PHOTOS (from top): • Budgies are having a morning drink near the South Stuart Highway • Graffiti dialogue at a roadside rest stop, a couple of hundred kilometers further on • A “don’t” sign – if you are tired, ignore it, stop and sleep. • Trying to make you feel at home, Stuart Highway style, though there area couple of more congenial rest stops. • In the Flinders Ranges in South Australia – the tell-tale signs of no toilets provided. There are hundreds of “rest stops” like this throughout Australia, but we noticed more plentiful provision on well-maintained non-flushing (no smell) toilets in outback Queensland.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Fuel retailers in Alice Springs have – belatedly – fallen in line with pricing around the nation, in the wake of dramatic drops in world oil prices.
However, service stations in the bush are maintaining much greater margins, including those along the Stuart Highway, crucial to The Centre’s tourism industry.
Kulgera, the first fuel stop as visitors enter the NT, was charging $1.99 for diesel on Thursday last week, when the price in Port Augusta was $1.33.
Erldunda, 200 kms south of Alice Springs, wasn’t far behind with $1.79.
Other roadhouses: Glendambo $1.66, Coober Pedy $1.45, Marla $1.73.
Kulgera’s price today is still $1.87, but manager Chris Le Page has a litany of reasons for charging extra.
And so, no doubt, have other managers of bush roadhouses. For example, in December, when Tennant Creek charged $1.70, the price in Wycliffe Well (130 kms south) was $2.02 and Barkly Homestead (210 kms east) was $2.09.
Fuel pricing in the NT is subject to an enquiry by the NT Fuel Price Disclosure Committee, chaired by independent MLA Gerry Wood.
Edon Bell, CEO of the Automobile Association of the NT, says he is urging the Federal ACCC to look into the Territory fuel pricing as well, as part of a Federal inquiry.
Using diesel as a guide (usually two or three cents above unleaded), two of three Alice Springs servos today are charging $1.40 a litre, and the third, $1.43. Taking into account reasonable freight costs, these Alice servos are now working on the same profit margin as Port Augusta, where reasonably priced fuel is usually available.
A major national transport company, speaking to the Alice Springs News Online on the condition of not being named, says it would charge 7.5 cents per litre transporting diesel over the 1225 kms between Port Augusta and Alice Springs, using a road train triple.
The costs would be 9 cents using a road train double and 12 cents for a B-Double. These amounts could be halved if back loading – transport south from Alice Springs – could be found: carrying crude from the Mereenie oilfields, east of Alice Springs, would be an obvious possibility.
This crude is currently transported for Santos on road train triples to Port Bonython, just down the road from Whyalla. Knock, knock, Central Australian entrepreneurs. Is anybody there?
Rail does not seem to be an option: For example, three flatbed trucks, to take a road train triple, from Adelaide to Alice Springs, would set you back $7800 plus GST, roughly double the cost of using a road train, while not even counting the road component at either end.
Taking all this into account, anyone in Alice charging more than $1.40 for a litre of fuel seems to be ripping off the public, especially roadhouses south of the town, where transport distances are shorter. But that may be a hasty judgment.
Mr Le Page says Kulgera is expected to provide a lot more than just a tankful of gas. It is called upon to provide services elsewhere provided by the state or local governments.
Take electricity and water: the roadhouse has to provide both. Water comes from a bore 20 km away and 60 meters deep.
Mr Le Page says the MacDonnell Shire charges $3000 a year in various rates for which it provides “absolutely nothing”.
The roadhouse takes care of garbage disposal, including that of travelers, and provides what is in effect a public toilet.
Roadhouse staff routinely act as emergency service personnel, free of charge, of course.
There is no mobile phone service at Kulgera. Several satellite phone calls were necessary when staff helped authorities dealing with a fatal accident.
Although most calls were incoming, the phone company – unexpectedly – charged the roadhouse $300.
The satellite based NBN internet service, at a cost of about $200 a month, is “[expletive deleted] disgusting. Sometimes I can’t even email a blank page,” says Mr Le Page.
“What about drive-offs, people who don’t pay for fuel? We’re 20 kilometers from the South Australian border.
“SA cops won’t touch it because the theft has been committed in the NT, and the NT cops won’t act because the offenders have gotten away into SA.
“So much for cross-border policing.”
Also, Mr Le Page says he is charged about 16 cents freight for fuel transport (we have asked our fuel price source to get in touch with him).
Meanwhile Mr Wood says the Fuel Price Disclosure Committee, which was set up following the fuel summit in October last year, has yet to produce any results.
Under its limited charter it is unlikely to set in train any resolute government intervention into making fuel prices fair.
Mr Wood says the committee’s task is to examine “whether legislation, now in its draft form, would empower government regulatory bodies to force fuel companies to disclose their structure of pricing and margins”.
Submissions from the companies have now closed.
Mr Wood says he wants hearings scheduled for next month to be public.
“Companies are entitled to have their submission heard in camera,” says Mr Wood – this means behind closed doors.
“We are not charged with looking at specifics of prices, nor at mechanisms of competition.
“We’re looking at draft legislation handed to the committee, to tell the government whether the committee thinks this legislation will be effective in keeping prices down.
“My understanding is the government cannot set prices.”
Mr Wood says the committee will report on April 28.
Mr Bell, who has been an advocate for fair fuel prices for five years, says the NT fuel summit last October failed to provide answers about the “disconnect” between the terminal gate price and the price at the bowser.
The retail margin in the NT, compared to capital city prices, had moved up from between 5 and 15 cents a litre, to 35 cents.
“Retailers say they have no room to move. So where is the problem? Is it in wholesale?” he asks.
“We have made submissions to the Fuel Price Disclosure Committee,” says Mr Bell, and the AANT is now urging the ACCC to use its new powers to investigate the industry in the NT.
He says the ACCC will be selecting three regional areas in Australia for investigation, and he wants the NT to be one of them.