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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 633

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (11:01 AM) —I would like to begin my remarks on the Aviation Legislation Amendment (2008 Measures No. 2) Bill 2008 with a couple of general comments about the importance of the aviation sector. The aviation industry has a long and proud history in this country and has played a vital role in the development of our nation. The efforts of aviation pioneers like Charles Kingsford-Smith, Bert Hinkler and Reverend John Flynn, through his work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, did a great deal to bring Australians closer to the world beyond our shores and to provide much-needed services, especially in regional Australia. Some of these great pioneers have been commemorated in the names of electorates of members of parliament. It recognises something of our proud aviation history.

Today I would like particularly to pay tribute to one of our remarkable aviation pioneers, Nancy Bird Walton, who passed away last month. Nancy was an extraordinary woman, an extraordinary pilot, an adventurer, a businesswoman and a humanitarian, and the nation is certainly the poorer for her passing. In her autobiography she writes that when she was 17 she had saved up £200 and told her father that she wanted to start flying lessons at Mascot. He disapproved very strongly, saying that he could not afford to waste money keeping a crippled daughter and that her mother would be very upset if she were to be injured. Nancy Bird Walton wrote: ‘Because I was one of six children I thought my parents could well afford to take the risk with one.’

Despite continuing arguments she held firm to her decision and, of course, she was taught by the legendary Charles Kingsford-Smith and created her own legend in becoming the youngest woman to gain a pilots licence and the first woman to have a commercial pilots licence. She obtained that commercial pilots licence essentially to set up a flying medical service. She was a pilot for the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme for a number of years and certainly brought health care to people in the outback where otherwise it would not have been provided.

She was successful in air races, trained other women pilots and was involved in charity work. It was fitting that in 1997 she was named an Australian National Treasure. She was a champion for Australian aviation and particularly for Qantas. She had very strong views on most issues and gave no quarter. She forcefully put those views whenever the opportunity arose. She regarded it as unthinkable that any Australian government would allow competition to Qantas—she had a great love of Qantas—and in particular held the view that there should be no competition for Qantas on international routes such as across the Pacific.

As a new transport minister I attended her 90th birthday party at Sydney airport. During a long and riveting speech she declared that there had never been a decent aviation minister in the history of Australia. I told her that I thought that was a pretty harsh judgment since I had been in the job for only two months. With all due respect to me and my successors as transport minister, I think she died with the same view. I was delighted to be present when Qantas named its first A380 aircraft in her honour and to fly with her on its naming flight. She was rightly very proud of the honour that Qantas had bestowed upon her and said publicly that when she learned of Qantas’s decision she was determined to stay alive long enough for this naming ceremony to occur. It is entirely appropriate that her name should adorn the biggest passenger aircraft flying the Australian flag.

Nancy Bird Walton founded the Australian Women Pilots Association in 1950 and was its president and patroness for decades. She took great pride in seeing the success and acceptance of women in aviation. Indeed, her biography is as much a chronicle of the history of the success of women in aviation as anything else. She was very proud of the achievements of women and the acceptance of women right through the full range of aviation careers, which takes me back to the title that she chose for her autobiography: My God, It’s a Woman. Those were the words of a well-known Queensland grazier, Charlie Russell, who made that exclamation when he discovered that the pilot who had been chartered to rescue him from floodwaters on a marooned property was, in fact, a female. Indeed it was a woman, a remarkable woman, a great Australian. The aviation sector is the less for losing this wonderful woman, who was really a pioneer for women in aviation in Australia.

I wrote to John Walton, Nancy’s son, at the time of her funeral. He wrote back to me and said:

… so many of the public in the streets, that stood and applauded and waved… we are a wonderful country, that love so much, that there are people like this, I think there is just no way to thank them all, possibly in a statement from you, in your situation you can use this.

So I take this opportunity today to acknowledge Nancy Bird Walton, her contribution to aviation and her family, who stood beside her and knew her as quite a remarkable woman.

I mentioned that I was at her 90th birthday party. I am told, although I cannot verify it, that after the party she spent the rest of the night at the nightclubs of Sydney. She was quite a remarkable woman. She gave me this copy of her autobiography when she came to my electorate to open a show. The early parts of her career were spent barnstorming around little country towns. Even though she was a city girl, she was very familiar with life in the most remote parts of Australia.

Since the early years of these aviation pioneers first flying beyond our shores, aviation has come to play an increasingly important role in bringing the world to Australia and bringing Australia to the world. Being an island, Australia is uniquely dependent upon aviation to maintain our transport links to the outside world. A century ago, the only way to arrive in Australia was by boat. How things have changed. In 2007-08 Australian airports saw international passenger traffic of over 23 million people. This represents a gain of five per cent over the previous years. A significant proportion of these passengers are international tourists. The over 5.6 million short-term international visitors represented a valuable contribution to the overall economy through the tourism sector. Additionally, the air cargo industry plays an important role in the economy. In 2007-08 international air freight traffic totalled over 780,000 tonnes. Both inbound and outbound air traffic have shown increases in recent years. Overall, aviation contributed over $6.3 billion to the Australian economy in 2007 and employed nearly 50,000 people directly. A significant proportion of that was in the regions.

With the challenging economic times confronting us, the aviation industry will find it difficult over the years ahead. In fact, it is one of the first to feel the impact of a downturn internationally. We can expect to see, and we are already noticing, a downturn in the arrivals of passengers, therefore reductions in flights and, inevitably, loss of employment in the industry. Ours is a big country with such long distances to cover and so few people that aviation fills a critical gap in places where road or rail transport is not available or the distances are too great. It would be impossible for this parliament to function as effectively as it does in this age without aviation—without the capacity of members to fly quickly and conveniently in and out of Canberra or wherever else we may need to be.

The aviation sector also makes a significant contribution to other industries, particularly in rural and regional areas. The tyranny of distance poses very significant and very real challenges that are not faced by those who live in the cities. Often the only way to get in and out of a country town or to make contact with the rest of the world or to travel for medical purposes is through the use of aviation. There are three million passenger movements and millions of shipments made by the air cargo industry in and out of the bush.

Aside from its role in supporting economic development in the regions, the aviation sector also plays an important role in delivering essential services in remote areas—services like the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which is a vital public good ensuring that communities most in need of medical services are not forgotten. In this day and age when country hospitals have been downgraded or closed to such an extent, we find that the most important facility in even the quite large regional hospitals is the helipad to fly people who are really sick to the nearest larger hospital or capital city. Aviation plays a vital role there. The RFDS performed nearly 36,000 aeromedical evacuations, attended to over 260,000 patients and flew over 23 million kilometres in the year to June 2008. Other aeromedical services like NRMA’s CareFlight, Angel Flight and others provide vital access to critical medical services for people, especially those in remote areas. So a robust aviation sector is vital to overcome the isolation felt in regional areas and to ensure a good quality of life in the bush.

Many regional communities are dependent upon air services to help their local economies and to relieve the pressures that geographic isolation can bring. Unfortunately, the aviation sector, particularly in regional areas, is now facing many challenges and that has become especially evident over recent weeks. Some communities have experienced a total loss of air services. Recently MacAir, a major supplier of services in regional Queensland, went into voluntary receivership, stranding passengers in particularly western Queensland and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Similarly, Rex Aviation recently announced that it would terminate smaller routes linking Dubbo to Bourke, Cobar, Coonamble, Lightning Ridge and Walgett and also the Mudgee to Sydney run, citing spiralling costs and ever-increasing regulatory requirements and also the government’s decision to terminate the en route navigation subsidy scheme. As a result, the short flight from Dubbo and Lightning Ridge is now a four-hour drive.

If road links were cut into a town, you could be assured that governments—state, federal and local—would take action to make sure they were kept open. For some isolated communities, air links are just as critical. In some states, such as Queensland, the state government does provide some subsidies to enable air services to be provided in remote communities. The federal government provides some support to enable mail services to go to remote areas, such as the Gulf of Carpentaria and Aboriginal communities. These services simply could not operate without that kind of support. Other state governments do nothing at all. There is no support to provide air services to these remote communities. I think it ought to be seen as an essential community service that there is some kind of basic capacity for people to travel from little remote towns to their cities for medical, education or other purposes.

So I appeal to the federal government and to the state governments to do what they can to make sure that the little country towns of Australia—which are sometimes 400, 500, 600, 1,000 or 2,000 kilometres from their capital cities—have some way of connecting promptly and efficiently with the rest of the world at a reasonable cost. It is important for us to ensure that the aviation sector can continue to contribute to the economic base of regional communities and reduce the isolation that those people face.

Since coming to office, the new government has imposed higher costs and cost burdens on the aviation sector and those who use its services. In his first budget, the Treasurer increased the passenger movement charge from $38 to $47 and at first went so far as to apply this tax hike retrospectively to tickets that had already been sold. That is an extra cost to airlines, travel agents, tourism operators and the flying public, and it hits the aviation industry at a time when it is already struggling with rising costs and an uncertain environment.

Now there is the looming threat of a strike by air traffic controllers. I certainly hope that nobody in this House wants to see the disruption and chaos that that sort of industrial action brings. The union that controls the workers in the air traffic control system is currently conducting a ballot on industrial action. It is demanding huge pay increases. Everybody knows that they have a responsible position and we expect them to be well paid and for their conditions to be reasonable, but some of the demands that are being made are way beyond what can be tolerated even in good economic times. They are certainly beyond the capacity of the sector to bear during difficult circumstances. Yet air traffic controllers are threatening to disrupt the aviation industry, perhaps as soon as a week or two away.

I would be happy to support any initiative by the minister if he has a sensible plan to avert the potential crisis facing the Australian aviation sector if it is essentially grounded as a result of this industrial action. In particular I urge him not to forget the plight of regional communities that depend so heavily upon the sector when he seeks to resolve the situation. If the Flying Doctor and other essential services are not able to access the capital cities, that will place a serious burden on the health services of the nation but it will also disrupt our economy. The government is spending billions of dollars in stimulus packages, but I can tell you that a nationwide air strike would be a serious deflation to our economy and would reduce its capacity to sustain itself or to recover. I appeal therefore to the workers in that sector to behave reasonably and for everybody involved to negotiate on a reasonable package. We need to ensure that there are no unnecessary interruptions to aviation services.

It is incumbent upon all of us also to ensure that the regulatory regime under which the sector operates is as effective and efficient as possible. There are things that can be done to make the industry work well. Sometimes it is difficult to make judgments about how much additional regulation needs to be imposed to ensure the safety and security of passengers who are using the system. One of the great attributes of Australian aviation is its safety record, particularly in the commercial passenger fleet. We want to ensure that continues because that is why people have confidence when flying around Australia. So it is absolutely essential that we maintain and hold on to that enviable safety and security record.

It will be a difficult judgment as to how much extra cost is imposed to pick up that last element of additional safety. No-one wants to compromise on safety. It is impossible to mount an argument in favour of any kinds of compromises on safety issues, but on the other hand we also have to keep our aviation system economically sustainable. Sometimes if you impose additional costs, it leads to shortcuts elsewhere and that compromises safety in different places. So we need to manage the safety regime in Australia vigorously, we need to be certain that our operators have a culture of safety, but we also need to work cooperatively with them to achieve this vision that Australian aviation will operate without incident day in, day out, year after year, so that passengers are able to reach their destination safely and on time.

With these kinds of general views in mind, I am more than happy to lend the support of the opposition to the Aviation Legislation Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008. It contains a number of initiatives and the opposition is happy to support them all. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the coalition in government undertook major new initiatives to improve aviation security in Australia. The Aviation Transport Security Act 2004 involved the aviation industry participants in maintaining aviation security and required them to develop and comply with a transport security program. This legislation also strengthened the regulatory framework surrounding aviation security and provided the flexibility necessary to respond to a rapidly changing air security environment. Additionally, the coalition introduced the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 which required incidents related to transport safety to be reported and laid out a framework for the lodging of reports and the investigation of transport safety incidents.

Over the years, a wide array of actions by the previous government expanded the aviation security apparatus in Australia. Since September 2001 at least $1.2 billion has been spent to enhance aviation security. We expanded the screening of passengers and checked baggage to ensure consistent security screening treatment of all passengers and baggage carried on jet aircraft departing from anywhere in Australia. Additional funding was provided to improve security in the air cargo industry. The coalition also created the Air Security Officer Program in December 2001, which placed so-called ‘sky marshals’ on selected domestic and international flights. There is growing concern that the new government is winding back the sky marshals program. When I asked about this in February last year, Labor refused to provide any assurances that funding for this program would be maintained. Indeed, one government minister has been quoted as saying that the number of sky marshals is to be cut by one-third.

The sky marshals program is a valuable program and it is worth fully supporting. I call on the government to stop playing fast and loose with the lives of the flying public to save a few dollars in the name of economies. The reality is that this is a program about which not great details are known. I respect the fact that its capacity to work effectively is enhanced because passengers do not actually know for certain whether or not a sky marshal is on their plane. But any measures that the government is taking to reduce this program and to cut the number of operators I would view with grave alarm. I call on the government to make a public commitment to this program and to guarantee that there has been no winding back and that there will be no winding back of the number of sky marshals supporting the Australian aviation sector. Australian skies are undoubtedly much safer than they have ever been. This bill will continue the work that was started by those on this side of the House to ensure that we have a secure aviation sector in the years ahead.

Amending the Aviation Transport Security Act to expand the range of information that the government department is able to collect is a reasonable next step in ensuring that aviation security is as effective and efficient as possible for all parties. In addition to monitoring compliance with the act, the department will be able to gather information that would enable them to make more informed decisions on security matters. As the challenges facing aviation security change, it is important that our response adapts and that we have the database and the information necessary to make informed decisions. Ensuring that the measures taken to ensure the safety of Australian skies are as effective as possible and do not impose undue costs on industry players is of paramount importance. Those on this side of the House are happy to do what we can to facilitate this course.

The key to these new powers, however, will be the scope of the information to be collected. The government has given an assurance that it will consult effectively with aviation industry participants before the supporting regulations are in fact promulgated. I want to assure the industry participants that we will also be subjecting these regulations to intense scrutiny to ensure that they are fair and reasonable.

The amendment permitting the secretary to the department to delegate his authority is also a sensible step towards ensuring that the government is able to respond to emergencies in a timely fashion. Thankfully Australia has had a relatively peaceful record when it comes to aviation security. This is due in no small part to the vigilance of those charged with ensuring a secure environment in the skies and the actions of past governments from both sides of politics over the years. Still, it would be imprudent to discount the possibility of an emergency situation arising in the future. If such an emergency were to occur, the demands on the secretary would be immense and, in a rapidly developing situation, action may be required without delay.

Current legislation allows the secretary to delegate his authority under the act to another officer within the department. This legislation would enable the secretary to delegate his authority to an officer in another department with national security responsibilities. Of course such a delegation would not be taken lightly. The secretary would still retain overall authority under the proposed legislation and could set restrictions on the delegation or withdraw it when the emergency passed. These amendments would ensure that if Australian skies faced a prolonged emergency, whether it were a preplanned situation or not, our aviation security apparatus would not be left in a position where decisions vital to the national economy and security could not be made.

The amendments allowing the copying of cockpit voice recorder information for testing and maintenance purposes are another move that will receive bipartisan support. This proposal is the result of a recommendation from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation into the tragic Lockhart River air crash in 2005. The cockpit voice recorder on that crashed aircraft was found to be faulty. As a result, no audio recovered from the recorder could be confirmed as having been recorded during the accident flight. The bill will clear up any doubt that the copying of cockpit voice recorder information for maintenance is permissible and enable these kinds of faults to be discovered and dealt with more easily. It is quite an interesting case study. Everyone believes it is important that the privacy of personal information on the cockpit voice recorders should be respected. But I think it was always taking the intent of the legislation too far to suggest that that meant it could not be copied for maintenance and other such purposes. It seems as though that excuse was being used and this legislation will ensure that that will not happen in the future.

Finally, the changes proposed to the reporting of aviation incidents and the penalties associated with the failure to report such incidents is another idea that we will support. Allowing the executive director of transport safety investigation to require further information after receiving a report on an immediately reportable matter or a routine reportable matter will ensure that the accident and incident database contains accurate and sufficient information on each IRM and RRM. The penalty for failing to report an IRM will be raised to 12 months imprisonment and as a result will bypass the statute of limitations and mean there is no limit to when a prosecution can be instigated. Currently under the Crimes Act prosecutions must occur within one year. It can take many years for unreported incidents to be discovered and as a result these breaches cannot be prosecuted. Additionally under the proposed legislation, failing to provide a full written report of an IRM or an RRM will attract a penalty of six months imprisonment and prosecution could begin at any time within six years of the offence. In the case of the Lockhart River air crash in 2005, the failure to report RRMs was not discovered until many years after the alleged commission of the offences. Failing to report IRMs and RRMs can be indicative of a culture that gives safety a low priority and it is important to deter such a culture. Increasing penalties for failing to report or provide full details regarding aviation incidents will maintain this deterrence.

Since 11 September 2001, aviation security in Australia has gone through drastic changes in a short time. These changes were necessary in order to secure Australian skies. Given Australia’s record in aviation security, we may conclude that the changes we made have been effective. I do appreciate that the legitimate demands of aviation security have at times imposed cost and inconvenience on both the industry and the flying public. We appreciate the understanding and cooperation that there has been. The legislation will build on the strong foundations left by the previous government and enables us to maintain a solid aviation security apparatus in an efficient and effective way.