Northern prosperity translates to national prosperity. Strategic investment in the north yields enormous dividends for the nation as a whole. The north has 5% of the Australian population, but accounts for 50% of our nation’s exports. We need to grow the population of the Top End and develop the Territory’s infrastructure to support the pursuit of our national interests and provide a forward base for regional engagement.
We cannot continue our journey down this prosperous road without efficient, affordable air travel within the Territory, to capital cities down south, as well as into Asia and beyond. Better ‘connectivity’ with the south will boost tourism and enable people to stay in touch with family and friends across the country. This will help us retain people with professional and technical skills that assist the Territory to grow and develop.
Federal Labor established a Senate Committee Inquiry into regional air services, recognising the effect of unaffordable airfares on the development of northern and regional Australia.
My colleagues Warren Snowdon, Malarndirri McCarthy and I advocated for the Inquiry to hold a public hearing in Darwin. A hearing was held at the Novotel Darwin Airport on Thursday, and the Inquiry Committee was able to hear evidence from the Territory’s commerce and tourism sectors, Northern Territory Airports, amongst others.
To ensure that Territorian’s experiences were heard by the Inquiry, I established FairFaresNT – an online platform to collect the stories of Territorians who have had unfair and often frustrating experiences with air travel. This evidence was presented in summary to the Committee.
These were accounts from ordinary Territorians, like the heart-wrenching account of a woman who couldn’t afford to fly her family down south to say goodbye to her elderly nana, who had been badly injured in a fall the week before Christmas day.
A Darwin resident questioned how it was possible that their trip to Sydney return economy was $1400, when they were able to fly the same airline to Chile for $1099 return.
We heard from skilled workers who moved to live in remote locations, but eventually gave up their jobs because of the exorbitant costs of flying to Darwin and then on to see their families in Melbourne or Sydney.
The Territory will continue to face challenges attracting and retaining a skilled workforce while airfares are unaffordable.
The punitive costs of travelling to and from regional centres like Alice Springs, Gove, and Groote Eylandt were highlighted. The unrealistic prices of airfares to Dili in nearby Timor-Leste were also cited as being a significant obstacle to the economic development of one of our closest neighbours, and an obstacle to the associated benefits for Darwin.
We know how important the tourism industry is to the economy of the Territory. That’s why we were dismayed to hear from a Darwin-based travel agent who explained that she had to consistently put together travel packages to Asian – rather than Australian – destinations. It’s a tragedy that Australians wanting to see some of the most magnificent landscapes of their own country cannot afford to do so.
I have some ideas about how to address accessibility and travel to Darwin and Alice Springs and will be workshopping them at the upcoming Tourism IdeasFest to be held at Darwin Airport on Saturday 28th of April. People from the tourism industry and from the broader public will gather to generate innovative ideas and seek to solve problems holding back this critically important industry in the Territory. (Full details about the Tourism IdeasFest are available from www.topendideasfest.com)
I believe the tourism industry in the NT has a vibrant future, based around two world-class natural heritage sites at Uluru and Kakadu, Litchfield and major events like the Darwin Cup, the V8’s, Indigenous cultural tourism and military heritage tourism. If we build it they will come – provided they can afford the airfares!
We are advised that at Christmas, Easter, and the Darwin Cup weekend, airfares will be inflated because of the high demand at these peak times. This thinking stacks up alright against the basic principles of ‘supply and demand’ and passengers may have a degree of tolerance for this rationale.
However, the same potential passengers have trouble swallowing the idea that at times of low demand it is necessary to increase the price of tickets because the fixed costs – fuel, maintenance, etc. – have to be spread across a smaller number of passengers. It’s easy to understand why the public is cynical. It begins to seem like ‘transport economics’ is three parts science and one part voodoo.
The Senate Committee heard evidence that Darwin Airport charges are not a significant driver of higher air-ticket prices. It would be interesting to hear why other comparable airports like Cairns and Townsville seem to have significantly lower airport charges than Darwin, and the airlines also offer lower airfares for apparently comparable journeys.
We understand that airports and airlines are businesses that need to operate efficiently so that they can employ staff and pay dividends to shareholders. The Darwin International Airport presented to the Inquiry and told their story. However, more accountability and transparency from airlines is needed. They need to come clean with the travelling public and explain exactly how the prices are set, and why there are such apparent discrepancies between apparently similar locations.
I call on the airlines to ‘sharpen their pencils’, or in other words: give Territorians a fair go. This isn’t about party politics. We need a serious and strong approach to growing the north to benefit the nation and we need these stakeholders to play their part.
Published in the Sunday Territorian, April 8 2018