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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23584

Mr JOHN COBB (12:05 PM) —We certainly just heard some rhetoric—that is for sure. I rise to speak on the Aviation Transport Security Bill 2003. It has been said before that September 11 changed a lot of things, and quite obviously it did. One thing this government has proved is that it is more security conscious than any of the political parties that surround it, and certainly more security conscious, by a country mile, than those across the benches in terms of Australia's best interests. What came out of the tragedy on September 11 was quite obviously a global need to readdress domestic and international security, sometimes right down to a regional level. For most of us that tragedy was a terrible wake-up call that nowhere is out of reach. If the most powerful nation in the world can be so easily penetrated, then as a country known very well around the world in recent times we have to look at our own security. We certainly cannot be complacent, and one thing this government has not been is complacent on security.

As a member of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, I am one of those responsible for looking at aviation security. As the previous speaker, the member for Braddon, mentioned, airport security is under ongoing review at the moment. I think my electorate of Parkes has the highest number of registered airports in Australia—not all of them part of a normal service. Being one of the more remote areas and electorates and having airports in places like Broken Hill, Dubbo, Parkes, Cobar et cetera that are in full-time use, we have a very real interest in this. But I think every member of parliament has a very real interest in ensuring our security, be it in the air or anywhere else. The committee's terms of reference are pretty specific. The committee is to inquire and report on:

a) regulation of aviation security by the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Services;

b) compliance with Commonwealth security requirements by airport operators at major and regional airports;

c) compliance with Commonwealth security requirements by airlines;

d) the impact of overseas security requirements on Australian aviation security ...

And the list goes on. It is very comprehensive. The committee has visited airports in recent times. I was interested to hear some of the interjections by the member for New England earlier, because we went to Tamworth and Coffs Harbour recently and—despite the interjections about it being disgraceful that we do not have screening at every airport in Australia regardless of its size, location or anything else—when we spoke to the operators of Tamworth Airport they seemed very confident that they did not need this type of screening. Coffs Harbour, on the other hand, which has a lot of jet travel and a lot of tourist travel, wanted screening. I believe that is mainly because—and they were pretty forthright about it—the tourist trade feels better about it. If that is what works and is what is required, then I believe we have to go that way. But to simply try to put a blanket solution across Australia, regardless of airport size or location or the type of aircraft that use it, is plainly ludicrous.

We obviously have an ongoing commitment to strengthen domestic security. We have to align ourselves with the changing international security standards, and we have to be a lot better equipped to handle breaches. Despite what members across the bench might say, it was recently put to us that some of our security measures are as good as anything that exists anywhere. If you want to take absolutely no chances, which is obviously never possible, you are going to have to go to some ridiculous lengths. If you wanted to ensure that nobody is ever killed in a motor car, you could put a 10 kilometre per hour speed limit on them; people would stop using cars and would walk, and they would never get anywhere. If you want to close down the airline industry, you simply put restrictions on it that are impossible to comply with—or perhaps have a huge cost factor which closes down airports and industry.

A huge measure of commonsense has to be used with security. Of course, we are not going to take risks which are not justified, but there is a measure of risk in setting any control or regulating anything, and security is no different. As I just said, if you want to take absolutely no risks with motor cars, you slow them down to an extent where nobody will use them. If you want to take absolutely no risks with airlines, then you put restrictions on them that make it impossible for airlines and airports to operate. Of course there has to be a judgment on a particular airport. Of course judgments have to be made. That is part of the responsibility of government. However, I do see it as rather ridiculous when Independents and members across the way simply want to get in the news and make people think they are caring about them. They should look at the facts, sum them up and make a judgment rather than simply calling for the media.

Even before the onset of international uncertainty in the aviation industry, DOTARS had been working on revising the legislative framework for aviation security, and that legwork identified a number of measures to strengthen what, to be quite honest, was already a robust regulatory framework, which the Aviation Transport Security Bill seeks to enhance. The bill has 10 main provisions, but I would like to touch on only a couple of the key points.

Under part 3, the secretary of the department may declare an airport or part of an airport to be security controlled. This is simply a commonsense measure. It is about flexibility, not about treating every airport the same regardless of its size, regardless of the planes that use it, regardless of the passenger throughput. It allows the department to look at airports on a casebycase basis and even to look at an airfield or airport on a part-by-part basis, rather than having to simply treat every airport the same, which in Australia they most definitely are not. Even within my electorate, airport landings go from one plane a day to up to a dozen, from very small planes to quite large ones. This takes into account the physical and operational features of every airport and the fact that each airport may have its own unique circumstances. Flexibility is, without doubt, a key part of the amendments. These arrangements are designed for categorised airports, and there are a total of 38 of them in Australia. I do not have one of those in my electorate, but I do represent an area which feeds into many of those categorised ports.

Part 4 of the bill establishes fundamental security requirements that go beyond the concept of area-based security controls, as in part 3, and deals with the screening and clearing of people, goods and vehicles. Obviously, the challenge for government is to provide a security framework that recognises and anticipates threats and breaches but does not unduly punish the airport or make it impossible or impractical for them to operate. It is quite obvious that after September 11 there was a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty. Passenger numbers plummeted right around the world, and certainly in Australia. We had to react to that, and the immediate thing to do was to make people confident that in Australia, at least, they did not have to fear unjustified risk taking.

The government's commitment to security, defence and border protection has certainly gone a long way in Australia to restoring the confidence of our own domestic travellers and the tourist travellers who come here, right around Australia and in regional situations. With passenger numbers in regional and metropolitan Australia, we are now back at the two per cent annual growth rate we were experiencing before September 11. Numbers, thankfully, continue to trend upwards. Regional airports are starting to play a much greater role in domestic travel; they obviously feed many of the jet operators that service major cities and international destinations. As has always been the case, regional airlines play a very prominent role in aviation in Australia and further partnerships are starting to emerge. One I can think of is Regional Express, which services so much of south-eastern Australia, from Adelaide through to Brisbane, which recently forged a partnership with Virgin for the ongoing transfer of baggage. So we will be benefiting from a much more comprehensive network.

It is these changing situations that security has to take into account. We have to ensure the safety and the confidence of passengers. I think to a very large measure we have done that, and the increase in passenger numbers is proof and testimony to that. Domestic carriers are making a very real effort to improve their customer focus and, at the same time, we are starting to do a very good job of providing a quality, affordable service. I notice that in the last 12 months the price of domestic travel within my electorate has come down quite markedly, and I congratulate Regional Express on being a very big part of that and for doing deals with some local government areas that have made it possible to provide a better, more efficient service.

A working paper by the Bureau of Transport Economics entitled `Regional Aviation Competitiveness' found that over the 10 years to 1998 regional airline passenger movements grew at over 13 per cent. Those airlines now carry 15 per cent of all passenger movements while at the same time moving 5.7 million people on a traffic-on-board-by-state (TOBS) basis, over 5,000 tonnes of freight and 17 tonnes of mail. In carrying out those operations, about 286 aircraft are used and about 2,700 people are directly employed. It is a very big industry and it is a very competitive industry today—and, by and large, it is a very efficient one. Of regional airline passengers, about 65 per cent are business travellers and 77 per cent can access a discount fare. I believe that the security and the certainty we have put back into regional aviation is now becoming apparent as the numbers of those travelling increase. The business community probably stuck with travelling by air all the way through; but the increasing number of casual travellers and tourists is testimony to the way DOTARS, the minister and the government have put certainty and security back into the minds of our travellers.

We are faced though with a challenge, and we all must rise to that. Security has to be paramount—noone knows that better than we do, and nobody has a better record of dealing with it than this government—but we have to ensure that the aviation industry continues to be viable. It has gone through some tough times, and I do not think we can ignore that fact. We must provide a very flexible framework for industry to operate within and for people in using that industry. Without doubt, that is what this bill does. John Anderson, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and Leader of The Nationals, has stated:

... this bill allows industry greater flexibility in meeting the standards set by government.

And that is what it does. It takes into account the growing role of regional airlines. Without them, we would have no competition. Without regional airlines, most entrepreneurs or business leaders—the people who make things happen—simply would not come to an electorate like mine or even bigger electorates such as Grey, Kalgoorlie and Lingiari, because they could not afford the time to travel any other way.

This bill enables passenger screening at categorised regional airports and ensures more accurate screening which matches the emerging role of regional airlines in carrying high volumes of jet airline passengers. At the end of the day, as I said earlier, a judgment has to be made and somebody has to take responsibility in making that judgment. We would hope to do that without error, but there are no certainties in this world. Those who are screaming and bellowing about simple security without actually looking at the issues probably need to stop and think that a terrorist today does not necessarily repeat himself. It is probably a lot easier for one to drive a truck into the middle of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with far greater effect than to go out to a regional airline and hijack a 19- or 30-passenger plane. However, we do have to make a judgment and we have to take all those issues into consideration.

We should remember too that regional airports, by and large, are owned and operated by local government. I can assure you that local government in my area is not jumping up and down to install screening once it sees the stats and knows about all the issues we are discussing here. As some airports develop—and there is a chance in my electorate that airports could become more involved with international flights—this may change, and nobody is suggesting for one second that any system will be put in place in concrete. We have to keep looking at them and deal with them as they arise. But at the end of the day there is no getting away from the fact that judgments have to be and will always have to be made. ASIO has spent a great deal of time reviewing aviation security, particularly with regard to regional airports, and obviously we have to act on its advice or take it into account in the main. The advice thus far suggests that it would be overcautious to implement, at uncategorised regional airports, security measures the like of which we have been talking about. We have to take all the advice and we have to act on it, but I think we also have to use a lot of commonsense rather than a lot of rhetoric.