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Discussion on airport planning and development; Civil Aviation Authority's tendering for a new air traffic control system, and Parliament House gardens

JENNY HUTCHISON: This week, aviation, and especially airport planning and development, not just in Sydney - the continuing focus of agitation about whether or not the third runway will proceed - but also in Brisbane, where the recommendations of a task force, established to investigate residential noise levels might, if implemented, only add to the problem. Also, two Senate Ministers are cross-examined about why the Civil Aviation Authority excluded Australian companies from tendering for a new air traffic control system. And the Federal Airports Corporation under attack at Estimates Committee hearings, especially with regard to Bankstown Airport.

And another reason for visiting Parliament House during the spring - special tours of the gardens and courtyards.

During the grievance debate on Thursday, 5 September, the Labor Member for Moreton, Garrie Gibson, raised the problem of aircraft noise around Brisbane Airport.

GARRIE GIBSON: On 3 June this year, the report of the task force to review the operation and planning of Brisbane Airport was presented to the Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support, Senator Bob Collins. This report, I am sorry to say, did not meet with the satisfaction of the community members of the task force and certainly does not have the support of a large section of my own electorate. This is evidenced by the presentation this morning, in this place, of petitions signed by over 1,900 citizens of Brisbane rejecting the findings of the task force.

In presenting the report and subsequent recommendations, the task force appears to have failed to consider its basic purpose for existence. I must explain to members of the House a brief, recent history of the Brisbane Airport and the noise problem. The whole problem was caused by the very poor decision of the Fraser Government to locate the new Brisbane Airport where they did, at the mouth of the Brisbane River. No reasonable impact studies were done on the likely noise implications for Brisbane residents and a lot of false claims were made about its effects. In fact, when the airport plan was developed in the late 1970s, the Honourable Member for Griffith, my friend and colleague and neighbour, put in a minority report opposing the development plan. He knew, then, what the problems would be.

The matter was further compounded when the Liberal Government cut back on the original airport development plan by reducing the length of the cross-runway, preventing its use as the major runway and forcing the majority of flights to take off and land over the city. The people of Brisbane were sold a pup by the Liberals when they were told that aircraft noise would reduce considerably or disappear entirely in all areas of Brisbane when the new runway submission was commissioned. The construction of the new airport did not reduce noise disruption but has largely transferred the problem from one side of the city to the other - thus the inception of the Brisbane Airport Task Force.

Within days of the airport's opening, hundreds of complaints from south-side residents poured in. Brisbane's residents had been advised by the Department of Civil Aviation, when the new airport was developed, that the majority of aircraft, between 80 and 90 per cent, would take off and land over the bay. This, however, is not the case. I obtained figures from the Civil Aviation Authority which show that approximately only 55 per cent of planes take off and land over Moreton Bay. In June, this year, the figure was 54 per cent, and in July it was 56 per cent. Only 55 per cent of planes take off over the bay because there is not a runway - that is the 14-32 runway - long enough or wide enough to take large aircraft over the bay.

In 1989, after much pressure from my colleagues and the community, the Brisbane Airport Task Force was set up. However, the task force was flawed from the start, both in its composition and in its terms of reference. The total committee was 13 members, 10 coming from departmental and local government representatives and airline companies, and only three from the community. Protecting vested interests and covering up for past failures and very poor decisions became paramount in the work of this group, rather than meaningfully responding to the concerns of residents reflected in the views of the community representatives. The three community representatives were continually out-voted and out-manoeuvred by the department-airline coalition. It is little wonder, then, that each of the community representatives contributed dissenting reports to the task force final report.

Despite the fact that the task force identified in the first paragraph of its terms of reference that noise was the major issue, it has quite clearly provided no relief from aircraft noise for the long-suffering residents south of the Brisbane River. The task force has recommended the construction of a parallel runway to the main 01-19 runway which is causing the noise problems at present. The task force opted for this rather than a cross-runway, despite the fact that the task force has stated in its report that noise impact is greater for the parallel runway than for the alternative 14-32 cross-runway development.

Even to the casual observer, this must be a clear breach of the terms of reference which had been set. The recommendation to construct a parallel runway clearly did not take due consideration of the task force terms of reference. Such a plan would prove to be a total disaster for the whole city of Brisbane and cannot - in fact, must not - proceed. The only proposal which will not adversely affect densely populated suburbs is the extension of the cross-runway.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Labor Member, Garrie Gibson, on continuing problems with aircraft noise for residents near Brisbane Airport.

Meanwhile, Labor Members representing electorates under the flight paths of Sydney airport continue their agitation against the building of the third runway. Their tactics have contributed to the recent axing of flights into 14 New South Wales rural centres, and to closing of East-West Airlines' engineering and maintenance operations in its original home town, Tamworth. I talked with National Party Senator, David Brownhill, about these events, triggered by delays on proceeding with the third runway at Kingsford-Smith.

DAVID BROWNHILL: I think it's been one of the biggest indictments of a government that stuffed around and let the whole of a community - which is a rural community, especially of New South Wales with the commuter services - just go to rot, and I think that they stand condemned for it.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Well, of course, there are several issues behind this, aren't there? There's the various Labor Members that represent seats in the area.

DAVID BROWNHILL: Well, the Labor Party Members who represent the seats around Mascot are even suggesting now, of course, that we have a $5 surcharge on tickets to pay for insulation of houses in the Mascot area. I think they should get up in an aeroplane themselves and just have a look to see where the third runway overflight would come. They would only be overflying factories and there'd be more planes taking off over the bay so there wouldn't be as much problem as there would even be, now. And of course, I was only talking to a guy, yesterday, who owns a house in the vicinity there, and he said `Well, of course, one of the reasons why I got my house a little bit cheaper than buying in another part of Sydney was the fact that there is a little bit of aeroplane noise occasionally'. And the fact that Hazelton, one of our best country airlines, has had to cut away from 14 centres in the country, has given the reason that it's because of no third runway and because of the peak period surcharge - that $250.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Yes. We've talked about that peak period surcharge before, which is undoubtedly one of the major financial problems for an airline such as Hazelton.

DAVID BROWNHILL: Well, of course, if their tickets - and the Minister, the other day, said it was only costing them an extra $1.34 or $1.84 or something like that per ticket. But Hazelton have said because of the imposed or government-imposed charges which the peak period surcharging was a part of, it's costing them $25 per ticket for the night services and something like - no, $25 per the morning tickets, extra, and $22 extra for night tickets, and that's put their costs up absolutely dramatically. And I think that there's something like - if I remember correctly - in 1986, government charges amounted to something like 2 per cent of an average passenger ticket, and today, they're representing something like 17.6 per cent of an average passenger ticket, working on something like a 6 per cent loading or something like that. So it's absolutely government charges, lack of attention to building that third runway and getting on about it - they've had eight years to think about it - and, also, the peak period surcharging on top of all the other government charges, have really knocked the Hazelton airline to rot.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The EIS, the environmental impact statement, on the third runway is due, I gather, at the end of this month.

DAVID BROWNHILL: Yes. Well, it's been due for a while, hasn't it? And then the protests, and then the next lot of people who put in protests about it. It's time the Government, it's time the Minister and it's time Cabinet took the bit between their teeth and got in and dealt it, because if they don't, New South Wales is suffering, tourism is suffering, the whole of Australia is suffering. Country areas are suffering because it would mean - for example, if you can't have a good down and back service in a commuter airline from the country to the city - that's going down in the morning, coming home at night - people are going to stop flying because they will have to stay overnight, and that's going to cost them maybe $150, $200 extra per time they go to Sydney, and that means that business out in the country is not going to be flourishing. It means that people who want to go down for specialist medical service will have to be staying overnight, and it really is something that the Government's got to just sort of forget about all this .... that's going on by some of the Members of Parliament around Mascot and get in and build the third runway, and then they won't have to have that peak period surcharging.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Senator David Brownhill on aviation problems in New South Wales.

Now, let's move further south to Victoria. During Question Time in the Senate last week, Labor Senator, John Faulkner, raised with Minister Bob Collins, rumours about possible privatisation of Melbourne airport.

JOHN FAULKNER: I ask the Minister if he can advise the Senate whether media speculation on the privatisation of Melbourne airport is correct?

THE PRESIDENT: The Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support, Senator Collins.

BOB COLLINS: Mr President, the press articles that I have read, which presumably relate to a meeting that I held just recently with a Victorian Minister, are absolutely incorrect. I made it very clear, categorically clear, that the Government will not be supporting any suggestion to privatise Melbourne airport. What I have also consistently said is that the Federal Airports Corporation is more than happy to discuss with any proponent means of joint venturing or, in fact, owning terminal facilities at the airport, and that was communicated to the Victorian Government only a matter of days ago. And what I understand is happening is that the Victorian Government - not the Committee for Melbourne, but the Government of Victoria - will be proposing to the Federal Airports Corporation, that they investigate the feasibility of some private involvement in furthering the very substantial program of capital works which the FAC already has in train at Melbourne airport. That's something completely in accordance with Federal Airports Corporation policy and has the full support of the Government.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The Minister for Shipping and Aviation Support, Bob Collins.

The next day, Liberal Senator, David MacGibbon, pursued a recent restricted tendering process by the Civil Aviation Authority. He addressed a question to Senator John Button.

DAVID MacGIBBON: Senator Button, as the Minister responsible for Australian industry, technology and commerce, what steps did you take to maximise Australian content when the Civil Aviation Authority, stupidly and foolishly, restricted overseas tenders to only six companies when they called tenders for a new air traffic control system which, by their own admission, will cost $300 million?

THE PRESIDENT: The Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, Senator Button.

JOHN BUTTON: Senator, I think I might get you a list of the various steps which I took in relation to this matter. They were numerous. I had a number of meetings with the Australian industry. I encouraged the Australian industry to try and form a lead consortium to tender for this contract, unsuccessfully in the time made available by CAA. I've had a number of discussions with Minister Collins about it, and other Ministers, and, indeed, my most recent advice is that there've been further meetings between CAA and my department, and although the board of CAA took a decision which I personally regard as reprehensible, they are now making efforts to ensure a greater level of Australian content in respect of this contract and, indeed, a number of the subcontractors to the major consortia which are tendering for the contract have Australian subcontractors for software and other systems.

THE PRESIDENT: Supplementary - Senator MacGibbon.

DAVID MacGIBBON: .... that Australian companies wished to tender. They were specifically forbidden from tendering by the restriction to overseas companies by the CAA authority, and finally, is it not government policy to promote and support Australian industry participation?

THE PRESIDENT: Minister, Senator Button.

JOHN BUTTON: The answer to the second part of the question is yes. The answer to the first part of the question is that CAA, in what I would only myself describe as a degree of ignorance, proceeded on the assumption that they could write specifications which would exclude an Australian tenderer, and that was the course which I, a minute ago, described as reprehensible in my view.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Industry Minister, John Button.

Opposition Leader, Senator Robert Hill, then asked Aviation Minister, Bob Collins, if he agreed with Senator Button's judgment that precluding Australian tenderers was reprehensible.

BOB COLLINS: Senator Button and I have had extensive discussions on this matter as, indeed, have our departments, and I have no difficulty in saying - and I think it's quite reasonable - that we approach this matter from different perspectives. Senator Button's perspective - quite rightly - is to place at the head of his considerations the involvement of Australian industry. The priorities that I set for the CAA - and if anyone is to take any blame for this decision, it's me - the priorities that I set for the CAA are very simple. The first priority was this: to provide Australia's current antiquated air traffic control system - which is not only using 1960s technology still, in Brisbane, Sydney and in Canberra, but is also in the absurd position of having its air traffic control sectors based on State borders instead of relating them to the actual routes over which aircraft fly these days - and the priorities that I set the CAA were getting a complete replacement program under way; to provide Australia with a state of the art air traffic control system which (a) works, which (b) comes in on budget, and (c) is delivered on time. And Mr President, anyone that's got a serious interest in this question, that likes to have a look at overseas experience in Canada and the United States about the massive cost overruns of billions of dollars in terms of developing in-house the enormously sophisticated technology that's related to these systems, would be a little fearful of committing Australian industry to such a course.

Now, I would point out, Mr President, that fundamental to this decision is that this Government has taken a policy decision - fully supported, I might add, I would assume the Opposition - of getting industry to pay for the costs of running aviation - that is, the 25 per cent of the community affected that would use aircraft, rather than slugging the 75 per cent who don't. Therefore, industry has got - the aviation industry has got a keen interest in the provision of large infrastructure programs such as air traffic control, and I can say, Mr President, that experience within Australia, in terms of developing in-house technology, is not encouraging. And I don't have time to go into that, now, but no doubt there will be heaps of time, heaps of time in the Estimates Committees tonight, where this matter will be discussed.

But I make it clear that the first priority I gave the CAA was to get the air traffic control system in place by 1995 which is a tight deadline, a system that works and a system that's on budget. The second priority I gave the CAA - and I have attended several board meetings following discussions, constructive discussions with Senator Button and his department - the second priority was to involve to the maximum extent Australian industry. And the one thing that's consistently overlooked in this debate is that of all the bids, and there are four - well that's a piece of nonsense. What is an Australian company? IBM Australia which is on that list has been established in this country for 60 years, has an Australian board and employs 4,200 Australians. Siemens-Plessey, which is also on that list, employs in excess of 2,000 Australians. Now, when does a company become an Australian company?

But I'll finish by saying this. Every single one of the four bids involves, as a minimum, a 50 per cent component of other Australian companies, and some of those bids go as high as 70 or 80 per cent.

JENNY HUTCHISON: At the close of Question Time, Senator Bishop noted the diverging answers, prompting Minister Collins to comment: `In terms of the substantive issues involved, there is no disagreement between Senator Button and me on this issue'. And then Victorian Liberal, Senator Austin Lewis, offered another criticism of the Civil Aviation Authority.

AUSTIN LEWIS: The truth of the matter is that within this Government, we're now in a situation where the Minister for Industry is trying to persuade the Minister for Transport to intervene in this contract. Now, at the time when this Government got involved in its `privatisation policy' - which is a privatisation policy when you don't privatise - a number of us on this side pointed out that all that the Government was doing was creating independent government monopolies which left the Government in a situation where it wholly owned an organisation but had no control over the organisation, and this is one of the best examples of the disaster of the Labor Party's policy in this area. Here is a body which is independent of the Government but operates for the Government, and how does the Government control that? And that's the problem, here - that's the first problem.

So what I'm saying is that Senator Collins has accused us of what, in fact, he should be accusing Senator Button of doing. The second thing is Senator Collins now says that all of these tender prices have 50 per cent Australian contribution. There's no doubt that is only as a result of the representations which have been made by Senator Button and his department, that these tenderers have been told, in effect, that if they want to be in this game, they'd better give Australian companies some sort of input into their tender arrangements.

But the thing that we have criticised the CAA for - so that everyone understands clearly - is that from the word go, the CAA limited the tenderers to six named companies. It was not an open tendering situation at all. Australian companies had no right to tender. Indeed, any company other than the six named tenderers had no right to tender, so this, as we indicated during our interjections on Senator Collins, this was a rigged tender from the commencement because it was limited to those six tenderers by the CAA, and rightly, Senator Button has indicated to Senator Collins this was a wrong procedure being adopted by this government `private' organisation.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Liberal Senator, Austin Lewis.

Later that Tuesday evening, the Civil Aviation Authority's tendering process was queried in Estimates Committee F, during lengthy consideration of aviation policy which consumed nearly six hours. Responding to questions from Labor Senator, Chris Schacht, and then Liberal Senator Bronwyn Bishop, the following additional information was revealed about the tendering process for the new navigation aids: first, that delays in choosing the preferred tenderer would be unacceptable because of limited availability of spare parts for repairing existing technical equipment; that, therefore, the need was for a tenderer with a proven record of providing working systems; and finally, that now the user pays principle applies, the aviation industry would, to quote Minister Collins, `have fainted at the very prospect' of paying for development of a new untried system rather than introduction of one already operating overseas. Given no purely Australian company has, to date, provided an operating system, the CAA felt justified, on both cost and time criteria, in only considering proven contractors.

Also during hearings of Estimates Committee F, Senator Crane was concerned about increased navigation charges, and Senator Bishop was most troubled about the management of Bankstown Airport.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, the Member for Dawson in Queensland, Mr Braithwaite, tabled a petition with 3020 signatures calling for upgrading of the Proserpine-Whitsunday Airport to international standard as a vital element in the future development of the Whitsunday region.

Finally, it seems that the days of cheap air fares are drawing to a close, with the latest carrot in the deregulation battle being frequent flyer bonuses of anything from plane tickets to toasters.

To close, here's a reason for visiting or revisiting Canberra and Parliament House this spring and school holiday period. It's the time of Floriade, our annual floral festival, and the added attraction at Parliament House is free guided tours of the courtyards and gardens. I'm talking with the gardens' manager, John Lloyd.

JOHN LLOYD: We thought it would be a great time to put some tours on around the gardens to give the people an opportunity to see what the Parliament House landscape is like and have a look into some of the more private areas of Parliament House. A lot of people aren't aware that there are 17 courtyards in Parliament House - you can generally see about six from the public areas - and we'll be having a look at those. Also, some of the art works that we have, the sculptures and such that are through the gardens.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And, I hope, the fountains because there are many of them, also.

JOHN LLOYD: Yes. Every courtyard does have a fountain and every one has its own character, so they'll be going past those.

JENNY HUTCHISON: So I presume this is a tour not just for gardening freaks but, in fact, for ordinary people who want to see what you've decided to put in what spaces in the site.

JOHN LLOYD: Yes. We've definitely organised it to cover both parties, both the enthusiast gardener. There's a lot of information that we have that would be handy to people who are very keen gardeners, but also the general public, too.

JENNY HUTCHISON: The drawings for the landscaping of this site were developed over many years. What sort of changes have taken place over that period?

JOHN LLOYD: Probably not too many changes. We're very keen to keep the orginal design concept and themes going that the original landscape architects intended and we don't vary from that very much at all. It's only if we get a plant species which is failing that we will go for another species, or if we get an area that's just not working because of traffic, shading and this type of thing, that we will go back and have a look at that. Up here at the new Parliament House, they've used a lot of exotic plants inside the courtyards, but outside the building is almost 100 per cent Australian native plants and we have quite extensive plantings around - probably 10 to 11 hectares of Australian native plants.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Can you give some examples of areas which didn't turn out to be as good as you hoped or that you've had to rethink?

JOHN LLOYD: We have a problem with drainage around the place. You can't really beat mother nature. They took the top right off Capital Hill and constructed a building in its place, and some of the drainage channels and such haven't worked as well as we would have liked, but we just about have most of those sorted out. Also, the shading problem itself. The building is quite high - it's up to three storeys high - and some of the courtyards are quite small, so they only get about an hour and a half to two hours sunlight per day, and of course there are a few plant species that we have had that have failed. We have approximately 145,000 plants up here and our death rate has probably been less than one per cent, but overall it's been quite successful.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I think most ordinary gardeners would be very happy with such a low failure rate.

JOHN LLOYD: Yes. I think we've been lucky. We've had the facilities and expertise to be able to manage the site very well and it's paid dividends.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I think another thing that most home gardeners are always terribly impressed with are the lawns, the vast areas of grass which always seem to look so good. How do you achieve that?

JOHN LLOYD: We have 10 hectares of grass altogether. Two reasons: one is the grass species we have. It's Barry fine-leaf rye and Barzan blue grass. It's a cool season grass which is ideally suited for Canberra. Perhaps we do it a little bit harder in summer when the heat is around, but its wear tolerance is very good, pest and disease free, and it still grows in winter which is probably the main thing for Canberra. And also, the construction that it's based on - it is sand-based construction. Most of the gardens up here at Parliament House are growing in sand - not a top-soil or loam - and it's great from a drainage point of view, resists compaction and easy to manage, I guess. It's only plant nutrition that you have to watch very closely.

JENNY HUTCHISON: John Lloyd, manager of the gardens at Parliament House. The tours are free, run at 10.30 every weekday and twice on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but you must book. So phone Canberra 277 5023. On weekdays you can also visit the Senate rose gardens around old Parliament House. There are also concerts on 28 and 29 September.

And next Monday, at lunchtime, there'll be an address by Senator John Button on his role as Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Well, until next week, it's goodbye from the Ring the Bells team of Jenny Hutchison, Jim Trail and Harvey Conroy.