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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 642

Dr JENSEN (11:41 AM) —As we are debating the Aviation Legislation Amendment (2008 Measures No. 2) Bill 2008, I thought it would be opportune, given the events of yesterday and last night, to give some idea of what $42 billion means in aviation terms. In aviation terms, $42 billion could have funded the entire A380 program twice over. We could have gone from the initial design phase right through to the first flight of an aircraft for half the amount of money contained in the package put up last night.

Having said that, this bill relates specifically to aviation security. As is said, the price of security is eternal vigilance. We are all familiar with that saying, although its origins are subject to dispute. However, this message has stood the test of time, and it is on that basis that I commend this bill, which builds on the work that we did when in government to make Australia a safer and more secure country.

Central to this amendment bill is the extension of the authority to delegate powers from the Secretary to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government to senior officials in his office and to heads of other agencies, who, in turn, may delegate to senior subordinates. I applaud this measure, which should ensure that Australia is never caught short of responsible decision makers to deal with any crisis in our skies. Key among these powers is the authority to order a plane to land at a specific airport with the objective of determining whether the aircraft remains under civil control or in fact has been hijacked.

There should be none among us today who cannot recall with chilling clarity the events of September 11 2001. Indeed, the fear of terrorists looms large over all air travellers. We have been fortunate in Australia not to fall victim to such cowardly attacks. Whether this has been by chance, by effective security measures or by a combination of both, we certainly cannot ever afford to become complacent. Several recent court cases have demonstrated that there are still some in our midst who would wish us harm and, given the opportunity, no doubt would like to mimic the savagery of the loathsome September 11 murderers. We should hold our security forces in the highest regard for their success in safeguarding Australia, but we must also accept that there will always be elements in our society who, like wild dogs, will seek to turn on us for reasons comprehended only by their diseased minds.

Our government under John Howard made great strides in establishing systems and procedures to boost aviation security in Australia, and it is heartening to see the current government adopting so many of our initiatives. I trust that it will not stop at such protective measures and will instead step up the fight against the enemies of Australian democracy, whether within or outside our borders. The al-Qaeda breeding grounds of Pakistan and Afghanistan are still churning out militants, and the West’s military action there needs to be stepped up in the absence of a strong-willed regime in Kabul. Tension still simmers in the Middle East, and we would be derelict in our duties if we assumed that the relative calm in Iraq is necessarily here to stay. And, of course, there is always potential for home-grown malcontents to launch strikes against Australia, with aviation always being a prime target. While we must keep in mind the rights and freedoms of our citizens, it is essential that we never give an inch to our enemies and that we prepare for all possible scenarios. This bill is a step in ensuring that state of readiness is in place.

The bill also raises sensible measures to protect air passengers in other ways. State access to anonymous security-screening information from airlines for the purposes of planning and assessment is perfectly sensible. The key word here is ‘anonymous’. Security measures taken by airlines, both at airports and in the sky, are intended to protect us all. In fact, if we think the measures that we have in place in Australia are somewhat inconvenient, I am certainly reminded of a flight that I took with El Al to Israel and the security-screening procedures that they had in place. They have obviously learned from bitter experience just how vulnerable air transport can be. Certainly, I remember sitting there waiting for the security screening when one lady was called by one of the security people, who was pulling on the rubber gloves. That is the extent to which El Al goes in terms of security screening. I am not advocating that we go to that extent in Australia, but it is indicative of when circumstances are such that that level of security is necessary. That certainly does provide that security, particularly when one looks at the record of El Al since the events of the 1970s which necessitated those very stringent security procedures. Basically, they have had no incidents since then. As I have said, certainly the screening can be inconvenient, but most accept that this price is worth paying for some peace of mind. We would not be so accommodating if such measures were used to collate data about individuals for use by government. I trust the airlines also see that this is in the best interests of all concerned.

Similarly, the measure in this bill to allow the copying of recordings and the examination of cockpit voice recorders, primarily to ensure they are functioning effectively, makes complete sense. Indeed, the current practice is that the cockpit voice recorder has to be removed from the aircraft, taken to another facility, tested to see if it is working and then put back in the aircraft. This clearly is inefficient when it would be very easy simply to record the cockpit voice recorder to see whether the recording is, in fact, working. One wonders why the issue of recording of the cockpit voice recorder should even be an issue. When pilots and other crew are on duty, we would hope that they are concentrating on the job at hand rather than worrying about conversations that they might have had that might embarrass them later on.

Bus drivers and taxi drivers are subject to public scrutiny in the execution of their duties. There is no reason pilots should be treated differently, and perhaps every reason they should not. After all, we place our lives in their hands. Indeed, having worked in the air traffic control system in the early 1980s, I know that certainly everything that was said on air was recorded. The last point about placing our lives in pilots’ hands gets to the very point of this bill—that by its very nature the aviation sector assumes great responsibility and so must accept a high degree of accountability.

As with terrorism, Australia has never had a major jet disaster. Again, this could be due to luck, good safety procedures, maintenance and training or a combination of these factors. The latter seems most likely. It is in the interests of all parties, not least the travelling public, that this fine record continue. The bill makes provision for penalties for airlines and airline staff who fail to provide information, particularly regarding accidents or other safety incidents—and quite rightly so.

When Australians step onto a plane, as tens of millions do every year, they deserve to know that it has not been damaged, that it has been properly maintained and that the airline and regulatory authorities are confident it is safe to fly. In fact, the provision of jail terms for those who fail to provide such information would almost seem too light. The restriction on charges being brought within 12 months for lesser offences appears too short given the stated admission by the government that it can take years for evidence of failure to comply with regulations to emerge.

The standard of six years to bring charges which would apply to more serious offences attracting jail terms of more than six months seems far more appropriate for all such breaches. None of this is intended to malign airlines, pilots or any other employees involved in the maintenance or operation of aircraft. They, and particularly pilots, enjoy a position of great respect in our society. As with other positions commanding respect, they also enjoy our trust. There is no harm in returning the favour to the society which holds them in such esteem by operating transparently, if only to assuage the fears that are held about air travel.

Cooperation with regulatory authorities in this regard will also allow greater preparedness to deal with safety issues in the future and help maintain that fine safety record. In the 2006-07 financial year there were 67.4 million air passengers in Australia—22.1 million on international flights and 45.3 million on domestic routes including regional connections. These numbers are forecast to continue, particularly given the appearance of an increasing number of budget carriers and despite the financial crisis.

Last October set a new monthly record, with more than two million international passengers—up 1.3 per cent from the same month the previous year. It should also be noted that in the same period there was a decline in passenger loads, with planes flying with an average of 76.9 per cent load factor from 79.5 per cent in October 2007. This has been attributed to the increasing number of airlines operating in Australia, leading to stiff competition and increased pressure on profit margins.

In 2006-07 there were more than a million passenger flights in Australia, more than 130,000 of them on international routes. As the skies become more crowded in our vast country it is inevitable there will be aviation safety and security issues. This bill will help minimise such incidents and maintain a system designed to address problems and prevent their recurrence when they do occur. It is a step in the right direction and we must all remain vigilant for the sake of ourselves and our fellow citizens.