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Thursday, 4 October 1984
Page: 1200


Senator MACKLIN(12.55) —I refer to a matter that occurred last year in relation to the review of the operation manuals for charter aircraft operators and the removal from many of those charter operators of the ambulance and police functions. The licence requirements are such that when these particular items are removed from their licence, certain problems follow. I wish to outline one problem that followed. I will give an example of what I believe are the sometimes mindless operations that go on in terms of regulations under many of the Public Service Acts.

A particular incident occurred in western Queensland, at Cunnamulla, where a five-year-old boy was injured in a motorcycle accident. The doctor at the local hospital was a relieving doctor and judged that the child needed specialist treatment for head injuries. The particular specialist treatment that the doctor judged was urgently required was available only in Brisbane; hence the hospital made contact with the Queenland State recovery unit in Brisbane at 5.30 p.m. It so happened that at the same time a violent storm struck the Cunnamulla area and took out all communications. The post office technicians restored two lines-I believe they were restored via Bourke. One line was held open exclusively for the doctor, but the other line soon became jammed and the recovery unit was hence unable to re-contact the doctor.

The boy's father owned a plane and had a private operating licence. He said he would fly the boy to Brisbane but, because of his licence and because of his experience, he was unable to undertake that alone. However, the local charter operator then offered to give navigational assistance so that that flight could be undertaken. While they were preparing for this the Charleville flight service unit was contacted regarding conditions for a mercy flight. That unit rendered all possible assistance and held open its service to assist the father in flying the child to Brisbane. At that point the hospital staff advised that they would be unable to fly in a private plane because of insurance problems as laid down in their instructions.

The father was then advised that the rescue unit was on its way from Brisbane. Hence, because he felt unwilling to take his son in that critical condition without anybody with medical knowledge for the hospital assisting him, he dropped his efforts to take his own plane and waited for the arrival of the rescue plane from Brisbane. The plane did not leave Brisbane until 9.20 p.m.; that is, the unit had been contacted at 5.30 p.m. and did not leave Brisbane until 9.20 p.m. The boy all this while was in a critical condition, blood flowing from his ears and at one stage stopped breathing. The pilot has subsequently advised that he did not receive any notification of even a possible emergency-which is the first contact that is made-until 8 p.m. The turnaround time between Brisbane and Cunnamulla is at least four hours.

The point I am raising is that what we have done, not only in this area but in other areas-I instance the Bass Strait situation-in our desire to centralise, is overlooked the fact that in many cases the most appropriate people to provide the type of assistance that is necessary are the local people, the people on the spot. If the local charter operator had been able to offer the service, as has always happened in that area up until the licence renewal in April when the ambulance and police functions were deleted, the accident victim would have been in Brisbane before 9.20 p.m. when the plane actually left Brisbane.

I offer here no criticism of the rescue service in Brisbane or of the hospital people. They are all simply tied down by the bureacratic requirements that are increasing in this area. The insurance problem is linked to the requirements of the licence. Provided the licence specifies that the charter operator is licensed to conduct ambulance and police functions, there is no problem. I believe that what we need to do is review that removal of the police and ambulance functions from local operators, particularly in the west, and allow them to perform the task they have traditionally performed, allow them to undertake the work that they have done, in most cases free of charge, as a service to their local community, and what is more, allow them to use their local knowledge, understanding, and expertise in the service of their own local communities.

In addition, it has been put to me, particularly by people involved with operating when they need police functions, that the police would probably end up ignoring the requirements and simply take over the operation of the flight themselves. That would be one way that the police could get around it. Many people have also put to me that if they were lost in the west the person they would like to be searching for them is somebody with some local knowledge, not somebody from Canberra.

It is an extraordinary operation that has gone on. It may seem trivial now. It may seem to offer no problems because of the rescue service which has been upgraded and based in Brisbane. However, I think I have pointed out in relation to this one instance that even when the father had his own plane that child was put critically at risk. In that particular case the attention that the child received when he arrived in Brisbane on the following day was successful and the prognosis is that there probably will not be any after effects. That was, I believe, pure luck. I ask what would happen if that child had died in Cunnamulla , waiting for a plane to arrive when there was a plane sitting on the tarmac that could have taken that child to Brisbane.

The point I am making is this: Doubtless the review that was done was done in good faith and doubtless the review was done on the basis of ensuring safety; but if a charter operator can operate a chartered aircraft flying people who are well, why should that person be denied, if he wishes to do so and for no remuneration, being able to fly a child who is sick, particularly when he is requested to do so by the doctor who, after all, is in charge of that medical emergency? I do believe that eventually, in the interests possibly of safety, we arrive at the absurd situation of jeopardising lives for the sake of keeping regulations.

I think that this situation needs looking at and looking at closely so that those communities who live in remote parts of Australia have the best possible service. Here is a circumstance in which they are willing to help themselves, they wish to help themselves and they are the best people positioned to help themselves, and they have been denied the chance to do so by regulations.