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Australian Transport Safety Bureau

CHAIR —I welcome officers from Australian Transport Safety Bureau. Questions, Senator Nash.

Senator NASH —Thank you, Chair. Am I correct in saying that $800,000 has been allocated in the budget towards developing a national investigation framework for rail and maritime safety?

Mr Dolan —Yes, that is correct.

Senator NASH —Can you give us more detail about what that is and what it is going to provide?

Mr Dolan —It is part of the broader package of transport reforms, with the creation of a single regulatory regime for rail safety. The agreement is also that there should be a single rail investigator and, in principle, that it should be the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. But there are a range of operational issues that need to be resolved to bring that into effect, including the future of the current investigators that are located in Victoria and New South Wales. This funding is to scope out what a single national investigator would look like and how it would be operating by the beginning of 2013, and the possibility that a similar arrangement will be in place as AMSA becomes the single regulator for all commercial shipping—that there be a single maritime investigator. But that is a matter that is less developed than on the rail side.

Senator NASH —Is it going to be difficult, do you think? It is obviously a huge job coming back to one single body to do all this. We had other parts of the department in yesterday talking about the other aspects of it. But from the point of view of ATSB, what are the difficulties that you see in pulling this in by the beginning of—I think it is 2013, isn’t it?

Mr Dolan —I would prefer, if you do not mind, to start with the positive things we are going to cover.

Senator NASH —Sorry. It has been a long four days. Let me rephrase that. What are the positive outcomes going to be from this, Mr Dolan?

Mr Dolan —There are some. We have a mature organisation in terms of a capacity to do transport safety investigations; we have the systems; we have the capability. We have a whole set of policies and procedures that are in place. The majority of them have been designed for aviation, but we have extensive experience both in maritime and in rail. That is the base we will be building from.

The areas of greatest challenge would be coming to an arrangement that makes the existing state jurisdictions comfortable that there would be appropriate selection of and rigour in investigation; managing the transitional arrangements, as I indicated earlier, from the existing state based regimes, where they are in place, which is essentially in Victoria and New South Wales; and probably the most difficult, which is making sure that we get enough people with the right sorts of skills and background to deal with the expanded sort of future that we are looking into. The recruitment challenge is probably the biggest of them.

Senator NASH —The capacity to bring all the states together and make sure that they are all happy with whatever you come up with: how will that process work? Will it be regular meetings? Will it be getting everyone in a room together and encouraging them with lollies or something? Given the nature of trying to get states to agree on anything—and this is obviously a really important objective—how are you planning on getting them all together and agreeing on all of this?

Mr Mrdak —I have to say that there has been some excellent work done by Commonwealth officials and state officials thus far. As you know, I have been around some of this stuff for a long time.

Senator NASH —A very long time, Mr Mrdak.

Mr Mrdak —A very long time.

Senator NASH —As long as I have.

Mr Mrdak —Over the last year or so we have seen levels of cooperation and commitment to this process which I have not seen before in a reform process. I think that is a credit to all the officers, including a large number of officials in my department who I think have done an excellent job in leading this work, and Mr Dolan’s organisation as well. We use all methods, including jelly beans and everything else we can possibly bring to the table. There are some very hard issues here in terms of regulatory standardisation and performance of these functions. We meet regularly; we have working groups. We are now setting up these project officers for the rail and heavy vehicle regulators. As we discussed the other day, some days it is really two steps forward, one step back, but we keep going. The COAG has set us pretty difficult deadlines to meet. To have legislation and agreements in place and to have operational organisations by the end of 2012 is not a long time when you think about how long it has taken us to get to this level of harmonisation across the country—110 years into Federation.

Senator NASH —Exactly. Is the cost issue of any transitional arrangements for the states an impediment from their perspective; if they look at it and say, ‘This is going to cost us XYX to do this’?

Mr Mrdak —It is an issue. It is particularly an issue in relation to the first of the national partnership agreements that we are working through at the moment in the maritime area, where states have varying degrees of cost recovery of the functions involved. We are working from the basis of trying to do this without any increased cost to the industry by moving to a national regulator. So disentangling all of the various state regimes—some of which recover fully the costs, others which meet costs through budget—is quite a big challenge. Similarly, there will be challenges around resourcing the rail safety regulator going forward; hence the Commonwealth money in the budget is designed to provide our contribution and the states will make equal contributions in relation to rail and heavy vehicles for the project officers to get up and running, to at least get us through this initial transition period.

Senator NASH —Absolutely. The minister would be very disappointed if I did not say that the Labor states are such financial basket cases that that is going to be very difficult for them.

CHAIR —You have already exposed, Senator Nash, how the New South Wales Nationals branch stack. You bribe people with lollies.

Senator NASH —No, it was encouragement.

CHAIR —It is smoko, Senator Nash.

Senator NASH —Is it smoko?

CHAIR —It is.

Senator NASH —I have probably six minutes left, if Hansard would be happy just to go through.

Senator Conroy —No.

Senator NASH —I do not think my colleague Senator Back has anything. Five, 10 minutes at most?

Senator Conroy —Ten? That went from six to 10 and I have the stopwatch on you.

Senator NASH —Talk to the chair. I have some questions around the Australian Design Rules.

Mr Dolan —I am sorry, Senator, Australian Design Rules—

Senator NASH —They are not yours?

Mr Dolan —Not our territory.

—I can help you a little bit. If I get into difficulties, I will come back to you.

Senator NASH —Okay, we will do it at a very superficial level then—not that I mean you are going to do it at a superficial level.

Mr Mrdak —I know what you meant.

CHAIR —Senator Nash, when you are in a hole the first thing you do—

Senator NASH —Is get rid of the shovel.

CHAIR —is stop digging. Next question.

Senator NASH —On vehicle regulations with regard to pedestrian safety: there has been some discussion about whether or not vehicles should be allowed to have a bullbar fitted because of the potential danger to pedestrians. That really was in the short context. Is that something that the department is looking at in terms of rules and requirements that might come into force?

Mr Mrdak —I know that a number of manufacturers are moving forward with various technologies to assist in the identification of pedestrians. You can see a number of models of vehicles now starting to hit the top end of the market which actually have assistance measures to identify potential collisions with pedestrians and to take action in terms of those, so the technology is starting to come into production in a number of models. I need to take that on notice, if it is okay, as to where we are at with the regulatory standards.

Senator NASH —Yes.

Mr Mrdak —As you know, we closely align with international standards in relation to these matters, but let me take that on notice in relation to what is happening. Also, the fitting of a bullbar ise a post-registration issue in a number of jurisdictions and, therefore, it depends on what the states will permit. It does not necessarily form part of the ADRs at the time because it is post-production fitting in a lot of cases.

Mr Wilson —This draws on past experience. There is a difference between the Australian Design Rules—that is, what the car needs to comply with when it is first manufactured and first licensed to go onto the road—and then what you can fit onto the vehicle after that first compliance point. You can fit a vehicle with a bullbar once it is on the road, so the standards for a bullbar that is fitted post-compliance are state based. They may be different between the jurisdictions.

Senator NASH —Could you take that on notice for me. Speaking as a farm girl, I am very interested in this. There has been a bit of discussion about the difficulties posed for regional people travelling into the cities if, down the track, bullbars are banned. Has there been any consideration of that within the department or is it fully a matter for the state jurisdictions?

Mr Mrdak —I think it has been raised by various groups in the past but I am not aware that that it has ever been seriously looked at as a regulatory requirement. Let me take that on notice.

CHAIR —So fluffy dice are all right?

Senator NASH —Trust me, Chair, I do not have fluffy dice! Does the size, number and steepness of the steps on a bus come under the Australian Design Rules? This was raised with me a while ago in relation to a passenger who had had a fall going up the steps. Does that sort of stuff come under the Australian Design Rules?

Mr Mrdak —Yes.

Senator NASH —Is that an issue at the moment? Is it something that is being discussed? You are all smiling. Why do I get the feeling that something is going on?

CHAIR —They know you have fluffy dice!

Mr Wilson —Australian Design Rules are the responsibility of the Infrastructure Surface Transport Policy Division, which I believe appeared yesterday afternoon.

Senator NASH —I always do this with OTS. There is always something I ask that is somewhere else. Can you help me out at all?

Mr Wilson —With the design rules associated with buses under the ADRs, I am not aware of any recent work in regard to the number of steps associated with bus designs. But we can take that on notice and find out for you.

Senator NASH —All right. Perhaps you could find out whether any work has been done lately on the specifications of buses, whether they are appropriate from a safety perspective and, if so, is there any move—

Mr Wilson —The safety perspective of the passenger alighting?

Senator NASH —The safety of a passenger getting on and off a bus, to be simplistic, and if there is any move to change any of those or have any change in the requirements.

Mr Mrdak —Certainly.

Senator BACK —In the last, I think, 12 months there have been a couple of incidents where aircraft flying from Asia to Perth have quickly lost altitude and passengers have been injured. Could you tell us the outcome of the inquiries into these incidents? Were there two incidents?

Mr Dolan —There is one occurrence that we are investigating: Qantas flight 72. That is the more significant one. We have done two interim reports on that.

Senator BACK —Was that from Hong Kong?

Mr Dolan —I am pretty sure it was from Hong Kong to Perth. That was driven by some events that happened with a whole complex set of onboard flight computers and how they talk to each other and a range of things consequent on that. We have been having discussions with a range of players, including Airbus, the aircraft manufacturers, the manufacturers of the equipment and so on. We have more or less pulled that together and a final report is almost in sight.

Senator BACK —Did you consider and exclude any possible interference offshore from Exmouth and Learmonth?

Mr Dolan —We took the same aircraft and flew it around the facility up there for eight hours while all the broadcasts were happening. There was absolutely no interference with the operation of the aircraft, so that is one thing that we have, to our satisfaction, totally excluded as a possibility.

Senator BACK —So you will in fact have a report forthcoming?

Mr Dolan —Certainly. Mr Chairman, I am advised that that incident was on a flight from Singapore to Perth, not from Hong Kong to Perth. There was another incident on a flight that came out of Hong Kong—an oxygen bottle explosion.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Dolan. How has the bureau’s staff turnover been in the last couple of years?

Mr Dolan —Remarkably low. One of the characteristics of the ATSB is that most people really like working in the place and want to hang around.

Senator NASH —So you are very nice people to work with, Mr Dolan?

Mr Mrdak —They are.

Mr Dolan —We have about 100 staff. On average, about five or six people a year move on from the organisation.

CHAIR —Do you intend to increase the staff over the next year or two?

Mr Dolan —At this stage, obviously once we get full agreement with the states about growth in surface transport, as I was discussing with Senator Nash, we would be looking at a considerable level of growth in staffing once the questions of funding and so on have been agreed. Were that not to happen, we are looking pretty much at stability in our current staff —the sorts of numbers that are in the PBS.

CHAIR —Sorry?

Mr Dolan —Stability of just over 100 staff is what we would be looking at without that.

CHAIR —To put on?

Mr Dolan —To maintain.

CHAIR —But you said you are looking at putting on a significant number in the next year or two?

Mr Dolan —Yes.

CHAIR —Roughly what number?

Mr Dolan —That is a matter we are still discussing with our state colleagues. The scale of what is necessary to deliver the investigation function to all of Australia in surface transport is still being debated quite vigorously.

CHAIR —What effect would a staff freeze have on your operations?

Mr Dolan —With the level of turnover we have, there would be a gradual effect on the organisation. We would probably find that, over time, we would either have to slow down some of our investigation work or not undertake one or two investigations we would otherwise have looked at.

CHAIR —Would that jeopardise safety?

Mr Dolan —The challenge we always have is that resources for our work are always going to be limited, so we try to have the best possible systems. I discussed this in passing with, I think, Senator Nash at the last estimates. We have some pretty rigorous mechanisms for making sure we give our attention to the right places, so I would hope that any difference would be marginal over time. It is a hypothetical question, so I cannot say much more than that.

CHAIR —Okay. But, as concerned Australians, the last thing we want to see is a watering down of the bureau’s functions. Mr Dolan, we do not have any further questions, so thank you very much to you and your staff. Mr Mrdak, as usual, it has been an honour and a pleasure. It has been four long days. We do thank you, Mr Mrdak, and all the officials from the department. Minister, it has been an absolute pleasure having you in the room.

Senator Conroy —Only because Geelong beat Collingwood last week!

CHAIR —I promised you I would not talk about that, but while we are at it, it was only 36 points. More importantly, I do want to put out a sincere thanks on behalf of the committee to our hardworking staff in the secretariat—Jeanette and her team. Thank you very much. Hansard and Broadcasting, you do a fantastic job and I thank you sincerely. That concludes this week’s round of estimates hearings and the committee now stands adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 9.11 pm