Senate debates

Thursday, 2 March 2006


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Reference

10:29 am

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the following matter be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry and report by 16 October 2006:

The adequacy of Australia’s aviation safety regime, with particular reference to the performance by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority of its functions under the Civil Aviation Act 1988.

I must say at the start that I am disappointed that government senators are opposing this reference. I am not surprised the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Warren Truss, is opposed to it and is calling for government senators to oppose this motion, because this reference was a test for him—a test he has failed. Mr Truss does not want Australia’s aviation safety regulatory regime subjected to a detailed examination by a committee of the parliament, and the question needs to be asked: why? It is obvious that it is because he is worried what an inquiry might reveal.

Let me outline what Labor proposes: a general inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee into our aviation safety regime, with particular reference to the performance of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, to report by 16 October 2006. There is nothing out of the ordinary in that proposal. Indeed, inquiries of this kind used to be the bread and butter of Senate references committees. That was, of course, before the Howard government gained a stranglehold on this chamber and made a deliberate decision to choke it to death. Another important change has occurred: Liberal and National Party senators no longer exercise any will of their own. They take the whip not just from their respective party rooms but straight from the executive. In this case it is a National Party minister calling the shots: the metaphorical tail wagging the dog.

Let me turn to the question of why this inquiry is so necessary and to the reason the government’s decision to block the reference is contemptible. The simple fact is that many Australians have lost confidence in Australia’s aviation safety regime. In particular, they have lost confidence in CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. A recent survey commissioned by CASA that measures views on aviation safety in Australia shows that many Australians have lost confidence in flying. This survey, released in January, shows that public confidence has fallen since it had last been measured, in 2002. CASA’s own survey shows that complete confidence in arriving safely when flying between capital cities has fallen to 36 per cent, from 41 per cent in 2002. Complete confidence in arriving safely when flying between regional towns has fallen to 24 per cent, from 27 per cent in 2002. The simple fact is that Australians ought to have complete confidence that they will arrive safely when travelling on any commercial flight within Australia. It is disturbing that complete confidence has declined over the past three years.

The survey also reveals that the percentage of Australians who say flying in Australia is safer than flying in countries like the United States has fallen to 53 per cent, from 60 per cent in 2002. That is a worrying fall in confidence, given that the 2002 survey followed the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack in the United States.

CASA did, of course, report the survey results with a big dose of self-congratulation. According to CASA, public confidence is ‘sky high’ and the survey results are ‘good news for the aviation industry’. That is what they say. At the time the survey was released I urged CASA to reverse the decline in public confidence in flying by concentrating on its core activity: improving safety in Australian skies—that is, a little more action and a little less public relations, please. The reality is that if Australians lack confidence in flying the responsibility rests with the regulator.

It really is no surprise that public confidence in falling, particularly in regional aviation. Australia has experienced a series of disastrous aviation events over recent months and years. The most tragic, of course, was the Lockhart River tragedy. Fifteen Australians lost their lives on 7 May last year when a Fairchild Metroliner operated by Transair crashed and exploded in flames near the Lockhart River airstrip. Like some, but certainly not most, senators in this place, I have landed at that airstrip in recent times. That incident shook me. More importantly, it devastated the families of the people on board that flight. Many months later, these families are still waiting for answers.

Mr Shane Urquhart, the father of Ms Sally Urquhart, a young Queensland policewoman who died in the crash, supports this inquiry. In fact, he has told Australian Associated Press that a move to block the inquiry would show that the government has ‘something to hide’. Mr Urquhart says a decision to block this inquiry would ‘show the government has no compassion, no concern for its citizens getting justice, and lacks the guts to question anything CASA does’. Of all the words spoken in this debate, including my own, none will be more powerfully expressed, more powerfully felt, than those words. A decision to block the inquiry would—I quote Mr Urquhart again—‘show the government has no compassion, no concern for its citizens getting justice, and lacks the guts to question anything CASA does’.

It is not just getting answers from CASA about its performance in the lead-up to the Lockhart River tragedy that motivates Mr Urquhart and other relatives of those killed in May last year. By supporting a public inquiry into CASA’s performance, they want to make sure that something like this will not happen again. I have no doubt that at some time in this debate a government senator will say something like: ‘Well, hang on, you can ask all the questions you like during Senate estimates hearings; you don’t need a references inquiry.’ To that I say: turn to the Hansard of May last year and you will discover that the CEO of CASA, Mr Byron, was too busy to appear to answer questions. He skipped estimates to attend a one-day aviation conference in Europe, the cost of which the government is still refusing to reveal.

Have a close look at that Hansard and you will find CASA evidence that it conducted a full audit of Transair’s operations before the Lockhart River tragedy and gave the airline the all clear. That is evidence the regulator gave again at October and February estimates hearings, despite a finding by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau that there were manifest deficiencies in the airline’s operations, including a failure to lodge load sheets at departure and a failure to ensure pilots had the training mandated in the company’s operations manual. What the Senate estimates committee has heard from CASA are excuses, not answers.

On the question of risk profiling, CASA has refused to reveal whether Transair was clearly identified near the top of its risk profile table in the months leading up to the May 2005 tragedy—the top meaning the biggest risk. That is my understanding, but CASA has obfuscated for months. First, senior officers said they could not remember. Then they told us the risk profiling was unreliable. Recently, they claimed the risk-profiling table was filled with dummy numbers just to show what it could do if they ever got it to work. None of that is good enough.

No senator in this place should be satisfied with CASA’s defence of its performance in relation to the Lockhart River disaster. My colleague Senator McLucas has not been satisfied and has battled for months to get answers from CASA on why it gave Transair a clean bill of health when it was demonstrably not deserving of that treatment. A parliamentary inquiry that shines a spotlight on the agency is the very best way to establish whether the agency did the job it was tasked to do by this parliament.

Of course, it is not just the Lockhart River tragedy that has raised serious questions about CASA’s performance. The regulator has been subject to trenchant criticism from a Western Australian coroner in relation to air tragedies in that state. A series of skydiving deaths has raised questions about CASA’s role in the regulation of sports aviation. And then there is the stock-in-trade concern about the performance of the regulator in relation to general aviation.

It is not just this side of the parliament that receives complaints about CASA’s performance, either. Recently we have all heard horror stories about CASA’s handling of pilot photo IDs. We have also heard complaints about CASA’s new cost-recovery based charging regime. Senator Eggleston came into the Senate a couple of months ago and laid out a case against CASA in relation to its dealings with Polar Aviation, a company operating in his home state of Western Australia. He said at that time that the ‘claim that CASA has failed the test of an impartial regulator seems not unreasonable’. He went on:

It seems difficult not to conclude that the behaviour of CASA in this matter warrants further investigation.

It seems not unreasonable for Polar Aviation—and, indeed, anyone who heard that speech—to expect Senator Eggleston to join Labor senators in supporting this motion. It is not unreasonable to expect that rural and regionally based senators on the other side would support an inquiry into CASA—for example, Senator Boswell, someone who claims to champion regional Australia, or Senator Joyce, someone who knows a thing or two about flying in regional Queensland.

It is not just past performance that requires scrutiny. The regulator’s recent announcement of wide-ranging changes to its operations, including the so-called ‘acceptable means of compliance’ safety regime, lends weight to the case for a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry. This restructure has a backdrop that also warrants attention by a parliamentary inquiry, not least the murky market-testing process clouded in claims—well-established claims, in my view—of conflict of interest. In relation to the new arrangements announced by Mr Byron, the Chief Executive Officer of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, just hours before the last estimates hearing, questions remain about its rationale and its likely efficacy.

I should not need to tell the Senate that mistakes by aviation safety regulators matter. Each element of the new arrangement announced hastily by Mr Byron before the last estimates is deserving of scrutiny by the parliament, scrutiny that is just not possible within the constraints of an estimates hearing. A references inquiry would give stakeholders an opportunity to make submissions on CASA’s performance, an opportunity that is not available in the estimates process. It would also give CASA an opportunity to explain its role and, if necessary, defend its performance from its critics. So it is even handed. It would afford the parliament the opportunity to have a look at our overall aviation safety regime, including the role played by other agencies. It would give us the chance to look at what we are doing right in aviation safety. Just as importantly, it would give us the chance to look at what we are doing that is not right.

I implore all senators in this place to support this reference. Do not hide behind an excuse that it is not specific to one incident in your own state, as one senator suggested to me was a justification for not supporting this inquiry. If you believe that there are elements in one incident that warrant an inquiry into CASA then why would you withhold scrutiny from CASA in relation to all other matters of concern raised by Australians? Why would you deny Australians with those concerns the opportunity to place before parliament their concerns, to put them on the Hansard, to enable them to be tested by the committee and to ultimately have the report of this committee come to this chamber and go to the minister so that he can be assisted in his administration of his portfolio?

At the end of the day, if the minister wants to hide CASA from scrutiny then it is the minister who will be responsible if the system continues to break down. As Mr Urquhart said, the government needs to have the guts to give the Senate the power to look at CASA because, at the end of the day, Australians want to have confidence in the aviation safety regime. They want to have confidence in the regulator, but every time the government hides the regulator from the scrutiny of parliament, more questions will be raised in the minds of doubters in the Australian community about Australia’s aviation safety regime. More questions will be asked. The numbers in CASA’s survey will probably deteriorate further, indicating a deterioration in confidence in the safety of Australia’s aviation regime, and ultimately that is not good for any operator of an aviation service in this country.

It is certainly not good for the public. It is not good for the parliament generally. And it will not be a good thing for this minister, Mr Warren Truss, because at the end of the day it will be seen that he has obscured an authority over which he has ultimate control from the scrutiny of the parliament. So let us get behind this. Let us see if coalition senators will actually refuse to take direction from the executive, will support the establishment of an inquiry, will allow the parliamentary committee to do its work and will allow accountable scrutiny of the authority that regulates safety in our skies.

10:45 am

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Aged Care, Disabilities and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

I must say I am somewhat astonished that the government have not taken the opportunity to put on the record their reasons why they are opposing this reference. This is an appalling situation. I am wondering where Senator Boswell and Senator Joyce are, to tell us why they are going to vote against a reasonable, sensible and timely inquiry into the operation of Australia’s air transport regulator. This is an appalling state of affairs. Where are these senators who walk around and say that they are the people who defend rural and regional Queensland? Why are they opposing an inquiry that will allow my constituents some opportunity to understand what CASA was doing in the lead-up to the Lockhart River tragedy? It is an appalling state of affairs.

On 7 May 2005, a plane travelling from Bamaga to Cairns via Lockhart River crashed when attempting to land at the Lockhart River airstrip. Fifteen people were killed in that tragedy—two pilots and 13 passengers. Most of those people were my constituents—can I say, ‘our constituents’; Senator Boswell’s, Senator Joyce’s and my constituents. Yet those senators are not here to explain why they are not going to allow an inquiry that will give the relatives of those people who died an opportunity to understand what CASA was doing in the lead-up to this appalling tragedy.

We know, through the Australian Transport Safety Bureau interim factual report which was released on 16 December 2005, that a number of deficiencies were found that CASA could have dealt with if they had, in the view of many, been doing their job properly. That interim factual report found that the copilot was not approved to conduct an RNAV (GNSS) approach—the type of approach that was being attempted on that tragic day. This was in contradiction of the company’s operation manual. The interim factual report also found that a load sheet was not left at the aerodrome of departure—the town of Bamaga. It also found, astonishingly, that it was not routine practice for Transair to leave a load sheet at the Bamaga airport. This was also in contravention of the company’s operation manual. The cockpit voice recorder was not functioning, and no data from it was usable. The report also found that it had not been functioning for quite some time.

We may well ask why this is relevant to the inquiry which is the subject of the debate today. Following questioning at estimates, CASA has revealed that in early 2005, prior to the tragedy, it conducted what it called ‘a fulsome audit’—an audit which in the view of many, including me, should have revealed the persistent noncompliance of Transair with the company’s operation manual. That is something that it is obliged to do under air safety regulations. It did an audit, but it did not find out that the copilot was not qualified. CASA actually travelled the same route with the same two pilots—those two pilots who were tragically killed—and did not check to see if that pilot was qualified to do the instrument landing that he was attempting that day. How did that happen? We need answers to these sorts of questions, and this inquiry would allow the families of those people who were killed to ask those questions, to put their views on the record and to ask CASA what it was doing. What did it do during that ‘fulsome audit’ that did not reveal the noncompliance with the company’s operation manual?

Further, in the last estimates CASA explained that, partly as a result of the Lockhart River tragedy, a number of internal procedures are proposed to be changed. Those procedures require scrutiny. We want to know what they intend to do and why we have to wait until 15 people are killed before they change their internal operations. What is wrong with this organisation that watched—it is probably too strong to say allowed—an event happen? We need to understand that. That is why it is timely that this inquiry occur—an inquiry that will allow for scrutiny of CASA’s actions prior to the tragedy. It will also allow the families of those who were killed to provide their evidence to the committee.

Not only North Queenslanders have lost confidence in the regulator of aviation and, particularly, in light aircraft aviation over the last 12 months; as my colleague Senator O’Brien has identified, many Australians have diminished confidence in the ability of this government to monitor the safety and compliance of aviation generally. However, when you go to North Queensland and you see the data on the number of incidents and, unfortunately, the number of deaths that we have had, you know it is absolutely timely that an inquiry of this nature proceed.

You cannot simply stand by and say, ‘CASA had nothing to do with the fact that 15 people died at Lockhart River.’ Surely Senator Boswell and Senator Joyce have a responsibility to allow this inquiry to proceed. What do they have to hide? More importantly, who are they protecting? The bottom line is that Liberal Party and National Party senators are lining up today to protect Mr Truss and, before him, Mr Anderson rather than allow the proper scrutiny of the actions of CASA in the lead-up to the Lockhart River tragedy. For all of the bluster of Senator Boswell and Senator Joyce, protecting their leader is more important than allowing scrutiny of Australia’s air transport regulator.

This inquiry is important for Queenslanders—in particular, Far North Queenslanders. They were my constituents, and their families need answers. The number of incidents and, in fact, deaths in North Queensland needs explanation. We need a restoration of confidence in the aviation sector in North Queensland. Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait rely on general aviation and regular passenger transport systems in order to connect with the rest of the world. It is not a frivolous part of our life. We have to use planes to get where we need to go. Many of the people of the Torres Strait live on islands. They have to use general aviation—it is like the rest of Australia using roads. But we want to have confidence that when we get on a plane it is going to be okay, and we do not have that anymore. This inquiry would allow scrutiny of our air transport regulator to continue, and I demand that Senator Boswell and Senator Joyce come into this chamber and explain why they cannot support an inquiry that would at least give us some understanding of CASA’s role and would potentially restore some confidence in the aviation sector. It is appalling that they are not here.

Question put:

That the motion (That the motion () be agreed to.

11:02 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I came down to participate in the debate but came a little too late. I did want to say that I was going to be voting against the motion, but I was impressed by some of the things said by Senator O’Brien and particularly Senator McLucas, who comes from an area where I fly a lot in small planes as well. Whilst I voted against the motion because I know it is something that the minister will be pursuing, having heard what was said I simply wanted to associate myself on the public record with the sentiments that were expressed by the two speakers. I would certainly urge the minister to carefully consider the matters that have been raised, and to address them forthwith. I do not think we need the inquiry, but perhaps if they are not properly addressed in the future this is something that could well be considered.

11:03 am

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I thank Senator Ian Macdonald for confirming that this is purely a decision of the minister and that the executive of the government has called the shots for the Senate chamber. I simply say: this will not be the end of this matter.

11:04 am

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I want to speak particularly because a lot of the arguments that were made referred to the tragic accident in North Queensland, my home state, and I also want to have the Democrats’ view clearly on the record. I was intending to speak briefly in the debate and I thought I would wait until after the government speakers so I could respond to their arguments. Unfortunately, there was not a government speaker so the vote was done. But I want to put clearly that the Democrats supported that motion, as indicated by our vote. I think it is very disappointing that the government is so dismissive of the Senate’s desire to inquire into important issues that it could not even be bothered putting a case against it, let alone supporting it.