witnesses before you came here, when word gets out that the kangaroos are on the cusp of extinction, we'll have them from all over the world coming here to see the last fellows before they join the dinosaurs.

Councillor Chandler : I can't believe you said that!

ACTING CHAIR: I had a debate for 25 minutes with a Greens senator. It was like taking corn off a blind cocky, I must admit.

Councillor Scott : Senator O'Sullivan, if I could add a slight bit of value in answer to Senator Chisholm. Part of that passenger bottleneck and the impact on those lower fares is that, because we share a port with Charleville on that route and there are some performance issues with the nominated operator out of Charleville, that causes an increase in fares on our subsidised route from what would normally be a daily regulated, unsubsidised route. That has an impact on available fares for people in those more isolated areas.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, we know how valuable your time is, along with the other witnesses. We appreciate that. Thank you all.

Senator PATRICK: During the break, can I seek leave to table page 9 of The Longreach Leader dated 6 April?

ACTING CHAIR: There being no objection, that is so tabled.