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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 999


Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (6:32 PM) —When this debate was interrupted last night, I was talking about the important role that airports play in our economy and the conflicts that often occur between airports and their neighbours. It is very important that we recognise the key role that airports play as a vital piece of our national infrastructure, but it is also essential that airports live in peace with their neighbours and that they work cooperatively with those that surround them.

The Airports Amendment Bill 2010 will make changes to the master plan arrangements. The current airport master plan and major development proposal systems are not necessarily integrated with the off-airport transport systems or with state and local planning authorities. Consultation is required under the current arrangements and it is extensive in most cases. I think it is fair to say that the airports have got much better at living and working with their communities over recent years than was the case perhaps a decade or so ago. They know that to have a good relationship with their neighbours improves their capacity to operate smoothly. Although, to be fair, it must be acknowledged that in some cases conflicts still occur. Sometimes that is because communities might have unrealistic expectations, but sometimes also it is because the airport has not done a good enough job in actually talking and working with its neighbours.

In this legislation some proposed developments that are not canvassed in detail in master plans and that do not meet the trigger criteria for major development plans and so are not subject to the requirement for public consultation will be picked up. The aviation white paper identified these issues as problems in the airport development process. The bill will increase requirements for airport master plans and major development plans to align more closely with state and local planning. It will require that master plans include a ground transport plan illustrating how airport developments will impact the surrounding transport network and will include analysis on how the master plan aligns with state and local planning laws. Master plans will be required to integrate the airport environment strategy rather than having it separate to the master plan. In addition, some kinds of development that are deemed incompatible with the operation of an airport site as an airport will be prohibited. Airports will be able to seek an exemption from this prohibition in the event that exceptional circumstances exist.

The bill will also restructure the triggers for the preparation of major development plans to include developments with significant community impact, thus enabling public consultation for all airport developments that impact on surrounding areas. Additionally, the bill will seek to streamline certain development applications. If a development has little community impact there is currently no provision for airports to seek an exemption from the major development plan process. The bill will introduce such an exemption.

The bill will also allow airports to seek a reduction in the public consultation period from 60 days to 15 days in the event that a major development plan is aligned with the latest master plan and therefore has already been subject to public scrutiny. On the other hand, the bill gives the minister more time to assess applications. He will have 60 working days, where the current arrangements give him only 50 working days.

This bill was introduced into the previous parliament and a Senate inquiry into the bill was set up. A number of organisations made submissions to the inquiry, but the election was called before the committee could report. Now the bill has been introduced into the new parliament and the Senate has again referred it to the Senate Committee on Rural Affairs and Transport for an inquiry. The subject of airport planning and the impact of airport development is a controversial one and it is entirely appropriate that the Senate committee should canvass opinions from a variety of sources and allow airports, community organisations, local governments and other interested parties to air their concerns. Like all planning legislation, the new arrangements are complex and would benefit from a full and detailed committee examination.

The committee is currently accepting submissions. There are many competing interests, and the submissions that the committee has already received—at the last count I saw there were 28—reflect the fact that there is widespread community interest in this legislation. I would certainly encourage any organisations or individuals that have concerns about this issue to make a submission before the deadline of 28 October. Of course, one submission of considerable importance that the committee will need to take into account is the submission from the Australian Airports Association, which represents 270 member airports, including the airports that will be covered by this legislation. They have raised a number of areas of concern, and it is appropriate that those areas of concern be properly assessed and that the committee examine whether in fact this bill needs to be amended to take account of their concerns or, indeed, the issues raised in some of the other submissions. This bill really should not have come up for debate in the House until after the committee had finalised its inquiry and issued its report, which is due to occur by 16 November. There is no reason this bill needs to be debated at this time, and it should have the benefit of a proper committee inquiry. It is an important subject, and we could be more fully informed by the Senate inquiry that is currently underway.

Under the new paradigm, bills will need to be considered also by the committees of the House of Representatives where there is a wish to do that. The government will no longer be able to simply a ride roughshod over the House of Representatives and send everything, even if they know it is defective, off to the Senate in the hope that the Senate will patch up the faults in the legislation. The reality is that I have always been uncomfortable as a member of the House of Representatives with that process, and I recognise that it occurred under the previous coalition government just as it has under this one. But why should members of the House of Representatives be asked to put up their hands and vote for—or against, for that matter—legislation that they know to be defective because they expect the other house to fix up the mess? We should get the legislation right here. We should have our own committees of inquiry and investigation so that the legislation is delivered to the Senate in a form that is capable of being adopted.

I think it is an insult to the Senate and an insult to the members of the House of Representatives that they are asked to deal with legislation when it is not in its final form to receive parliamentary approval. Inquiries uncover defects in legislation or look at ways in which it can be improved. Given the contribution that airports make as a critical part of our national infrastructure, we would be remiss if we did not take the time to get this legislation right. The bill will not, of course, be able to address many of the concerns that will be raised in the submissions that go to the committee, but I think both houses of parliament need to take into account the concerns raised in the submissions.

As I said earlier, the airports are vital pieces of economic infrastructure. Most people agree that Sydney Airport is probably the single most important piece of economic infrastructure in Australia, and I single it out as an example because it is the busiest airport. Sydney Airport handles 45 per cent of Australia’s international airline passengers. The plane loads of overseas visitors that land in Australia are the basis of our tourism industry and much of our commerce. The tourism industry is struggling at present and needs low-cost and effective infrastructure to support its operations. In 2009, Sydney Airport serviced 33 million passengers, accommodated nearly 290,000 aircraft movements and handled 647,000 tonnes of freight.

Aviation activity at the airport is projected to increase significantly during the lifetime of its current master plan. Between 2009 and 2029, annual passenger numbers are expected to more than double to 78.9 million, aircraft movements are expected to increase to 427,000 and airfreight is expected to increase to over one million tonnes. Either directly or indirectly, Sydney Airport is estimated to generate 200,000 jobs. These jobs will provide payroll tax revenue to the New South Wales government totalling around $257 million in this year alone. The total economic contribution of Sydney Airport to the national economy is estimated at $16.5 billion, and it is forecast to rise to $27 billion by 2016. It is quite a staggering statistic that this single site—this single airport—represents about two per cent of the entire Australian GDP. So it is a very important piece of infrastructure.

Other airports make relatively similar contributions to their local communities and enable Australians across this sparsely populated country to travel safely and efficiently and to conduct business or to visit family and friends. As such, it is important that these pieces of infrastructure are not unduly hindered by excessive regulation and onerous costs. This of course must be balanced against the interests of the communities surrounding airports. While it plays a valuable role in supporting the economy and connecting Australians, aviation also imposes burdens on communities that surround airports through increased noise, traffic and pollution. That is why airport master plans and major developments are subject to periodic public consultations.

The bill makes changes to the manner in which these consultations are to be conducted, and it is important that it does so as sensibly as possible. The bill has aroused concern and elicited comment from a number of aviation industry stakeholders, local governments and community groups. Expanding the range of matters that are to be included in an airport’s master plan is something that many groups support in principle, but there is concern that this will result in an increased complexity in airport master plans, and thus hinder the assessment process, and delay the approval of master plans or result in more onerous conditions than currently exist. Requiring master plans to work with local and state governments to create a good transport system that fits in well with surrounding communities is essentially entrenching current practice, although I know that in many instances local government would like to see current practice work better.

It is also important that we recognise that this coordination with the surrounding transport system benefits not just the local community but also the airport itself. Sydney and Brisbane, for instance, have regular electric train connections, even if they do not make any money. Other cities have buses and certainly extensive systems of roads. The Brisbane airport is an example of an operation that gave up a significant amount of its own land to develop road systems for access to the airport but, more importantly from Brisbane’s point of view, for through traffic north and south around the city as part of the Gateway Arterial Road. But if state or local governments are unwilling or unable to contribute to an adequate road network surrounding the airport then there are clearly problems for all sides. The Commonwealth has recently committed to significant road upgrading around the Perth airport, but unfortunately some state governments have proved themselves to be manifestly incapable of building adequate road and rail infrastructure to keep up with growth.

The list of proposed developments that would require a major development plan under the bill has been criticised as being fundamentally flawed and likely to lead to unintended and negative outcomes. The bill also proposes that any alteration to a runway would require a major development plan and public consultation and would have to be approved by the minister. This would seem to apply not simply to alterations that changed flight paths, the number of aircraft movements or aircraft noise. Some airports are concerned that, with no definition of what constitutes ‘altering a runway’, routine maintenance of a runway or the installation of new runway lights—simple and benign runway works—could require airports to go through the process of public consultation and seeking ministerial approval. This would obviously impose unnecessary costs on airports, which would be passed on to airlines and the flying public and waste the time and resources of both the airports and the government. If carrying out much-needed maintenance work had to be delayed to allow for a major development plan to be formulated and approved, this would potentially compromise aviation safety, which is clearly not the goal of the Airports Act.

The bill also requires an airport to put together a major development plan for any development ‘that is likely to have a significant impact on the local or regional community’. The lack of precision in this language is a cause for concern, as it would apply to developments that may have a positive impact on the surrounding community as well as those that may have a negative impact. Indeed, every development has some kind of impact on the businesses around it or the people who live nearby. Surely it is not intended that all of these be picked up in this legislation. Perhaps the bill could simply be altered to apply to developments that may have an adverse impact. There is a risk the vague language contained in this part of the bill could prompt airports to refer every development to the Department of Infrastructure and Transport to determine whether or not it would require a major development plan. Again, this imposes undue costs or delays on projects and works counter to the intent of the bill.

 The bill does seek to streamline the planning process by enabling the minister for transport to waive the requirement for a major development plan for terminal extensions or new taxiways that do not increase the capacity of the airport. This is a welcome idea in principle, but again it is not clear that the need for a major development plan could ever be waived in practice. Streamlining the development process where possible and reasonable is a worthy goal, but I am not sure that anything will be accomplished through many of these provisions. Likewise, limiting the consultation period to 15 days for major development plans associated with projects that have already been set out in the master plan and do not raise any issues that have a significant impact on the community is a good idea, but again it may be difficult to execute in practice. A project that requires a major development plan necessarily has an impact on the larger community. As such, it would be politically difficult for the minister for transport to reduce the consultation period, even if the issues of concern had been heard during the consultation period associated with the master plan. The master plan process already imposes strict requirements on airport operators. This is entirely appropriate and necessary to protect local communities from airport developments that impose unjustifiably heavy burdens upon them. But it is important to remember that every requirement imposed on airports is inevitably passed on to airlines and eventually to the flying public. Increasing the regulatory burden unnecessarily should be avoided if at all possible.

The coalition believes that the debate on the bill should not be occurring in this House until the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee has completed its deliberations so that we can take the report of the Senate committee into account when the bill is debated here. Practices have developed where the government uses its numbers to force legislation—even legislation known to contain errors—through the House of Representatives and expects the Senate committee process to repair the damage. House of Representatives committees have rarely been used to examine legislation, and usually the only opportunity the House of Representatives has for detailed consideration is after the bill has come back from the Senate. In the new parliament, where the Greens and ALP alliance has the numbers in the Senate and so the Senate will just be a rubber stamp, the role and scrutiny of the House of Representatives will be very important in delivering good legislation. So this practice of not listening to Senate inquiries, or not listening to House of Representatives inquiries, really has to stop. It is for that reason that I move:

That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “the House declines to give the bill a second reading until the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee has reported to the Senate on its inquiry into the bill”.

Whether or not amendments are required and what those amendments should be is not yet clear, but we will take the appropriate action to ensure that Australia’s airports are well and efficiently regulated. There are a number of issues of concern that have been raised. They need to be considered in detail and it is inappropriate for this House to be dealing with the legislation before that process has been completed. It is for that reason that we believe the legislation should be set aside. It can still be debated and completed before the end of this calendar year if the government chooses to take that action, but at least the people who have issues with this legislation will have had the opportunity to be heard. I therefore commend the opposition’s amendment to House.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Is the amendment seconded?


Mr Hunt —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.