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Albanese reply to Truss/ MrDak ASRR response

The following is from Hansard as the reply by Albanese to the Truss ASRR release. Mr. Albanese does not “get-it”, with the concentration of the ex-minister being on local “noise”.

The industry response is instructive and the highlights below.

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (09:20): Can I begin by saying that it is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister back in the chamber. Everyone in the House wishes him well on the personal level, if not the political!

I have always said that aviation safety is an issue that is well above politics. I am pleased to say that for the many years that I have been first a shadow minister, then a minister, then back again as a shadow minister, the current Minister for Transport has had the same view. I respect that. That is as it should be.

If there is any area that is above politics it has to be this one, because the whole of the parliament has an interest in working towards ensuring that aviation safety remains an issue of which Australia can be rightly proud. Road accidents, of course, cause much more trauma to Australians, and there would not be a single member of the public who has not been touched by an incident on our roads. Fortunately, in this House I can say that Australia’s record on aviation safety is the envy of the world; we need to make sure that that continues to be the case.

As elected representative we need to make sure that we have a considered and very precautionary approach to aviation safety. We cannot take it for granted, because if there ever were to be an incident, particularly an RPT incident, the consequences for the travelling public would be severe. But the consequences for the national economy would also be catastrophic.

The safety of travellers must be put above everything. When the minister announced the Aviation Safety Regulation Review conducted by David Forsyth, as well as Don Spruston from Canada and Roger Whitefield of the UK, the opposition welcomed it. We remain proud of our own record in government when it comes to aviation safety, but you can never be too careful. We must always be prepared to look, look and look again to ensure that our safety arrangements respond to changing circumstances. Indeed, I believe that an incoming minister responsible for aviation has a duty to satisfy himself or herself that existing safety arrangements are adequate. And that is why—even though the minister was returning to the portfolio, rather than being new to this issue—I believe it was appropriate for the minister to convene this review.

The review was finalised in May and it included 37 recommendations. Today’s statement by the minister seems to indicate that our system was in good shape, but I welcome the government’s announcements today that it will appoint three new members to the CASA board, and that it will issue Statements of Expectations to CASA and to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. I wish the best of luck to the new CASA board members, Anita Taylor, Murray Warfield, and Ian Smith, just as I welcome the appointment of former Air Vice Marshal Mark Skidmore to the position of Director of Aviation Safety.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to John McCormick. John McCormick did an outstanding job. He was someone who was recruited after an international search for the best person. He brought decades of experience, not just in the Australian aviation industry but also particularly in Hong Kong, for Cathay Pacific, and in the international sector. I think he provided a rigour that was needed at the time.

When John McCormick made the decision to ground Tiger Airways, that decision to ground an RPT service for the first—and hopefully the last—time in Australia’s history was not only a courageous step but one that was entirely appropriate and needed. When Mr McCormick had advised me of the decision, I remember speaking to Prime Minister Gillard and informing her of what was about to occur—because, by definition, you cannot make a decision that an airline is unsafe and then say, ‘we will ground them in a couple of days’ time’.

What it meant by definition was that people got stranded. There was a real-world impact on the travelling public, particularly given the nature of Tiger; and on many families who were able to travel by air for the first time, because it was a budget airline. That was a courageous decision by John McCormick. The fact that Tiger has now been taken over by Virgin Australia and is now functioning in a way that satisfies all the safety concerns shows that that was not just a courageous decision but a correct decision.

In the report, the review panel expressed concern about relations between the industry and the regulator.

It said this:

In recent years, the regulator has adopted an across the board hard-line philosophy, which in the Panel’s view, is not appropriate for an advanced aviation nation such as Australia. As a result, relationships between industry and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) have, in many cases, become adversarial.

It went on to recommend a new strategic direction for CASA, calling for a more ‘collaborative relationship on a foundation of mutual trust and respect’. It is here that I would respectfully sound a note of caution to the minister. I certainly agree that it is important for a regulated industry, like aviation, to have constructive and respectful relations between the regulator and the industry; but I would be very concerned if the relationship between CASA and aviation operators became too close.

I expressed this concern to David Forsyth, who the minister ensured—and I thank him for this—gave me a verbal review as well, and we were able to have a very constructive discussion about it. If I could, I would like to express some caution. I think that, by definition, a regulator must have a bit of tension with those people who it is regulating, particularly in aviation.

The term ‘trainspotters’ is pretty familiar to people; in aviation there are ‘plane spotters’. They think that they know best, and they do not want to be told by any regulator that they do not know how to keep their plane safe. But the truth is that the incidents that have occurred in this country have occurred particularly with small planes, which are involved in incidents all too regularly. I think one of the worst parts of the job of being the aviation minister in this country is the fact that you get notified in real time. Except for the minister, people are probably unaware of that. I have had phone calls at all hours telling me that a plane with two or three people on board has gone missing. When the departmental head rang, or in the case of Mr McCormick there was often direct contact, you really did not want to receive that call.

If I could sound that cautious note, as I expressed to David Forsyth: the customers are not the people who own the planes; the customers of CASA and aviation safety are the people on the planes and the people who would be impacted if there were an incident. Planes fly over my house at far too regular intervals. My electorate is the second smallest geographically; Wentworth is the smallest. These areas have highly dense populations. If there were an incident in these most densely populated areas of Australia, it would have an impact not just on people on the planes but on people in the vicinity of an airport. If I could express that concern—that we must never sacrifice rigour for harmony.

I agree with the minister that the actions of the regulator must be firm, and they must also be fair. But the minister has a responsibility to hold the line against industry pressure. We must maintain the necessary tension between the regulator and the regulated to keep all parties on their toes. If they are on their toes then they are focused on what matters: the safety of the travelling public. If they were allowed to operate too closely and without appropriate distance, the public would be the loser. So, while doing all we can to promote professional dealings among all participants in the industry, our overriding responsibility is to make accident prevention and proper safety standards our primary concern. All other concerns must be further down the ladder.

I note the minister’s comment that he is considering asking the ATSB to reopen the investigation into the Pel-Air incident of 2009. This follows the findings this week of the delayed report of the inquiry that I commissioned as the minister, which was conducted by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board. I note that the TSB found that the ATSB investigation methods were best practice, but I certainly welcome, as I previously said, the principle that, if there is any doubt at all, there is a need to take that precautionary principle into consideration.

I am concerned that the government has required aviation operators to cut about $12 million from their costs as part of its push to reduce so-called red tape. I also note that the government has made a similar demand of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

You cannot have organisations like CASA and AMSA, which perform such an extraordinarily important role in this country, and continue to put pressure on them to cut costs. AMSA has a critical role to play, as we have seen with the issue of the Malaysia Airlines search and rescue. AMSA looks after about one-third of the world’s surface, so it is an absolutely critical agency. I do believe that there is a real case for quarantining it from cuts for aviation safety.

I will conclude by indicating publicly, as I have privately to the minister, that the opposition is firmly committed to working in a constructive and bipartisan way on these issues. I note that the minister has been exemplary in ensuring appropriate briefings and in ensuring that this issue continues to be where it was when I was the minister and, previously, under the Howard government.

It is absolutely critical that we deal with this. Given the short period that the opposition has had the government’s response to the report, it is not for me today to comment specifically on the government’s response to each of the 37 recommendations. I indicate to the minister that, should there be any concerns, I will express them to him directly, because we have just received the response to the report.

I note that the government has accepted in whole or in part all of the recommendations, with one exception, but we reserve our right to comment further on those matters, based upon a proper, closer analysis and proper advice.

I indicate that that should not be seen in any way as a suggestion that we will operate politically on this issue, because we will not. We will deal with these things on their merits. I thank the minister for his response and conclude where I began: it is good to see him back in the House.

Honourable members: Hear, hear!

[whohit]albanese[/whohit]