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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
16/07/2007
Aviation Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome, gentlemen. There has been a suggestion that you might want to give evidence in camera. Is that true or false?

Mr Askew —That is true, Senator, just on the one issue about the exemption for our dignitaries, because some of the comments that I have are based on information from national security intelligence.

CHAIR —Fair enough. If you would like to make an opening statement, then we will figure out when we ought to go into camera.

Mr Askew —Thank you. Qantas does appreciate the opportunity to give evidence before this committee regarding this bill. I wish briefly to comment on five significant amendments to the bill. First is the proposed amendment to the Civil Aviation Act, which basically is the alcohol and drugs testing. Qantas Airways Ltd fully supports the amendments to the Civil Aviation Act of 1988 to enable the Civil Aviation Authority to introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime in the civil aviation industry in this country. Qantas has in place a longstanding alcohol and other drugs policy, which was enhanced in 2003 by the implementation of a comprehensive and best practice alcohol and other drugs program comprising education, rehabilitation and testing components.

Prior to its implementation, the Qantas alcohol and other drugs program underwent extensive consultation with all employees and unions, as well as external stakeholders such as CASA. The program provides education to all employees on the effects of alcohol and other drugs and allied safety implications. It incorporates pre-employment show cause, post incident, self-referral and follow-up breath, alcohol and urine drug testing and delivery and effective assessment and rehabilitation of affected employees where practicable.

Over the past 3½ years the program has been accepted by employees and has successfully enhanced workplace safety and productivity. Notwithstanding its effectiveness, a key deficiency in the program has been the limited application of full random testing across the group. Random testing is recognised as an essential proactive deterrent to alcohol and other drug use associated with work, similar to the principles underscoring roadside random breath testing and, more recently in some states, random drug testing.

As has been the experience in other safety-sensitive industries such as mining and rail, regulation of random testing is needed to support the implementation of full, effective and consistent alcohol and other drug programs in the Australian aviation industry. The Australian public should be confident that, as a minimum, pilots, cabin crew, engineers and ramp employees are routinely subjected to testing. The approach taken by CASA and DOTARS has been thorough and fair, and the amendment legislation will serve as a model for industry both in Australia and internationally. When implemented, the regulation of random alcohol and other drugs testing will provide significant safety, employee health and productivity enhancements.

I would like to move on, if I may, to the proposed amendments to the Civil Aviation Act regarding the use of lasers. There is concern in the aviation industry about the increase in incidence of lasers being used to interfere with aircraft, particularly on approach to and take-off from airports. Qantas fully supports the proposed amendment that creates an offence for a person who threatens the safety of an aircraft either by laser or by other means. However, we would like to make the point that the offence must be the pointing of the laser at the aircraft and not the consequences of such an act.

With regard to the amendment to the Aviation Transport Security Act regarding enhanced powers for Customs officers, Qantas supports the proposed amendments that will permit eligible Customs officers to provide initial and immediate response to potential acts of unlawful interference with aviation. A further amendment to the act is in respect of interference with operations of security-controlled airports or aircraft. Qantas supports the amendments that will enable regulations to be made that prohibit activities or conduct outside the boundaries of a security controlled airport, or within those parts of a security controlled airport not screened, that disrupt or interfere with the operations of a security controlled airport or aircraft. I note the comments of Senator O’Brien, and I would be happy to discuss those a bit later, if you wish.

With regard to the amendments for the screening and clearing of dignitaries as proposed for the Aviation Transport Security Act, Qantas does not support these amendments and, as I said before, would be pleased to provide further information to the committee in camera.

In conclusion, Qantas has built a reputation for excellence in safety and security over its 87-year history. We are committed to achieving high standards in both disciplines and see ourselves as an innovative leader that will continue to seek ways for continuous improvement in both aviation safety and security. Again, Senators, I thank you for the opportunity of appearing before you this morning.

CHAIR —Thanks very much for that.

Senator O’BRIEN —Mr Askew, will you deal with the issue of 38B? Obviously you have some comments, and I understand that there are circumstances where you would want the law to deal with disruption or interference with the activities of an airport operator or an aircraft operator in circumstances that were appropriate, but this seems to be a very broad power.

Mr Askew —I agree, it is broad. Without trying to understand fully the intent of the legislation here, the industry is changing so much at the moment and I think that airports are trying to divest themselves of their vulnerabilities. I know, for instance, that a lot of computer activities are being moved off airport. The operation of an airport is obviously dependent on that sort of thing, but as they become more security conscious, they are taking a lot of those vulnerabilities out of the airport terminal. Fundamentally, most airports in Australia have been driven by the international terminal, the headquarters of the airport. The owners of the airport own the international terminal. As they have become more security conscious, a lot of this is being moved outside the airports. I know that some of the government agencies on airport have moved some of their facilities off airport. Airport check-in is being moved off airport in some cases.

As the industry grows, a lot of the activities that have traditionally been inside the fence are moving outside, and I think that if this is intended to address some of those vulnerabilities, then we would support it. I heard your comment to the pilots association. I am not sure if that was their intention. It was not what we were thinking about when we—

CHAIR —Did they move the fence as well? Did they put up a new fence? How secure is where you move it to?

Mr Askew —It may be a file server that they move into an office complex in the same suburb. If there was an interruption to one part of the airport, the off airport check-ins—

CHAIR —By the nature of the interconnectivity, it would want to be secure. That would be the softest entry point if it were not secure.

Mr Askew —Absolutely.

CHAIR —So they would want to have screening and all that to access that.

Mr Askew —Absolutely, but the current legislation—

CHAIR —Do they?

Mr Askew —Yes. There is certainly security around whatever that function is. If there was a check-in process off airport, it would be identical processes and security as it would be on airport, absolutely. However, I am not sure that the current legislation that tends to be airport specific is complementing some of those now off airport activities.

CHAIR —So it might not be within the legislative might of the legislation to deal with that.

Mr Askew —Indeed.

Senator O’BRIEN —I do not have an alternative form of words at this stage, but it seems that there are activities which might fall into the category of disrupting or interfering that, on the basis of other rights and activities, should not be illegal.

Mr Askew —I guess that is possible. I have not considered it in that way, I have to concede.

Senator O’BRIEN —Heaven forbid an aircraft operator having a commercial dispute who seeks to use regulations arising from this prescription to require a supplier to continue to supply.

Mr Askew —Again, Senator, that is not something, to be honest, that I have even considered. In relation to our operations at Mascot, which is where our pilots and flight attendants and engineering are managed from, you could interfere with the Qantas operations and the operations of Sydney airport quite significantly by some form of interruption to the Qantas corporate head office there. I had never considered this legislation industrially, that’s for sure!

Senator O’BRIEN —I guess it is our job to consider it in the light in which it might be used.

Senator STERLE —Especially if there are some of the high-profile occupational health and safety issues that have been around Qantas in the last couple of years. You could put a road train through that clause.

CHAIR —He’s an old truck driver!

Senator STERLE —Not so much old!

CHAIR —A young truck driver!

Mr Askew —I am not a legislator, I am not a lawyer. I accept your comment.

Senator O’BRIEN —Is it the policy of Qantas to widely consult with the organisations representing its employees on matters that affect them?

Mr Askew —As a principle, Senator, yes. We have a history of consultation with the associations that represent our workforce. It is a public statement that is well known.

Senator O’BRIEN —Does Qantas find that assists it in the management of its affairs?

Mr Askew —I think that we understand that there needs to be a healthy relationship between the employer and employee for the benefit of all. It is that principle that we operate to. Our operations have changed as community standards and the community’s expectations have changed but that underlying principle is one that we would still adhere to.

Senator O’BRIEN —In terms of health and safety and security, would it be fair to say that Qantas would rely on the cooperation of representative organisations to get the best outcome in those areas?

Mr Askew —I leave the occ health and safety to my colleague here, but certainly on the security one I see that the responsibility for security within the Qantas group rests with 38,000 employees, not just with the CEO or the head of security.

Senator ADAMS —As far as security screening is concerned, as in passengers going through the screens, who bears the cost of extra screens? Is that the airport owner or the company that leases it, or is it Qantas as far as your area goes?

Mr Askew —This is a complex question and I will try and answer it as best I can. We have a complex way of managing security in the aviation industry in Australia. Because of the privatisation of airports and the way that the two airlines had evolved over time, you have a situation in Australia now where at the international terminals it is the terminal operator—and in every case in Australia, that is the airport owner—who is responsible for the provision of passenger screening services at those airports.

In the domestic terminals, that varies from terminal to terminal. In the Qantas case, in Qantas terminals, Qantas is responsible. We are also responsible in some of the regional airports, where we have been asked to provide those services on behalf of the airport operator. Legislation puts the responsibility with the terminal operator. If you had four or five terminals—a Heathrow—in Australia, then at each of those terminals the responsibility for the provision of passenger screening would or could rest with a different organisation.

As far as the cost is concerned, the ultimate cost is shared between I think the screening authority and the travelling public. A lot of those costs are passed on to the public. Some are borne by the industry itself, whether that is the airport operator or the airline operators.

Senator ADAMS —As far as Perth goes with Qantas, is that yours?

Mr Askew —That is ours.

Senator ADAMS —Right!

Mr Askew —May I say, Senator, that we are aware of the facilitation issues with regard to the screening point there. The CEO has approved some significant expenditure immediately to try to remedy the situation at the Perth screening point.

Senator ADAMS —Yesterday, Senator Sterle and I—we travel every Sunday practically.

CHAIR —Are you declaring an interest here?

Senator ADAMS —Definitely declaring an interest. It is ridiculous. The people waiting to go through security, two screens, were right down outside the taxi rank and we were just lucky it was not pouring with rain. We are trying to attract people to Perth. Listening to the queues of people trying to get their bags checked or going through the screening, it was just ridiculous. Both of us had to push our way to the head of the queue and there were lots of nasty comments. The point was, our aircraft was going; I was there three-quarters of an hour before. Talking about road rage, I can tell you the rage is starting to appear here. We are lucky. We tried to fight our way through the business class entry, but they were flat out trying to deal with economy anyway. It has become ridiculous and it is not good for us to have to push our way to the front, but it is the only way.

CHAIR —You jumped the queue?

Senator ADAMS —We had to.

CHAIR —Queue rage?

Senator ADAMS —Yes, definitely.

Mr Askew —Senator, I will make sure that the CEO is made aware of your comments. We are aware of it. There are two things there. One is a compliment to the way that the aviation industry has grown. You would recall better than most when that terminal was built. It was not built to handle and facilitate the number of travellers that are passing through it today. We know that we have facilitation issues there that we need to remedy very quickly.

Senator ADAMS —That is the point. It is traffic and the whole congestion, but this is getting beyond a joke and I feel sorry for your security staff. They are working as hard as they possibly can but they are getting abused. The whole thing is practically out of control.

Mr Askew —There is no easy fix. We have to do some major infrastructure work. There is very little space there for us to put another one or two X-ray units at the screening point, so we have to undertake some major works to see any minor improvement, unfortunately, in your experience, but the plans are well under way to do that immediately. It is a priority within the business, Perth.

CHAIR —I suppose in a way it is a comfort to the travelling public—it should be, even though it is a discomfort to people in the queue—that, just because there is a boom in Perth—the new capital of Australia if you get your way, Senator Adams—everyone is treated in the same way and much care is taken even if the queue is three miles long. They do not dislodge the security of the operation.

Mr Askew —As much as I appreciate the senator’s inconvenient travel arrangements yesterday, compared with most other places around the world, in Australia the experience is better, still, than most.

Senator STERLE —Can I go to part IV of the amendment, the drug and alcohol management plans and testing. How will this amendment differ from Qantas’s drug and alcohol policy and testing regime?

Mr Askew —Can I just ask Dr Peel to answer your question?

Dr Peel —Currently Qantas has limited random testing of its employees. We random test in two areas. One is our security staff. The personnel who belong to Geoff undergo annual random testing to ensure their integrity. We also randomly test all our Qantas Defence Services staff. That is a contractual arrangement between Qantas Defence Services and the Australian Defence Force.

Senator STERLE —So you do not have random testing in your D and A policy?

Dr Peel —We have it in our policy and in our education program. We have been unable to implement it to date and so we do pre-employment, self-referral, post-incident, show-cause and follow-up testing but we do not do random testing of any part of our organisation other than those which I have just described.

Senator STERLE —Do you fully support this new amendment?

Dr Peel —Yes, we do.

Senator STERLE —Why?

Dr Peel —Because we have good evidence from the 3½ years of testing results from our program to say that Qantas requires random testing to act as a deterrent to further reduce our risk.

Senator STERLE —So you think that you have a drug and alcohol problem within your workforce?

Dr Peel —I am prepared to talk about the results we have had so far. In our pre-employment testing to date, we have tested 3,882 personnel and, of those, 1.4 per cent tested positive for illicit drugs. On average over the 3½ years it has been about two per cent. So two per cent of all the people applying for jobs with Qantas test positive for illicit drugs. They are actually told that they will be tested and they still test positive.

Post-incident testing occurs after a serious incident where equipment damage occurs or somebody is injured or there is a high potential for injury. We have undertaken 937 of those tests and 2.8 per cent have been positive for drugs—that is, illicit drugs. Zero were positive for alcohol. Show-cause testing occurs where an individual comes under suspicion as a result of their behaviour. We use a series of indicators there which were provided to us by the ACTU. When we developed the program over a period of 18 months, we had extensive consultation with all 16 Qantas affiliated unions and the ACTU. Some examples of indicators are, if somebody turns up to work with the smell of alcoholic beverages on their breath, they are observed to use alcohol or drugs, or they have unusual, aggressive or abnormal behaviour and so on. We have undertaken 85 of those tests. Of those, 33 per cent were positive for alcohol or drugs—that is, 32 per cent positive for alcohol, 34 per cent positive for drugs. So we have had individuals in the workplace: a third of all those tested for show cause were using alcohol or drugs.

We also do self-referral testing where an individual asks for assistance, and we undertake testing normally, which assists with the clinical assessment and the rehabilitation process. So the grand total of our testing is 5,295 tests to date, and 2½ per cent overall have been positive. When we did the risk assessment prior to introducing the program and looked at our history—what we knew of reported problems with alcohol and drugs in our employees—we determined that we had a high risk of occupational health and safety issues. And this is a safety issue, as far as Qantas is concerned. We had to introduce the program but it is as yet incomplete without the deterrent factor of random testing. To me, it is no different from random breath testing and random drug testing. When I was a resident medical officer in the seventies in Queensland, in emergency rooms routinely on Saturday nights and Sunday nights we would treat horrific injuries from alcohol use, and a lot of that went away with random breath testing over the years.

Senator STERLE —Let me just put this on the record: I do not think you will find a stronger supporter of a drug-free environment in the workplace. I do not argue with that. I live by the saying, ‘Only mugs do drugs.’ I am trying to establish if you have the ability now to test workers if there is a suspicion of impairment for work.

Dr Peel —Yes, we can. But we cannot do random testing because of the opposition.

Senator STERLE —So random would be that you might line up all your employees, as long as it is not a busy morning.

Dr Peel —In random testing we would anticipate that somewhere between five and 10 per cent of employees, selected on a random basis, would be tested each year. We test 15 per cent of the Qantas Defence Services staff each year and we test 10 per cent of our full-time employee security staff.

CHAIR —That begs the question, doesn’t it: what do you do with them when you catch them?

Dr Peel —We have a very comprehensive rehabilitation program. We use specific alcohol and drug clinical assessment teams. If it is clinically appropriate, we offer individuals who accept that they need rehabilitation—some people do not; some people leave the company—and who wish to undergo rehabilitation either private or public hospital level rehabilitation programs. To date, we have had a 90 per cent return to work of those that we have rehabilitated.

Senator STERLE —How do you do the testing?

Dr Peel —Testing is standard breath alcohol testing using an evidential breath tester similar to that used by the police. That is very straightforward. Then we do urine drug screening, where the individual privately supplies a sample of urine and it is provided to the independent tester who tests it for integrity. They test it for temperature, dilution, and then there is an on-site sampling test of that urine and then that sample goes off to the laboratory. Just like in sports, there is an A and a B sample.

Senator STERLE —You breath-test first and, if that comes out positive, you then have the urine test?

Dr Peel —No. We do both breath and urine testing, irrespective of whether one is positive or not.

Senator STERLE —There are certain drugs—and I am not saying that any drug is more acceptable than the other—that may stay in the system for up to six weeks. I believe marijuana is one of them.

Dr Peel —Yes.

Senator STERLE —And it is quite possible that an employee might have had a party four or five weeks ago and it is still in the system, but the employee has turned up fit for duty.

Dr Peel —Yes.

Senator STERLE —So the test would come up positive?

Dr Peel —It may come up positive; 65 per cent of our positive illicit drug tests have been for cannabis. An individual who may, say, smoke a joint on a Friday night, come to work on a Monday morning, would have a reasonably predictable level of cannabis in their urine sample. The majority of those that we have tested have been extremely high levels. The cut-off level for samples in the Australian standard is about 15 micrograms per litre for cannabis. We have had some employees who have been in the thousands of micrograms per litre which indicates an habitual heavy use of cannabis.

Senator STERLE —What about the ones that are low? Do you test them a week later or are they off the job? How do you do it?

Dr Peel —Before anybody can go back to work, they have to produce a negative test. If we have somebody who has tested positive to cannabis, a low level of cannabis, we would test them a couple of days later. If they are negative, then they would go through the counselling and rehabilitation program, and they would go back to work.

Senator STERLE —Even though there is an acceptable level of 15 micrograms per litre, if they have tested positive, come back, and if it is still between zero and 15, even though 15 is the allowable amount—

Dr Peel —They would remain stood down until their test is below the cut-off level.

CHAIR —Is it illegal to buy marijuana?

Dr Peel —I understand it is, yes.

CHAIR —So you are actually condoning it. This is a terrible point, but out there in the community in this debate there is the view that, ‘Oh well, a bit of ecstasy on Saturday nights won’t hurt anyone,’ but you are actually breaking the law. In effect, you either should change the law, if you think the law is bad, or obey the law. So, Senator Sterle, even if it is recreational marijuana or recreational ecstasy, you are still breaking the law and you are condoning it by saying, ‘Well, it’s not going to hurt.’

Senator STERLE —I am going through the Australian standards, Chair. There are certain levels of barbiturates that you are allowed to have.

CHAIR —I am talking about illegal substances. It is a bit of a dilemma. Are we ready to go into camera?

Senator STERLE —I could go all day on this.

CHAIR —So could I, Senator Sterle, and I could go a lot harder.

Senator STERLE —I can tell you now, I love the debate.

Senator ADAMS —Regarding the military aircrew, I think you are saying that they are testing randomly.

Dr Peel —All Australian Defence Force personnel are randomly tested, not just aircrew.

Senator ADAMS —If they are positive, do they go under the military guidelines or under yours?

Dr Peel —I should not talk in detail about that. I had 27 years service in the Air Force prior to joining Qantas and I was partly involved with the development of the alcohol and drug program for the Australian Defence Force. They are managed within the Australian Defence Force.

Senator ADAMS —They do not have random testing?

Dr Peel —The Australian Defence Force pilots do, yes. Our pilots do not.

Mr Askew —We are talking about Qantas Defence Services who are Qantas employees in a separate subsidiary who work on Defence aircraft. They are not Defence personnel; they are Qantas employees, employed to work on contracts for the Australian defence services.

Senator ADAMS —They come under your jurisdiction.

Dr Peel —Yes, they do.

Mr Askew —These people do, yes.

Senator ADAMS —I have been in another committee questioning the military on their drug and alcohol procedures and guidelines and, at the moment, they do not have random testing anywhere. That was the reason I asked the question.

Dr Peel —The military actually does have random testing. I remain in the Reserve, and I have observed random testing being undertaken in the Australian Defence Force.

Senator ADAMS —That is very interesting, thank you.

CHAIR —In the Australian standards, Senator Sterle has informed me that there is an acceptable level for the presence of heroin.

Dr Peel —Yes. The Australian standards for urine drug screening look at five different drug groups: the opiates, which include heroin; sympathomimetic amines, which are the amphetamines; cocaine; cannabis; and benzodiazepines, which are the Valium type of sedatives which are prescription drugs but they are often used in association with illicit drugs. So, yes, in the cut-off levels in that Australian standard, it includes heroin.

CHAIR —In the Australian standards they accept the illegal taking of heroin?

Dr Peel —I am not sure that they accept it.

CHAIR —Well, they must do, if the standard says it is all right to have a lower presence, as long as you do not have too much.

Dr Peel —No. The Australian standards really reflect prescription drug medication as well as illicit drug medication. For example, a number of people that we have tested have been using codeine containing—

CHAIR —I would understand that that is the cover or the way out, but the great bulk of people who use heroin stick it in their arm or stick it somewhere, and we say under the Australian standards, ‘As long as you haven’t got too much of that in you, you’re all right’—in other words, you accept the proposition that when you put it in you break the law, but when they catch you, you are not breaking the law because you do not have enough of it.

Dr Peel —The Australian standard is couched more in terms of impairment.

CHAIR —Yes, I understand all that.

Dr Peel —If your levels are high—

CHAIR —But it turns a blind eye to the illegal activity, the same as brown cafes in Amsterdam, where it is illegal to supply cannabis to the cafe but it is legal to use it out the front of the cafe, which is bloody crazy.

Dr Peel —Yes.

CHAIR —I think we will now move in camera, with great respect.

Evidence was then taken in camera but later resumed in public—

[9.57 am]