ABC North Queensland Drive Interview with Pat Hession, Monday 21 August 2017

Macdonald: Well CASA isn’t scaling them back in North Queensland of course, they’re moving them from Townsville to Cairns, which, if you know the Cairns aviation industry, it is as a matter of fact, a much bigger general aviation industry than it is in Townsville, regrettably. But they are putting them there and they will continue to service all parts of North Queensland.

This is a decision made by the expert aviation safety people, CASA, it’s not a Government decision and the time the Government itself gets involved in aviation safety matters, I think we should all call it a day.  We have to take advice from the experts in the field, that’s CASA, and they’ve determined that it’s better to have those people in Cairns rather than Townsville and their decision has been made.

Hession: So would you then say that it’s not going to be cost-related decision? That it’s on a different basis to that, that they are making this sort of call?

Macdonald: Well as I say it’ s not going to Canberra or the capital cities, it’s going to another regional centre where CASA apparently see a greater need for additional staff and less need for those staff in Townsville. And again, I mention the fact that the general aviation industry in Cairns, in far north Queensland, is large. It services as you know, the Cape and the Gulf and the Torres Strait Islands, so of a matter of fact, there are more general aviation issues there, more international and domestic flights into Cairns so it probably makes sense. 

And look, as a Senator for the whole of Queensland and as an Australian legislator, I believe in doing what is right, rather than trying to score cheap political points on a parochial basis in one part of Queensland or Australia.

 Hession: Does it make it harder for the Government’s pitch about decentralisation, though? Does it make it harder for you to convince people that you are genuine about that? I take your point about the jobs staying within regional areas, but Townsville missing out? We know what is happening with the Bureau of Meteorology, and they’re scaling back their operations in regional centres like Townsville. So it’s not just one instance where a Government department is actually withdrawing services.

 Macdonald:  Well look, Cairns is regional Australia.

 Hession: And I take that point, but for someone in Townsville, though, we could say we’re starting to get quite a significant list in recent times. You’ve had, now CASA, previously the Bureau announcing some of their plans, the taxation office, we know that the CSIRO scaled back their operations. You understand what I am saying, that there is a pattern of sorts.

 Macdonald: But Pat, that is simply not true. Certainly, in the instances you’ve raised, there’s been some relocation to other parts of regional Australia, and look, we’re an adult Government, I really don’t these days I have to say, get into the parochial Townsville versus Cairns versus Mackay versus Rockhampton.

All that, quite frankly, is not how a Government should be run. You’ve got to do what is correct, and what is correct for regional Australia. The expert agencies, which is the Bureau of Meteorology and CASA make these decisions, they’re not going back to the city, and I keep repeating that.

With the Bureau of Meteorology, look that’s been on the cards since I was in charge of the Bureau as a Minister 15, 20 years ago. They are now automated, they have modern communications. They are keeping their forecasters in Townsville, which is the important one, but the observations are all done automatically, mechanically by robots these days, so there are reasons for those.

But Pat when you are talking about relocating in and out of the country, just look at the Defence expenditure in Townsville in particular. Issues like the CRC for Northern Australia, based in Townsville, the Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, a new organisation promoted and initiated by my Government, in Townsville.  So there are lots of things happening in Townsville, the Stadium, the Eastern Rail Access Corridor, the list goes on and on, all these things are positive. But one or two movements in areas directed by the expertise agencies, you can’t really use that to say that Townsville or the north is missing out.

 Hession: When you look then at the idea of decentralisation, this is obviously something that quite a few people in the Coalition are pushing quite heavily at the moment. Are you expecting there would be much of substance come of the process, though?

 Macdonald: Well I continue to be hopeful, and every new agency that is set up by the Commonwealth, I write to the Prime Minister and say, why not set that up in Townsville?  and the most recent was a financial oversight agency, and I’ve written to the Prime Minister suggesting, well, with Storm and everything, Townsville got a bit of notoriety, why not put it here. Now, I am not confident that it’s going to happen, but we have to keep pushing it.

Of course, we do have to concentrate on the things where we have expertise, and that is in the areas of mining, energy, defence and we can build upon those things and we can help other parts of Northern Australia do the same thing. And that’s the important thing, that’s what the Government is focussed on, and that’s what I am focussed on.

 Hession: And Senator, at the moment you’re actually in Singapore, you’re looking at some of the ties between Australia and Singapore and in particular the north, and I know we’ve spoken previously about Defence land between Townsville and Charters Towers. Is that much of the conversation you’re having over there, about those field training areas and facilities that will be available?

 Macdonald: It’s very much part of it Pat, and indeed the Townsville delegation that’s here, and there’s quite a significant group of Townsville region business and local government leaders are here with this Ministerial delegation which includes the Defence Minister, the Trade Minister, the Foreign Affairs Minister, and myself and Michelle Landry from Rockhampton.

We are here actually promoting the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Australia and Singapore, which will mean so much particularly for Townsville, and that’s the defence training – the Military Training Initiative.

We’re meeting with the Singapore Defence Forces, we’re meeting with a lot of industries, I am meeting with the Singapore Government’s $275billion investment arm. I see a huge future for Townsville, particularly in the Military Training Initiative. It got off to a bad start, as you briefly mentioned, but it’s on track now and this delegation is building on that, and when you talk about losing a couple of Bureau people from Townsville, which is sad for them, you’ve got to look at what the Singapore initiative will do, on the positive for Australia, for jobs in Townsville, for small business particularly in Townsville.

That’s what this Ministerial delegation is all about. That’s what we’re doing, and I am hopeful of a very, very good long term outcome from this visit.

 Hession: And are they asking many questions about how the expansion of the training areas is going, given that it doesn’t appear as though there’s been a lot of movement, at least transactions, about acquiring land.

 Macdonald: Well these things of course aren’t prosecuted on the front pages of the newspaper. There is a lot of work going on, I’ve spoken to a lot of people, I speak regularly with the Defence Minister about the issue.

I try not to grandstand and play petty politics with these issues which are really all about the good of Australia, first, and important to North Australia, and of course important to the Townsville region. We have a natural advantage there, things are moving and this delegation to Singapore is very, very important to build upon that.

As you know, the Singapore Government is investing some $2.5billion in the upgrade of the army training areas. We still have to get that right, but work is happening and I’m confident that we will get a good outcome by the end of the preliminary stage. There is an enormous amount of work happening but it’s not something that you do on the front pages of the newspaper.  ENDS

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