Far North Qld operators sceptical about $64m subsidy


Road transport operators who deliver freight and food to remote communities in the far north of Queensland are sceptical about seeing any of the $64 million freight funding package from the state government.

The money is designated to the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA), Torres Strait, Cape York and Gulf of Carpentaria regions over the next five years in a bid to assist with the rising cost of living.

The price of groceries, fuel and other essentials in the region are amongst the highest in Australia because of freight costs.

In a statement, the state government said funding will start from the 2023/24 financial year and be directed toward targeted subsidies for multi-modal freight services, the appointment of freight coordinators to manage complex supply chains and the development of community infrastructure such as cold storage.

When Big Rigs approached the government for more clarity on whether the smaller transport operators who service the areas will see any of the $64 million we got the below response from a spokesperson for Transport and Main Roads.

“Following initial consultation at the recent Cost of Living Summit on Thursday Island, we will lead engagement with government agencies and key stakeholders to identify sustainable implementation options,” the statemeent said.

“This engagement is vital to ensure solutions are designed to maximise community benefits. Further details will be communicated as implementation options are further refined over coming months.”

Veteran 76-year-old small fleet operator Dennis Dent, who is based at Mareeba, has four trucks which deliver a variety of freight to Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria and doubts that any road transport companies will receive any subsidies.

“I understand what the government is saying but where will it help us? If we drop our rates the government won’t subsidise us. It will benefit sea transport operators,” Dent told Big Rigs.

Dent said that the mostly red dirt and corrugated roads up to the cape and gulf were closed on average for four months each year.

“Road transport overall is cheaper than by sea. I put in a quote to deliver freight up that way for $2000 and we couldn’t go because the roads were cut.

“The person had to use a sea barge and showed me the price which was $7000.”

Simon Tuxworth runs the family company Tuxworth and Woods which has depots at Cairns, Mareeba, Cooktown, Weipa and Normanton as well as agents located at Mount Garnet, Georgetown, Croydon and Karumba.

The company was started by his now retired father Norm in 1972.

Tuxworth said that whilst he was praiseworthy of the package, he said that $20 million of the money would go to Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria and the rest to the Torres Strait.

“I thought they could have given a bit more to the cape and gulf and it costs a lot to do a refrigerated load into the remote communities. I hope the money goes towards fresh food supplies in these communities. It is all about the health of the people. There is a lot of soft drink and things like lollies going up there,” Tuxworth said.

Tuxworth and Woods has 13 road trains in total and six or seven of them do regular runs to Cape York and the gulf every week during the dry season. Most are Western Stars and the company employs between 45 and 50 people.

“As soon as the roads are open Woolies get onto us. We can deliver mostly overnight to these places whilst it can take five days by barge,” he said.

Tuxworth said that savings could be made on freight if fresh fruit and vegetables which were grown around Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands didn’t go to Brisbane initially.

“Then it is sent back up here by road,” he said.

Gavan Roy believes the subsidies will be a huge help to the consumer, but is unsure how they will benefit his fleet.

Gavan Roy, the operations manager for Weipa-based Rob Roy Eathermoving, said the funding will be widely accepted.

“There’s no doubt about that. The wet season especially can be a challenge for families and businesses up here on mainland Cape York, where barging is the only option for freight to be delivered, as the roads are generally closed due to rain and flooding for up to five months.

“The cost difference between road freight and sea freight can be quite significant, which undoubtedly can place a huge burden on household budgets, and when there is only one dominating supplier for sea freight in the FNQ area, the ball is in their court.

“Being a transport operator, I understand there is a need to pass on the extra costs associated with providing transport services, and that just gets handballed down the line which in some instances ends up with the consumer having to cop hefty increases in goods by the time it reaches the shelves,” Roy said.

Roy told Big Rigs the injection of $64 million over five years will be a welcome relief for residents and consumers in FNQ.

“But what’s the plan after the five years, will we be paying through the nose again? This ongoing issue needs to be addressed and plans implemented moving forward, or at the very least provide transport operators with some relief from fuel prices, registration and insurance costs. Not to mention the cost of fines, which can make drivers lives miserable over a simple mistake in a work diary for example.

“The transport industry – road, sea and air – in this country is majorly lacking respect and recognition particularly by governing bodies. This needs to addressed country wide because at the end of the day, the consumer is the one suffering.”

Thursday Island is 39km across the sea from mainland Australia and there are many other islands in the Torres Strait which are serviced by barges.

On TI, which is the business centre of the Torres Strait, there is a big Seaswift depot where freight is unloaded from barges and taken to the various businesses by trucks.

Other islands also have barges arriving and freight and goods are towed to their destination on trailers mostly by tractors or light trucks.

On Thursday Island the freight arrives by barges and is taken to businesses by Seaswift trucks.

Former long time Thursday Island resident Mark Bousen who owned papers there and at Weipa, Cooktown and Mossman campaigned for many years about the high cost of living due to freight costs.

Bousen, who moved to the Torres Strait in 2002, said the cost of living then was outrageous and continued to be increase during his 10 years on the island.

A journalist for more than 50 years, his family moved to the Torres Strait when they bought the Torres News. They subsequently went on to buy the newspapers in Weipa, Cooktown, Port Douglas and Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, there by covering the entire Cape York and the Torres Strait regions.

“Our newspapers campaigned vigorously about the exorbitant cost of living in the region and the urgent need for freight subsidies. It was an on-going issue with us. Nothing was forthcoming from successive federal and state governments of all political persuasions. I’m delighted action finally, finally is in the pipeline, albeit decades overdue. That should reduce the cost of living to more sustainable levels, one would hope. The freight costs affect everything that comes to the region – food, building materials, furniture – anything and everything,” Bousen said.

Bousen said the dormant irony reposed with this issue is that freight subsidies were in place for Tasmania – far closer to the capital cities than the Torres Strait.

“That didn’t cut ice with anyone – but there are far more votes and seats in Tasmania than in the wide, open spaces of Cape York and the Torres Strait.

“It was and is blatant political hypocrisy at its most-blatant and never ceased to be sore point with me and our newspapers’ readers,” he said.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that during last year’s Torres Strait Community Cabinet, the local community made it clear that one of the biggest challenges for the region was freight.

“We listened to the community. We’re delivering this funding package to tackle that challenge head on. By subsiding some of the freight costs to the Northern Peninsula, Torres Strait, Cape York and Gulf regions, we can ease pressure on local suppliers, and reduce one of the major factors making things like food, and clothing more expensive,” Premier Palaszczuk said.

Transport and Main Roads Minister Mark Bailey said that in 2022 his department conducted a review into remote community freight systems which identified the need for a more targetted, sustainable approach to managing freight disadvantage across the state.

“This funding will target the high price of freight that is fuelling cost-of-living pressures, delivering on a package of work that addresses the unique challenges of transporting essential goods to these remote regions,” Bailey said.

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