TRANSPORT ADMINISTRATION AMENDMENT (COUNTRYLINK PENSIONER BOOKING FEE ABOLITION) BILL 2009
Agreement in Principle
Debate resumed from 7 May 2009.
Mr DARYL MAGUIRE
(Wagga Wagga) [4.28 p.m.]: I thank the shadow Minister for introducing the Transport Administration Amendment (CountryLink Pensioner Booking Fee Abolition) Bill. It is not the first time that a bill of a similar nature has been put before Parliament. The last bill was delayed and the Government did not respond to it in the way we wanted. This bill will abolish booking fees on pensioner travel vouchers and passes used on CountryLink services. CountryLink services are important to rural and regional New South Wales. Many disadvantaged communities rely on CountryLink services. Indeed, pensioners and people on disability allowances tend to favour CountryLink because of its accessibility. Importantly, because of the nature of travel, it means that people's luggage can be transferred and CountryLink staff are helpful to people travelling with a disability or the aged. However, the imposition of this tax has resulted in a demonstrable decrease in the amount of patronage that CountryLink is enjoying.
The intention of this legislation is fair. The Government will oppose it, but I urge members of Country Labor to support it. Users of the CountryLink services have been forced to pay $10 or 15 per cent of the full-time adult fare, whichever is the highest, to book CountryLink services with this so-called free travel voucher. Former Minister John Watkins justified the introduction of this fee to cover administrative costs. How many times have we heard that? The costs deducted from refunds to cover administrative costs in relation to the Isolated Patients Transport and Accommodation Assistance Scheme [IPTAAS] is approximately $40 per claim. That is yet another example of giving in one hand and taking from the other. Some people have to travel hundreds of kilometres in the country. Fuel costs are expensive. However, they have to pay an administration fee to lodge a claim under the IPTAAS, which often results in a return of only a few cents per kilometre.
I said I could demonstrate that the number of people using the services of CountryLink has declined. In the first eight months of the tax, the Labor Government raised $2.6 million. The introduction of the pensioner booking tax increased the fare box revenue from 8 per cent from 2005-06 to 2006-07. However, due to declining patronage income from the pensioner booking tax decreased from 2006-07 to 2007-08. The amount collected is substantial, given it is coming off the back of pensioners doing it tough during these tough economic times. In 2006-07 the pensioner booking tax collected $3.584 million. In 2007-08 it decreased slightly to $3.5 million. The conclusion is that about 53,000 fewer vouchers were used from March to October 2006 than were used in March to October 2005. It is clear that rural communities are feeling the impact of this tax, together with other taxes and charges they are forced to pay, and the continuing drought that is sucking the life from some small communities that are struggling to survive.
That is why from time to time I refer to the issue of providing and enhancing CountryLink services to allow people from disadvantaged communities right across New South Wales to access very important transport that meets their personal needs that other services do not. CountryLink services also work on hub and spoke and allow people from, say, Tumut, to go to Canberra, Sydney or Wagga Wagga to use CountryLink services or transfer to other available modes of transport, including Regional Express airlines, known as Rex, and Qantas. Rex is based in Wagga Wagga and provides some 150 jobs. Rex provides a wonderful service that allows interlinkages with transport services. The biggest problem faced by CountryLink, apart from mismanagement by the Minister, is the state of roads on which commuters have to travel to get to services.
This morning in this House I moved a motion that called on the Government to declare the Gocup Road, Tumut, a State road and for it to be funded accordingly. Commuters on the CountryLink service from Tumbarumba and Tumut use the Gocup Road. Good roads should be provided by the Government for public transport services. On Friday 1 February 2008 the Federal member for Eden-Monaro, Dr Mike Kelly, said he was in the process of setting up a meeting between the New South Wales Minister for Roads, Eric Roozendaal, and the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Anthony Albanese, with Tumut council to discuss funding for Gocup Road. Dr Kelly said that while he did not totally dismiss the prospect of some funding for the road coming through the Federal Government this year, he maintained that the State Government must play a role in any upgrade. He said declaring the road a State road was a proposal that must be examined. I support his sentiments that a number of things need to be worked through.
My motion called for Gocup Road to become a State road because the areas that CountryLink services—Tumut, Batlow, Adelong, Tumbarumba—are dynamic and have received an enormous amount of investment from both Federal and State governments and private enterprise, that is, Visy Industries, to which the Premier earlier referred. Visy commenced stage one, which cost approximately $400 million and was opened in 2002. Stage two will cost approximately $600 million and will come online in October 2009. The logging task that will be on those roads, together with CountryLink buses, will increase. The Softwoods Working Group forecast that $4.4 million tonnes of forest products a year would be on the road network by 2006 has proved to be correct. Its chairman, Peter Crowe, said:
It is inevitable that six million tonnes a year of forest products will be exceeded by 2010.
The NSW Government dual objective of increasing the size of the plantation estate and processing facilities is a spectacular success.
That great credit from Peter Crowe to the success of the investment has meant that trucks and vehicles put more pressure on the road which impacts public transport systems. The main road available from Tumbarumba, Batlow and Tumut down to Gundagai or into Sydney and Canberra is the Gocup Road. Federal members Kay Hull and Mike Kelly support the initiative to declare Gocup Road a State road, which will attract State funding. On Tuesday 6 May 2008 an article in the Tumut and Adelong Times
Mr DARYL MAGUIRE:
He said the first step towards securing State and Federal funding was to reclassify the important link as a State Road.
Presently, it is a regional road, and as such comes under the direct funding responsibility of Tumut Shire Council.
Mr Kelly said he had spoken to the relevant State and Federal Ministers with a view towards bringing them together with the timber industry and Tumut Shire Council to discuss the road.
"There needs to be input and subsequently contributions fro each of the stakeholders," Mr Kelly said.
"But that isn't going to happen until it is declared a State Road, and therefore is eligible for State funds.
"We need to sit down and work out a plan for the future of the road, instead of just announcing a dollar figure.
"Once we do get everyone together I'm confident we will come up with a process that will bring the road up to scratch."
Dr Andrew McDonald: What has this got to do with trains?
I acknowledge the interjection. It is about providing a safe environment for CountryLink buses to travel on. It is about ensuring that pensioners and people with disabilities, itinerant workers, people who cannot afford to motor or people who have lost their licence because of the regulations of the Roads and Traffic Authority are guaranteed a road upgraded to a decent standard on which the bus can travel. It will accommodate the needs of a growing industry and an increase in traffic. I hope the member for Macquarie Fields has listened to my demonstration that the task will increase. We are both members of the Staysafe committee, which is presently conducting an inquiry into the heavy vehicles industry.
Taxi services, private motorists and CountryLink impact on our roads. CountryLink has one of the biggest bus fleets in New South Wales and travels on many millions of kilometres of our roads. The public use CountryLink and have to pay the unfair tax, particularly pensioners. I cannot recall how many hundreds of letters and petitions I have received, but I know that the public is irate about this tax. It is only right for this matter to be raised by the shadow Minister in this House. On 7 February 2009, Dr Kelly said that the costs had blown out. It was estimated originally that the road would be upgraded at a cost of $22 million. As a result of Mr Kelly's discussions and roundtables, the local newspaper reported:
Costing for the proposed upgrade of the Gocup Road has blown out to $82 million.
The long-awaited estimate from the RTA to upgrade the road has finally been released, and it comes in at significantly more than the $23 million or so put forward by an engineer's report commissioned by Tumut and Gundagai some years ago.
Federal Member for Eden-Monaro Mike Kelly released the figure this week
Dr Kelly said he had raised the issue of Gocup Road with Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese and his Adviser in a meeting last week, where Dr Kelly expressed how important upgrading Gocup is for the safety of drivers who use that road.
As I have said, CountryLink buses use the road, as well as the travelling public. The article continued:
"I am determined to get action on the Gocup Road, especially with activity at Visy ramping up," Dr Kelly said.
"I have pushed the Softwoods Working Group, the RTA and the NSW Minister for Roads to ensure Gocup Road is upgraded.
Sadly, in the Federal budget announced on Tuesday no money was allocated to the road. We wait with bated breath for the State budget to find out whether it will allocate the required funding. The road needs to be upgraded. The article continued:
Dr Kelly said he plans to bring State Minister for Roads Michael Daley and the Federal Minister for Local Government and Infrastructure Anthony Albanese to Tumut to show them the issues in a bid to secure Gocup's declaration as a state road and to get federal assistance.
That was on 7 February 2009. But it did not happen. The Federal budget has come and gone, and despite murmurings from the local councils—who were assured that funding was in the pipeline and that we would all have egg on our faces come 14 May, following the delivery of the Federal budget—there is no funding. Therefore, CountryLink passengers will continue to be put at risk on Gocup Road. Pensioners' lives will be put at risk because they must pay a tax to use a service that is supposed to be free. All members of the House will understand the importance of declaring the road a State road; no-one can deny that. We all agree with Dr Kelly. The question is: Why has that not happened? Who made the funding application?
I would like to know who submitted the Gocup Road funding application, who received it and on what date it was submitted. Did it comply with the funding criteria, which administrators were advised, and did the Federal member know about it? I am sure the Federal member is as disappointed as the community that he and I represent that that funding is not forthcoming. Originally, the upgrade was estimated to cost $23 million, and now it will cost about $88 million. We have heard only promises; nothing has happened. Indeed, the State Government needs to support the Federal member and declare the road a State road. That will at least ensure that CountryLink passengers can travel it safely.
Mr ANDREW CONSTANCE
(Bega) [4.43 p.m.]: It is a privilege to follow the contribution of the member for Wagga Wagga in this debate. His contribution was entirely in order. As the State member for Bega and the shadow Minister for Ageing, I advise the House that the Transport Administration Amendment (CountryLink Pensioner Booking Fee Abolition) Bill 2009 is supported by a number of pensioner and seniors organisations, including the Australian Council on the Ageing, the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association, and National Seniors Australia. They and other community-based and social service organisations have expressed serious concerns about this iniquitous tax and its impact on senior citizens in New South Wales.
The bill was introduced by the shadow Minister for Transport in October 2007. If the Government does not support it the Coalition will continue to fight hard to deliver equity to pensioners who utilise CountryLink booking services. The current booking fee is unfair, particularly for many seniors in country areas who rely on CountryLink services to travel to medical appointments. In my electorate, people use the bus service to travel from Eden through Bega to Cooma and on to the Jolimont Centre in Canberra. They use that service because it hooks them up with a train service and, more importantly, with medical services in Canberra.
Then Minister John Watkins indicated that the pensioner booking fee was introduced to cover administrative costs. But it has led to a drop in patronage as pensioners no longer use rail services. The pensioner booking tax increased fare box revenue by 8 per cent from 2005-06 to 2006-07. The key point is that declining patronage leads to decreased tax collections. I am not talking about a small amount of money; approximately $3.5 million is taken out of the pockets of pensioners, particularly those in country areas, who utilise CountryLink services. Ultimately, this is an unfair tax that targets those who are disadvantaged most by the lack of government services.
The fee highlights the Government's lack of focus on issues involving those over the age of 65. There is still no holistic demographic plan in New South Wales. Time and time again, former Treasurer Michael Costa told everyone that the ageing community has a real impact on the State budget. He pointed out that the State budget would be in deficit by $14 billion within 20 years if a strategy was not put in place to deal with demographic ageing. Part of the problem is the way in which New South Wales seniors utilise government services. In this instance, CountryLink is penalising seniors most unfairly through the booking tax.
Time and time again, seniors are treated badly by government agencies. Recently there was a debacle involving the licensing system and older drivers, and a raft of agencies continue to refuse to reconsider the way in which services are delivered to the over-65s. It is time the State Government took up the policies of the Liberals and The Nationals to ensure that we have a holistic plan for demographic ageing in New South Wales. Without such a plan, this type of discrimination will continue. This is a discriminatory tax, and we will continue to see similar discrimination across all agencies in their treatment of our elderly citizens. Until the Government adopts such a plan, significant budget blow-outs will continue into the future, particularly in the areas of health and transport.
The Minister for Ageing was questioned on two separate occasions during budget estimates and on both occasions it was revealed that no discussions had taken place between the Minister and the Minister for Transport over the concerns of seniors in relation to the CountryLink pensioner booking tax. That is unacceptable. If any Minister in this House should be taking up the cause in Government it is Minister Paul Lynch. Again he has failed to represent the views of the people for whose care he is responsible. I hope he will see fit to come to the Chamber and, as Minister for Ageing, put a strong case supporting the abolition of the CountryLink pensioner booking tax.
It is discrimination of the worst kind, particularly as pensioners have just this week seen an indication of support from the Commonwealth by way of a pension increase. The Commonwealth is increasing pensions but the State Government is taking money away from pensioners through its own taxation system. It is simply outrageous. This State Government should be doing more to support pensioners. What better way to do so than support the Opposition in this House and abolish this cruel and discriminatory tax, which is affecting patronage but more importantly affecting vital services that seniors want to use?
As I said, CountryLink services are vital because they enable people to travel to medical services in major regional centres. They also allow people to visit loved ones in far-flung places. They also provide a degree of comfort for seniors. It is good for seniors to have access to toilet facilities on trains, and they can sit back and relax without having to worry about the perils of country roads and the like. It is incredibly unfair to tax them in this way. That is why organisations such as the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association have made it very clear that they oppose this discriminatory tax. I just hope the Government will see fit to abolish the booking fee in next month's budget and do the seniors of New South Wales a favour.
Ms PRU GOWARD (Goulburn) [4.51 p.m.]: I support this amendment to the Transport Administration Act 1998 as a member representing a country electorate where travel and public transport are highly prized. As the member for Bega has observed, at a time when we are encouraging people to take their cars off the roads, for a whole range of reasons—and particularly aged people whose driving ability might be compromised as they get older; it is certainly compromised when they apply to renew their licence in their later years—it seems an absolute contradiction to tax something that was introduced to recognise and benefit seniors and give them their just desserts.
This same amendment was introduced by the member for Willoughby in 2007 but I understand the legislation lapsed on at least three occasions. One has to ask why the Government continues to allow this bill to lapse. Why does it not want to confront the issue one way or another and recognise the arguments involved? It is a striking example of Labor's fixation with taxing the people of New South Wales at every opportunity. Perhaps it is trying to discourage the elderly from using CountryLink services so that more services can be closed. People in my electorate constantly feel their rail services are under threat. The staff I talk to are always asking me what is going on. When CountryLink patronage decreases—and of course this fee is a great mechanism for reducing the number of people on an age pension who travel by rail—you start to develop a case, if the Government is so inclined, for cutting the number of services. It is a pity that during this debate the Government has not had the courage to explain why it does not support our amendment to abolish this ridiculous tax on a so-called "free" voucher.
We are talking about pensioners who have paid tax all their lives and who are entitled to two free return trips per year on CountryLink trains. On 3 March 2006, pensioners using CountryLink services were forced to pay $10 or 15 per cent of the full price, whichever was the highest, when using free travel vouchers to book CountryLink services. I would like the Government to tell us what the administrative cost of imposing a booking fee is and whether it is cost effective. If it is not cost effective and it can be demonstrated that the cost of collecting the CountryLink booking tax is unprofitable or near to being cost neutral, one has to ask whether there is another reason for the Government imposing a tax on the people who are most likely to travel—other than people like me who use CountryLink to commute.
For people living on pensions of $569.80 for singles and $475.90 per person in a couple, this booking tax is a significant impost. It is very petty for a government that deals with billions of dollars, but it is a huge issue for pensioners. The increase in revenue from the tax is associated with a decline in the number of CountryLink passengers. For example, in the past four years CountryLink patronage has declined from 1.74 million passenger journeys to 1.55 million passenger journeys. The Independent Transport Safety and Reliability Regulator published a transport reliability report in 2006-07 stating that the pensioner booking tax was responsible for a decline in patronage. One can understand that people cannot use their free vouchers when they have to pay the booking tax out of their modest incomes. Many pensioners are struggling with the rising cost of living and find the tax an impossible burden.
They look forward to travelling for the day or the weekend. They like to see their children and to visit the metropolitan area, and they are very grateful to receive these free vouchers each year. CountryLink trains, in my area at least, are also often used by tourists and day trippers. The decline in patronage is reflected also in a decline in the economic viability of some of our tourist facilities. That again makes a mockery of the Government's claim that it wishes to invest more in tourism. There is a very easy way to encourage tourism in New South Wales: through the provision of free travel twice a year for pensioners. Why make it almost impossible for them to afford to travel because of their incredibly stretched circumstances and the difficulty they have finding the booking fee?
When I travel on CountryLink trains to and from Sydney I see pensioners who use CountryLink trains frequently. I believe if we removed the booking fee we would see a rebound in numbers, to the benefit of us all. It would benefit the tourist industry and the welfare and wellbeing of pensioners and their quality of life. It would remove cars from the roads—if that is their alternative transport option—and make CountryLink a stronger and more viable service. I am very disappointed that Labor members who represent electorates around mine have not seen fit to support the Transport Administration Amendment (CountryLink Pensioner Booking Fee Abolition) Bill 2009.
CountryLink services have continually been neglected by this Labor Government. Trains are often late. According to the CountryLink website, trains met the State Government's on-time running target in only 14 out of 52 weeks. That means trains ran late 74 per cent of the time in 2008 and in 2009 it is worse, with trains running late 100 per cent of the time. CountryLink has failed to meet the on-time running target every week, which is an appalling record. At the same time, CountryLink fares continue to rise. Again, that is in stark contrast to the Government's proclaimed desire to see people living out of Sydney to take pressure off the city, off roads and off carbon emissions, and also off older drivers who often drive into the city unwillingly and anxiously.
For those venturing to Goulburn today, for example, a CountryLink ticket would cost them $40.35. The CityRail option is available to them but many people are alarmed by the graffiti and by the lack of security on CityRail trains, in particular, on a long three-hour trip. Older people are not willing to take the risk on a CityRail train when they have the difficulty of dragging luggage from one train to another at Campbelltown to connect with the other half of the service. I state confidently, because older people in my electorate have told me, that they often miss the train because of the difficulty in moving their luggage. For them the only option is CountryLink. This Government is promoting the use of public transport in name but not in deed. This Government is not encouraging people to travel by using those services. It is about time that such a petty tax—I would argue that it is cost neutral rather than beneficial—were removed and we went back to the honest way of providing a rail service, in particular, for the elderly and those who cannot move easily by any other means around this great and glorious State.
Mr DONALD PAGE
(Ballina) [5.00 p.m.]: I support the Transport Administration Amendment (CountryLink Pensioner Booking Fee Abolition) Bill 2009, which was introduced by the member for Willoughby and shadow Minister for Transport. The Government imposed a booking fee on our pensioner population that creates hardship, provides a disincentive for people to use the service and, frankly, is penny-pinching in the extreme. This group of people, who are not well off, do not deserve that sort of treatment. Many pensioners reside in my electorate of Ballina or on the North Coast. This Government has imposed $3.5 million worth of fees on pensioners in this State who have worked hard all their lives, supported the tax system and supported this country in many ways.
Australia is the great country that it is because of the efforts of people who are in that pensioner class today. It is unfair to impose a $10 pensioner booking fee on them. Since the introduction of this booking fee I have received many representations over the years from people who are concerned about its impact on their ability to travel. In many cases pensioners needed to travel on the XPT to Sydney for medical treatment—that is, when we had an XPT between Murwillumbah and Casino and then on to Sydney. It adds insult to injury when someone who has very little money and who has to travel to Sydney for major medical treatment suffers the indignity of the imposition of an additional $10 booking fee.
Back in 2003 this heartless Government took away our train from Casino to Murwillumbah; pensioners who relied on that train no longer have that service. They have to travel by bus from the north of Murwillumbah right through to Lismore to catch the Brisbane to Sydney XPT, either at Casino or Grafton. This Government not only is charging struggling pensioners an additional booking fee; it has taken away the train service altogether. Many pensioners have said to me that they are upset about the abolition of the train service and they have also said that the bus service is not really satisfactory.
I assure the Government that the anger in the community about the abolition of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail link has not abated one iota. People still want that train service. Pensioners might not want exactly the same service—some people still want to be able to connect to the XPT to go to Sydney—but others want a train service that provides commuter services and tourism services north and south of Byron Bay in particular. Eventually, the train service from Casino through to Murwillumbah and into south-east Queensland should be linked with the Queensland system. Members would be aware that the Queensland Government is pretty proactive about rail services in south-east Queensland, and over the next few years it will extend its rail line down to Coolangatta.
We need an integrated transport arrangement to link northern New South Wales with southern Queensland. We have very little public transport in northern New South Wales and the Government took away the train services that we had. To add insult to injury, for many years the Government has imposed a $10 pensioner booking fee, creating hardship for pensioners, who frankly do not deserve it. The Government's justification for the imposition of this fee is that it costs more to run CountryLink than it does to run CityRail. Pensioners in the city have pretty generous arrangements in that they are able to move around all over the place on trains, ferries and buses for very little money.
I remind members of the Parry report that was commissioned a few years ago. One of the most interesting findings in the Parry report was that the cost recovery for CountryLink was 32¢ in the dollar and the cost recovery for CityRail was 28¢ in the dollar. In other words, for every dollar that taxpayers invest in CityRail they recover 28¢, and for every dollar that they invest in CountryLink they get 32¢. The cost recovery for CountryLink is higher than it is for CityRail. In my view, to use the economic argument as some sort of justification for imposing an additional booking fee on people who use CountryLink, is fallacious and without justification. I agree with the statement made earlier by other members that this is an unfair tax on pensioners.
The object of this bill is to abolish the booking fees on the use of pensioner travel vouchers and passes on CountryLink rail services. Schedule 1 item  makes it clear that an order fixing charges for services of RailCorp cannot impose a CountryLink pensioner booking fee. Schedule 1 item  provides that RailCorp must not charge any pensioner booking fee for travel on a railway service provided by CountryLink. The new section provides that any order provided by RailCorp is of no effect to the extent that it imposes a pensioner booking fee. In my view, the Government should take on board this fair and straightforward legislation. I look forward to an opportunity to divide on the agreement in principle. If this Government opposes the legislation it will be shown to be the mean-spirited and heartless Government that we have grown to expect.
Mr ANDREW STONER
(Oxley—Leader of The Nationals) [5.07 p.m.]: The Transport Administration Amendment (CountryLink Pensioner Booking Fee Abolition) Bill 2009 is another piece of Liberals-Nationals policy in New South Wales. It is a good policy because it reverses the dreadful policy of the New South Wales Labor Government, which effectively results in the pockets of pensioners in country areas being picked by a revenue-hungry Government. CountryLink services are extremely important to country people and especially to pensioners.
In my electorate of Oxley, which is situated on the beautiful mid North Coast, I represent communities that are between 3½ and six hours away from Sydney by road—and that is just one way. A return journey is seven to 12 hours for the people and the communities that I represent from the Manning Valley to Dorrigo. Obviously it is too far by road for elderly people to travel on those many occasions when they want to visit the city, be it for medical treatment, family visits, or events and functions. Many of those events and functions are available only in the city. For example, the Seniors Concert, which is hosted by the Premier, is held only in Sydney. New Year's Eve celebrations, for which all taxpayers pay, are held only in Sydney. The Festival of Sydney, which is a terrific festival, also is not available to people in country and coastal communities. Many of my constituents want to visit the city for a variety of reasons.
Not only is the distance a disincentive for my constituents to travel by road; the Pacific Highway, which still is not completely upgraded, is a dangerous road. I drive along it frequently. It is regularly choked with trucks and is in a crumbling, potholed condition. One cannot but notice the many crosses along the side of the road. This is a very scary road for elderly people to travel along. Even if they were to travel by road, when they get to the city they encounter numerous toll roads. They end up paying additional charges because they do not have an e-tag or do not know how to use the computer to purchase an e-pass or other casual form of toll pass. Travelling by road to Sydney is a daunting experience for the elderly. On the other hand, they are familiar with the train and they like it. The train brings them right into the city.
My elderly constituents often do not choose the alternative method of air transport because my electorate has no airports and the nearest two are at Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour. The Taree airport is under threat of closure because of the state of the runway. The Greater Taree City Council cannot get Federal funding to upgrade the runway to a safe condition. Kempsey airport closed some years ago. Although the airport remains open, no flights arrive or depart. The Nambucca and Bellingen regions have no airports. Even for those who avail themselves of the air service from Port Macquarie or Coffs Harbour, it becomes an expensive exercise when taking into account the cost of cabs from the airport to the city or the airport train service, which is a steep price for some pensioners who are on limited incomes.
I have had many conversations with people about the CountryLink services. I have met with large groups on stations at Wingham, Kew, Wauchope, Kempsey, Macksville, Nambucca Heads and Urunga. The communities surrounding those railway stations rely on this valuable public transport service, which, for many, is their only form of public transport—something taken for granted by those in the city who can choose from many forms of public transport. Sadly, our CountryLink services, which for decades have been valued by country and coastal people, have been run down by a Sydney-centric Labor Government that is happy to spend $5 billion of taxpayers money on a boutique Metro service to Rozelle, but is pinching pennies from CountryLink and pensioners' pockets. How has the CountryLink service been run down? Staff numbers have been cut from the stations I have mentioned. Macksville and Nambucca Heads now have only part-time staff, Urunga and Kew have no station staff at all and staff numbers have been cut at Kempsey and Wauchope.
Fewer free seats are available for pensioners on a CountryLink service. When pensioners try to book seats they are told frequently there are no free seats available on the train they want to get them to their destination at the time they require. Many CountryLink services have had a reduction in the number of carriages from six to four and this has contributed to fewer available seats. The rolling stock is ageing. I am told that in many cases the rail motors are more than 20 years old and the carriages have become run-down over that time. If it were not for the Australian Rail Track Corporation the state of the North Coast rail line would have decayed and many speed restrictions would have been placed on it. Prior to the Australian Rail Track Corporation deal some bridges on the North Coast rail line, including near Wauchope, were in such a state of disrepair that light could be seen through the sleepers because of dry rot. They were affected by termites and the spikes were falling out. The service has been run down by this Government because it has not provided the necessary resources for maintenance or staffing.
The final straw for the people I represent, particularly pensioners in North Coast communities, is the introduction of the booking fee. Pensioners are told they still have free travel. It is not free because it has a $10 booking fee attached. While the Federal Government is increasing pensions our State Government is dipping its hands into pensioners' pockets by imposing this outrageous fee. Often we hear the strident calls from the New South Wales Labor Party, "Where is your policy?" The State Liberal-Nationals Coalition has presented plenty of policy and abolishing the CountryLink booking fee is just one. Pensioners in country areas deserve a fair go. This penny-pinching booking fee should be abolished. The Liberal-Nationals would welcome this policy being adopted by the New South Wales Labor Party as it has done with other policies of ours, like ethanol-blended fuel, rebates for rainwater tanks in country areas and the proposed feed-in electricity tariff scheme. We are happy for the Government to pinch this policy. All Government members need to do is join us in voting for this bill and supporting pensioners in country and coastal New South Wales.
Mr JOHN TURNER
(Myall Lakes) [5.16 p.m.]: I congratulate the shadow Minister for Transport on being proactive in introducing the Transport Administration Amendment (CountryLink Pensioner Booking Fee Abolition) Bill 2009. Seniors in my electorate have expressed concern since the Government introduced this unfair booking fee. The fee is calculated at $10 or 15 per cent of the full adult fare, whichever is the highest. It is an outrageous slug on the community's most vulnerable residents. We should be encouraging our ageing population to be as active as possible. Slugging them with this booking fee when they use CountryLink trains and buses effectively confines some pensioners to their homes. Labor's booking fee has slashed the number of pensioners who use CountryLink. Only a few years ago 20 per cent fewer people were using the CountryLink service. This booking fee is just a grab for pensioners' money by a cash-strapped government. The Government takes this kind of approach frequently as it falls behind the eight ball in the economic management of this State.
As the Leader of The Nationals said, the Coalition will scrap this booking fee. This will encourage more elderly people to be active and travel by trains or buses. In turn this will help revive regional train services in those communities. The matter was of such importance in my area that when Neville Peatfield and Ben Kooy of Taree stood for only a couple of days in Taree they were able to collect 2,250 signatures on a petition calling for the abolition of the fee. I congratulate them on doing that but, unfortunately, I have had to tell them that the appeals fell on the Government's deaf ears and the fee will continue to be charged. Quite frankly, the Government cannot see the wood for the trees when it comes to the impact this booking fee has on our elderly citizens. John Newell, President of the Combined Pensioners and the Superannuants Association, wrote to the then Minister for Transport stating:
We again protest the primitive booking fees (alternative Tax) still being charged to pensioners on Country Link services on their "free" tickets.
Increasingly we are convinced that labour governments do not care about older persons and are only interested in the rich.
The booking fee tax has risen along with fare rises.
We again implore you to do the right thing and remove the Country Link booking fees.
I concur with each line of that letter from Mr Newell, particularly his view that Labor governments "do not care about older persons" in our community. The Manning River Times
also reported on the issue in its 24-25 August 2007 edition under a headline "Rail ticket rise outrage". The article states:
The planned 4.8 per cent CountryLink fare increase is 'appalling' news for pensioners, because it means their ticket booking fee will rise by the same amount, says John Newell, president of the local branch of the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association
"Only pensioners have to pay a booking fee – it is a form of discrimination," Mr Newell says
This is an issue affecting everyone, not just pensioners, he says.
"Queensland has new tilt trains, Victoria and Western Australia have new trains – New South Wales is supposed to be the premier state but we have the worst trains in Australia."
Clearly, the booking fee is an impost and a direct tax on older people by a government that claims to look after older people and to have a community conscience. The Government does not have a community conscience; it is slugging the most vulnerable people in our community with a fee that could quite easily be axed, and should be axed.
Ms GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN
(Willoughby) [5.20 p.m.], in reply: I take this opportunity to thank all members who contributed to debate on this very important issue. I have listened closely to remarks made by members opposite and it concerns me that none of their arguments stacked up. Many members opposite, whom I will not name, have stopped me in the corridor to tell me that they really support this bill. It is time for them to show their support and vote with the Opposition in favour of the bill. The bill was introduced in the best interests of hardworking pensioners in country and regional areas, as well as those in metropolitan areas, who are suffering a great deal of angst because they rely on vouchers to visit family and friends and to attend important appointments. In addition to all those who contributed to the debate, I thank the many community organisations that have supported the Opposition in our bid and that the Opposition has supported because we believe this to be a very important issue. I commend the bill to the House.
Question—That this bill be now agreed to in principle—put.
The House divided.
Mr J. H. Turner
Mr R. W. Turner
Mr J. D. Williams
Mr R. C. Williams
Question resolved in the negative.
Bill not agreed to in principle.