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Bass Strait Transport Equality is a Federal Responsibility

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In 1996, the Coalition announced a policy to provide a transport corridor linking our nation. It was followed by a  scheme capable of extending the National Highway across Bass Strait, using ferries.This scheme was to provide transport equality and equity between states, for people and also their vehicles.  It was said to be capable of […]

In 1996, the Coalition announced a policy to provide a transport corridor linking our nation.

It was followed by a  scheme capable of extending the National Highway across Bass Strait, using ferries.This scheme was to provide transport equality and equity between states, for people and also their vehicles.  It was said to be capable of delivering  a ‘sea highway’. making the strait ‘part of the national highway’ network, between Victoria and Tasmania.

People and business supported this. From that time, some have tried to confuse or hide and even deny the purpose of the scheme and the uncapped funding it brought.

Some have crafted the scheme to focus on their needs, other than first allow it to meet its original purpose.

It’s time the nation was told about this campaign and whether the Prime Minister will now act to restore the scheme to meet its original purpose.

This paper contains facts and opinion. It calls on the Prime Minister to act by simply redirecting the BSPVES to deliver its vital purpose as part of the nation’s infrastructure.

Payments made under the  Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme (BSPVES) are already available to those wishing to cross Bass Strait by sea.

Based on Coalition promises, every Australian has a right to see those payments directed by the Federal Government to move both people and vehicles by sea – equitably and efficiently, as on the National Highway.

When our nation was founded the sea lanes offered transport equality between the colonies. As rail and road transport took over, ferries remained vital to link Victoria and Tasmania.

The Bass Strait ferry system is well funded and can be used very easily, in days, in a variety of ways to remove this barrier.

The BSPVES was to assist and ultimately deliver transport equality for those using the route. It was to result in a ferry-based transport connection to facilitate the flow of people movement across our nation.

It offered uncapped federal funding to allow this to occur. That funding needs to be used to deliver the promised result. We call on the Federal Government to make it do so.

For example, people with or without a vehicle could drive or go by train between Sydney and  Hobart via Melbourne for the same price per km as travelling on the Hume Highway. The route across Bass Strait by ferry would be the same as travelling Hobart by road or in the future bus or rail.

Ferries would perform the same function as punts across a river.

The intention to start lobbying for this connection was published in the Australian Financial Review of the 31st January 1991, page 14. A copy follows.

A so called ‘enhancement’  of the BSPVES 2001-2, by adding a few extra dollars. over winter, to fill ferries and indexing payments to CPI, appears to have been used as justification for destroying highway equalisation and not meeting the 1996 Sea Highway promises.

If Canberra still can’t deliver highway transport equality, then the BSPVES should be put out to international tender.


The sea highway principle is the same as applies to all punts or bridges on interstate highways. The punt offers people and cars the same access as on the roads its joins, at the same price.

The Federal Government should target existing uncapped Federal Bass Strait passenger vehicle and freight equalisation funding to deliver a fair, basic and comprehensive surface transport link, using shipping, on the highway between Victoria and Tasmania.

A people-led campaign obtained funding from 1996.

The nation has heard of no sustainable reason why the Melbourne – Hobart highways are not being connected in the way that was endorsed. There is no reason why a Coalition policy, so well thought out and supported, has been now been modified.

This funding was to deliver a sea highway for the nation, not for more subsidies for Tasmania or those capable influencing its economy. It just doesn’t make sense to change the impact of the national BSPVES.

The BSPVES is a highway equalisation scheme – why try to  change it?

All cities and towns are connected to the national integrated transport grid, save for Tasmania.

Inter-capital, interstate links are Canberra’s responsibility. They stay in place for decades. Canberra funds inter-capital links across deserts and mountains. Also, punts and bridges as part of the National Highway.

This is not a case of Tasmania suffering the tyranny of distance. It has been discrimination based on intervening terrain and Canberra’s failure to provide equal transport links between all states.

Foot passengers, passengers in cars, southbound consumables, used household furniture, building materials, and ancillary vehicles, are also all not covered by existing federal equalisation schemes. As a result the many and varied interests and reasons for travel  of people are being ignored.

All people and freight inside cars and towed are covered by the National Highway. National Highways cost our nation billions and drive whole economies. So must our ferries. They were funded for that.

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Federal equalisation funding seems now to allow Canberra to mainly serve limited sectional interests within Tasmania and is not driving the whole economies of Victoria and Tasmania. Government inquiries seem to be ignoring the 1996 promises.

Bass Strait is not managed by Infrastructure Australia. It should  be. Transport equity and the principle of equal links between states should remain paramount.

The economic impact of targeting this link was huge and immediate, and with no shipping capacity constraints. The BSPVES is federal uncapped demand driven funding.

If Canberra  is responsible to drive the economies of all other states by land-based links, why discriminate against Victoria and Tasmania because a water crossing is involved?

The Victorian Government asked for an AusLink connection to Tasmania, and Prime Ministers Keating and Howard took significant steps to try to deliver low passenger and vehicle interstate transport equity.

This is an issue about the whole of Tasmania and its linkages between states and the rest of the nation’s right to National Highway access to Tasmania.

The BSPVES was introduced to deliver a ‘bridge’ using ferries across  the border between Victoria and Tasmania as a piece of national infrastructure to be used by the nation. It was designed to better use valuable connecting infrastructure.

At the time of its introduction, the BSPVES was not to be a subsidy to Tasmania. The BSPVES was designed to offer the same freedom of movement enjoyed by those connected to the rest of the land-based national highway network. Tasmania is a broad-based economy but has been kept small by lack of adequate and affordable transport links.


The history of the campaign, including Coalition promises and possible reasons for the schemes amendment follow.

It seems that Canberra has over time, allowed the BSPVES  scheme to be changed from its original aim of, providing a ‘bridge’ or sea highway based on highway equalisation, to one largely assisting some in Tasmania rather than be used as part of a vital transport link, focused on two way national connectivity.

The change does not meet the original intent of the scheme nor does it set out an objective measure of success, in the absence of sea based  competition. There seems a poor record of consistently lowering passenger fares.

The current BSPVES, as applied by the operator,  makes payments of about $250 each-way to all drivers taking a car by sea. This is paid as a rebate and is shown on the sea carriage ticket. The Federal Government commitment is therefore very significant. It covers every crossing by sea with a car on every ferry willing to cross and carry passengers and cars. In the absence of competition or imposed community service obligations, the payment does not seem to be directed to put downward pressure on the substantial balance of the fare.

We call on Canberra to so act if total fares cannot be reduced to highway fare equivalence. The Federal Government commitment to Bass Strait is very significant as its demand driven and uncapped. It is in reality fare greater than shown in the Ministerial correspondence that follows.

We also call on the Federal Government, if it can’t reduce fares, to consider making a quantum merit payment or similar, to be paid to the people of our nation to offer them full highway equalisation. If there is no legal remedy, the Federal Government should change the law to enable such a process and  remedy to be obtained

There are also far cheaper ways of funding a full sea highway connection.

We call on the Federal Government to restore the purpose of the BSPVES to fully meet its 1996 promises, not by further funding of the BSPVES, but by reducing passenger fares to the cost of road travel and by maintaining them that way.

We are confident that a half hours discussion between the Prime Minister and the Premier of Tasmania can achieve the desired result. We nearly did that with Premier Rundle but were told the Commonwealth intervened regarding a low passenger fare. Prime Minister Howard tried in 2001 and lost. See Bob Cheek’s book.

The Rt. Hon. Scott Morrison
Prime Minister of Australia
7th August 2021

Dear Prime Minister,

The Coalition promised to equalise and maintain the cost of moving people and passenger vehicles by ferry across Bass Strait.

The BSPVES was introduced in 1996 to meet this objective. It was to be a highway equalised scheme available to all Australians.

It was not to be a subsidy to Tasmania. i am informed that the BSPVES is now to reduce passenger fares. It hasn’t consistently done so to anywhere near the cost of travelling on the roads it connects, for about a quarter of a century.

It is also now said to not intend to provide a National Highway link nor to reduce the cost of crossing to the cost of highway travel. Why?

This is now to become a scheme that has not or cannot deliver its original justification, withojut adjustment.

By scrubbing ‘equalisation’ and not controlling the rest of the fare, it seems like just another subsidy,

The BSPVES was to provide a ‘sea highway’ ‘part of the national highway’. In this way, it was supported by industry, both Coalition political parties and the people. It was a core promise to the Apple Isle.

The BSPVES, if encouraging the equivalent of a bridge or punt, needs to treat all industries and peoples, equally. It also needs to deliver  the same efficiencies as road travel.

A focus on Tasmanian leisure holidays with a car cannot achieve the same result. The BSPVES was not introduced as a car subsidy.

Prime Minister, we call on you to restore an effective transport connection, in the interests of democracy and in the nation.

Every resource is available right now and all it may take is a 30 minute  discussion with the Premier of Tasmania.

The people of Australia provided the impetus and the funding for the outcome we seek.  We call on you to provide the result and not allow highway funding to be diverted to serve purposes that do not serve our nation equally.

We do not call on you for any more funding.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Brohier
Chairman of the former National Sea Highway

Victoria asked for an AusLink transport corridor to Tasmania. Without it, Victoria is missing out of major interconnecting infrastructure links and the transit of people through Victoria. Victorians are being denied ready access to Tasmania and the islands around it. The following makes some useful points.

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Excerpts from a response by the federal Austrade agency about a transport – tourism – link to and from Victoria 13 December 2013.

The NSH is about a transport  connection for all. That was the stated objective between the Coalition and all major stakeholders, including the people.

The people understand that their funding is to meet this stated objective, not one adjusted by Canberra to be inconsistent with major objectives of a core promise?

The second TCCI report canvased significant benefits of a  sea highway on both sides of Bass Strait.

Why does Canberra seem to be ignoring the objectives of the endorsed 1996 Sea Highway package at the implementation stage? Whose will is being met that will override the sensible policies of a nation?

The issue was also covered by the ABC 7.30 report and Herald-Sun, The Economist, Reuters, The Age and in media across Tasmania. Many other people and organisations also indicated support for transport equality, including the PIK Committee, the CBSTE, the Committee for Melbourne, VECCI, TCCI, the Hobart Show grounds, COSBOA, ANRA, the City of Melbourne, the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, Patties Pies, Master Builders Association of Tasmania, Costa Foods, the Uniting and Anglican Churches and the Local Government Association of Tasmania, the Real Estate institute, the Melbourne City Council, the Queen Victoria Market, caravan parks, transport associations, and TT Line. Also the Labor movement through Jim Bacon and the Greens through Bob Brown.

The following is a Federal Liberal Party Resolution passed  in 1994.

Also  a similar National Party resolution.

No amount of federal funding is relevant, unless it reduces the total price paid by people to access the Bass Strait crossing. The same would apply to a punt.

Also, fares to cross need to offer the same options and travel incentives as would be available on a regular bridge or  punt, including a low foot passenger fare and an incentive to increase the passenger vehicle ratio. These fares need to be consistently applied all – year.

The impact of the BSPVES needs to be directed by Canberra and not left to the discretion of a single ferry operator to move fares at will, controlling the interstate use of the whole transport corridor.


These can reflect an equivalent cost of travel to roads and should be maintained that way. Every resource is in place to deliver the outcome we seek, in days.

We call on government to restorer fair access to the nation in return for the BSPVES payment made to the people and applied as a fare rebate. The nation is suffering by the BSPVES not being sufficiently targeted.

The simple task of reducing passenger fares to road equivalence is critical.

The Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme was to equalise production inputs; why ignore people and their needs? They initiated and voted the Howard Government in to deliver a National Sea Highway. TFES and the BSPVES were to be parallel schemes based on highway equalisation.

Why try to pull  the rug from people equalisation when economies more and more need people?

People ought to be able to carry consumables in cars as they do on roads across our nation.

The BSPVES was to be ignored in calculations of fiscal equalisation between states. The reference in the scheme’s name to ‘equalisation’ is about highway equalisation. See the first two BSPVES monitoring reports.

We suspect that no contrary argument can be justified and little or no wide business or political support can or was obtained for reducing the BSPVES in the way it was done.

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Freight and people share the roads. The movement of people is vital to a largely service-based economy and industries needing people passing the door, and critical mass.

Why largely single out a former penal colony for adverse treatment and try to favour some industries over others?

Why make people fight so hard for transport equity because of a water barrier when you put roads over mountains, rivers and deserts? Then just simply adjust the scheme with a limited or insufficient explanation largely ignoring the public other stakeholders interests.


The connectivity of the road / public transport system across all of Australia is vital.

We also obtained bipartisan support for dramatically lower passenger and vehicle fares from Prime Minister Keating at the time of the 1996 Federal election. Prime Minister Howard tried a second time.

Interstate connections are vital and require effort by the federal and state governments especially where the stakes are high for each state. See Omega Transport Plan at

Victoria is well placed with about 300 islands right below it. It rightly asked for an Auslink connection to Tasmania. To our knowledge, Tasmania didn’t.

The BSPVES is also available to private sector operators to fund trips on other Bass Strait services.

Air services should be advantaged. Air services cannot justify any equalisation payments as they already compete with an interstate, well funded highway network, offering equalisation between all states except for the link between Victoria and Tasmania.

We suspect the more effective are surface connections, the more viable are the economies at either end and the more demand for air travel.

The nation should not be left divided and without confidence that what was endorsed at the ballot box will be delivered. Howard and Keating knew what this was about.

We commend Prime Minister Howard and Keating for their 1996 offers and subsequent funding of the BSPVES.

Prior to 1996, TT Line agreed with the expectation that highway equivalence would have a significant positive economic impact on many regions of South Eastern Australia, before the BSPVES was introduced. We still hold that view. See TCCI reports prepared prior to the introduction of the BSPVES.

We have seen nothing to justify the change made in 1992 nor fully understand the resistance to lower sea passenger fares. With so much funding going into Bass Strait there is no reason why the scheme can’t deliver the  outcome that was promised.

Yes, the BSPVES does arithmetically lower fares, as any rebate would. But far more than that is needed to meet the Coalition promises.

Sea fares, adjusted by the hour and value added vessels and services, possibly aimed at a Tasmanian leisure holiday market, should not be set to replace consistently low highway fares capable of driving passenger traffic in both directions .

Should a single ‘punt’ operator control the movement of people on an interstate, inter- capital highway?

The Federal Government should not leave access and access prices to the will of a single operator where so much is at stake. It seems that Prime Minister Abbott also called on the ACCC to investigate but, due to time constraints they couldn’t do so.

Delivery of the Coalition’s original National Sea Highway policy, without reversal, is necessary and would be greatly appreciated. If necessary, we suggest you add community service obligations, in the absence of expected sea-based competition.


Major policy changes relating to national infrastructure should be made transparent and endorsed by the nation. They should be subjected to an objective test.

The change in this policy away from highway equalisation, and its adverse impact were not apparent.

Monitoring of the BSPVES needs to be in keeping with highway equalisation and we urge the Prime Minister to apply necessary ground rules based on the equalisation and highway promises that were given and which were relied upon by our nation.

By doing so, he will be strengthening or restoring faith in the working of democracy and the future governance of our nation. We call on the Prime Minister to reverse the decision made by his Ministers.

Alternatively, the Federal Government can use the BSPVES funding for an international tender to meet its National Sea Highway transport obligations.

This will allow Tasmania to do what it likes with its ferries.

About thirty years ago this was published in Australian Financial Review, 31 January 1992, Page 14.

30 years later, why hasn’t a well resourced billion dollar transport scheme been allowed to deliver the anticipated result?

Will the Morrison Government leave a legacy of uniting the nation or unjustifiably keeping it apart?

Peter Brohier is a retired Australian lawyer, now based in Melbourne. Born in North Street, Devonport. 1950. Chairman of the Committee for Bass Strait Transport Equality and the former National Sea Highway Committee. In 1997, Peter won the AHA Tas award for achieving a National Sea Highway for Tasmania. The BSPVES was introduced about that time.

Source: Tasmanian Times

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