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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 5270

Senator BARNETT (7:54 PM) —I rise tonight as a mark of respect for the victims of the Airlines of PNG Twin Otter crash one week ago today, on 11 August, along and near the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. For the nine Australians among the 13 people on that flight, it was understandably an experience of a lifetime that turned to tragedy. The nine Australians were: Max Cranwell, 66, a dairy farmer from Hazelwood North, Victoria; Leanne Harris, 35, the daughter of Max Cranwell and a mother of two from Traralgon; Matthew Leonard, 28, a Victorian fireman and part-time tour guide; Kelly Weire, from Melbourne; Peter Holliday, 28, from Bendigo, a Bendigo Bank manager; Euan Comrie, chairman of Mo-Artz theatre and cousin of Peter Holliday; Hannah Kinross, from Belgrave South; Dr June Canavan, from Maroochydore, a sports medicine doctor; and Keith Gracie, from the Sunshine Coast, a close friend of Dr Canavan, a construction company owner and father of two. I pay tribute to them. I place on record that my thoughts and prayers, along with those of many Australians, are with the families and friends of the victims during this time of great sadness and loss. The Senate unanimously passed a condolence motion last week. The senators here were proud of that moment as we acted for, and on behalf of, our constituents and our communities throughout every part of Australia.

I also place on record my sympathy, thoughts and prayers for the families and friends of the PNG nationals who died in the crash, including the pilots, and the local Kokoda residents. On Wednesday, 12 August, the day after the tragic accident, I was invited to an event at the High Commission of Papua New Guinea. I shared my personal condolence with the high commissioner, Charles Lepani, his wife and others. At the function, attended also by the Hon. Peter Garrett, we had a moment’s silence in honour of the victims of this plane crash and tragedy. I also met a relative of one of the PNG victims and the sadness struck home. It was a sombre occasion. I want to commend the government for the rescue and repatriation efforts to date.

In April last year, together with a group of 17 other trekkers, I walked the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. The trek was organised to honour the diggers who stopped the Japanese advance on Port Moresby in 1942 and to raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund. We raised over $165,000. I place on record my specific thanks to Sam McCardel of Melbourne for his tremendous fundraising and marketing efforts to gain those funds for the JDRF. Thank you, Sam.

After eight days of heavy trekking, our plane out of Kokoda to Port Moresby was three hours late. It was a small Airlines of PNG Twin Otter, identical to that which tragically crashed in the highland jungles of PNG just last week. The plane took off from a grass airstrip amidst mountainous terrain, with 20 trekkers and crew on board. Our party included Tasmanian veterans Ivan Dean, MLC, and Bruce Scott, the Scottsdale RSL President. After take-off, the plane had to spiral upwards to gain enough height to get over the Owen Stanley Range, the mountains, and back to Port Moresby. The variable weather conditions and geography of the mountains mean that flights in and out of Kokoda are nearly always an unnerving experience. But there is no other way. Every trekker who walks the Kokoda Track must take the flight either into or out of Kokoda.

The Kokoda Track Authority says that in 2001 only 76 people registered to walk the track. By last year, there were 5,621, mostly Australians, who completed the onerous 96 kilometre journey with a permit. A further 1,000 walkers are estimated to have taken the trip without a permit. The Flight Safety Foundation’s statistics for aircraft accidents in Papua New Guinea states that there have been 98 accidents, with 31 fatalities, since 1 January 2000. This includes the tragic 11 August crash last week. By comparison, during this same period, Australia has had 16 accidents, resulting in 17 fatalities.

It has been reported that the International Civil Aviation Organisation is currently conducting an audit of matters pertaining to air safety in PNG. The same report states that 19 of the accidents since 2000 have not been investigated. Previous ICAO audits have pointed out the lack of proper crash investigation in PNG as well as serious failings in the licensing regime. A proper Air Accident Commission was only established in PNG in 2008, but there have been criticisms about slow progress in investigating the backlog of air accidents. Further criticisms have been made of the quality and condition of the runway at Kokoda. The simple grass airstrip only allows smaller aircraft to land. Smaller aircraft have to approach at a lower altitude and therefore more frequently fly closer to the mountains than would be the case for larger aircraft at higher altitudes. Therefore, it is a greater safety risk. In my view, the airstrips should be upgraded, and the Australian government can play a part in making this happen.

It is not just the aviation standards in PNG that are a cause for concern for trekkers. Last year three Australians died undertaking the trek. While all deaths were the result of natural causes, questions remain regarding the safety of the track and the trek. Last year alone, dozens of trekkers were airlifted out after sustaining injuries or failing to meet the level of fitness required to complete the trek. During my eight-day trek there were five medi-evacuations. The 96-kilometre track is now one of PNG’s biggest tourist attractions, but concerns are being raised about the huge but unregulated trekking industry that has grown out of Kokoda. There are over 60 different tour operators that reportedly make an estimated $50 million per year by charging an average of $4,000 per trekker. There are no mandatory minimum industry standards to regulate first aid or medical expertise, insurance cover or the experience of guides and porters. There are no set guidelines for the number of people in each tour group or the necessary communications equipment.

Australian tour operators have recognised that there is indeed a need to create some form of guidelines to ensure the safety of trekkers, to preserve the heritage of the area and to protect and support the local communities. I commend the Australian tour operators who have taken the initiative by drafting a code of conduct. Under the vision that the Kokoda Track will be a premier tourism destination catering for the requirements of a niche market to experience the adventure, historical, environmental, cultural and social features of PNG in a sustainable manner, Australian tour operators have prepared a comprehensive draft for a Kokoda Track Code of Conduct 2009. Tour operators who agree to comply with the code of conduct agree to adhere to the Kokoda Track Authority rules, guidelines and procedures to ensure sustainable trekking operations, limiting the number of trekkers, if required, and paying the appropriate fees.

I will not go through all the aspects of the code, but I have the draft code with me. It relates to promoting sustainable tourism along the Kokoda Track; promoting the unique heritage of the area, especially its military history and culture; promoting responsible tourist behaviour; minimising impacts on the natural environment through best practice; supporting local communities; promoting excellence; and exercising a duty of care to clients and staff and so on. I commend it. It is an excellent document. Under the proposal, the code of conduct is to be monitored by the Kokoda Track Authority and to be annually reviewed to ensure that it remains relevant, effective and up to date.

I believe the code of conduct needs to be finalised and implemented as a matter of urgency. The federal government should intervene and, with the Kokoda Track Authority, ensure that this code of conduct is implemented. Trekkers also need to be assured of full disclosure of the dangers that they face, in order to make an informed decision before embarking on the trek. This code of conduct will go a long way to ensuring that proper standards and safety are a high priority. At the same time, more needs to be done to ensure that the risks are reduced, including the upgrading of the Kokoda airstrip, which remains substandard. That would be an excellent initiative.

I say that there is more still to be done. Senator McEwen earlier made reference to the fuzzy wuzzy angels. As the sponsor, together with Senator McGauran, of a Senate motion on 24 June last year to recognise the fuzzy wuzzy angels, which was supported by senators across the board, I am pleased to note that PNG nationals have been officially recognised. It has come 67 years late, but it is never too late. But what has not happened is the ex-gratia payment that the government agreed to in that Senate motion. I have written to the relevant minister, Minister Kelly, to ask for a response from the government, to ensure consideration and recognition of the appropriate initiatives, including making a small ex-gratia payment to each fuzzy wuzzy angel in recognition of their contribution over and above the call of duty. I think that is important. I thank the Senate.