Image for The people’s case for transport equity

On the 28th of April 2016, the Prime Minister’s office confirmed that the Federal Government is not considering further changes to the operation of the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme (BSPVES). Also, it was meeting that day with the Tasmanian Government to discuss a joint approach to Tasmania’s economic future and that the Tasmanian Government have not raised the BSPVES as an issue or priority.

The Federal Government is currently running a media campaign demonstrating the importance of the billions spent on national infrastructure. Road and rail are covered. Ferries are not. This year is the 20th anniversary of a major federal scheme that was aimed at delivering a national highway connection to and from Tasmania, using ferries. The attached opinion piece demonstrates the failure of this scheme and its social, economic and national implications. This issue is timely, of national importance and involves four Prime Ministers. The matter has currently reached the Prime Minister’s office … 

Marking the 20th anniversary of the Federal Bass Strait passenger and vehicle equalization scheme, introduced in August 1996.

In the early 1990’s, a group of Tasmanians called on the Federal Government to provide transport equality across Bass Strait.

The people and businesses of Tasmania sought a ferry connection to the mainland that would cost the same for people and passenger vehicles as travelling an equal distance on a road.

This was a reasonable request as all other states and regions were connected by the national highway network costing federal taxpayers billions of dollars.

Existing federal Bass Strait schemes had ignored the movement of people. Air services did not have to compete with surface travel as on other interstate links.

Over a century ago, convicts had been transported from England to Tasmania. 

In 1901, Tasmania had joined with the other colonies to create a nation of equal states.

In the ensuing years, sea lanes that connected the colonies were largely replaced by land transport.

The island colony, the second to be established by England in the region, continued to remain reliant on sea connections.

With federal Bass Strait funding not being directed by Canberra to close the only interstate gap in the nation’s transport network, families and friends were needlessly separated over the shortest interstate inter-capital route in the nation.

Severe economic and social problems resulted.

People sometimes could not afford to leave the island with a vehicle after a year of saving. Some needed the support of charities. The costs of crossing by sea varied substantially.

Ferry services were no match for other, all-year consistently priced, interstate land connections.

The people trusted in the processes of democracy and in their political leaders.In the 1996, the people’s argument was very successful.

A multi-billion dollar national transport equalization scheme and promises of an equitable way forward were obtained. This covered the movement of both people and vehicles. The Coalition gave undertakings to ensure on-going interstate transport equality.

They said Bass Strait would be part of the national highway network.

After the Martin Bryant massacre, an equalization scheme was introduced. The cost of ferry travel reduced substantially and economic activity increased so much so that world attention focused on this reversal in fortune.

The people’s and Coalition’s story became largely the driver of the Bacon era’s success story.

Since then the interstate transport system proposed and well funded has been eroded. The Federal Government encouraged and indirectly funded and monitored leisure holidays with a vehicle by sea to Tasmania, but not every day, two-way access as if on a road.

Undertakings to deliver transport equalization through further sea-based competition failed to eventuate.

Today, there is almost no chance of a sea highway connection being directed by Canberra based on highway fare equivalence.

The equalization scheme the people obtained remains in name only. It largely now mainly benefits extraneous or far more limited interests. It is not fair that the benefits of the many thousands of hours of the people’s labour be directed to others.

Tasmania has the biggest population corridor in the nation at its doorstep. It could be largely self supporting if properly connected to the rest of the nation. 

Instead, it seems Tasmania will now largely rely on Federal Government grants.
Is it fair that the natural and developed strengths of the island are to be continually wasted while federal taxpayers pay for subsidies?

It does not make sense to deprive service activities and industries needing people from direct access to the people that a national sea highway could bring. These activities currently generate about 75% of the gross product of Tasmania.

Over the years, the people of Tasmania have continued to ask for transport equality to be restored.

Few in Canberra seemed to listen.

Every possible ingredient, including uncapped, demand driven federal funding, and underutilized infrastructure capable of properly connecting the island with a national sea highway, is and has been in place for many years.

All that is needed is a simple change in a federal ministerial directive making funding conditional on national highway outcomes. Building a bridge is not needed.

With a highway-based ferry connection, economic and social change would follow rapidly.

Prime Ministers Keating and Howard tried to help by offering enough funding and policy capable of delivering a full national sea highway. Prime Minister Abbott even tried to establish a Productivity Commission inquiry capable of investigating the issue.

The inquiry failed to properly address the sea highway option by suggesting Canberra first clarify the purpose of its passenger and vehicle equalization scheme. Unfortunately, Canberra confirmed otherwise, ignoring the context under which the scheme was introduced.

Over the years, despite supporting documentation, the people have faced a campaign of vilification, rejection and denial in continuing their fight for transport equality.

Even though the principle of free and fair trade across the world is advanced by Australia, It is not delivered between Victoria and Tasmania.

The Federal Government recently enhanced its Tasmanian freight equalization scheme to cover exports. However, consumables and some imports that the people of Tasmania need to just live and do business have been excluded from that scheme for three decades.

In the absence of sea-based competition, Canberra is still refusing to act to equalize the movement of people and vehicles.

Freight used in the production process is covered by the Federal freight scheme. Under Prime Minister Turnbull, will people now need to be transported in freight trucks, to qualify for equalization?

In Malcolm Turnbull’s new economy are people to matter least?

It seems the campaign for equitable transportation of people should now fade into history or not even remain in the history books of the nation.

Billions of dollars are flowing into the transport network around Australia but they are not being directed to deliver transport equality to and from Tasmania.

Is it fair that a group of people who gathered a quarter of a century ago start their campaign again?  Should they wait another quarter of a century to make the most reasonable of requests a reality in a working democracy?

A simple ferry system, delivering all-year travel costs based on the cost of highway travel, would be sufficient to promptly drive the whole Tasmanian economy. It would also benefit Victoria.

Tasmania is supposed to be an equal state in a federation.

It has been largely founded through transportation. Its people have family links throughout Australia. It is ironic that it cannot now obtain sufficient transportation to effectively integrate its peoples and economy into the rest of the nation. This surely was, is and must be the very purpose of federation.

Must those on the island now ask the Queen to use the royal prerogative to commandeer sufficient ferries to equitably link the island?

Or, in the absence of justifiable and proper transport links, should the people ask to unravel the federation of the nation and seek to return to the governance of Westminster?

Prime Minister Turnbull, surely sound commercial sense could be added to commonsense, national business and political support and mandates to fulfill the Howard promises for transport equality given two decades ago?

Or, is there no place in the new economy to just give all Australians fair access to the whole of their country, not just part of it?

The democracy that worked well for Tasmania and the Coalition in 1996 is now turning very sour.

*Peter Brohier: Winner of the AHA Tasmania award for outstanding services to tourism, and for achieving a national sea highway. Peter and his team were described as the lobbyists that had beaten the nation’s best in 1996 (Sydney Morning Herald). Acknowledged as the person most responsible for the introduction of the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalization Scheme by Tasmania’s Premier Lennon ( Hansard,  House of Assembly, Tasmania). Peter is a Tasmanian by birth and is now based in Melbourne.