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Wednesday, 28 May 2008
Page: 3644


Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (10:24 AM) —The Sydney Airport Demand Management Amendment Bill 2008 makes some technical changes, including changes to the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act 1997, to ensure the slot management regime at Sydney airport is robust. The framework that has successfully managed aircraft demand at Australia’s busiest airport is provided by the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act 1997. This legislation, as members in this place are no doubt well aware, was implemented by the previous coalition government early in its first term, arising from its 1996 election promise that aircraft movements at Sydney airport should be capped at 80 per hour. It is worth noting that in the long years of the previous Labor government no such effort had been made to manage aircraft demand at Sydney airport. It took a coalition government to do it.

On this point, I note with some amusement that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government in his second reading speech made the somewhat bizarre claim that the management scheme operating at Sydney airport is a result of the private member’s bill that he introduced in 1996. We are used to some people on the opposite side attempting to rewrite history and claim the coalition’s initiatives as their own. We have seen this, for example, in the minister’s trumpeting of a media release on 31 March in regard to the so-called open skies agreement with the United States. The opposition certainly acknowledges the benefits of an agreement that permits Australian and US owned airlines to fly freely between the two countries. We particularly welcome the initiative, flowing from that agreement, from the Virgin Blue group to launch daily direct Los Angeles to Sydney flights. It is the first step in opening up a key air route to greater competition. That agreement flowed out of the considerable effort put in by the previous government to liberalise our air services agreement with the United States, and I welcome the fact that the incoming government continued that work and then brought it to fruition.

The minister has been a constant critic of the activities of Sydney airport. I appreciate that his electorate surrounds Sydney airport so he has a right to have an interest in what is essentially a very domestic issue for him. Because he has been such a critic of operations I was naturally a little suspicious when one of the very first pieces of legislation that the government brought into the House was in relation to managing aircraft movements at Sydney airport. So I have looked at the legislation inside out and upside down to see whether this was some kind of a trick to reduce aircraft movements into Sydney or to extend the curfew periods in a way that might advantage the minister’s electorate but disadvantage all other Australians. I have discussed it also with Sydney airport and the airlines, and I guess I am satisfied that this is just a simple piece of legislation correcting an error in definitions and that the impact on airline movements, the airlines, the airport and the people who live near Sydney airport is essentially unchanged. For that reason the opposition will essentially be supporting the legislation.

It is also important to note that this particular legislation arises from the Australian National Audit Office report entitled The implementation of the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act 1997. As I said earlier, the act is the framework that regulates the scheduling of aircraft movements at Sydney airport and it has been in operation since the very first years of the previous coalition government. It is fair to say that the arrangements have worked quite well, but a technical deficiency has been identified between the definition used in the slot management system and the one used in the legislation. After 10 years the Auditor-General has uncovered an error, and that certainly needs to be corrected.

There are a number of key issues surrounding Sydney airport, and I am sure they will be the subject of quite a deal of the debate on this legislation. Sydney airport is Australia’s most important international gateway. It has the lion’s share of our international air traffic. It is a popular choice for new airlines coming into Australia and indeed Qantas and other Australian airlines that undertake services to other parts of the world. People from other states are often critical that airlines are choosing to operate in and out of Sydney rather than Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth. I have some sympathy with that criticism. I think that some of the airlines have become Sydney-centric. It is important that they look carefully at the economics of operating services out of other cities, like Melbourne and Brisbane, where there is less congestion and less pressure on the airport and where the opportunities are quite substantial.

Labor have been ducking the hard decisions about Sydney airport. I can hardly believe the number of inquiries and reviews that the government are undertaking. Plainly they cannot make any of the hard decisions. It is quite staggering that, after 11 years in opposition, all the government can do after gaining office is commission a whole stack of reviews. It is a symptom of a government that is devoid of ideas: when in doubt, call a review; when wanting to delay a difficult decision, call a review.

That is why I was not surprised to note the announcement of the minister on 10 April this year of his intention to develop a national aviation policy statement. This will lead to a national aviation policy green paper, to be released at a nebulous date later this year. I note with interest the minister has released an issues paper as a guide to industry in the development of this statement. This issues paper includes, in the second chapter entitled ‘Airport planning and development’, a section called ‘Future airport needs’. In that section is a sentence that refers to the need for ‘additional airport capacity for Sydney in the future’. That is of course code for a second airport for Sydney. They have had 11 years in opposition to think about this difficult policy decision but, once again, faced with a hard decision Labor go for review.

Of course, the contortions of Labor over the need for a second airport in Sydney are well known. In 2004, the member for Batman, in a burst of honesty, admitted that the debate about an additional airport in Sydney had torn the Labor Party apart for decades. I also recall this was the time that Labor proposed that a second airport should be built at Wilton or somewhere south of the Nepean River, an extraordinary proposal that would have resulted in the world’s furthest airport from a CBD—further even than Tokyo’s Narita airport, which is 64 kilometres out of the city. Neither the infrastructure requirements of such a location nor in fact that the site is a major water catchment for the Sydney region was discussed.

It seems that Labor is almost dismissing building an airport at Badgerys Creek and I have to say that I have been disappointed at the way in which the New South Wales state government has not respected the fact that this area has been set aside, essentially, for a second airport for Sydney. It has allowed infrastructure and housing and other developments to be built in a way that seriously compromises the use of this site for its intended purposes in the future. I think that Sydney does need to have effective planning for the additional airport capacity that it will need in the future. I accept that it will not be required for quite some time—probably a couple of decades—but it is almost inevitable that there will be demands for additional airport capacity in Sydney beyond what can be accommodated on the current Kingsford Smith airport site. So I think it is essential that the people of Sydney have confidence about where the airport is going to be built and that then the state and local authorities protect that site and ensure that it can eventually be used as is intended.

I note also that the issues paper observes that the 2009 review of the Sydney airport master plan provides an opportunity to consider current and further capacity issues. So, even after the review leading to a national aviation green paper, Labor is giving itself an option for another review to further consider the second airport. As I said before, I would have thought that after 11 years in opposition Labor would have made up its mind as to what it intended to do on such an essential issue, for Sydney and for Western Sydney, as where Sydney’s second airport should be, and the people of Australia certainly are awaiting with interest this decision.

Another quite extraordinary issue in relation to Sydney airport was revealed in the federal budget earlier this month. The government has decided to provide $14.5 million to a Sydney school to insulate it against aircraft noise arising from Sydney airport. Honourable members will all be aware that there has been an extensive program around Sydney airport and also Adelaide Airport to mitigate noise levels for houses affected by aircraft movements. It has been an expensive program. It has been going on for many years. It has provided insulation for hundreds and hundreds of houses and public buildings. It has been paid for by aircraft users. Every passenger arriving at or departing from Sydney airport, for example, has been meeting a share of that cost. The program was completed last year. The levy had raised sufficient funds to address the needs of all of the buildings which fell within the noise contours identified for insulation. Every one of those houses and public buildings had been insulated, and the full cost had been met.

The Fort Street High School had been running a campaign for a long time for it to be included in the insulation program, but it did not fall within the agreed noise contours. There was no argument, either from the current government or the previous government, that the noise contours chosen were appropriate. They were the international standard. They were the sorts of noise levels above which health authorities and others considered it necessary to have some kind of protection. Buildings that fell below those noise levels were excluded from the program. There was broad bipartisan agreement that that was the appropriate way to go. Similar noise levels were chosen for the program of noise mitigation around the Adelaide Airport. However, the government has decided that it is going to insulate only one building that falls outside that noise criteria.

When the current minister was in his previous role in opposition, he approached me about this issue. As the minister I looked very closely at whether it was possible to find a legitimate way in which the funding could be provided for schools and other public buildings that were outside the noise contour. However, if we were to treat everybody fairly, we would have had to have extended the noise contour to a much lower level. That would have captured thousands of additional houses and public buildings—so much so that the cost of the noise abatement program would have blown out and the levy would have to have been kept in place until 2050 to meet the costs. You could simply not justify, under any kind of international standard or on the grounds that we should have a special arrangement at Sydney that was not going to apply at Adelaide Airport or other airports around the world, extending the program to cover buildings with the noise levels of the Fort Street High School. Yet the Labor government, in its very first budget, has decided that this school is to receive $14.5 million for noise abatement work.

Guess where this school is located: in the electorate of the honourable Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. His own electorate is going to receive a $14.5 million grant to insulate a school. What about the other schools in Sydney and other places that have similar noise levels? What about buildings in Adelaide that have similar noise levels? Are they going to get funding? This looks a lot like a slush fund to me. This looks a lot like a rort to me. This is the minister that spent six months constantly complaining about grants to small country communities. He talked about regional rorts, he accused hundreds of local community organisations and volunteers of being rorters and yet, with his first test, he provides $14.5 million to have noise mitigation activities undertaken at a school in his own electorate. Who is the rorter? Who is the one that is not prepared to have the same standards applied to his electorate as are applied to other electorates around the country? This is quite an extraordinary development. On the very morning in which the minister has backed down on his refusal to fund 86 of the 116 Regional Partnerships projects that had previously been approved by the coalition government, we have the news that he is rorting a scheme so that he can fund the insulation of a school in his own electorate.

This will be great for Fort Street High School. I know that they have been campaigning on this issue for a long time. But what about all the other schools on noisy roads or near airports around Australia that will not be funded? What about the other public buildings—the churches, the aged-people’s homes and other such buildings—which would fall within the same noise contour as Fort Street High School? And what about the hundreds, probably thousands, of homes—in which people need to work, sleep and live—that also meet this criteria that will not get the benefit of the insulation program? Only one project has been chosen: Fort Street High School—and it is in the minister’s own electorate. He has a lot of explaining to do as to why he has countenanced and indeed championed this rorting of the insulation program to benefit a school in his own electorate.

The minister’s inconsistency in the way he has addressed the Regional Partnerships issue and the way he has treated a school in his own electorate exposes him to justifiable criticism as to incompetence and double standards. I hope he will provide to the parliament a satisfactory explanation for his behaviour very soon.

There are a range of other significant issues around planning for Sydney airport. As I mentioned earlier, it is an exceptionally important piece of national infrastructure. We certainly need to know that it will be managed effectively and that the owners will be able to pursue investments and construction, particularly of necessary infrastructure, in Sydney with confidence and assurance that it will operate within reasonable parameters.

The opposition supports the amendments that we are dealing with under the Sydney Airport Demand Management Amendment Bill 2008. The definition of ‘aircraft movement’ in the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act 1997 and the definition used by the operational elements created by this scheme—the Slot Management Scheme—and the compliance scheme are different. The former defines aircraft movement as ‘a landing and take-off of an aircraft on a runway’; the latter uses the airline industry standard definition, which considers an aircraft movement to be the time an aircraft moves to and from a gate. This means that a key component of the demand management regime at Sydney airport—the definition of an aircraft movement—is not in harmony under the two schemes. The contradiction and legal uncertainty this creates has been noted as an issue of potential concern by the Audit Office in its March 2007 report.

The Sydney Airport Demand Management Amendment Bill 2008 seeks to rectify this anomaly by changing the definition used in the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act to that used by the airline industry—that is, that an aircraft movement be considered to be the time an aircraft moves to and from a gate. This is a routine and technical amendment in a piece of legislation developed to respond to an Auditor-General’s report. The bill and the Slot Management Scheme were put in place by the previous coalition government. The bill has worked well and we need to ensure that it is legally secure. The opposition supports the bill.