Federal government cost-shifting policies that saw many Queensland councils forced to add the upkeep of town airports to their list of financial responsibilities could mean that the state’s most remote communities lose the option of air travel, according to a number of mayors who appeared before the Senate inquiry into regional air services in Longreach last week.
Councils such as Diamantina and Barcoo are spending more than a third of their rates income on maintaining airstrips to required standards.
Diamantina mayor, Geoff Morton, said air services were essential in a region where there were no sealed roads, and no train or bus services.
“Longreach is suburbia to us,” he told the four senators taking deputations in Longreach on the social and economic impacts of fare costs and service delivery for non-metropolitan communities.
“Out of a rate base of $600,000, we have to maintain two large strips. It’s going to reach a point where we won’t be able to afford them.”
It was a similar story from Barcoo shire mayor, Bruce Scott, who said his council was responsible for reseals for three strips every few years, along with landing lights, refuelling facilities and depreciation costs.
“The federal government divested itself of these assets and local government had to pick them up,” he said. “We have a responsibility to keep them open for the RFDS and general aviation but these types of things are slowly breaking us.”
He called on the federal government to make more money available and said it was important to maintain subsidised, regulated routes in non-commercial environments.
The larger councils of Blackall-Tambo and Barcaldine had a similar story but a greater capacity to absorb costs.
Blackall-Tambo’s deputy mayor, Lindsay Russell told the hearing it cost his communities in the vicinity of $300,000 a year to keep the airport in Blackall open and serviceable, taking wages and maintenance into account, saying it was a cost they were willing to bear, providing there were regular services in return.
Barcaldine mayor, Rob Chandler, said airport maintenance costs were a huge impost.
Responding to a question from committee co-chair, Senator Barry O’Sullivan, he said if they were to strive for cost recovery, a return fare to Brisbane would cost $1600.
When a Barcaldine airport reseal failed a couple of years ago and QantasLink Q400s were unable to land, Cr Chandler said it had cost ratepayers $2.5m to fix.
Diamantina’s Geoff Morton said his council had decided not to charge landing fees, to encourage people to the area.
They were deputations that caused committee co-chair, Senator Barry O’Sullivan to call bullsh*t on policies that put the burden of service delivery on the nation’s most remote communities.
“You have to provide your own post offices and all sorts of things,” he said.
He asked the Remote Area Planning and Development Board to give the committee ideas that could resolve the issues presented.