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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 14989

Mr BAIRD (12:41 PM) —I rise to speak to report 30 of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and concur with the chairman's comments and also commend the chairman for his outstanding leadership of the committee. I wish to focus my remarks on section 5 of this report, which deals with the denunciation of the Convention on Damage Caused by Foreign Aircraft to Third Parties on the Surface, 1952, or the Rome convention. Some 52 per cent of all aircraft taking off from Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport pass over my electorate, and my constituents take a special interest in the nature of this particular agreement. It is a little different from others, and we are denouncing a particular convention.

This convention, to which Australia has been a signatory for over 40 years, has failed in its primary objective, which has been the provision of uniformity in the compensation of the victims of damage caused by foreign aircraft. One in four of the member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, are subject to this convention, which puts Australia at a significant disadvantage, even more so when one compares the safety standards of Ansett and Qantas with some overseas international carriers. This convention is not one to which countries are flocking to sign and ratify. It is largely seen as outdated, having been drafted to protect a developing aviation industry post World War II, which at the time comprised airlines that could not sustain sizeable payouts. In denouncing this convention, we follow other countries like Canada which have denounced the Rome convention for exactly the same reasons the Australian government's treaties committee recommends in this report.

The government believes that this convention lets airlines off too lightly with regard to their legal obligations to the victims of aviation accidents. A compensation limit of only $36 million is likely to be grossly insufficient should a large plane ever crash in an Australian metropolitan centre. Of course, the vulnerability of my own electorate makes us pay particular attention to this, and of course this convention, drafted at a time when we did not have the current round of jumbo jets flying regularly into Kingsford Smith. So it is particularly important that we are not party to the provisions of the old 1952 agreement, and both of our large carriers, Ansett and Qantas, support the treaties committee's decision on that.

Denunciation of this convention to the ICAO by the government brings into force the Damage by Aircraft Act 1999. This act replaces the Civil Aviation (Damage to Aircraft) Act 1958, through which Australia has complied with the Rome convention since 1959. So we are not just leaving it out there; we are bringing forward the Damage by Aircraft Act 1999 which substantially increases the penalties involved, and that is more appropriate in line with recommendations from Canada.

Following a six-month period following notification to the ICAO, it will be up to the courts to decide what level of compensation to innocent third parties on the ground suffering death, injury or property damage will be appropriate. As the member for an electorate in close proximity to Kingsford Smith, it is very clear that in one accident you could have hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to property alone, without considering the human loss, if a large aircraft did crash in that area.

We are particularly pleased that the government has legislated in the meantime to stop damage by aircraft in one critical area in particular. Through the Air Navigation (Fuel Spillage) Regulations 1999, penalties have been set for the jettisoning of fuel during flight. In an emergency, air traffic control can give permission for fuel dumping over areas where such dumping would not create a hazard. If during inspection it is found that an aircraft will dump fuel, it can be grounded and also penalties of up to $13,750 will apply for any illegal release of fuel in flight. That has happened quite a number of times. The airline Evergreen has been caught on five occasions. People in my electorate are very sensitive to that.

I commend the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, John Anderson, for his efforts in this regard and for his sensitivity to the issues. I also commend the government for bringing forward the legislation. I for one, as a member of this committee, am very pleased to see the government's legislation in this area.