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Wednesday, 28 March 2001
Page: 25892


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (4:30 PM) —Prior to the adjournment of consideration of the Sydney Airport Demand Management Amendment Bill 2001 to enable question time to proceed, I detailed the four changes to the slot management system with respect to the operation of Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport that can flow from the operation of this bill. As I then said, some more information and a description of these changes is now detailed in a discussion paper that was released by the government for public consultation yesterday. I simply say that it is the intention of the opposition to seek a reference of this legislation, in association with the discussion paper and the ACCC decision with respect to Hazelton Airlines and its takeover by Ansett, for detailed consideration. I say to those concerned with the operation of the Kingsford Smith airport that they should consider the content of the discussion paper released by the government yesterday entitled Sydney airport slot scheme discussion paper and make their views known to the Senate committee to ensure that we get proper feedback and consideration of these policy changes.

It is in that context that I suggest that the bill now before the House clearly is about facilitating those changes by ensuring that the provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974 that allow access to declared services do not override the slot management system. In raising this issue, the provisions of part III of the Trade Practices Act that will be effectively overridden by the act by virtue of this bill were introduced to the Trade Practices Act through the Competition Policy Reform Act 1995. The purpose of the section is to ensure access to certain facilities with monopoly-like characteristics. These provisions are intended to allow a party who believes that they are being denied access to a service by such a facility to apply to have the services `declared'. When a service is `declared', arrangements for access to those services are then negotiated with the service provider. Obviously, disputes can arise from time to time, and disputes regarding arranged access to declared services can be arbitrated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, whose decisions can be reviewed by the Australian Competition Tribunal and the Federal Court.

Without this amendment the opposition appreciates the potential for conflict to arise between the slot system, which imposes specific restrictions and rights to access Sydney airport, and the outcome of any review process under the `declared' services provisions of the Trade Practices Act. The opposition therefore supports the right of government to make policy decisions regarding equitable and fair access to Sydney airport, and potentially any other airport where that need may arise. For that reason, as I have said, the actual detail and nature of that change is the subject of the discussion paper that I have referred to which was released by the government yesterday.

The opposition will consider, in association with the industry and community, any specific issues arising from that discussion paper, which has not been able to be properly considered because of its late release yesterday prior to this debate. I might say that was despite numerous requests by my office to try to facilitate proper consideration in the House of these matters on the basis that that discussion paper in essence should have been released some weeks ago to facilitate consideration of this bill. Having said that, I also suggest that, in terms of this bill and what is best described as a freeing up of the capacity of the minister to make certain arrangements for access, we definitely support that right, and indeed responsibility, of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. That is what we believe the Minister for Transport and Regional Services ought to be considering and deciding from time to time.

The amendment contained in the bill to specify that the slot system may deal with particular categories of aircraft is also supported. In fact, we venture to suggest that this amendment may be seen as unnecessary, as the existing section 35 of the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act 1997 already allows the system to deal with the `allocation of slots and associated matters ... such as the conditions that may be imposed on slots'. It therefore seems that the government has proposed this amendment perhaps for more abundant caution so as to put the matter beyond any doubt.

I also confirm, as I have touched on in this debate previously, that the opposition will seek to refer this bill to the Senate Rural, Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee. We have found this referral necessary to ensure that all aspects of the proposed changes to the slot management system are aired, understood and pinned down as part of this legislative process. That is important because, when it comes to the management of something as sensitive as Kingsford Smith airport, we actually believe that one should not be required to buy a pig in a poke but in considering these issues one should have the opportunity to consider the whole package in detail rather than one-off, piecemeal consideration of what is a new approach to slot management at Sydney airport.

I know that the minister may not be happy with what he would see as a potential delay by a Senate committee reference. His office did advise us that the government wants to push this legislation through over the next two weeks to coincide with the international airline scheduling processes. All I can say is that the opposition have a job to do, and our responsibility is to ensure that proper scrutiny of this bill and the changes to the slot system are not hampered by the deadline. I simply say that in some ways one can suggest that a potential cause of the tight deadline has actually been the failure of the government to release the discussion paper earlier than yesterday. The government has known of the proposed changes to the system for a number of months, and one should not forget that in considering the need to refer this matter to a Senate committee. Despite the intent of the government for a number of months to bring forward this legislation, we only saw the bill in the last sitting week; in fact, on the final day of the last sitting week. We only yesterday saw the detail of the changes in respect of what is proposed in the discussion paper. Any delay in the proper consideration of these matters is not at our feet; it is at the feet of the government and its desire to push these things through in an effort, I suppose, to circumvent proper consideration of the discussion paper and associated matters because of the manner in which the minister's office has handled this bill. Obviously, my Senate colleagues will do their best, as they always do, to ensure that committee scrutiny of this issue is conducted as expeditiously as possible. However, we will not forgo the need for and our responsibility to have this bill and its related issues appropriately scrutinised.

In passing, I also refer to the fact that we all believe that the slot management system is a complex system. Therefore, any change to the system has ramifications for the travelling public, airline operators, communities and those affected by the airport and those who depend upon the affected aviation services to meet their business and social needs. The response of the communities and industry to those changes must therefore be considered in any response to the slot management system changes. To do that, those affected need to see the actual detail to assess the impact. As I have said, the discussion paper is out there, and the opposition have said that we will seek to refer the bill to the Senate legislation committee to allow proper scrutiny and input. As the communities and industry affected are both metropolitan and non-metropolitan, I also urge the Senate committee, if it takes up the Labor Party opposition proposal to refer the bill, to ensure that its inquiry is widely publicised and to encourage wide input to its deliberations.

Making the Trade Practices Act 1974 subject to the act is not contentious. The same measures apply in, for example, the Airports Act 1996. In the Airports Act, the same provisions of the Trade Practices Act are overridden to ensure the minister can determine the capacity of particular airports and implement measures to manage aircraft movements and other matters. As I said before—and I think this is accepted on both sides of the House—this is a power that properly sits with the minister for transport in the public, economic and community interest. However, having said that, aspects of the specific changes proposed by this minister to the Sydney airport slot management scheme may be contentious, especially determinations that provide incentives to use larger aircraft. For example, the airlines are tending to reduce the size of their aircraft to maintain viability of some routes. The discussion paper on the precise changes provides some analysis, but it is not enough. There has also been insufficient time to give any proper assessment of that discussion in this debate. It is therefore, as I have said, also intended that the discussion paper receive scrutiny of the Senate in the consideration of this bill.

The proposed changes to the slot management system involving the Sydney airport slot management scheme were made in the context of the government's broader policy statement about the future of Sydney airport. We should not lose sight of that. That decision was roundly criticised by the opposition as a non-decision. It included the use of Bankstown Airport for spill-over capacity from Sydney airport. A consequence of the changes now outlined in the discussion paper released by the minister is that the spill-over function of Bankstown Airport also applies to the new, smaller, regional aircraft that would be denied access to Sydney airport slots. The discussion paper, I note, sets the size limit for those allowed to apply for new Sydney slots at 18 seats. The industry and others need to consider and provide feedback on the impact of that specification.

For all these reasons and others, full scrutiny must be given to this bill and the changes foreshadowed in the minister's second reading speech, and there must be further clarification of the discussion paper released yesterday. The opposition has therefore taken the decision to ensure this happens through the due processes of the Senate.

Another current issue for the opposition is the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in slot management and transport policy. The commission recently issued a decision imposing conditions on any Ansett takeover of Hazelton Airlines. These conditions include a requirement for Ansett to hand Hazelton's Sydney airport slots to new regional operators in certain circumstances. To me, this is looking like policy that should be determined by the transport minister because the operation of the slot management system and Sydney airport are transport policy. They are clearly matters for government to determine first hand, not for ministers to escape their responsibilities by having the ACCC make their decisions for them. Perhaps the transport minister did determine this policy that was announced in conjunction with the ACCC. I do not know, but I suggest that might be the case because we find that, more often than one would like, the current Minister for Transport and Regional Services likes to escape his responsibilities rather than accept the responsibility of making decisions, which is what he is paid to do. For that reason, it is also appropriate that the Senate legislation committee in the consideration of this bill and the discussion paper also consider the ACCC decision going to the merger of Hazelton Airlines and Ansett, because in many ways those decisions are related.

In that context, I refer to the fact that, in the minister's discussion paper, he includes the following comment:

The proposed changes to the Slot Management Scheme have not been affected by the ACCC announcement of 9 March 2001 in relation to the Ansett acquisition of Hazelton Airlines. Rather, Ansett and the ACCC have recognised that the undertakings given by Ansett and accepted by the ACCC may need to be reviewed in the light of any amendments to the Sydney Demand Management Act 1997 or the Scheme.

I think it is appropriate that the Senate legislation committee consider that statement in the context of the bill so that we as a community and as legislators can determine the basis of the ACCC's decision, what consultation actually occurred between the minister, his office and/or the department and the ACCC concerning the Hazelton merger with Ansett, and the ramifications of this bill and the associated discussion paper for the ACCC's decision going to the merger of Ansett and Hazelton Airlines. It is clearly timely and appropriate to consider that comment in the light of the issues raised by the ACCC decision on the operation of the slot management scheme. It is appropriate to ask some questions to gain a clearer understanding for all parties affected about the line between transport policy and competition policy and how it affects access to our major airport.

I raise these issues because it is clear that, in recent times, the transport minister has been subject to strong criticism of his aviation policy, the lack of direction that comes from him and his office, his poor consultation and a general lack of interest in his portfolio. I refer to a couple of prime examples of this by taking the last two sitting weeks. This week in this House on Monday, Labor exposed a process to develop a secret strategy aimed at trying to fix the Minister for Transport and Regional Services's mess with respect to regional aviation policy. The Liberal candidate for Capricornia, a close mate of the Leader of the National Party and Minister for Transport and Regional Services, and the staff of the junior minister for transport, whom one would normally expect to be there to support and back up his senior minister, were involved in developing a so-called rescue package to be released before the next election to remedy the mess the minister has made of regional aviation policy.

Yesterday we saw the minister, as a result of that exposure, delivering a personal explanation here in the House, where not only did he further expose himself for not doing the job he is paid to do, but more importantly he effectively hung CASA—his own aviation safety regulatory organisation—out to dry in relation to the criticisms, saying they get `too high-handed'. To my astonishment, he took no responsibility himself as the minister. The strategy drafted by the AOPA president in consultation with the junior minister for transport, Senator Macdonald, goes directly to the minister's inadequacies and failings—not just those of CASA. I understand from reading the document why the minister refused my request to table the document for proper consideration by the whole House.

What we had yesterday was the minister standing up and acknowledging the problems but again buck-passing. I suppose when it comes to buck-passing one should not be surprised. It was not that long ago that we had the debacle about the failure of the minister to meet his full requirements under the Australian Land Transport Development Act 1988. Not only did he fudge the response of the government with respect to whether the formula going to road expenditure had been properly applied under that land transport act, he again proved that when he makes a mistake as the responsible minister it is never his mistake, it is never his responsibility. Who took the rap? It was not the minister, but two employees of the minister—one a very senior person with a proven record of faithful service to the minister and the coalition government.

I adopt a view that, as the minister, surely you reach the point where you must accept some responsibility for your own actions rather than continuing to buck pass and blame others for your own mistakes and inadequacies. I would also remind the House briefly that there was a further example of this during the last sitting weeks of early March when, after questioning from the opposition, we successfully exposed the aviation fuel rip-off being perpetrated by the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. The minister initially pleaded ignorance to the question posed during question time on the government's policy on location-specific pricing for aviation services provided by Air Services Australia. These services were provided at huge cost to an industry that in some sections is already doing it tough. The minister was finally forced to come into the House and own up to what was yet another fuel rip-off.

In response, in last year's budget the minister imposed a fuel levy for the specific purpose of subsidising those services to regional Australia. To the shame of the minister—and he is not just the minister for transport, he is also the minister for regional services and the leader of the National Party, the so-called voice at the most senior level in the coalition government for regional Australia—he was forced to humble himself and come in here and stand at the dispatch box and concede that Labor had exposed yet another fuel rip-off with special implications for regional Australia. What it showed was that the government had been ripping off ordinary taxpayers—some in small business doing it tough—yet again. He was forced to admit in the House that he had ripped off the industry and let down regional Australia. Even worse, on being exposed, he failed to promise that the money would be given back to those people who, frankly, more than pay their way for the services provided by the government with respect to aviation activities. Instead, what was his answer? `We will allow it to go through to the normal budget processes'—into consolidated revenue—in his hip pocket, for his own personal projects in the future.

Even in the last two weeks of this parliament—leaving aside the early litany of concerns raised by the opposition—Labor has highlighted the gross deficiencies and policy ineptness of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. It is therefore incumbent upon us, in considering a bill, the intent of which we basically support, to exercise extreme caution with the government's aviation policies. For this reason and for other reasons outlined earlier, the opposition will argue and seek to ensure that this bill and the expected regulations receive the full scrutiny of the Senate.

The outcome of the committee deliberations will influence our response to the regulations that could, if not properly handled, make significant changes to the slot management system at Kingsford Smith airport. In saying that, and as previously stated, Labor supports the bill and its intent. The devil is in the detail. The discussion paper released late yesterday and any regulations which might arise from the discussion paper and application of the act—(Time expired)