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Tuesday, 30 March 1999
Page: 4703

Mr SNOWDON (5:53 PM) —When interrupted last evening whilst contributing to the debate on the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 1998, I was making the point that CASA's performance is heavily scrutinised by people who live in regional and remote Australia and that assertions about its operation and efficiency are also closely scrutinised. Also, I had told of my concern when, during the lead-up to the election campaign last year, certain proposals were announced to close the Darwin base and the Townsville office of CASA. I made the point that this issue greatly concerns not only air travellers in the Northern Territory, but also air operators, people in general aviation in particular, and small communities who rely on CASA's service for a whole range of reasons.

Ron Lawford, Convenor of the Regional Airspace Advisory Committee, made an interesting comment. As I had no chance to refer to it last night, I will do so now. On 30 June last year, on ABC radio, Mr Lawford spoke of the proposal to review CASA's structure and close its offices in Darwin and Townsville. He said:

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has made some quite dreadful decisions over the last few years but this one really takes the cake so far as the level of safety in aviation in the Northern Territory goes. It just is unbelievable.

Mr Lawford continued:

It's going to cause a major drop in the overall long-term level of aviation safety in the NT. There's just no other result which can come from it.

The government later resiled from its proposal to close those two offices. But, frankly, I do not think we can have any confidence at all in the ability of this government, basically, to keep its word. I think there is a genuine concern within the aviation industry that the government will proceed to make these changes in a way which will not only disrupt the operations of aviation providers in the Northern Territory, but also be of great concern to the travelling public.

During my contribution last evening I also made the point that, if the government were to proceed to close these two offices, there would be no CASA establishment between Cairns and Perth. And, when looking at a map of Australia, it is not hard to understand why people living probably on two-thirds of Australia's landmass would be concerned about the possibility of not having any ready access in their own regions to the services of CASA. These services are difficult enough at the best of times—although, as I said last night, concern about them is not due to any lack of effort on the part of CASA staff; in fact, the people working in these regional offices perform very well indeed.

However, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would make the point that, when looking at what has happened to CASA and the government's proposals which at least were in train, and looking at the way in which the government treats regional Australia generally, you can understand why the people in Tennant Creek might be outraged at the results of the privatisation of the Tennant Creek airport. Tennant Creek, you would recall, was part of the bundle of airports which were sold off in the Northern Territory: Alice Springs, Darwin and Tennant Creek. At the time it was said by the Howard government that these airports would be better off under a privatised airport regime.

It is my displeasure to inform the House that, in fact, the contrary has turned out to be the case. We have heard recently of proposals by Northern Territory Airports Pty Ltd to introduce increased charges at the Tennant Creek airport. These charges will be increased to the point that Tennant Creek airport users will be forced to deal with an increase in landing charges of over 400 per cent, effective from 1 April this year.

This is a most unreasonable impost on a small Northern Territory town which has felt the brunt of major economic change over the years and which is dependent on government outlays in many respects in terms of its local economy. This sort of impost is being seen as a breaking of an undertaking by the federal government that people who live in this community would not be worse off as a result of the privatisation of the airport.

The fact that airport charges will increase by 400 per cent is bad enough in itself. But, as pointed out in correspondence I have seen from the chief executive of a Northern Territory regional airline:

It will encourage charter and private operators not to report on the radio when operating into and out of Tennant Creek. Even though we have been very vocal with the Civil Aviation Authority to attempt to get them to legislate that all aircraft operators must report when operating into and out of Tennant Creek, there is failure to do so. In fact, under existing legislation, other users don't even have to carry a radio in their aircraft.

I suggest to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this presumption or assertion from one of the more significant airline operators in the Northern Territory—that these proposals, which will impact directly on regular users, are inviting other users of this airport not to use their radios in advising that they are going to use this airport—is a particularly important issue for us to contemplate. Not only is it an abrogation by government of one of its responsibilities, but also it is clearly an issue of safety and something which will be of concern to many people; it is certainly of concern to the people of Tennant Creek.

I have to say that I have not been a fan of the privatisation of airports. And I have to say that I am even less of a fan of the privatisation of regional airports because, clearly, the economies in these small communities are not strong enough to sustain the costs of running an airport. I think that has been demonstrated time and time again.

Because of public policy decisions which have been made by government to sell off an enterprise—in this case, Tennant Creek airport—the people in Tennant Creek are being penalised. They were told that they would get some benefit. There has been no benefit to the people of Tennant Creek or to the people who use that airport. They have been unfairly and unduly penalised. These are communities—and there are others around Australia—where the level of economic activity will not sustain the increased level of charges that will be imposed. I do not blame for a moment the owner of Northern Territory Airports Pty Ltd needing to cover the losses which they have at Tennant Creek airport, but it is a problem for government. Because government took the decision, government should be underwriting the costs of these loss makers to ensure that the people of Tennant Creek are not penalised, to ensure that they are not wearing the burden of poor public policy.

The issue of CASA has been under public scrutiny for some time, thanks largely to the efforts of the shadow minister. Over recent days we have seen the impact of the scrutiny under which she has put the government. I have to say to her that they deserve greater scrutiny. I have to say to her that it is clear the management of CASA need to review their operations. I have to say to her and to all members of this parliament, particularly the government, that if they believe the people of regional Australia are going to cop the crap they serve up continually in relation to CASA and other issues they are mistaken, because they have had a gutful. They are sick of being sold down the drain by a government which has shown not only that it does not understand but also that it does not care. That is most important.

I know the people of my electorate. I know what their concerns are. I know that they rely on general aviation. They rely on the services provided by light aircraft as well as the small airport operation at Tennant Creek. They know; they feel it in the hip pocket. They know when the standards of service drop off. I talked last night about the frustrations felt by people in the Northern Territory involved in the aviation industry about the levels of service as a result of the changing management practices in CASA. It has to stop.

Ms Kernot interjecting

Mr SNOWDON —Air safety is a major issue. As I said last night, I travel on light aircraft continually. I know the sorts of standards that are required. I have seen fly-by-night operators in this industry who come in and go out. I have seen the aircraft they fly and, unfortunately, I have flown in a few of them. They do not give you a great deal of hope. It is not quite white-knuckle flying, but it is close to it. Although the opposition is supporting this bill, I do not support the direction this government is taking the reform of the aviation industry or what the government has done to CASA.