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Ferry operator slams SeaLink subsidy call for bushfire-hit Kangaroo Island

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UPDATED: A state Labor push to subsidise SeaLink ferry trips to boost tourism to the bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island would be akin to “charging a dead person life insurance”, a competing ferry operator on the island claims.

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Kangaroo Island Connect managing director David Harris, who is about to grow his ferry fleet on the island from one boat to two, said a Labor proposal to slash the cost of ferry fares by introducing a 30 per cent SeaLink subsidy for the next six months would be anticompetitive to other transport operators on the island.

The opposition flagged the idea over the weekend, claiming that cheaper fares would encourage more people to visit the island, which is still burning in some parts.

If implemented, Labor’s proposed subsidy would cut an adult return ticket to Kangaroo Island from $98 to $68.60, while a child return trip would cost $35, down from $50.

The idea has been welcomed by SeaLink and is being considered by Premier Steven Marshall, but Harris claimed the money would be better spent on improving ferry infrastructure on the island so that competing companies could operate more easily.

Harris, who currently operates his 100-person ferry from a boat ramp at Penneshaw, argued his $50.00 passenger-only return-fare was significantly cheaper than SeaLink’s, which he claimed was one of the most expensive ferry services in the world.

He said he had endured a two-year battle with the State Government to get approval to build a new purpose-built berth at Penneshaw, but was unsuccessful.

“You’ve got to ask why would the Government facilitate something that would only serve to benefit one transport operator in a very competitive environment,” Harris said.

“Even after the subsidy, SeaLink would still be charging $20 more than me to take passengers to Kangaroo Island.

“It just doesn’t make sense.”

Harris said he had operated his ferry service for about one year but was unable to run it at full potential due to the lack of purpose-built infrastructure.

“There is a huge opportunity but we just cannot get the infrastructure necessary to run the service properly,” he said.

“Could you imagine if the South Australian Government said to Qantas you can operate from this runway and we’ll give you a subsidy and Virgin and Jetstar you can go to hell?

“It’s scandalous.”

SeaLink CEO Jeff Ellison said Labor had not approached the company about the idea before flagging it through the media, but he welcomed government subsidies as a means of assisting people impacted by the bushfires.

“As a company we support subsidies,” he said.

“We think it’s probably, in this situation with the devastating fires in Kangaroo Island, it’s probably the most efficient, direct and fast way for the Government to assist those people in Kangaroo Island.”

Ellison rebuked Harris’ claim that the Government should invest in improving infrastructure on the island, instead insisting that the money would be better spent on subsidising the ferry service to make it more accessible to people experiencing hardship.

He also defended SeaLink’s pricing, saying there were “a whole lot of aspects” that made the company’s service more expensive.

“Our infrastructure is fine so I think the money should be put towards the subsidy,” he said.

“Ours is purpose-built that can operate all-year round, we have extra crew on-board to look after the people, we carry cars and freight, fuel.”

Ellison said SeaLink had donated over half a million dollars to the recovery effort and had provided free travel to family, friends and islanders impacted by the bushfires in its “first stage” of assisting with the recovery, with further assistance planned during the rebuilding process.

Marshall, who announced over the weekend that he would take over as Tourism Minister from David Ridgway, told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning he would consider all ideas to help boost Kangaroo Island tourism in the wake of the bushfires.

He said he would hold an extraordinary cabinet meeting this morning – the second since the bushfire crisis erupted on December 20 – to discuss strategies for recovery.

“Since this fire has occurred, we’ve been inundated with a whole pile of suggestions on things that we could consider,” he said.

“We’ve got to do that in a logical, considered way.

“We don’t want to make kneejerk reactions with regards to something as significant as a subsidy but we do want to get the island back on its feet as quickly as possible.”

Ridgway’s last act as Tourism Minister was to urge people to travel to Kangaroo Island, just days before resurgent fires forced evacuations and left hundreds without power.

But Marshall this morning said Ridgway, who retains his trade and investment portfolios, had not been sidelined due to poor performance.

“His major responsibility is trade and investment going forward and that requires a lot of overseas travel,” Marshall told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“I think it’s (the tourism portfolio) going to require a lot of work on the ground here in South Australia and I just think that those two things are incompatible.

“He agreed, he’s accepted that and we’re moving forward to try and allocate our resources as best as possible.”

There are currently two bushfire advice messages in place for the central (Emu Bay, Cape Gantheaume Conservation Park and Vivonne Bay) and western (Flinders Chase National Park, Ravine de Casoars Wilderness Area and Parndana) parts of the island.

The fire-ravaged western side is still burning uncontrolled in patches and there is a risk of falling trees.

Smoke in the area may reduce visibility on the roads and cause concern for those with respiratory conditions.

More than 600 properties on Kangaroo Island remain without electricity, but SA Power Networks said it is reassessing the damage to equipment after renewed fire activity in some areas.

It said its work is focused on the island’s north as access to the southern fire zone remains restricted.

Two army helicopters will also arrive today on Kangaroo Island to ship in vital supplies to remote areas with the defence force confirming plans to expand its presence to help with clean-up and recovery.

“They (the helicopters) will operate for a couple of days to provide additional reach to enable us to provide supplies in the remoter parts of the island, principally delivering fodder and other supplies,” chief of joint operators Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said.

Travel restrictions have been lifted, but Country Fire Service incident controller Ian Tanner said non-essential travel should be avoided.

“If you do need to come here to support relatives and friends, then it’s OK to come,” he said.

“But if you don’t need to come to Kangaroo Island at this point in time, then please give us a bit longer to get this sorted.”

The CFS said warmer weather and unfavourable conditions could lead to fire outbreaks and flare-ups.

“The CFS advises everyone on Kangaroo Island to be vigilant tomorrow as there may be an escalation in fire activity,” it said.

“Please monitor your local environment and be aware that fire conditions will be constantly changing throughout the day.”

with AAP

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