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Administration of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority

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

Mr Hurst —Yes, if I may. I would like to start by saying what our submission is not. The submission is not another attack on CASA; it is a genuine effort to assist the regulator recover from a pathological culture and a lack of policy and leadership over decades that have led to a range of symptoms that work against aviation safety. Our submission is not an attack on the staff of CASA, many of whom are committed to aviation safety and to the industry they regulate. In fact, AAAA recently awarded our highest honour, the Ray Mackay award, to a CASA employee, Mr Aussie Pratt, because of his long-term assistance to the industry while maintaining his independence and the higher standards of safety oversight. There are many in CASA who work well with industry and support improved safety outcomes, but they generally achieve this in spite of the culture in which they operate and without the clear support of senior management through clear policy.

However, there are still some individuals who perpetuate the pathological culture, seemingly without accountability. Our view is that CASA does not have aviation problems, it has management problems. And the problems have been compounded in recent years by an apparent lack of accountability to the minister, to parliament, to the community and to industry, by a lack of clear and enforced policy driving regulation enforcement and work practices, and by a lack of high-level consultation with industry to establish strategic priorities for aviation safety, not just regulatory reform.

Our view is that CASA is changing very, very slowly, and it is this pace of change that is the challenge. We feel that CASA has forgotten how to win. It makes even its simple processes complicated and it has difficulty grasping obvious opportunities, which we call the low-hanging fruit. The essential evolution of CASA need not be so slow if it were fuelled by sound management and a strong policy process that involved industry. I would like to state for the record that industry, at least our sector of it, fully supports the role of CASA as an independent policeman. Apart from safety being fundamental to our clients as well as our staff and pilots, industry wants a level playing field to enable fair competition. The role of the safety regulator in ensuring that all operators are meeting minimum standards is fundamental to achieving a level playing field, and without CASA policing rogue operators that want to take shortcuts and potentially jeopardise safety, then industry as a whole suffers. Again, we fully support CASA’s safety oversight role. That concludes my opening statement.

CHAIR —Never a truer statement. Thank you very much, Mr Hurst.

Senator O’BRIEN —I guess you are talking about timidity of management in implementing change. Is that what you are suggesting?

Mr Hurst —What we have witnessed over a long period of time—my involvement with CASA in this instance has been 10 years, but previously I had an interest in policy development working in this place and others—and I refer to the CEO’s evidence yesterday to the committee, is almost a delinking of what is presented as the way things are done and what we see at the grassroots level. Industry has been concerned for a long time that the rhetoric is good, and we agree with the rhetoric; we agree with what Mr Byron says about—

Senator O’BRIEN —So what we were being told yesterday is not how things really are in the field. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Hurst —It may be how the CEO is seeing things develop, but the difficulty is at the coalface. Whilst there has been some improvement, we are still seeing some of the same pathological symptoms that we have seen over the years. For example, where flying operations inspectors take the law into their own hands. Their default setting, driven by their culture, is ‘I know best’ regardless of referring to central policy or anything else. Their gut reaction is, ‘This is how I was taught therefore this is how it’s going to be.’ We have had recent examples of that with, for example, chief pilots being failed in their interviews because they did not understand density altitude or were not able to explain density altitude. Do not get me wrong, that is an important part of being a pilot, but when you put it in the context of risk management, that pilot was being interviewed for an agricultural operation that seldom operates above 500 feet and with a load that could be jettisoned. So there seems to be this delinking, in our view, between the talk at the top, which we fully support, and what we experience at the grassroots level.

Senator O’BRIEN —Do you know why that would be?

Mr Hurst —I think part of the problem is that CASA has not developed the management systems to enforce the will of senior managers on to the rest of the organisation. In our submission, we make reference to the number of subcultures that operate within CASA. Sometimes it is difficult to work out if you are talking to one organisation or many. The subculture seems to drive a lot of the difficulties that management has in enforcing their will. My take on it is that the only way they will get that position, which I am sure the CEO is trying to do, is to do it by establishing systems that remove a lot of the discretion of junior staff.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We have heard evidence that CASA has had a 50 per cent turnover of staff, a change in culture and a change in management, but that it might be becoming deskilled. We have had evidence that people who have authority to inspect at a certain level are really not qualified to do so; they are working above their capacity. Do you think that, given that there may be circumstances—and I am not saying that there are—where the person who is doing the inspecting might feel insecure in the way that they are doing their job, they might react with a personality thing as their authority rather than their intellectual authority?

Mr Hurst —I think that you are on the right track. We have had instances of flying operations inspectors coming to our businesses and asking for advice on what they should be looking for because they have never operated in the agriculture industry before. They do not know what they are looking for and to be honest, most of the staff in CASA, as I said, are just trying to get through the day and do a good job. A lot of the guys that we work with are diligent and trying to be helpful. There are still a few amongst them who have what I would call a pathological approach to safety—that is, they will go out of their way to play a gotcha game, a technical breach game, whist perhaps missing the larger safety picture.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Part of the driver of that may well be their own insecurity. I mean, this is a real issue that could be a real threat to air safety. If you take a bloke like my old mate—and I declare an interest, Mr Chair—Col Adams, who is an aerial agriculture operator—

Mr Hurst —He would claim that he is not that old, senator!

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I know. He is not, but he has a young son, which shows it up, you see! But he has been there for as long as I can remember—30 or 40 years. These fellas can land a plane in amongst a mob of cattle but would probably have difficulty landing at Mascot—it is a different skills set. They survive diving under power lines and around trees; they know what they are doing. That actually happens, Senator O’Brien.

Senator O’BRIEN —I know things like that happen. I was talking to someone whose brother was doing his own agricultural spraying and died because he did not duck under the powerlines.

Senator HEFFERNAN —All human endeavour has some human failure and mechanical things do break down. But you can imagine that, if you are a little insecure in your knowledge base and working above your capacity, you may react in a certain way. We have lots of evidence that people feel intimidated by some of these officers. They give us in camera submissions saying ‘Please don’t let them know that I told you this sort of stuff.’ So there is a cultural problem.

Mr Hurst —The problem that you allude to is very real. The de-skilling of CASA has been going on for decades. One of the difficulties that you have with that de-skilling is that at some point you need to manage the fact that you do not have a lot of skilled staff by having superior systems. What we consistently see is that there is no system in place to manage whatever the interaction is, whether it is an audit or a rectification notice or whatever. There is not a system in place that says, ‘This is how we are going to develop a policy. If there is a shortcoming, X, Y and Z will happen in the same way every time.’ What we end up doing is treating these individual problems as individual problems rather than saying, ‘Well that just fits into the system and let’s just get on with the job.’ The real problem is if you have staff that may not be that experienced in an area. They are going to be looking and relying more on a systems based approach which, in the case of CASA, we simply do not see evidence of. That brings up the broader issue of risk management. One of the good things that has come out of CASA recently has been the classification of activities, which in my view really just gives effect to previous letters from the minister saying ‘Focus on fare-paying passengers.’ When you take that risk based approach of asking where the most risk is, the most risk to the most people is going be with fare paying passengers. If you try and put meat on the bones of that policy, you really begin to wonder why CASA is spending the resources that they are—for example, in aerial work and private aviation—rather than shifting those resources into a concentration on fare-paying passengers.

As I said at the beginning, we fully support the role of CASA as an independent policeman. We do not want to see that being eroded. But if you do not have the skill set and you have for example, in the case of aerial application, a competent association with a proven track record of delivering safety outcomes, why wouldn’t you work with them to get them to do some of the activities that you might otherwise do? We have been having quite good discussions with CASA on that front.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But are you saying that there should be an element of self-policing?

Mr Hurst —The term we are using is ‘self-administration’, because it is not self-regulation. The role of the regulator remains untouched. But there are some things that four As, the AAAA, can do. For example, we already have a standard operations manual that we have negotiated with CASA. It means that instead of approving every single manual times 130 AAC holders, which is what we have in agriculture, they now only have to approve one manual and it accounts for, at the moment, about 84 operators. That is the sort of efficiency that we can drive. It is not skirting around regulation or anything else—it is just a more efficient way of administering things.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Are you familiar with the incident in which that young bloke got killed out the back of the Bethungra hills while firefighting?

Mr Hurst —Yes, I am.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am reliably informed that that plane was working outside its limits with its load and whatever.

Mr Hurst —As is the case for all accidents, I refer to the ATSB and wait until their final report.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is that still an ongoing investigation?

Mr Hurst —There was a recent report on that which did not identify any problems with the aircraft. Our take on that as an association is that if you are going to look at anything the ATSB raised you would look at the actual hours on type. But that is the sort of example where it is better to deal with the science and with what the regulation is telling us. To the best of our knowledge, that aircraft operates under a full approved STC. That is not necessarily the area that we are talking about with better administration. You cannot take shortcuts with engineering necessarily, because physics is physics.

CHAIR —You mentioned the regulator being independent. Does your membership believe that the regulator is independent?

Mr Hurst —Independent from the industry?


Mr Hurst —Absolutely.

CHAIR —You do not think that it is too close in certain sectors?

Mr Hurst —Closeness to the regulator—

CHAIR —Submissions have said that CASA is a little bit close to certain segments of the industry.

Mr Hurst —I would have to say that our experience is the opposite of that.

CHAIR —They are not close to your industry. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Hurst —They are not close to our industry. In fact, what we experience in those few cases where we have FOIs who want to go out and make a name for themselves is the opposite. They do not have the skill set to understand aerial application. They may have a barebones agricultural rating, but they have never fired a shot in anger in the industry. That is the problem that we have. They may have the paper qualifications, but they have no experience to fall back on.

CHAIR —A common theme coming through all the submissions is the negativity to the abolition of the board of CASA. I notice that on page 15 of your submission you touch on that as well.

Mr Hurst —We perhaps take a longer term view than others in the industry. I have been in this job for 10 years, and in that period of time CASA has had a board and operated without a board. We have not seen a significant difference in the outcomes. We are an organisation that focuses on outcomes, not process. We have seen no change, whether there has been a board or not. As we say in our submission, we are ambivalent about whether there should be a board introduced or not.

If a board were to be introduced, however, there would be a couple of advantages. The first is that it might fix the problem of a lack of high-level strategic consultation with industry as long as peak associations, including us, get a chance at being on the board. It is a little like the comment yesterday that everyone says that they want small working groups as long as they are on them. You can put us down as a ‘me, too’ on that. A board may also have the advantage of being able to provide broader guidance to a CEO. I work with a board and I value the role of the board, because they provide to me a much wider perspective on life than what I am able to bring.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It will tell you what you do not want to hear sometimes.

Mr Hurst —That is all part and parcel of learning. I do not resile from that in anyway.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is a good thing—that is what I mean.

Mr Hurst —Absolutely. The problem with CASA is that what we have seen over the years are a number of different structures under a number of different government arrangements. To be honest, from the perspective of industry, where you are looking at outcomes, none of them have worked. We are beginning to see a little of it. In fact, the best time that we have had with CASA in terms of outcomes is when they have simply managed to put a competent, experienced person on the job—whether it be rewriting regulations, like part 137; or whether it be establishing a small unit called the agricultural unit, which in a matter of months changed the interrelationship between CASA and the industry for the better and which led to a number of efficiencies. The real issue with CASA lies in what stomach management has for rapid change. That is at the heart of the issue, not so much the governance arrangements.

Senator FISHER —Does that agricultural unit still exist?

Mr Hurst —When I made reference to CASA’s ability, they seem to have forgotten how to win. One of the things that they did in recent years was to abolish the agricultural unit and we were very fortunate to maintain one of the people from that unit, Aussie Pratt, who was previously based in Tamworth and who is now in Brisbane, as a liaison to the industry in an informal way. What we found is that by having a central contact point for our sector it removed a lot of the conflicting advice that we were getting from the regions. It was always the case when I first came that if you went to one region you would get one answer and if you went to another region with exactly the same problem you would get a different answer.

Senator FISHER —So that liaison officer is employed by CASA, is he?

Mr Hurst —Yes.

Senator FISHER —For how long did this agricultural unit run?

Mr Hurst —From 18 months to two years.

Senator O’BRIEN —On the issue of the standardisation of approach with industry, clearly what you are saying in your submission—and I do not disagree—is that you need to have direction for your field officers as to the appropriate procedures and the philosophy and principles that need to be applied to the role of the regulator. That is, as I understand it, what you are saying.

Mr Hurst —Absolutely.

Senator O’BRIEN —You are not saying that these—and correct me if I am wrong—field officers are simply automatons with a clipboard and a bit of paper who are just ticking boxes. You would expect, as I would, them to use some initiative, to think outside the square at times and to make judgements on things—for example, if there are things that appear to be going all right but which emerge as a threat to the safety of the operation or the general public.

Mr Hurst —I agree entirely. The difficultly is that if you have people in those positions who have no experience in that sector it is very difficult for them to understand. In the same way, when Senator Heffernan talked about flying under powerlines, I could see a number of senators flinch at the concept. The principle remains the same: the pilots are highly trained in exactly that skill. They undergo a very rigorous process of training in risk management and in inspection of the powerlines and in a range of other things. What on the face of it looks quite difficult and complicated is safer than flying over the powerlines as long as you can fit, and they are trained in how to assess that.

Senator O’BRIEN —You are going to have difficulty convincing me that it is a particularly safe operation, I have to tell you.

Mr Hurst —I invite all senators to come out to one of our bases and inspect it. I would love to take you through the processes that go into it. What Australia does with agricultural flying leads the world. That is not recognised.

Senator FISHER —Perhaps Mr Hurst could convince you, Senator, that it is not unsafe, given the circumstances and the purpose.

Mr Hurst —Exactly.

Senator O’BRIEN —Perhaps.

Mr Hurst —It comes back to straight risk management.

CHAIR —The committee might like to send Senator Fisher out there for a trial run, and she can report back to us.

Mr Hurst —In answer to Senator O’Brien, one of the key issues with the FOIs and the way that they operate—and the air worthiness inspectors—is the role of delegations. The way that the delegations are currently structured and handled is that once they have that delegation they then individually have to fulfil the role of being the person who deems that CASA is satisfied. A lot of the regulations have as part of them that CASA must be satisfied. In putting them into that position, you are really delivering to them an enormous amount of power with very little accountability, because there have been no systems backing them up until recently. My argument would be that a key issue to be addressed is the role of delegations.

My view would be that all delegations should be pulled back into a central area and that the FOIs and AWIs remain the eyes and ears—the experienced people in the field—who have to report through a system which then puts some quality assurance into the surveillance. If there is an immediate and obvious threat to safety, obviously they can act or the system can be developed to act quickly. But the real issue at the moment is that those delegations operate in direct conflict with the concepts of quality assurance, a consistent approach and a transparent approach to doing business. You see that in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where the role of individual FOIs has been challenged by the AAT. In some cases, the AAT has made in my view some quite significant criticisms. One FOI in a particular case was described as being unhelpfully over muscular, which in the language of the law is quite a strong criticism. What we are seeing is a systemic conflict.

Senator O’BRIEN —I assume that that was not a physical description.

Mr Hurst —It was a description of his attitude. The problem that we run into is that the system—the process—sets up a conflict. The system and policies should be used to drive much better quality assurance.

Senator O’BRIEN —The nub of your submission is not that these people should not use initiative but that they should be better trained and better equipped with standards and guidelines to allow them to do their job and that there should be some oversight of their discretion. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Hurst —Absolutely.

Senator O’BRIEN —I would not want a field officer to be so constrained that they were frightened to take action that they thought was necessary.

Mr Hurst —As I said earlier, when we gave our Ray Mackay Award to Aussie Pratt, the issue was not that we were trying to capture him. The issue was that at all times he has been an excellent example of a person who has been able to maintain his independence—be fiercely independent and critical of operators when he goes to do an audit—but to do his job in the interest of improving safety. The job is not done in the interest of saying: ‘Aha! Gotcha! Now I’m going to make your life a misery.’ It is a cultural aspect to the way that people approach their job. Because the culture has to be broken down, the best way to do that—in our view—is through policy development and policy driving a series of systems which do not remove the discretion but certainly inform the FOIs and AWIs about how they should be doing their jobs in a responsible and cooperative manner.

Senator FISHER —In addition to the things that Senator O’Brien suggested that you would be seeking change in respect of, would you not also add, at the very least, some liaison point between your association and CASA, given the particular flying circumstances and needs of aerial agriculture, which are rather unique and which differ from those of other sectors of the flying industry? So would you not also be seeking a continued liaison point with CASA?

Mr Hurst —Absolutely. When you lay over that the classification of operations policy that CASA has and look at that from a risk management point of view, the real risk to the wider public and the fare-paying passenger is not in the aerial work and private operations; it is in fare-paying RPTs and charters. Once you start to inform that policy and put some meat on the bones, it would then be quite easy to say that we will take a different enforcement approach where there is a lesser risk. Part of that enforcement approach could be a liaison officer or a small unit to manage that sector. What we are talking about is not revolutionary; this is the same sort of case and sectorial management approach that most other government agencies use.

Senator FISHER —It is debatable whether it is lesser or greater risk, but it is certainly a different risk, which needs specific attention.

Mr Hurst —Correct. Our job has an element of risk in it. It is well managed. But that risk is a risk to one occupant—the pilot—and potentially someone in the paddock. That is distinct from the risks to fare-paying passengers, who have a different set of expectations and no ability to manage their risk. They pay the ticket price and get on the plane, and that is the management of their risk.

Senator FISHER —Or indeed if he is not doing his job properly the chemical goes elsewhere, so there is a risk to others as well. So it is a very different—

Mr Hurst —But with the chemical risk—as I keep referring to CASA—(a) CASA has little jurisdiction over it and (b) it is extremely tightly regulated by the chemical control of use legislation at the state level and by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority through chemical labels.

Senator FISHER —Absolutely.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Hurst, for you assistance to the committee.

[9.30 am]