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Thursday, 8 March 2001
Page: 22808


Senator O'BRIEN (11:50 AM) —We are dealing with the Aircraft Noise Levy Collection Amendment Bill 2001 today for one simple reason: the failure of the Howard government to get even the basics of public administration right. If this was just a one-off mistake it might be excusable, but it is not just a one-off mistake. There is a long and growing list of similar administrative errors, some of which I will address later.

The noise amelioration program was put in place to acquire properties voluntarily and to provide financial assistance for the noise insulation of both residential and institutional buildings in the areas around Kingsford Smith Airport most affected by aircraft noise. On 1 November 1994, the former Labor government announced the program. The program was expected to be completed by June last year, but clearly that target has not been achieved. The Aircraft Noise Levy Act 1995 and the Aircraft Noise Levy Collection Act 1995 originally allowed the Minister for Transport to declare an airport to be subject to a levy. This government chose to change that arrangement in 1996 but failed to tell anyone, including the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and the Assistant Treasurer, because nothing was done.

Under the act, when an airport had been declared leviable the cost of the noise amelioration program could be recovered by a levy on jet aircraft. The levy is imposed on the operators of the aircraft. The levy is based on the volume of jet aircraft noise emissions above a certain threshold and airlines have been recouping the cost from passengers by increasing the price of tickets. As at 31 January this year, the levy had raised a total of $197 million. As I said, while the declaration of an airport as leviable is directly a matter for the Treasurer, the overall administration of the noise abatement program rests with the Department of Transport and Regional Services.

I say that to indicate that in this matter Mr Anderson cannot pass the buck. This administrative neglect and the sloppiness underlying the need for this bill is not attributable to the current Minister for Transport and Regional Services, but it is not far from his door. The last time Kingsford Smith Airport was declared a leviable airport—as was intended under this legislation—was when the then Minister for Transport, the Hon. Laurie Brereton, made that declaration on 18 September 1995. For continuity of the program, the next declaration was due before 1 July 1996. As we now know this did not occur and, as a direct consequence of that oversight, error or incompetence, the collection of the levy since that time has been illegal.

Given the history of this legislation, the closeness of this issue to the transport portfolio and the fact that the last declaration was made by the last Labor Minister for Transport and nothing has happened since, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that this was another miss by Minister Anderson. In regard to misses, he has a lot of form. The recent exposure of his maladministration of the Australian Land Transport Development Act is a good case to highlight his buck-passing. The first and obvious casualties were his two advisers. While taking the defensive stance that he operated the legislation in the same way as Labor had, a point I will return to, and while professing that more than the default 4.95c a litre had been spent on roads—while making those defences to protect his own hide—he lashed out and sacked two key advisers.

Mr Anderson claims that the staff did not keep him informed. He complained that he was not made aware of the issues in the ANAO report until it was tabled and was therefore unable to prepare a response. In falling on his sword, Mr Oxley said:

Mr Anderson only became aware of the tabling in Parliament of the ANAO report, and the issues raised in it—

I emphasise those words—

after the event on Thursday 8th February 2001.

This is totally contrary to the minister's press release on 9 February 2001 when he conceded that he was aware of the suggestion of a substantial surplus in the Australian land transport development special account in November—that is, in November 2000, some months before allegedly becoming aware in February.

Mr Anderson has hidden behind this Mr Nice Guy image for far too long. His actions on that day exposed his desperation and his failure to be properly accountable and take responsibility for his own incompetence. When you take a close look at the facts of Labor's record on the administration of the Australian Land Transport Development Act, you also see that the minister has been quite out of order with his statements on that front as well. In his media statement in February, the minister tried to blur the significance of his maladministration by saying:

The making of a determination is optional.

Former Labor Ministers administered the Act in exactly the same way.

He is wrong, because when we look at the facts we see that the last road user charge determination was for the year 1993-94. As these charges were determined retrospectively, we find that it was actually gazetted by the then transport minister, the Hon. Laurie Brereton, on 18 January 1995. So, by simple and fair assessment, it is clear that the next time a road user charge was due to be gazetted was in early 1996 and, as we know, in early 1996 there was an election. The next scheduled charge was to have been determined by the transport minister in 1996, and we also know that that was not Mr Laurie Brereton. The last federal Labor transport minister was in charge and competent with the administration of his portfolio, unlike Howard government transport ministers.

Labor's transport ministers did not administer the act in the same way as Mr Anderson. It is an insult for him to suggest that they did. While we are on the subject of contrasting the respective competence of Labor and the coalition on administration generally and particularly on the Land Transport Development Act, I will now turn to the issue of tabling reports. This was yet another failing of the transport minister as identified by the Australian National Audit Office this year. It was revealed that the minister has not tabled annual reports in accordance with the requirements of the same act.

I requested a list of all the reports tabled under section 21 of that act and found some interesting and telling gaps: on 20 May 1993, the review of operations volume 1 covering 1989-91 was tabled; on 14 December 1993, the review of operations volume 2 covering 1991-92 was tabled; on 28 June 1994, the review of operations volume 3 covering 1992-93 was tabled; on 28 March 1995, the progress report for 1993-94 was tabled; and on 21 August 1996, the progress report for 1994-95 was tabled. Then it seems that the Howard government transport ministers took their eye off the ball. It seems that after the August 1996 tabling, presumably having been substantially under preparation by Minister Brereton, no other report was tabled until 1999. The requirements of the act were ignored until 8 December 1999, when the current minister, Mr Anderson, tabled three outstanding reports on the same day. Those reports covered the years 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98.

On that date in December 1999, the minister slipped in a catch-up tabling of three years worth of annual reports. I submit that this is no way to run the Australian Land Transport Development Fund and, contrary to the impression that Mr Anderson has tried to peddle all around the media, it is not how Labor administered its legislation. Today, as we speak, the transport minister has still not complied with the act. The reports covering 1998-99 and 1999-2000 have still not been tabled.

When the issue of the failure of the transport minister to notify a road user charge arose, when the Audit Office exposed the administrative failure that led to a nominal surplus in the land transport development account, this minister tried to say it was the same when Labor administered the fund, and he scapegoated his staff. This is blatantly wrong. It is now clearly obvious that the problems with the administration of that act arose when the Howard government came into office. As with the administration of the Noise Levy Collection Act, all was fine until the incompetence of the Howard government intervened. Since the incompetence of the Howard government caused all this anger and angst and fuelled the general mistrust already existing in the community, Mr Anderson has been doing his best to show there is some sort of division within the Labor Party on this issue. Not one quote has been produced that gives any truth to that rhetoric. The Labor Party have taken an honest, open position on this matter. We have nothing to hide, as Labor administered this act as it should have been administered. The Howard government's stream of incompetent transport ministers mucked up the administration of the Land Transport Development Act, and it was appropriate that the ANAO expose the consequences as they did.

This is not the first time the Australian National Audit Office has exposed the poor administration of the transport minister Mr Anderson. In the 1989 ANAO report into aviation safety compliance, it was found that the Civil Aviation Act was not being complied with. Again, it was an issue of the minister not tabling reports in parliament—namely, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority corporate plans. The Audit Office report said:

The finalisation of only two corporate plans in four years since it was established represents a clear breach of the legislation.

As an aside, that was the same Audit Office report that revealed that Civil Aviation Safety Authority inspectors were spending only 15 to 17 per cent of their time on surveillance tasks.

Again the federal transport minister was exposed for not meeting his legislative responsibilities, let alone his ethical reporting requirements, to this parliament. This is the same minister that sat on the government response to key road and rail reports for years. The Planning not patching report was tabled in 1997, and the first of three key rail reports was tabled in August 1998. The industry had to wait until mid-2000 for a response on any of those reports. Then the response was so vague and brief that it did not give credit to the effort that went into the issues contained or reported on in those reports. There are still other reports outstanding on the minister's desk. In December 1998 the minister commissioned a high level industry government task force to provide him with options to increase the international competitiveness of Australian shipping. While the Australian shipping industry is left to wither on the vine, the report on how competitiveness can be increased is gathering dust somewhere—perhaps on the minister's desk.

The transport minister recently admitted another major failing in his portfolio area. It has been revealed that the minister broke his promise on the collection of avgas and avtur levies. That is a matter which has been mentioned in the other place by Mr Ferguson recently. In May 1999 in the budget the minister imposed a levy of 0.51c per litre on aviation fuel to keep down the cost of regional and general aviation towers. It should be pointed out that the costs of these towers became unaffordable because of the location specific pricing policy of the Howard government. Under that policy, charges were reduced at major airports but increased significantly at regional airports. What became obvious last week—and was conceded by the minister—was that all the revenue from the duty had not been used for the purpose promised. In fact, it is now clear that millions of dollars have been inappropriately collected from the aviation industry and have disappeared into consolidated revenue.

In conceding this broken promise, what did the Minister for Transport and Regional Services propose to do? Did he undertake to give the money back? No, the government has sat on the extra money and only commits to resolving the issue during the budget process. Minister Anderson said:

The government will be considering the fuel duty rate and the control tower subsidy as part of the budget process in the normal way this year.

It is time that the minister realised that breaking promises is not acceptable behaviour, although he may come to think that promise breaking is an acceptable tool of public administration, as his leader Mr Howard sets a fine example on that score.

In this regard, the minister broke his promise to the aviation industry and to the Australian community. It should be understood that generally the public feel that, if you take something under false pretences, you should give it back. There is no proposal put forward by the minister to return those levies which were collected in excess of requirements even though the levy itself was struck purely and simply to make up any shortfall in the cost of running tower services in regional Australia. When we heard that the collection of the levy from airlines for noise amelioration programs had been bungled, it is no wonder we expected—and we discovered—that Mr Anderson's fingerprints were on that incompetence as well. The Audit Office did not detect the problem to be remedied by this bill when they did their audit of the government's management of the non-primary levies last year. That report examined the administration of a number of government levies, including the aircraft noise levy. The oversight is a concern for those that rely on the independence, resources and rigour of the Audit Office to put government administration under the microscope.

I note that, in the second reading speech by the minister in the House, he attributed the failure to declare Sydney a leviable airport as an `administrative oversight'. This is reminiscent of the transport minister sacking two staff to cover his own failings. It is time that the Howard government ministers took appropriate responsibility for their actions. It is time that the government ministers got their houses in order and attended to the business of government; after all, that is what the taxpayers of this nation expect of the government. That is why they are resourced to provide that attention to government business.

While I am talking about the Aircraft Noise Levy Collection Amendment Bill 2001, I should touch on a matter that was raised in the last annual report of the department, and I raised questions about this during the estimates process. It relates to the installation of certain insulation products in more than 1,000 houses in the vicinity of Kingsford Smith Airport. I am given to understand that in more than 1,000 houses a woollen fabric was installed as noise insulation, which was subsequently discovered to be prone to insect attack. Under the program, those 1,000 or so houses had to have their insulation product ripped out and replaced with a more suitable form of insulation. I understand that the cost of replacement of that particular insulation to date has been in the vicinity of $14.1 million. Those costs have been imposed on travellers to Kingsford Smith Airport, the general travelling public. Levy payers have to pay an additional $14.1 million plus to make up for an obvious bungle. This is just another case of serial bungling under the administration of this minister. This must be one of the most galling steps that this government has taken—it is putting a bill through the parliament to correct a bungle of this magnitude which comes down entirely to its own administration, in contrast with the way that Labor administered the transport portfolio.