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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23498

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (7:32 PM) —I rise to address the opposition's view of this very important legislation. Against the events of 11 September legislation, which very dramatically changed the way we live, the fact of—and televised images of—a jet passenger aircraft being used as a weapon of terrorism made an indelible impression on each and every one of us. As we consider a new aviation security framework in the legislation we must remember that the aviation industry has been security alert for many years. It has always been an industry that has needed to have regard to issues of security.

Alternatively, I think it is fair to suggest that, whilst the aviation industry has been more security conscious than many, industries such as the maritime and port industries must now also become just as security conscious. That culture has not existed in such industries in the past. Indeed, when we think about it, being screened at their airport was for many Australians one of the few places they ever encountered security procedures. Even at Parliament House prior to 11 September we did not have a strong culture of security.

We also accept that this is changing and it is going to change even further in the future. More and more Australians are being screened and monitored as they go about their daily lives and business. For example, they are screened to enter workplaces like this one. There are CCTV systems on our streets, the screening of containers on our docks, and radical procedures for documents in government departments, sometimes to check if they are being released to the opposition, dare I suggest. There are security procedures for truck drivers and increasingly sophisticated computer security systems. These are just a few examples where terrorism and its curse are impacting on the daily lives of Australians.

While aviation has for many years had a highly regulated security environment, we learned on 11 September 2001 that more needed to be done. This legislation therefore represents the Australian government's response to those events and the challenge that confronted the aviation industry. As a result of those considerations, this legislation puts in place a new aviation safety regime in response to that new sense of insecurity, both domestically and internationally.

I point out that the Australian government—and we should all acknowledge it—had early warnings that more needed to be done on aviation security. If anything, some of the criticism this evening is that they perhaps should have acted earlier. We are talking about 11 September 2001 as being the real pressure point to getting more serious about aviation security. I note this evening that there was an audit report of 1998 that noted a solid regulatory framework but clearly spelt out in very stark terms the need for improvement of an immediate nature.

It took the minister until 2001 to respond to that warning. The bill he introduced back then was heralded as the first stage in an overall proposal to enact reform within aviation security. Modernised standards were going to be created in separate and specialised regulations. These regulations were planned to replace the provisions deleted from the Air Navigation Act. The problem for the minister was that he had not done the work on the new regulations, and the bill disappeared when the parliament was prorogued for the 2001 election.

In early 2002 the minister, almost oblivious to the events of September 2001, reintroduced what was in essence the same bill. Again unfortunately, the minister had not concluded the groundwork on the new modernised regulations and dithered over them for almost 12 months. In late 2002 the minister had a total change of heart—if anything, a change of approach—to fixing aviation security, and his plan to make reforms through the modernised regulations was ditched.

In January 2003 the Australian National Audit Office released findings from a follow-up audit to its 1998 report. It was a disgraceful state of affairs. The Auditor-General was forced to report that the findings of five years ago, in his earlier report of 1998, had in essence not been acted on. They had sat in the minister's office and had not been attended to. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, the parliamentary committee responsible for the Audit Office, has seen fit to institute an inquiry into aviation security. I look forward to that committee's report, as I know it has canvassed these issues widely, and I urge the minister to give due consideration to its findings.

In the second reading amendment to the Aviation Transport Security Bill 2003 that I will move this evening, I call for a post-implementation review of this bill to be conducted in 12 months time, which is about holding the parliament and the industry accountable for the implementation of this bill. Obviously, there are potential teething problems and we should have a process for the parliament to assess the bill's performance. I suggest that that review by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services also include a look at the government's response to the pending report from the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit.

I suppose in some ways I am suggesting this evening that we as a House start using some of our own committees to do some of this work. There are a range of House committees responsible for different areas, such as employment, economic policy, public accounts and transport and regional services. I think all too often this House allows the other house, the Senate, to do work that we could ideally do ourselves through our own committee structure. So not only do I suggest this evening in a second reading amendment that we conduct a post-implementation review of this bill but I think it is time the House itself seized the opportunity through its own committees to do some work to make the outcomes potentially more rewarding and fulfilling for the people who put a lot of hard work into those committees.

Rather than producing reports which all too often just sit on ministers' desks and are not acted on, why don't we give them a defined task with a defined deadline, such as a review of the aviation security legislation—which will no doubt be passed by both houses—and the responsibility for assessing whether or not there are further weaknesses and, if need be, reporting back to the House with suggested amendments? It has been done on infrequent occasions in the past—for example, with respect to some legal issues when the member for Banks was Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in days gone by. So let us use the opportunity, irrespective of who is in government, to do something of note and substance through our own committee structure. However, it requires the minister to seize the opportunity, work with the committee and to suggest that such work be undertaken.

I raise those issues and I also acknowledge that, after the minister's total shift in direction in 2002, it was not until March 2003 that we learnt what this new approach would be. It was then that we saw the legislation that is before us today. The minister then thought he could fast-track this important legislation by immediately referring it to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee—which goes to the very issue I raised this evening with respect to the workings of our own committee structure—before it was considered in the House. The record shows that, if anything, that tactic backfired. The Senate committee was not going to have the wool pulled over its eyes.

Soon after the committee convened, we learnt that the draft regulations were still not ready and that they were integral to understanding the operation of this bill. It follows, unfortunately, the established trend of this government to use legislation to establish a framework—yes, a necessary framework—and then the nuts and bolts are all too often delegated to regulations. I simply point out to the House that if we are going to consider issues such as aviation security in a proper, independent way then the regulations are critical to the understanding of the legislation, and this view was clearly realised and shared by industry when they prepared their submissions to the Senate committee. It unfortunately took an inordinate amount of time for the draft regulations to be provided.

The development and passage of this legislation has been fraught with delays and obstructions, but none have been from this side of the chamber. The blame for the delays fits squarely with the Minister for Transport and Regional Services—and, until recently, can I suggest that he could not decide if he wanted the job. In recent times the minister has not been focused on the serious task at hand. I remind you that we actually commenced this work prior to the last election in 2001. It is clearly complex legislation because it sets out to establish a whole new aviation security framework, and I acknowledge that. But some of the difficulties could have been overcome if we had had proper consultation with industry and some consideration of the need for workers to be consulted through their unions. That was neglected—a huge fault. So we actually created some problems for ourselves as a parliament with respect to the way consultations on the legislation occurred.

Having said that, it is clear that the legislation has come a long way. I am hopeful now that, as a result of the way we have been able to prod it, suggest some changes and point out the need for consultation, we are getting to the end of that long development stage. I must say I am still not convinced this evening that the legislation addresses all industry concerns and those of the travelling public, but we are starting to get there.

To his credit, the minister for transport cooperated to permit negotiations between his department, the opposition, unions and industry. Those negotiations have rightfully—and this is what life is about—arrived at significant compromises and have helped to ensure that all affected parties had the amendments, information and understanding required to support the legislation. For example, a number of the government amendments relate to allaying the unions' concerns that the definition of `unlawful interference in aviation transport' may impact on the unions' right to take industrial action. The words in this amendment were negotiated with the opposition and in consultation with the unions. The same accommodation applied to the Maritime Transport Security Bill 2003, which also passed in this place this week.

A further area where the government has been compelled to listen to industry and make changes is the demerit points system. On close examination, this legislation introduces a specific power to introduce a demerit points system for penalising breaches of aviation security. This week the Department of Transport and Regional Services confirmed Qantas advice to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee that the government will not pursue the demerit points system. While the government wants to retain the power to introduce the system in the legislation, it will not write regulations to commence that section at this stage. The government has acknowledged that the level of industry opposition has caused it to rethink its original position—and the government is to be thanked for that consideration. The opposition seriously questions the government's decision to proceed with that section of the bill, given that reconsideration and concession that the industry's concerns have merit.

There is a range of issues that requires further government consideration and attention. There are many areas where the government needs to work more closely with industry, including unions, to increase the effectiveness of this new framework. Many of these issues will be broached in my second reading amendment, which I will touch on in detail in my following comments.

As we all accept, there is no doubt that the aviation industry, especially airport owners, remain perplexed about the government's decision to break with the use of established international aviation security terminology. The term `sterile area', for example, is well known and understood. But the new legislation adopted a whole new vocabulary. This is not the type of change that could be fixed by amendment. The call to have a new, distinct terminology and system is fundamental government policy underpinning this legislation. There was an opportunity to build on the current system, instead of rewriting it for no obvious advantage.

While the opposition does not support it and agrees with the industry that this will create unnecessary confusion and exacerbate the amount of change to be comprehended, it is not something that we will seek to amend. At the same time, this is not significant enough to cause the opposition to vote against the legislation. It is unfortunately just another example of this minister not appreciating the detail of the legislation and being too distant from the industry and the challenges it confronts. The opposition urges the continuation of detailed consultation with the industry to ensure that the implications of this policy decision are minimised. We have to go out of our way to try to assist the industry in taking these necessary changes forward. We therefore urge the government to accept the need for continued detailed consultation with the industry to ensure that the implications and application of this policy, and our ability to make it work, are facilitated and assisted. As my second reading amendment will say, I call on the government to discuss appropriate ways to ensure that the regulations spell out agreed, clear and consistent roles and responsibilities for landside security between the different operators and authorities.

The legislation is also deficient in other ways that cannot be easily addressed through amendments—for example, the accountability and governance mechanisms are not clearly spelt out with respect to security incident investigations. At the moment, we have the Department of Transport and Regional Services being the font of all knowledge and control. They write the rules and regulations, they monitor compliance, they investigate the breakdowns and breaches of their rules and regulations and they are responsible for ensure that any flaws are fixed. In my mind, this is simply not appropriate.

The opposition very strongly believes that there needs to be more separation of these functions to ensure the system is properly accountable. The model for aviation safety regulation, compliance and accident investigation is a decent starting point of reference. I refer in passing to the security incident on the QF1737 flight to Tasmania as a case in point. The incident occurred on 29 May this year. The department very quickly said that they would investigate the incident—but we are waiting to see the outcome of that investigation. Surely there should be some process of independent assessment and accountability with respect to these sorts of matters. A system must be designed so that we as a community learn from errors. The aviation security regulatory, compliance and investigation framework must therefore be more transparent.

On that note, I refer in passing to the evidence given last week to the Senate inquiry into the current version of the draft regulations. I was pleased to see in that inquiry that the department is paying more attention to the issue of unscreened service personnel and unchecked vehicles going airside—something that I have raised previously in questions without notice to the minister in this House. The evidence provided by airport operators and airlines on the operation of this legislation also revealed deficiencies in the administration of airside security identification cards. These cards, as we all appreciate, are now a critical part of the security net at airports. The government has made significant changes in terms of requiring an ASIO politically motivated violence check of applicants for ASICs and shortening the time for renewal—obviously at cost to industry. Industry is prepared to pull its weight, but one of the industry's criticisms with respect to this new approach to aviation security is that the government is not pulling its weight. There is a minimum financial contribution to the Australian community and the industry to enable them to embrace the changes embodied in the legislation before us this evening.

Putting that aside, in evidence to the committee—very strong evidence—it has become clear that not enough is being done with respect to some of these issues going to airside. Unfortunately, we were advised through those Senate inquiries that hundreds of these ASICs go missing—often when staff leave employment without handing them back to their employer. The opposition is not convinced that the system can be improved by an amendment to this legislation. But there is ample opportunity for regulations to be more rigorous, and I believe that the government should be giving more attention to this matter.

There is a very clear need, on evidence available to the Senate committee—an absolute requirement—for stricter controls, crosschecking and audit arrangements on ASIC users to minimise the number of missing passes. If the government had had more regard to this we might not have had the break-in at the department not that long ago. That break-in involved a missing pass and the government should have learned from that. When their own department in Canberra was broken into, with a missing card a contributing factor, they should have had more regard to the need for stronger regulation on these matters with respect to the operation of aviation security.

I will now go to the issue of security at regional airports, an issue that is exceptionally important to the member for Braddon. This is another area where, without a doubt, the government in a very neglectful way is leaving people on the ground to make decisions about whether or not they should have more security. The truth is the government is basically wiping its hands in a lot of ways over the need for tighter regional aviation security.

There is a litany of media reports exposing security weaknesses at our regional airports, some as recent as today's Daily Telegraph and Sun Herald reports. The Joint Public Accounts and Audit Committee public hearings around regional Australia have also revealed a range of concerns from operators and members of this place from both sides of the chamber.

The security of regional Australians must be respected. We must also be mindful that lax regional security can undo the most stringent measures in place at major airports and population centres. While we are assured on a regular basis that appropriate risk assessments are conducted, the opposition is convinced that the cost of providing security is given too much weight. The government simply has no excuses on this front.

On the question of available dollars, I remind the House this evening that this government is sitting on tens of millions of dollars from the Ansett ticket tax surplus. Despite promptings and requests, the government will not reveal how much it is. But, on available evidence, the opposition is convinced that there is enough to make a significant difference to the security of our regional airports.

To that end, I call on the government to use the surplus proceeds from the collection of the Ansett ticket tax—collected from people travelling on planes in Australia; it is their money—to improve security at regional airports. That money ought to be used on a selective basis, for example, to purchase screening equipment and related infrastructure at regional airports such as Burnie and Devonport in Tasmania; Dubbo, Albury and Wagga Wagga in New South Wales; Gladstone in Queensland; Port Lincoln in South Australia; and Tamworth, Port Macquarie and Kingscote.

The opposition appreciates that the local airport managers need to be involved in decisions about their airports. I simply say to those airport managers that I know that as many of those airports are operated and owned by local councils it might not be financially viable for you to improve security at this point. But I say that the Howard government has the money from the Ansett ticket tax to assist you in overcoming fears about regional aviation weaknesses.

Obviously, as I have pointed out to the House this evening, this legislation has a protracted history. It is long and complex. For that reason I call on the government to agree to ask the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services to conduct a post implementation review of the new security arrangements within 12 months of the legislation's commencement. That is not only good for the legislation; it is good for the House to give the committee that responsibility. They want to do some work of a meaningful nature so let us not only involve them in debates about bills such as this but also give them due consideration and respect by giving them the responsibility of follow-up work on the application of the legislation so they can assess any weaknesses.

With those comments, the Labor opposition is at this point: we clearly support the legislation. As I have foreshadowed by discussion, the government and the opposition are putting forward agreed amendments. I will give my specific comments on those amendments when the legislation reaches the committee stage.

In conclusion, I would like to pay tribute to Australia's great aviation industry. It is an exciting industry and a tremendous employer. One of my former colleagues referred to airports as `job zones' and I think it is an apt term. Australia as a nation relies on a healthy, accessible and efficient industry—and one that is safe.

This week we saw the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services report on the difficulties confronting regional aviation and airports. There is no doubt that this part of the industry does it tough but, equally, the high-capacity end of the industry also faces many challenges—both domestically and internationally—in a very tough industry that, I remind the House, is recovering from the brunt of September 11. It is an industry that depends on community confidence. The market is particularly and highly sensitive to factors that impact on the safety and security of flight. The same sensitivity does not apply to other transport markets, such as private vehicle travel or commercial bus travel. But it is a fact of life in aviation. The opposition are acutely aware of it and we will always temper and monitor our comments accordingly.

At the same time, we as the opposition are charged with the responsibility of holding the government to account. Aviation security matters to travellers and they must have confidence in the regulatory framework. In our work scrutinising this legislation we have tried to be constructive but also cognisant of these sometimes conflicting responsibilities and we have minded our comments in a public sense accordingly.

In concluding my remarks, I would like to thank the industry and unions for their input. We as an opposition placed considerable demands on them to assist us in considering this complex legislation in a proper and thorough way. I would therefore like to extend my appreciation to the Board of Airline Representatives, the Australian Airports Association, Qantas, Virgin Blue, the Flight Attendants Association, the LHMU and the ALAEA for their assistance with finalising the legislation. I also express my appreciation to the minister's staff and departmental officers for their cooperation, and acknowledge the input of my own staff with regard to getting us to this point. We have received from the government side, through the department and the minister's office, ready access to information and answers to our concerns and those raised with us by industry. As the shadow minister, I very much appreciate that assistance because it enables us, as the opposition, to conduct ourselves in a responsible and cooperative way. Therefore, I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“while not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) condemns the Government for the unnecessary confusion that will be caused by its insistence on using a whole new terminology in its legislation instead of using and building on the terminology already used in the industry and recognised inter-nationally;

(2) calls on the Government to ensure that the regulations spell out agreed, clear and consistent roles and respons-ibilities for land-side security between the different operators and authorities;

(3) calls on the Government to improve the accountability and transparency of the aviation security rule making, compliance and incident investigation governance arrangements;

(4) calls on the Government to discuss with industry appropriate ways to close the security gap caused by the ability of unscreened service personnel and unchecked vehicles to access aircraft;

(5) calls on the Government to impose stricter controls, cross-checking and audit arrange-ments on who is using ASIC passes, to minimise the number of missing passes;

(6) calls on the Government to use the proceeds from the Ansett `ticket tax' to have screening equipment and related physical infrastructure provided in respect of the airports at;

(a) Burnie;

(b) Devonport;

(c) Dubbo;

(d) Albury;

(e) Wagga Wagga;

(f) Gladstone

(g) Port Lincoln;

(h) Tamworth;

(i) Port Macquarie; and

(j) Kingscote

if requested by the relevant airport managers;

(7) calls on the Government to require that the regulator consult formally with aviation industrial organisations on an ongoing basis in respect of security matters; and

(8) calls on the Minister to ask the House Transport and Regional Services Committee to conduct a post-implementation review of the new security arrange-ments within 12 months of the bills commencement”.

I commend the legislation and the second reading amendment to the House. I thank you for the opportunity to contribute to what I think is a significant change in aviation security—hopefully one that will benefit the Australian travelling public and assist our operators, such as Qantas and Virgin Blue, and their ability to conduct their activities in a safer environment that has the confidence of the travelling public.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Wilkie —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.