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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23590

Ms O'BYRNE (12:32 PM) —The Aviation Transport Security Bill 2003, as we have heard already this morning, aims to improve transport security and civil aviation through several means—namely, adding to the current structure of aviation security and allowing for flexibility to respond to the changing international aviation threat. Labor supports this move and, as such, supports this bill, along with the amendments that the shadow minister has moved and those yet to be moved.

This bill will ensure a higher level of public confidence and trust in what is currently a turbulent and uncertain area. Overall, there is significant evidence to substantiate the need for the changes outlined in this bill, particularly in relation to security, safety and ensuring a greater level of public confidence. Members of this House will remember the terrifying incident only a few months ago—on a flight to my hometown—when Qantas cabin attendants thwarted an attempted hijacking on a flight from Melbourne to Launceston. While the flight attendants sustained minor injuries, they averted what was potentially a lethal situation. I note that they were recently awarded international aviation security awards for their behaviour.

Sadly, these horrible incidents occur more frequently than anyone would like. This was highlighted recently by Qantas, who reported 239 air rage incidents between 1 January 2003 and 30 September 2003, of which 13 were classified as violent. The incident on flight 1737 to Launceston and the many other incidents that have occurred this year alone demonstrate that it is critical to safety and security to have sufficient, well-trained cabin crew. On this point, I want to acknowledge that the cabin crew are a vital component in an operational safety and security team. But, despite government rhetoric and comments by the Minister for Transport and Regional Services—who was supporting the role of cabin crews in the context of security, particularly immediately after flight 1737—I note that the minister's department did not consult with the Flight Attendants Association of Australia in the development of this bill.

Unfortunately, this is the tenet of the Howard government's policy development: keep consultation with stakeholders to an absolute minimum and only consult with those who are going to agree with your proposals. Why would this completely arrogant government feel the need to take into consideration the needs of others, particularly the workers—the people who are employed in this industry? As the member for Ballarat alluded to earlier in the House today, the most valuable insight into the effectiveness of this bill will actually come from the workers, not from the shareholders. The workers have the operational experience—this is experience which the government should take advantage of rather than completely shun. As we heard today, the regulations underpinning this bill are still being massaged, so, once again, no doubt the devil will be in the detail.

The other guiding principle that this government has chosen to act upon is to shift responsibility and to blame others. Recently, the minister opened the Safeskies Conference in Canberra where he discussed the merits of this government's aviation initiatives. It was during this presentation that the minister discussed what he calls the `three persistent myths about our security measures'. It is a nice turn of phrase, but I think this little attempt for language to shape reality falls particularly short of the mark. The minister outlined these myths.

The first is the idea that the government should pay the cost of aviation security. The minister knows that that is a myth only because he desires it to be so. The minister is forcing industry to bear the huge costs of responding to increased security arrangements at a time when airlines are under intense financial pressure. Of course, it goes without saying that industry will transfer these costs to the travelling public. So, through a lovely little sleight of hand, this minister will increase the cost of air travel. The minister is quite firm: the government will not pay; the public will. What a surprise! Here is another hidden Howard tax. Those opposite are pretty shifty; they shift the costs for their policies to others. Labor holds the view that security measures, which in most part are dictated by government regulations such as the one that we are currently debating, can be introduced with a level of government funding support that reflects the government's role in protecting our national security.

The minister's second myth is the claim that the occasional screening breakdown, such as the recent incident at Melbourne airport, demonstrates that there is a fundamental problem with aviation security. That is not a myth. There are deficiencies, and the occasional screening breakdown can have serious consequences. We have heard in this House today of various incidents that have occurred, such as box-cutters and other inappropriate items making their way onto aircraft. I would hate to think that I am nave in this area, but I would have thought the minister would be aware that there is enough evidence to show that steps need to be taken immediately to make improvements. But, no, the minister and the government claim that all is okay, because screening is only one part of a `layered security system'.

The reliance on intelligence and police work, while generally very effective, is not always going to ensure that terrorists do not make it to the airport. I mentioned earlier the dreadful events on a flight from Melbourne to Launceston. Sadly, intelligence and police work did not foresee this event—because they could not. That is the point that we have to remember. How can this minister and this government talk about a layered security system when you can just waltz into many regional airports with no security checks whatsoever?

That brings us to the minister's third myth. The minister claims that there is a security problem at regional airports. The minister states, `We do not require passenger screening at many regional airports, because there is a lack of evidence that there is a sufficient threat to justify it.' Perhaps there is a bit of softening of the minister's arrogant stance on this issue, because I read earlier this week that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is pushing for security at regional airports to be upgraded. I hope that that department and the minister actually have a conversation at some stage.

You can walk into Flinders Island airport—in my electorate—and, apart from the person who looks at your ticket and the pilot who loads your bag onto the plane, there is not a soul in sight. There are definitely not going to be any security checks. This is also the case at Burnie airport, in the member for Braddon's electorate—no security, no nothing. The member for Braddon has already highlighted today the difficulty in getting answers from this minister as to why there is nothing and why the minister has done nothing to secure Australia's regional airports. In the minister's backyard, in the New England region, at Armidale airport, for instance: absolutely nothing! At Inverell—we cannot really talk about Inverell, can we, because Inverell is now a town without a regular public transport air service, thanks to the minister's revolutionary set of aviation reforms. I think Gunnedah might also be without a regular public transport air service these days. But, should an RPT service be returned to Inverell or Gunnedah, there will not be any security infrastructure in preparation for that. In response to a recent question about what is being looked at in the area of domestic airport security, the minister stated that `Nothing is off the table except idiotic and far-out ideas.'

Having regional airports with no security at all is idiotic; so the baseline the minister and the government have established leaves us with a lot of room to develop a sensible approach to address this obvious gaping hole. The minister will, of course, be aware of the Making Ends Meet report tabled by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services that the member for Hinkler mentioned in his contribution to this debate. Indeed, the minister's Nationals colleague, the member for Hinkler, did an excellent job of chairing this inquiry, and I want to pass on my support and congratulations to him again. In chairing this inquiry, he focused on commercial regional aviation services in Australia and transport links to major populated islands. I note that the member for Hinkler stated earlier that terrorists look for the weakest link in the chain to target, and such an incident may result in the death of thousands. I support the member for Hinkler's concern in this regard. This goes to the heart of my concern. A light plane originating from a regional airport involved in such an incident could result in the death of a large number of people. None of us want this to happen, and that is why we on this side of the House are trying to get the government to listen and take steps.

Amongst its recommendations, the Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services calls for a new airport ownership subsidy scheme covering capital works and essential maintenance. I hope that the minister embraces the airport ownership subsidy scheme, particularly as it relates to smaller regions struggling to cover the maintenance and upgrade costs of their airports. In this context, perhaps the proposed airport ownership subsidy scheme could provide the funding mechanism to assist smaller airports in regional Australia in the task of aviation security. As the member for Hinkler noted, many councils are struggling to cover the costs of maintenance and they are concerned about the Commonwealth's cost-shifting to them. I hope that the `evidence' being sought by the minister does not materialise.

Most people would argue that terrorists seek weaknesses to exploit, rather than trying to attack secure targets. It would appear that a glaring weakness exists in our aviation security that the minister is not prepared to address. As the so-called `champion of the bush', I would have thought that the minister, of all people, would seek to deal regional Australia a better outcome. It is not okay that regional Australia is exposed in this manner. The local airport is a critical piece of economic and social infrastructure. The right thing for the government to do is to assist regions in securing their airports. I call on the minister to provide adequate funding to regions to enable them to improve the security arrangements at their airports. The minister has labelled valid community concerns as myths. These concerns are not myths, rather they are truths. These concerns are persistent because the minister is not properly addressing them. I urge him to take note of the Prime Minister's department's call for increasing security at regional airports.

I started my speech by highlighting the need to ensure a greater level of public confidence in aviation, and I think I will finish on this theme. There are fundamental problems in aviation, and they have been further compounded by the minister's recent changes to national airspace operations. The minister needs to rethink his approach to aviation management. He needs to withdraw the National Airspace System reforms, improve security at regional airports and restore confidence in the aviation sector that he has sharnied.