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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23580

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (11:45 AM) —The Aviation Transport Security Bill 2003 is indeed a very important one, as all members of this House and this parliament recognise. We are talking about air safety—the safety of the travelling public and of our aircrews—and, of course, associated with this security bill is discussion about safety on the ground in our local communities. It is part and parcel of national security—that is how important it is.

It is interesting to note that in this House there have been very few voices heard in discussion of aviation transport security in regional Australia, though I notice that the independent member for New England has been one who has spoken. I have been surprised by the absence of comment in this House about the lack of aviation security in regional Australia. I suspect that many of those arguments are based on cost; I certainly hope those arguments are not based on a lack of concern for those people who live in regional Australia. I have gotten the distinct impression over time, when we have been talking about aviation security, that regional Australians are regarded as second-class citizens. When you do raise the issue of aviation security—as I have and as the member for New England has in this House several times; and not just here but in correspondence with the minister, and I will return to that later—you are given the impression that you know nothing and that you are a country bumpkin, that we do not know anything about security assessments.

To live in a region as I do on the north-west coast of Tasmania, which has two categorised airports—I am not talking about airports in the outback dealing just with light aircraft; I am talking about categorised airports, and in this legislation categorised airports are categorised because they have security risks—and to be told that I do not know anything about security assessment, or `what would my people know,' and that I am a scaremonger and so forth is an insult to me and to the communities I represent. I was heartened by the comments of the previous speaker, the member for Hinkler, that now we have reviews going on which are starting to take note of the concerns of regional Australia, as should be the case. That is the issue I want to raise in relation to aviation security and this legislation.

The shadow minister for transport, the member for Batman, on this side of the House, has responded comprehensively to this legislation, pointing out both the positives and, importantly, some of the flaws that we regard as being present in this legislation, and is moving amendments that deal with those flaws. Indeed, they number eight, one of which—amendment (6)—relates specifically to regional airports and the ability to finance security screening at those airports. I will return to that in a moment. The minister, in his second reading speech on the Aviation Transport Security Bill, opened his remarks by saying:

We are all deeply conscious of the need to be vigilant about aviation safety. The Aviation Transport Security Bill 2003 recognises the responsibilities of all aviation security participants, from the largest airport operator down to the ordinary passenger. We must all be involved in aviation security.

I took the minister up on his invitation, and what better way to do that—other than by asking questions and raising issues in this House—than to write to the minister. That is my responsibility as a member of parliament; I would be derelict in my duty if I did not. Of course, if the minister disagrees with me—apart from pooh-poohing me in the House as he has several times and having comments made by his spokespeople in my region to attack some of my comments—then I expect the minister to reply to my official correspondence and deal with my issues there.

On 6 November 2001, not long after the terrible tragedy that occurred in the United States on 11 September 2001, I wrote to Mr Anderson about my local airports at Burnie and Devonport. I remind the House that I come from a region of around 112,000 people: we now call it the Cradle Coast region, which takes in King Island, parts of the west coast of Tasmania and the north-west coast itself. Devonport Airport is assessed at category 4 and Burnie Airport is category 5, and they deal with over 200,000 passenger movements a year. I wrote to the minister pointing out that, in light of September 11 and the heightened security situation both worldwide and in Australia, we did not have any passenger screening at my local airports at Burnie and Devonport. What was the minister going to do about that? How could we secure at least the rudiments of some basic security screening of passengers and their hand luggage?

The irony of all this is that the passenger screening that I am speaking about—that is, the screening of the person and the hand luggage—in actual fact occurred before September 11. Through some great scheme of review, this was no longer required and now these things are sitting in storage. I believe that one of them is now being used by a fishing company to screen its catch—but they are not in my airports to screen my constituents and me. They were abandoned and sold off. It may be laughable to some here, but in light of all this on 6 November 2001 I asked the minister: can you tell me what you are going to do about my airport and other regional airports like mine throughout Australia? That was 6 November and of course I received no reply, which seems to be the pattern of this minister: return to sender.

I have incredible patience on this issue and, having raised these matters in parliament, I wrote to the minister again on 4 December 2002. The interesting thing is that the minister's comments to me about my comments on aviation security in my area were passed on by some lackey from his department, through a member in my area, criticising me in a newspaper. In my letter to the minister on 4 December I asked him about his process of ASIO security assessments. I just happen to have a person who works with me who has been involved in security assessments and who knows a little bit about this. In fact, they had been involved in security assessments for the department in the past. They would not give me the details, obviously; they are professional in what they do. But we have a fair idea of what is required in airport security, and I asked the minister to answer a few questions for me in relation to their assessment procedures. That was on 4 December 2002. Of course, I received the standard answer from the minister: no reply; return to sender.

I am a persistent little tyke: on 17 December, as things were gradually being heightened in aviation security in this country and with increased threats to national security, I wrote to the minister again. Surely my letters must have been waylaid; surely the minister would not ignore a properly formulated request from a member of parliament about security in his region. In my letter on 17 December I particularly asked the minister to furnish me with further information about how one might go about financing improved security and screening arrangements at my local airports and about how some others go about this throughout regional Australia. Of course, it was the standard reply: no answer; return to sender.

Again, I persisted, as one must in this House; all members know how you have got to do this. I said to myself: `I'll give him a couple of months. Be fair about this; he's under a fair bit of pressure. Will he stay or will he go? What is going to happen?' Of course, I gave him some time, but by 3 June I had had enough. I had listened to the minister in this House prattle on after his National Press Club announcement of new security measures for Australia. He was talking about possible measures in regional Australia, so I listened with bated breath: `Minister, what are you going to say about regional Australia and categorised airports, and security in those airports?' I listened to him prattle on, and then he said: `If an airport wants to upgrade its security, we'll mandate it. If you want to do it, we'll pass a regulation to say you've got to do it if you want to do it. But you'll pay for it yourself. The people in that region will pay for their own security.' That was the answer.

The member for Hinkler, who spoke previously, has alluded to this conundrum that affects regional Australia; so too has the member for New England, as well as some members on this side of the House. Indeed, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit's inquiry into aviation security in Australia has received submission after submission on this issue. I encourage any members of parliament and members of the public who are interested in this issue to read the submissions to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit's aviation security review. I have made a submission to that committee.

After listening to the minister's speech, I was concerned enough to ask him a series of questions. I asked some rather comprehensive questions relating to what he had to say. Some of these were related to, for instance, how I could find out from the minister and his officers the results—without going into too many confidential details—of their risk assessments of airports. It is interesting that the member for New England, who is in the House, asked the Prime Minister the very same question about Tamworth. It is worth listening to the Prime Minister's reply to the member for New England's question. The Prime Minister's reply in question time on 2 June was:

... I am informed by the Deputy Prime Minister that Tamworth—

in this case—

does have a security plan and that it is based on a risk assessment. I am quite sure that, if the honourable member wants some more information about that, it will be provided by the Deputy Prime Minister.

There you go; there was a blatant invitation to the member for New England—unlike me, who does not get a reply to a bagful of mail that even Santa could respond to. The member for New England was given an opportunity. All I asked the minister to do for me was to give me the opportunity to see—without going into too many confidential details—the risk assessments of the Burnie and Devonport airports in my region. Of course, I was waiting with bated breath to see the answer in relation to that. In his statement to the National Press Club, the minister also said:

It is a fact that we have in place in Australia one of the most robust systems in the world.

I was scratching my head and I said: `That's pretty good. Just how robust can you be if you don't have any?' It would be like a prize fighter going into a fight with no arms. This guy just comes out with this stuff and we are expected to believe it. But when you question it and ask for details—which is my responsibility as a member of parliament—absolute nonsense comes out.

There were also very serious comments about the implementation of upgraded cockpit security measures. I asked the minister a number of questions about the security issues that may be related to turboprops. Anyone can see when they are on these aircraft that in our instance the toilet is right next door to the cockpit access point. People make their way through and, as the steward is moving through the aircraft or down the back of the aircraft, they have easy access to the cockpit. I have seen how flimsy these doors are. On a number of flights they are just open, unless that is an automatic call for coffee from the pilots. I do not know, but I asked serious questions about this and I want answers to them.

I also asked the minister to give me a response to my suggestion that the surplus of the Ansett tax be used to help finance basic screening and security arrangements and other infrastructure arrangements at some regional airports, where those communities deemed as such. I wrote on 3 June with all the patience in the world and, I believe, with due diligence, and the response I got was a big fat nothing again—no response; return to sender. That is how serious this minister is about answering the concerns of my constituents—112,000 people. We take our security pretty seriously and we try to be responsible about how we go about it.

I have outlined in my submission to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit how to deal with this in what I believe is a fair and reasonable way. The comments by the member for Hinkler and some of the thinking that is coming through from the committee on this give me some heart, but we have to wait and see. I made the point that there are excess funds that can be used to fund basic security at regional airports. I am glad to say this is outlined by the shadow minister for transport, the member for Batman, in point 6 of our amendment, which calls on the government to use some of the proceeds from the Ansett ticket tax to have screening equipment and related physical infrastructure provided at the airports listed—two of those are Burnie and Devonport—if requested by the relevant airport managers.

The crux is that we appreciate the fact that, if you mandated security screening for categorised regional airports, particularly those in categories 4 and 5, that is an incredible cost burden on those local operators and those local communities. A reasonable compromise is to help finance the introduction of basic screening equipment and other infrastructure that may be required to secure those airports—certainly the arrangement would be better than it is now, which in many instances is zilch.

I do not need to remind the House of the number of headlines about the lack of airport security throughout regional Australia. I will point out a few recent ones. The headline `Airports launch pads for terror' does not give one much heart in terms of New South Wales—that concerned an independent review by Southern Cross Group, Australasia. Another headline comes from the Sunday Telegraph: `Security gaps leave airports open to terror'. That is just to name a few, but here have been plenty of editorials in regional newspapers to that effect.

I note with interest that just today and, as we are debating this bill, lo and behold, the federal Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Mr Anderson, has said he is going to announce later this week security measures, including the installation of metal detectors and trace detection equipment, at some regional airports. I gather that this will in fact be part funded by the Commonwealth or certainly have the Commonwealth doing its bit. Do not say that we in regional Australia are the only ones holding our hands out asking the government to assist us. I have a copy of a letter from Max Moore-Wilton—that is a familiar name—from the Sydney Airport Corporation begging the federal government to use the Ansett tax surplus to do some of their infrastructure, security and screening. So he is on the ball. I must be on the ball, but I bet he got a letter of reply from the minister for transport—unlike me, which is disgraceful. No doubt the minister probably has it stuck in his pocket and forgot to post it to me! It is not good enough. The people in regional Australia are not satisfied. We demand more—we are not second-class citizens. We want basic security and screening, and we want to feel safe at our airports and in the air. I urge this government to put its rhetoric into practice.