Interview with Jordan Curtis
23 May 2023
Subjects: Regional airport tax, Whyalla airport security funding, rural and regional Australia
JORDAN CURTIS: Late last week, we heard the unfortunate news that Rex Airlines are planning on pulling the pin on their operations at Whyalla Airport thanks to security costings, which are no longer assisted by government. I guess we've have had a change of government in that time. I'm joined by South Australian Senator Anne Ruston, of course with the Opposition. Anne, thanks for joining us.
SENATOR RUSTON: My pleasure, Jordan. Thanks for having me.
CURTIS: So, obviously, this is something that was funded under the previous Government, your previous government. Now, not so much. It's a disappointing turn of events.
SENATOR RUSTON: Oh, it's very, very disappointing, because we know that rural and regional communities rely so heavily on their local airlines. And to find that this government has just ripped the subsidy out, that was in place to make sure that people in rural and regional Australia didn't have to pay exorbitant amounts of passenger landing charges, and it hasn't been replaced with anything. So, you know, it's just a regional airport tax. It's nothing more, nothing less. And it's really, really disappointing to see that the Government has left communities like Whyalla to fend for themselves, and left the responsibility to your local government, which has resulted in the decision of Rex Airlines last week, which I think is tremendously disappointing and has some pretty significant consequences for your community.
CURTIS: And I guess Rex Airlines has had a bit of a rough go in the last six months or so. There's been a lot of bad news stories, I guess, coming out of their operations. They've had to make cutbacks, so it can't be too much of a surprise that an extra bill for them is going to result in them having to pull up stumps.
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, I think the extra bill to them. But what I think is of more concern is the fact that by them leaving your community, you're left with one air service, which means you've got no competition on your air route. And it just is a, I suppose, another example I think of a lack of concern or care by this government for regional communities. One of the first things they did in health was rip out the Distribution Priority Areas, which has seen doctors move from regional areas back to the cities because they're no longer required to spend time in rural and regional areas. And now we're seeing a situation where somebody who's getting lifted as a passenger out of Whyalla will have to pay an additional $54 on their ticket, whereas if somebody is flying out of Sydney, they get to pay 50 cents. I mean, I just cannot see that that is an equity proposition and I think that's the really concerning thing - how much more burden are we going to be sticking on to our rural and regional communities, the place where our economy is driven? I mean, Australia's balance of payments and the fact that we had a surplus in the Budget was only because of rural and regional Australia, because of our great resources sector, and our fabulous agriculture. So I think it's a pretty stupid thing for the Government to be doing, but I'm very concerned by the impact it's likely to have on the Whyalla community and many other communities around Australia that rely on an air service.
CURTIS: I know how local representative Rowan Ramsey is very displeased with the result. And I guess it's been a long time coming, because the funding wasn't included in the Government's first budget post-election and it wasn't, I guess, included in the latest Budget just a couple of weeks ago. And that's despite, in the latest Budget, the Treasurer Jim Chalmers citing Whyalla as, you know, with the hydrogen industry on the boom, as being a big part of Australia's financial future. So having that regard for Whyalla but also not backing it up with support for quite an essential service is a bit disappointing.
SENATOR RUSTON: Well look, it's very, very disappointing and you rightly point out we rely very heavily on our regional communities for so much of our income. And you know, Jim Chalmers was very quick to proudly announce that there was a budget surplus. So, at a time when he's got a budget surplus on the back of the resources sector, he's now making a resource rich community that we want as our future resource community - is punishing them by this sort of additional regional airport tax. So I think it's very hypocritical and, you know, it's extremely disappointing. But I know Rowan Ramsey has been fighting very hard to make sure that this tax was something that was picked up by the Government, or at least advertised across all passengers across Australia. And so I think he's as equally disappointed as the rest of us that this has been the result. But we'll keep fighting, we'll keep going back into estimates and demanding of this government to explain their decision, why they have punished a community like Whyalla at the same time as they're bragging about a budget surplus.
CURTIS: And another frustrating part for, I guess, the community as well is that we haven't actually heard much from the Government on this so far. I know that the Home Affairs portfolio has been pretty tied up in questions and Senate activities at the moment, but still not having had much comment from them on the future of this funding - if there will be a future of this funding.
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, as is typical often of government departments, when I questioned the Department of Home Affairs yesterday, they were very quick to hide behind the security framework requirements. And, of course, we want to make sure our airports are safe for passengers. We absolutely support 100% that decision. But very quick to duck shove the funding issue across to the infrastructure portfolio. But at the end of the day, this is one government and the Government has to accept responsibility for the fact that it's going to make it more expensive for a locum service to fly into Whyalla. It's going to make it more expensive for people who need to get health services in the city out of Whyalla. It's going to make it more expensive when people need to go to Adelaide for training. They've got to explain that to the people of Whyalla. You know, they can't hide behind their government departments. This government actually has to front the people and explain why they've done this.
CURTIS: We're out of time. But Senator, thanks so much for chatting today.