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Opal fuel - Where is the community campaign

Rachel Siewert 29 Nov 2006

My question is to Senator Santoro, the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Ageing, and it is also about petrol sniffing. I understand that the advertising and public education campaign explaining the safety and importance of the non-sniffable Opal fuel was completed sometime ago but has not been implemented.

Can the minister explain why the government has failed to act to counter misinformation and negative stories about Opal in the Alice Springs media?

Can the minister explain what proportion of the money allocated to the education campaign has already been spent and does he expect that ads will be placed in local media?


Senator SANTORO-I appreciate the question from Senator Siewert because it enables me to meet my commitment to get back to the Senate as quickly as possible in relation to an issue about which I have now received a brief. I inform the Senate-and this needs to be stressed-that the only information on the potential increase in petrol sniffing is from anecdotal sources.

I can inform the Senate that due to concerns about the impact of unleaded Opal fuel in Alice Springs, Mobil and Caltex reverted to supplying regular unleaded fuel rather than the unleaded Opal fuel.

Both companies have agreed that they would only return to supply unleaded Opal fuel when there was a substantial education information campaign in Alice Springs to support the reintroduction of unleaded Opal fuel and when the BP Australia guarantee on unleaded Opal applied to their outlets as well as compensation for the replacement of pump seals.

A recent supply chain audit on unleaded fuel in Alice Springs conducted by BP Australia indicated that the seven retail samples taken met specifications and quality standards for unleaded fuel. This demonstrates that the unleaded Opal fuel complies with the Australian fuel standards as a 91 octane unleaded fuel product. There were two fuel samples taken from customer complaints.

In the first customer sample associated with engine failure, the fuel was premium unleaded and was not in fact unleaded Opal fuel. The second customer sample was a fuel mixture that included unleaded Opal fuel which showed signs of ageing along with discoloration and low vapour pressure. The original fuel in the tank-not unleaded Opal fuel, I stress-had passed its use-by date. Therefore the problems do not appear to be as a result of unleaded Opal fuel.

On 18 October-getting very specifically to Senator Siewert's question-the Ministerial Committee on Government Communications endorsed a proposal for market research. The market research was undertaken in mid-November 2006 with a series of focus group tests and in-depth interviews with the fuel and motor industry and community members in Alice Springs.

The discussion from the focus groups indicated that there is insufficient information for residents to make an informed decision about using or understanding unleaded Opal fuel. Negative publicity needs to be countered with clear and factual information about Opal. The department intends to take a comprehensive communications strategy, including creative, public relations and research briefs, to the MCGC for their approval on 12 December 2006.

The strategy and briefs have been informed by the recent market research undertaken. On 25 October 2006 the department met with all fuel distributors, including Shell and Woolworths, in Alice Springs to discuss strategies for the complete replacement of regular unleaded fuel with unleaded Opal fuel. All fuel distributors indicated that they are committed to full replacement with unleaded Opal fuel.

However, a detailed communications strategy to overcome negative public opinion is required to support the product's reintroduction, and this needs to be done, I am advised, along with very serious consultation with members of the communities up there in Alice Springs. It is expected that the communications material will be ready to be released in February 2007 to support the full replacement of unleaded Opal fuel in Alice Springs. The strategy will focus on educating residents and tourists in Alice Springs about the effectiveness of unleaded fuel to overcome negative public perceptions.

I wish to stress that the reason why the campaign is being rolled out in this way is because there is a very real commitment by the government to involve members of the Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs, particularly the elders, to produce a communications strategy that will be effective. It is no use throwing good money after bad. Unless the communications strategy has the imprimatur and the acceptance of the leaders of that community, the advice the government has is that it will fail.

Supplementary Question

Senator SIEWERT-Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for that information but it did not actually address some of my specific issues. I ask specifically: can the minister confirm that campaign materials have already produced and that these were referred to and held up by the Ministerial Council on Government Communications?

Can the minister inform us who objected to the campaign materials and on what grounds were they referred to the ministerial council?

Supplementary Answer

Senator SANTORO-I do not have specific answers to those specific questions in relation to the ministerial council, but what I can reiterate for the benefit of Senator Siewert and other senators in this place is that the advice that the government has received is that the communication strategy that has particular relevance to that community needs to be made relevant to that community through the creative participation of that community.

I have been advised that there could be issues relating to the availability of some of the people who are able to present that particular advice. I think that the government is acting expeditiously and sensitively to the needs and desires of the local Aboriginal community in Alice Springs.

Take Note of Answer

I move:
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Ageing (Senator Santoro) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to funding for an education campaign concerning opal fuel and petrol sniffing.

In his reply, Senator Santoro made a number of interesting statements. He said that market research in Alice Springs was undertaken in mid-October with local fuel distributors, despite the fact that Opal was rolled out in September. He said that a detailed campaign strategy is in the process of being prepared to be run out in February. This is five to six months after the initial rollout of Opal. He said that the target audience was predominantly Alice Springs residents and tourists.

It is very interesting to note that he acknowledges that the audience for the campaign is tourists and Alice Springs residents. The marketing campaign obviously needs to target these people, yet he then said that he was consulting Aboriginal elders in Alice Springs and that the reason for the delay was because of the difficulties involved in contacting them.

This is extremely disingenuous when it is actually tourists and Alice Springs residents that need to be convinced about Opal, not the Aboriginal community. The Aboriginal community already know about the significant benefits of Opal. In fact, it was the Aboriginal community that called on government to roll out Opal across Alice Springs. They do not need to be educated about the benefits of Opal.

Education campaigns about petrol sniffing are already going on in Aboriginal communities. It is not the target audience. As I said, it is extremely disingenuous of the government to say that that is the reason for the delay in rolling out an education campaign.

Senator Santoro said that some briefing notes had been prepared about research into vehicles being affected by Opal, which proved conclusively-a fact we already know, because millions of litres of Opal are already being used-that Opal was not responsible for the malfunctioning of engines.
But this information has not been communicated to the local media, despite the fact that an ongoing, negative campaign has been run by the Advocate, for one, in Alice Springs, to dissuade people from using Opal.

Did the government take out ads or make any other effort to communicate this vital information to the residents of Alice Springs? No; there was nothing. Did the government contact local petrol stations with this information? Not that I know of. Did it send them posters, pamphlets or other information that showed the outcomes of this research? From what I have been able to find out from people in Alice Springs, the answer to that question is no.

The point here is that a communication strategy needed to be developed and run out as a matter of urgency as Opal was rolled out. It is a grave mistake to put Opal onto the market when it was known there would be confusion, misinformation and distrust, because this information was available on the occasions when it has been rolled out in the past.

Plenty of evidence was given to the Senate committee that looked into petrol sniffing that this was what had happened. So the government knew that there would be a campaign of misinformation and that they needed to get information out to the community to let them know the benefits of non-sniffable fuel and the prospect of a decrease in the number of petrol sniffers. They also needed to let people know that it would not have a negative impact on people's cars.

Eight out of the 13 petrol stations in Alice Springs converted to Opal in September. Now, because of the negative campaign that has been run by the local media, that number has decreased to two.
This will inevitably lead-it already is leading-to an increase in the number of people coming into town seeking sniffable fuel again. So it is highly likely that the benefits that were gained initially through rolling out Opal have been lost. It is not only the people in the community of Alice Springs who will suffer because of that; it will also affect the surrounding community. That is one of the reasons why Opal needed to be rolled out across Alice Springs-to help the regional strategy across the broader region.

I understand that money has already been spent on developing an advertising campaign, but that has not been rolled out. It has stopped in the ministerial committee process. We desperately want to know why this has happened, and who did it, so that we can understand why such a sensible campaign has been stopped.

It is having such a deleterious effect on the implementation of this program involving the rollout of Opal fuel, which is such an important component of dealing with the scourge of petrol sniffing that is affecting Aboriginal communities so seriously.

One would have to ask why the government have not moved to urgently address this misinformation. Weren't they informed? Weren't they monitoring the rollout? How could they so mishandle such an important part of this campaign? (Time expired)
Question agreed to.

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