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A CAMPAIGN for Bass Strait interstate transport equality, supported by business in two states, has failed to deliver despite resulting in massive federal funding.
The Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme is an uncapped federal highway equalisation scheme worth billions. It was a major part of a raft of measures to provide a fair sea highway transport link across the Victorian-Tasmanian border.
The scheme has progressively over two decades been turned into a funding stream mainly benefiting the Tasmanian leisure industry.
Under the Abbott Government, there is no money available to equalise the movement of people across this significant corridor.
The Federal Government has said the aim of the BSPVES did “not extend to equalising the cost of inbound and outbound travel across Bass Strait”. The consequences of this severely brings into question issues about accountability, democratic processes, economic responsibility and governance.
Recent extension of the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme to equalise international exports crossing Bass Strait to the cost of highway travel is welcome.
Little was reported of the Government response to the Productivity Commission’s Tasmanian shipping and freight report that covered changes to the BSPVES. This scheme was the centrepiece of the 1996 Coalition’s election. It met calls for transport equality for people and vehicles and to make Bass Strait “part of the national highway”.
With marginal seats at stake, Coalition promises were critical. A bidding war over Bass Strait occurred between John Howard and then PM Paul Keating. Howard won.
In its inquiry last year, the commission faced a dilemma. Was the scheme to be a subsidy to support driving holidays to Tasmania for mainlanders, as it had become, or should it offer highway transport equality? The commission asked the Commonwealth. The Government, ignoring the historical context under which the scheme was introduced, responded that the aim did not extend to “equalising the cost of inbound and outbound travel across Bass Strait”.
This flew in the face of reality and now embeds the purpose of the scheme as a subsidy advantaging few.
The purpose of the 1996 campaign seeking interstate transport equality across Bass Strait will be negated.
The intent of the scheme should be to deliver transport equity for people and vehicles in both directions.
In the Government’s response, monitoring of the scheme will now rightly be extended past a focus on leisure travel to Tasmania to the other half of the travel market, that of visiting friends and relatives and to business travel. Monitoring needs to cover travel in both directions. Given the now seemingly one-way limited purpose of the scheme, it is unlikely to do so.
A properly functioning scheme, based on equalisation not subsidy, was said by the Coalition to be necessary to reduce the “single greatest barrier to the growth in population investment and jobs for Tasmania”.
This issue goes to the core of what equalisation means and the needs of the Tasmanian community for interstate transport equality.
Bass Strait transport access has a critical impact on most major industries.
Use of the only inter-capital surface route of national significance between Melbourne and Hobart should not be governed by non-highway equalised fares varying daily set by what could be described as a “punt” operation.
The Federal Government’s response also promises a review of the scheme to examine modal competition, presumably competition between air and sea services, and issues surrounding a wider definition of tourism.
This is unnecessary if considered in the context of meeting the original purposes of introducing the scheme.
The intent of federation was to join the colonies into an integrated national economy through movement of people and freight. The PM should restore well considered and widely supported purposes to deliver comprehensive two-way maritime highway equalisation, and every federal politician has a responsibility to ensure that he does.
Peter Brohier is a Melbourne lawyer and convener of the National Sea Highway group.
This article first appeared on www.themercury.com.au
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