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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
02/07/2008
Administration of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority

CHAIR —Welcome, Mr Urquhart. Would you please state the capacity in which you appear today.

Mr Urquhart —I am the father of Constable Sally Urquhart, who also lost her life in the Lockhart River air crash of 7 May 2005.

CHAIR —Thank you. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Urquhart —I do, and if you do not mind I shall read it and add some bits at the end. As a member of the public I am a bit like Fiona here—I am not a pilot, I am not a lawyer and I do not have an intimate knowledge of the aviation industry. But in the past three years I certainly have built up my knowledge on a whole range of issues surrounding not only Lockhart River but the actions of the aviation industry and in particular the regulator. So I do have some knowledge of the aviation industry and I did know what CASA was about beforehand, from the point of view of general knowledge.

Since 7 May 2005, my research has given me a more in-depth understanding and knowledge. It is interesting that almost 100 per cent of the very, very many people who have provided me with information, opinions and evidence have nothing good to say about CASA. By the way, where and when CASA do their job properly—and I am like the gentlemen who have evidence previously—of course CASA have a role to play, and where there is fault they should play that role with gusto. This is what they are supposed to do. But when they are not doing their job properly the evidence is overwhelming.

I would like to make it clear, too, that nothing is going to bring back any of the people who were lost at Lockhart River. However, to uncover the years of gross mismanagement, incompetence, self-indulgence and totally inconsistent application of safety regulations is just appalling. I can give some examples of the flippancy of CASA—and I will hark back to the previous witnesses and their evidence about CASA’s vexatious and vindictive ways of operating. The committee was discussing this payment for endorsements. It has come to light in the last year or so that Transair really was nothing more than an endorsement machine. Two to three million dollars was taken endorsing pilots for between $15,000 and $20,000 a shot. That money was passed on to the CEO himself, who was also the chief pilot, and to other members of the Transair board. I do not need to refer to that in any other documents except for the Courier Mail article about two weeks ago—I do have a reference to that—where the liquidator has outlined that and is now concerned as to where that money has gone and where the money trail is. That also was referred to in the coronial inquest into Lockhart River. There is no trail; that is why it is so difficult for the liquidator to find out where that money has gone. Receipts were never issued, and tax was never claimed through the system. That is just a little bit of an addition to Fiona’s evidence.

It is about time that more than just lip-service inquiries or white-washing exercises are undertaken. My hope is that this very brief inquiry will find the grounds for a full and robust inquiry into all past and present CASA operations in the interests of air safety for everyone. Only then can the culpability of CASA in many incidents and crashes be fully exposed. As an aside, we are one of the families currently in dispute with QBE, the insurer. We are not one of the families who have been paid out. As another aside, in my submission I have plenty of references—and you have probably seen those. I prefer to take questions on those on notice if required rather than trying to flick through all my bits and pieces here.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Would you be prepared to give us any evidence in camera? I would be interested in hearing about your dispute with QBE, but I do not want—

Mr Urquhart —I will give that evidence in camera. My flight is at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

Senator O’BRIEN —In terms of your reference to the Courier Mail article, do you have a copy here?

Mr Urquhart —Yes.

Senator O’BRIEN —If you could supply that we will get a copy for all members of the committee.

Mr Urquhart —Here it is. Unfortunately for my wife, there is also a photo of the crash site. While that copy is going around, I would like to mention that you must realise that the coroner’s inquest was based solely on that document, which is the ATSB report into the Lockhart River crash, and there is ample evidence in there, cross-referenced with the coroner’s findings, with Senate estimates committees’ findings and with transcripts which most of you have been involved with in the last couple of years. I have done a fair bit of cross-referencing between those things, as well, so I am open to questions.

Senator O’BRIEN —You make a number of allegations. You say CASA attempted to cover up its mismanagement of the companies involved in the Lockhart River tragedy. Is that based on any material that is not in the public domain?

Mr Urquhart —I have some documents that would not be in the public domain that were tabled at the inquest—so I guess they would be in the public domain if that were the case.

Senator O’BRIEN —I am interested in knowing whether you are able to add anything to the public record regarding CASA’s performance.

Mr Urquhart —I think the public record is very clear and I do not think I have anything to add to that.

Senator O’BRIEN —Part of your submission suggests that, despite its charter to be a model litigant, CASA was not. Why do you say that?

Mr Urquhart —I have got information from people who have been on the receiving end of CASA’s litigation and work in court. Once again, I was very interested to hear the gentleman before talk about just that particular point. It is my understanding that, while lawyers and people who are litigants need to be reasonably aggressive and do the job they are paid to do, CASA lawyers go far beyond that. They are vexatious and vindictive. Fiona and I are not too keen to uncover in this forum our sources and say who these people are who have been giving us information and evidence. These people are long-term industry doyens, if you like, who really know what is going on and do not have biased information; they have the information as it is. The reason that they do not necessarily want to be identified is simply because of that vexatious litigation that CASA will do.

I have an example from the end of last year. A company in Cairns, along with several other companies, was taken to court by CASA. Some of you will probably be aware of this. Unfortunately, it blew up in CASA’s face and resulted in an internal audit called the Venn report. A company was prosecuted by CASA for whatever because the CEO sacked one of his flight attendants, who happened to be the girlfriend of the local CASA FOI. With some vexation, an action was brought against that particular airline. That is an example of the sort of thing I am talking about.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do we have the details of that particular vexatious episode?

Mr Urquhart —That is just one.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Would you care to gather up that information for us or put us in touch with the person?

Mr Urquhart —I can gather up that information and put you in touch with that person privately.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Thank you.

Senator O’BRIEN —I am interested in the inquiry into the CASA North Queensland office and the Venn report. What do you know about that?

Mr Urquhart —I know a lot about it. I am hesitant to say too much about it because one of my sources was directly involved in that and actually had his AOC taken off him for, once again, vexatious reasons. It was returned very soon afterwards once it was realised that there was a particular issue between him and the CASA person who took the action against him and that the issue was false.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you think that a reasonable person standing at the back of the room witnessing that episode would say that the person whose licence or whatever was taken away was being intimidated?

Mr Urquhart —Yes. I certainly was not there, but who would be standing in the back of the courtroom apart from CASA people?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am saying an independent person—

Senator O’BRIEN —In theory?

Mr Urquhart —In theory, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The powers being evidenced to this committee say that if you are intimated in any way, any of you, we can take action which could end up with someone in the can.

Mr Urquhart —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I would be interested to get the details of that episode as well.

Mr Urquhart —If you look at some of my points, especially my summary points—they are not recommendations; they are what we would like to see happen—you can see that I do mention criminal or civil prosecution for some of these people.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It would be assisting this committee if you, in camera or by some other means, were able to give us some closer information on that.

Mr Urquhart —I must say at this point that it is quite difficult to give precise information when I have so much information to give.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, but we will assist you with that process.

Mr Urquhart —I use the word ‘overwhelming’. As a member of the public, of course I have a vested interest but you will find that any public transcripts of anything that my family and the other families have said and anything we are doing is in the interests of safety in Australia. Agreeing with those gentlemen again, we need some sort of world best practice oversight of this particular industry and at the moment that is not the case. I will go a little bit further because I need to say this—I am not going to beat around the bush as some of the other witness have. Not only is it the organisation of CASA but it is the culture of CASA. Unfortunately, that is down to the personalities of the people involved. From 2003 is a rather short period of time, because these endemic problems go right back to 1998 where reform was promised, and reform has not happened. Other people have referred to that several times today in this inquiry. So there is that endemic—I could use the word ‘corruption’—problem within the organisation.

Senator NASH —You referred to the long-term disgraceful behaviour of CASA’s North Queensland officers. Would you like to expand on that for us?

Mr Urquhart —The North Queensland office of CASA is notorious for two things: turning a blind eye to, as I think Senator Heffernan mentioned before, the cowboys who operate up there and also some pretty ordinary behaviour of the officers themselves. Can I give you an example that came out at the inquest. It is noted on the public record. The CASA FOI based in Cairns who did the audit on Transair in April before the crash was brought before the inquest and asked a couple of things. One of the really interesting things that both counsellors asked was, ‘Have you read the report?’ I might say as an aside that the whole of the inquest was based on this report. The coroner found that this report was so comprehensive and well done that most of the inquest was based on it.

I go back to my point. This particular FOI was asked whether he had read the report. His answer was, ‘No, I haven’t read the report. Why should I?’ He is adversely mentioned in this report. We would have thought that someone who was adversely mentioned in the report would have read it. He was then questioned about the actual audit that he did on Transair at the time. He evaded most of the questions by giving what I call the ‘Nuremberg defence’—that is, ‘I was just doing what I was told.’ He also talked about lack of resources and when questioned he talked about human resources and time. When he was asked, ‘Well, what on earth could you do if you had a lack of time and a lack of human resources?’ he said, ‘I just reduce the scope of the audit.’ It is cold comfort for anybody who is going to be travelling on those airlines if it comes out at an inquest that that is the way the CASA people operate.

CHAIR —Is this guy still an FOI?

Mr Urquhart —No, he has retired. If I could expand on that: most of the people, except those in the high echelons of CASA, who were involved around the time of the Lockhart River accident, particularly those in North Queensland, no longer work for CASA, or are retired or have been moved on. That is another little tactic that CASA uses; it muddies the waters as it goes along. It was also interesting to note in some correspondence just recently that the CEO proudly talks about the reforms that have happened. I have not seen any major reforms that have happened since then. Someone also said that people like myself should not be complaining. What do we need to do? Wait for another accident before CASA needs to act? CASA has not acted before accidents before. It waits until there is an accident or an incident and then it acts.

I can be as cynical as anybody else, but let us be honest: in the last week or so CASA grounded Aero Tropics in Cairns, which was the ticketing company—in that photo on the front of the ATSB report is a plane and it has Aero Tropics on the side of it; that is actually VH-TFU that crashed—after they had been looking at them for almost 12 months. It begs the question: why were they grounded at six o’clock on the Friday afternoon just gone, after hours? Another one is—I am just using this as an example—the new huge building that is going to be built in Brisbane received CASA approval last year. It was not going to get in the way of any flight paths or whatever. Suddenly, last week CASA withdrew that approval and Mr Gibson was on television making the point. When he was questioned that it seemed to be a bit strange that all of a sudden he had made that decision, he had no answer for that. As to CASA’s so-called survey of the flying public about their opinions of CASA: there are 20 million people in Australia; they surveyed 1,500 people. Seventy-eight per cent of them thought CASA was doing a great job, so you do the math and work out how many that is. However, that survey was not done in the rural and regional sphere; it was done on major airlines where things are nice, you are on a big bus and everything looks okay. Those are the sorts of things that we, as members of the public and families, find a little bit distasteful.

Senator O’BRIEN —I am looking at the article you referred to. I cannot find the reference you were talking about—if, indeed, it is there—to the payments that the company received from training pilots.

CHAIR —The $2 million to $3 million you mentioned.

Mr Urquhart —Okay, that might not be in there, but it is certainly referred to in the inquest report. I do not have the transcript with me, except on my thumb drive, because it is huge.

Senator O’BRIEN —I do not think we can expect you to bring a coronial inquest transcript to respond to, but do you believe that information was available to CASA?

Mr Urquhart —Definitely! I can give you a source who can give you that information.

Senator O’BRIEN —Are you saying that CASA was aware of that before the crash?

Mr Urquhart —Yes.

CHAIR —Do you have that proof? Can you access that proof?

Mr Urquhart —Yes, I can access that proof.

Senator SIEWERT —That came up at the inquest?

Mr Urquhart —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So you will want to go in camera to provide us with that.

Mr Urquhart —Yes. I can provide you with the contact for that.

CHAIR —I think we will exhaust our questions here, if the committee can indulge me, but we will go in camera before the lunch break. I think it is important that we utilise this time to get questions on the record now. If there are other questions, I urge senators to ask them.

Senator SIEWERT —Earlier, Mr Urquhart, you were talking about the lack of reform since 1998, but just prior to that you were saying, if I understood you correctly, there are also a lot of personalities involved in this issue. Is it a combination of both: the lack of suitable reform laid on top of those personalities?

Mr Urquhart —Layered on top of that are the concepts of self-interest and self-indulgence within that particular organisation, and I think that flows over into the department of transport. It has become a culture that is so ingrained—not only as a matter policy, but as a matter of everyday operation—that this is what these people do. Once again, those gentlemen alluded to that. If you write them a letter and ask them for a simple answer or some simple assistance, they will turn it around and want to prosecute you or tell their people not to talk to you or whatever. I have never spoken to anyone in CASA because they will not speak to me.

Senator SIEWERT —It seems to me to be a sort of defence culture.

Mr Urquhart —It is a defence culture, and that was very, very plain in the inquest. As a matter of fact, some really interesting things came out of the inquest, and I think some of the senators here can attest to that. In the estimates hearing in February this year, Mr Carmody was questioned about the fact that CASA was instructed to be severely critical of the ATSB and to be adversarial in that particular instance. He denied that, yet it is on record in the coroner’s findings, the transcripts of which I have here, that that was not the case. He denied that that was the case. The coroner said yes it was. There were a few other things that he also said. He said that basically CASA agreed with the coroner’s findings or vice versa. That is not true either. Sorry—that is not right. He said that CASA’s point of view about the whole issue was the same as the coroner’s. That is just not true; it is not correct at all. The coroner’s findings and the transcripts there back that up 100 per cent.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you mean CASA’s view subsequent to the coroner’s findings or prior to the coroner’s findings?

Mr Urquhart —Before, during and after.

Senator SIEWERT —Okay. So they have maintained that.

Mr Urquhart —They have maintained that line. That then went across to the government, where any questions by people like us about what was going on, any evidence that we were supplying to the minister of the day, was met fairly quickly with the response: ‘There was an inquest. This was the outcome. That’s it. No further correspondence.’ Unfortunately, we have received a similar response from the present minister.

Senator SIEWERT —I think Senator Nash asked you about the Queensland incident, following comments in your report about the North Queensland office.

Mr Urquhart —Remember, that is just one.

Senator SIEWERT —Yes. Regarding the response that you got from the officer who is no longer there, has that been raised with CASA, raised with the minister and raised with the department?

Mr Urquhart —I cannot speak for that. I would say that of course it was raised in the legal action that was taken, because that legal action included about 11 different companies, people and entities that CASA was litigating against at that particular time.

Senator SIEWERT —But have you raised it in any of your submissions to anyone?

Mr Urquhart —Not that particular one. It only came to my notice about two days ago. I can also refer to another incident, going back before Lockhart River, where a Metro was landed at Holroyd Station on the wrong airstrip and it was bogged. Nothing was ever said or done about that. That plane was towed out by the landowner. CASA denied that that ever happened. The landowner then said, ‘Well, that’s funny because I towed the plane out. It’s interesting to hear that it never happened when I was there and saw it and rescued the plane.’ That plane was also flown back to Cairns with the nose wheel down. It was locked and it could not be unlocked. That is an illegal practice.

Senator SIEWERT —You may have gone part way to answering my next question. Let us just use that example. Why would CASA deny that that ever happened? Why is that in its interests?

Mr Urquhart —I cannot speak for CASA. I do not know.

Senator SIEWERT —I suppose you are speculating.

Mr Urquhart —I can only go back to my affirmation that there is too much self-interest from CASA officers, whoever they may be.

Senator SIEWERT —How did you find out about that incident?

Mr Urquhart —That one is on the public record.

Senator SIEWERT —So it is on the public record and yet CASA still denies it?

Mr Urquhart —Yes. I might add that the ATSB denied it as well.

Senator O’BRIEN —I am anxious that we go in camera.

CHAIR —We will have a short suspension and then we will go in camera.

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

[1.42 pm]