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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23708

Ms LEY (10:26 AM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services report entitled Report on regional aviation and island transport services: making ends meet. As a committee we made a total of 28 recommendations. I congratulate the chair, the member for Hinkler, on his strong leadership of the committee and on his view, which was shared by the rest of us, that having gone to the trouble of collecting so much evidence from so many parts of Australia without fear or favour we needed to make some bold and brave recommendations. So we have not equivocated and we have not tip-toed around the issues, and that is probably a good thing.

I would like to concentrate on a few key recommendations that I believe are of particular relevance to my electorate of Farrer. The committee, as we have heard, recommended a new airport ownership subsidy scheme covering capital works and essential maintenance. There is no doubt that, since airports were transferred from federal government to local government ownership, maintaining airports to a safe and adequate standard has been a difficult task for local government, which already is facing a lot of cost pressures and is constantly being asked to do more with fewer resources. It has been a challenge for local government, as the committee heard, particularly in rural and remote communities.

Many councils gave evidence about how they faced great difficulty in maintaining their local airports. We recommended that assistance be provided for communities with a population of about 30,000 if there is demonstrable evidence of an inability to fund major runway upgrades or terminal extensions. But if the community has a population of fewer than 30,000 and is supporting a regional or hub airport with RPT services, it should receive a 50 per cent subsidy. Still smaller communities supporting an airport with low regular public transport, charter and air ambulance operations should receive a 33 per cent subsidy. Those are broad recommendations; the details can be worked out with departmental committees et cetera later on down the track. But the committee saw that, if we are not careful, equity of access for rural communities will be lacking in future. It is true that state governments regulate airline routes, so it is not possible in every case for competitors to cannibalise an aircraft route and put the existing carrier out of business and possibly go out of business itself. State governments play an important role in licensing aircraft routes, but we saw more federal government responsibility in providing funds to allow airports and the important infrastructure to continue operating. If you have airlines, that is great, but you have to have decent airports for them to fly into.

Another recommendation that we made concerned the taxation arrangements relating to the replacement of small ageing aircraft by the end of 2004. We recommended that the Treasury publicly report the findings of this review by the end of 2004 and introduce provisions, perhaps in the taxation legislation, that assist the owners of small ageing aircraft to replace those aircraft. Currently there is a disincentive, which is highlighted in the A New Tax System: upon selling or disposing of an older aircraft there is no ability to roll over the written-down value into the cost of the new aircraft. Therefore, it makes it a more expensive proposition. Coupled with the fact that many in the travelling public are not willing to fly in 10-seater piston aircraft such as Navajo Chieftains—they will just not get into such an aircraft—and are looking for a turboprop or something a little better, the cost for an airline of purchasing or leasing such an aircraft is prohibitive. We felt that it was a measure that we could address simply and directly through the taxation system.

A series of recommendations that the committee raised concerned the regulator: the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Among pilots and flying interests in Australia, this is a body that people do love to hate. The committee certainly recognised—and I recognise—that it has a difficult role to fulfil because it is a regulator and its primary concern must be safety. But I would like to remind CASA that it also does have a role to educate, to encourage and also perhaps to understand how small businesses operate in today's difficult aviation environment. Another controversial character is Dick Smith, who is somebody that pilots and people in aviation in Australia also may love to hate. But I know that Dick Smith summed up many people's feelings when he told the committee:

When you talk to the people at CASA, they are very well meaning but they are destroying an industry. It is the dream job. They can sit there and, without this pressure of cost, they can dream up safer ways of doing things.

We heard a lot of evidence. The committee had a very productive roundtable in Adelaide where representatives of flying organisations and small charter pilots met and thrashed out a lot of these issues face to face with representatives from CASA and really put their point in a no holds barred fashion, which was good. I personally would have liked to see that roundtable extended and perhaps to have conducted two or three, but time is always of the essence in these things.

We certainly felt that, even though CASA could sometimes back up their case and demonstrate that they had done the right thing, the perception in the industry was so much the other way that they really do need to address that customer relations issue and the very poor perception that pilots and aviators do have of them, so we made a series of recommendations concerning CASA. One of the things we felt lacking was their timeliness in their responses to people, given that, for example, if you wish to have a particular aircraft added to your aircraft operator certificate, CASA may take several weeks or, in some cases we heard, more like months to actually add the aircraft to your AOC. It does impact very heavily on your ability to run your business. If you are waiting for that aircraft to come online so you can carry passengers so you can pay the bank at the end of the day, you need that to happen sooner rather than later. So CASA need to understand the business imperatives under which small airlines operate.

One of our recommendations was that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority review their training processes to ensure consistency of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's interpretation of the law and regulations and introduce an ongoing program of staff training in regulation interpretation to ensure improved consistency of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's interpretation of the law and regulations, because time after time we heard that you could get different answers from different officers in CASA. You could get visited by a variety of different people in CASA and they could tell you a range of different things. In the words of aircraft operators and owners, `Some of them could make your life easy, and some of them could make your life difficult.' I do not believe there is ever any need for people in any part of the Public Service to make someone's life difficult if there is not a good reason for it. There was lack of consistency amongst staff training in CASA.

We also recommended that CASA regularly assess and record in their annual report the levels of knowledge and competency of their staff in interpreting law and regulations. I would like to add to that. I think, quite frankly, that people in CASA need to spend more time in the air and less time on the ground. I know for a fact that if they travel out to western parts of my electorate to carry out inspections or audits they often drive—they get in a car in Canberra and they drive for several hours. My question is: why on earth aren't they flying? Why aren't they experiencing the effect of their own regulations and their own systems on light aircraft? Again we heard that CASA are not understanding how it is at the small end of the market and that they are tailoring everything towards the larger end of the market.

When it comes to safety you immediately say that there can be no compromise. You look at aircraft accidents and loss of life and you feel that there can be no compromise. I know that Dick Smith had a concept called `affordable safety'. That was criticised by many but, when you think about it, that is what we all practise day to day in our lives as we travel on whatever form of transport we might use. I would say that the safety of travel in an aircraft is directly related to one thing only, and that is the weight of the aircraft. If you are in a hang-glider or an ultralight, you are far less safe than if you are in the new Emirates Airbus A340-500, which has just flown out from Dubai to Australia and is on some demonstration flights at the moment. That is a fact of physics.

Consumers may want to exercise their choice and fly in a smaller aircraft—a 10-seater piston aircraft or a four-seater single-engine Cessna 182. Because of their remoteness and their locality in the country, some people may feel that that is the appropriate way for them to get around. If larger airlines are not going to visit a person's area and that person wants to avail themselves of the convenience of travelling in a lighter aircraft, they certainly should be able to do that. We cannot take choices away from consumers. We need to be able to give them the option of saying: `We choose to fly in a small airline. We know it is less safe.' This emphasis by CASA to try and make even the small airlines conform to a standard of operating safety that you would normally impose only on a larger airline is simply unrealistic. It is going to drive smaller airlines out of business and it is going to result in loss of access and opportunity to travel for the smaller regional communities, like the communities that I represent.

But I do congratulate CASA on coming before the committee, on being open and honest with their assessments of themselves and in admitting that they can do better—as we all can. I look forward to a new era under Bruce Byron, who has taken over the reins at CASA. I look forward to a positive ongoing relationship between the new CASA CEO and this committee. I would like to finish by thanking my colleagues on the committee for the hard work that they did. We felt that we worked hard, we were productive and we produced a useful report. We trust that the minister will make good use of it.

Debate (on motion by Mr Brendan O'Connor) adjourned.