Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Aircraft Noise

1:19 am

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak this morning about the appalling track record of the Department of Infrastructure and Transport and Minister Albanese in their attempts to change the national framework for land use planning and aircraft noise by intruding into areas of state jurisdiction. At Senate estimates hearings over the last 18 months, I have repeatedly questioned senior DoIT officers. I am profoundly disturbed by the answers I have received and, as my time here draws to a close, I want to share with the Senate the sum of my concerns.

My focus has been on a plan by DoIT to change the rules governing planning in areas affected by noise from Australian airports—a Commonwealth move to force regulatory change to suit the interests of the aviation sector with utter disregard for the planning role of the states and for the housing industry. Either the minister or his department has departed from the standards we expect in a democratic federal system. For over 30 years, we have had in Australia a national standard—adopted in every jurisdiction—for mitigating the impacts of aircraft noise. The standard is AS2021.

AS2021 is a science based standard shaping the interface between residential development and airport activity. In recent years, however, DoIT has conducted a misleading campaign to change AS2021. Worse, DoIT has attempted to impose its preferred changes in disregard of the opposition of several states and of local government in an area where state support is crucial.

My questions to DoIT during estimates have revolved around the National Airports Safeguarding Advisory Group, or NASAG, since 2010. NASAG was convened by DoIT as an intergovernmental group following the aviation white paper of December 2009. It is now clear that DoIT used NASAG as a vehicle to undermine AS2021 and protect the interests of airports. DoIT convened NASAG, determined its agenda, and chaired and recorded the minutes of its meetings. NASAG included state and local government, but at crucial junctures their views were either not sought or ignored. NASAG's operations lacked transparency and its proceedings went unreported.

DoIT's heavily censored NASAG minutes show a campaign to replace AS2021 with a system directed at enhancing aviation interests alone. Throughout the early months of NASAG, the Commonwealth pretended its plans were to develop new aircraft noise metrics as the information tools proposed by the white paper rather than what they really were—namely regulatory measures prohibiting certain forms of development which had hitherto been allowed.

AS2021 is based on the Australian Noise Exposure Forecast system, or ANEF, which predicts on-ground levels of aircraft noise. The system's strong scientific pedigree informs land use planning decisions worldwide. AS2021 provides that outside what is called the '20 ANEF contour', residential housing is acceptable. Inside 25 ANEF, housing is unacceptable.

Airports are responsible for producing ANEF charts every five years setting out these contours. The Commonwealth's approach was to allege that, somehow, AS2021 was out of date. So it acted to undermine it. DoIT bowled up to the members of NASAG a map of noise complaints for Sydney Airport during 1998 which purported to indicate that a majority of noise complaints originated outside the 20 ANEF contour, demonstrating, the department contended, that AS2021 was now ineffective.

But a close examination of the facts discloses a less than honest manipulation of the data by the department. Firstly, 1998 was the year that saw noise sharing introduced to Sydney. That saw a huge spike in complaints from Sydney residents exposed to aircraft noise for the first time. Complaint numbers later reduced. Further, most of the problematic areas of Sydney were developed prior to AS2021 and would have been in breach of the standard—that is, complaints were coming from households which would not have been built had AS2021 been in force at the time.

DoIT proposed to NASAG that the ANEF system be 'supplemented' with a new set of noise contours to overlay the ANEF. Far from mere information tools, the new noise metrics or contours suddenly became regulatory in nature and were aimed at stopping development in huge areas of land around airports. In the words of Minister Albanese to a NSW counterpart in May 2011:

… where a development would expose future residents to more than six 60 decibel events between the hours of 11 pm and 6 am, it is the Government's view that such development should not be approved.

I am happy to table any of the documents I have referred to in this speech, Mr President. The minister makes it plain that the Commonwealth wanted to stop housing development in huge swathes around existing cities. As a result of industry and state and local government opposition, DoIT has now retreated back to the position of new aircraft noise metrics as information tools only. But this was not what DoIT proposed when it first published the draft output of the NASAG process, the National Airports Safeguarding Framework, in February last year. The framework contained six guidelines dealing with different topics. Guideline A, containing the new noise metrics, was by far the most radical guideline. Strangely, while there was specific stakeholder consultation around the five other relatively uncontroversial NASAG guidelines, there was none around the most explosive of them, Guideline A, prior to public release.

February 2012 was the first point at which the department published its plan to replace AS2021 with a new set of noise metrics. These metrics aimed to prohibit residential development in huge areas of land in various capitals. They were not aimed at informing the public about the effects of aircraft noise but at restricting residential development in the vicinity of airports, airports of which the Commonwealth is both regulator and landlord.

DoIT asserted that airports are a national asset to be protected from residential development—up to 30 kilometres from major airports. Complaints about aircraft noise will constrain the full economic development of airports and lead to curfews, this argument maintains.

DoIT now claims that the new noise metrics were never intended to be prescriptive, but were only intended to be informative and to supplement the ANEF system. This is belied by the draft text of guideline A. It is further belied by the amended text of guideline A published by DoIT after the 18 May 2012 meeting of the Standing Council on Transport and Infrastructure, or SCOTI. The new noise metrics were clearly aimed at restricting housing development in the states and territories, enhancing the value of Commonwealth airport leases. The noise metric in guideline A with the greatest impact was 'N60=6 at night' metric. If adopted, the N60=6 at night metric would sterilise over 1,000 square kilometres of land from residential development in and around the non-curfewed airports, at Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Darwin. Incredibly, DoIT has never produced maps that identify the impact of the N60=6 at night metric on land supply around these airports. No notice has ever been given to landowners within the affected land. DoIT did not seek views or advice from the housing sector which would be enormously affected. There was no attempt by DoIT to inform professional bodies in planning, engineering or acoustic science. The department sought neither acoustics nor planning input in respect of a proposal to change an acoustic standard. The April 2012 minutes of NASAG reveal that the department conducted no scientific or regulatory assessment. The department had no state support for the new regulatory metrics but persisted in attempting to have the changes endorsed through the COAG structures. It stifled any suggestion of dissent.

When the noise metrics were exposed to public view in February 2012, industry bodies and professions were universally scathing. Among the criticisms were claims that there had been neither scientific assessment nor regulatory impact assessment of the new metrics. The October 2007 COAG Best Practice Guide to Regulation, introduced by the Howard government and still in force today, was simply flouted. The Commonwealth failed to follow its own rules. It was left to industry bodies to engage specialist advice to demonstrate the potential impact of the NASAG proposals. Maps commissioned from international acoustic experts were the first to demonstrate the amount of land to be sterilised by the NASAG proposals, in particular the N60=6 at night metric. Urban economists Macroplan demonstrated the financial impacts. CB Richard Ellis reported on land value impacts. DoIT's intentions were finally exposed to scrutiny.

Having been alerted to the intent and impact of the new noise metrics, state governments responded. The minutes of the 20 April 2012 NASAG meeting, withheld by the department under the FOI Act for 12 months, paint a clear picture of the states' opposition to the new noise metrics. Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Local Government Association all voiced apposition at that time. Nonetheless, DoIT pushed on, attempting to have the new metrics adopted through COAG. Opposition from the states continued at a meeting of SCOTI on 18 May 2012. The department turned its efforts towards pressuring Standards Australia to revise AS2021 to include the new noise metrics rejected by the states and local government.

The SCOTI meeting on 18 May had been a focus of my questions at estimates. I have asked repeatedly what happened at that meeting and what was the position of the states regarding the new noise metrics. I have received various answers. On 23 May 2012 the Secretary of DoIT responded with evidence that WA and New South Wales had voiced opposition at the SCOTI meetings. However, the communique of the meeting prepared by DoIT only records that New South Wales had reservations about the format of Guideline A. This was misleading.

The minutes of the 18 May SCOTI meeting are now on the public record as a result of my questioning. These state that New South Wales does not agree with Guideline A in its present form. The minutes contradict the deceptive communique: it was not the formatted Guideline A that was rejected by New South Wales, but the guideline itself. Western Australian opposition to Guideline A is recorded neither in the 18 May 2012 SCOTI minutes prepared by DoIT, nor in the communique. The evidence of that opposition from the Secretary of DoIT five days after the SCOTI meetings has, however, already been mentioned. This is in total contrast to more recent evidence at a recent Senate estimates hearing suggesting that the communique accurately records the position of the states at the SCOTI meeting.

I recently became aware of a letter to the Secretary of DoIT citing repeated attempts by WA to correct the record as to that state's position at the SCOTI meeting. Referring to multiple breaches of undertakings by officers of the department, the letter from WA Planning head, Eric Lumsden, invites further inquiry. He said:

I respectfully ask that you replace paragraph 9 of the current SCOTI paper with the following text:

At the May 2012 SCOTI meeting, and subsequently in Chief Officer and Ministerial correspondence, Western Australia also indicated that it did not support Guideline A while it contains the proposed alternate noise metrics in their current state and requested that these metrics be subjected to thorough research, documentation and a Regulatory Impact Assessment.

Queensland and Victoria voiced opposition to the new noise metrics at NASAG in April 2012. Having been thwarted in its attempt to impose the new metrics through COAG, DoIT has now met the same response from Standards Australia.

Within DoIT's new noise metrics, the N60=6 at night was the metric of greatest impact, framed to prohibit residential development in 1,000 square kilometres of land around five Australian capital cities. Given this enormous potential impact, careful consultation and expert consideration were clearly required. The revised text of Guideline A put out by DoIT after the SCOTI meeting in May 2012 expressly provided for the N60=6 at night to be considered by Standards Australia. What is not clear, however, despite my repeated questioning, is why the department put out a consultation draft in July 2012, before the Standards Australia review, which made no mentioned of N60=6 at night. DoIT has never given a satisfactory answer to this question.

DoIT's website shows that it omitted the N60=6 at night metric from its July 2012 Standards Australia consultation draft. DoIT then took a paper to Standards Australia in September 2012 in which it reinserted the N60=6 at night metric without further consultation. The proposal for review sent to Standards Australia was radically different from the one that was consulted upon by DoIT. In reality, no valid consultation occurred.

Standards Australia has a critical role in any change to AS2021. DoIT, having chosen to submit its proposal to Standards Australia, undertook to conform to the strict guidelines adopted by that body in reviewing standards, including the requirement to demonstrate stakeholder support and net benefit. In submitting its proposal in September last year, an officer of DoIT declared to Standards Australia that its proposal regarding AS2021 met these requirements. That declaration was false. Consequently, DoIT faced the ignominy of a ruling by Standards Australia that its proposal failed to meet 'requirements for stakeholder support'. Even so, Standards Australia cooperated with DoIT and organised a forum to consider the proposal. Participants included the states and territories, local government, the housing and aviation industries and the engineering, acoustic and planning professions. The forum overwhelmingly rejected the DOIT amendments to the standard.

Standards Australia resolved to initiate a process to review AS2021, from which it will specifically exclude consideration of DOIT's proposed new noise metrics. The review will look at developing guidelines for the independent formulation of ANEF contours. This is consistent with the recommendations of the 2010 Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report on Airservices Australia's management of aircraft noise. This is a major achievement in getting transparency and objectivity in the process of developing ANEF contours. I commend Standards Australia for the direction it has taken despite DOIT's and Minister Albanese's apparent intentions.

The process of formulating ANEFs must give greater emphasis to clarity and objectivity and the views of states and territories, which are impacted upon by ANEFs in their planning responsibilities. The present process is dominated entirely by aviation interests, with Commonwealth agencies such as Airservices applying no scrutiny to the assumptions on which airport ANEFs are based. The states must take leadership in safeguarding the strengths and objectivity of the existing ANEF system and ensure that any future changes to AS2021 occur only after proper consultation, appropriate expert advice and thorough regulatory assessment. AS2021 must continue to be applied universally, consistently and equitably. Commonwealth interaction with state planning process must become more transparent and more balanced and not just a tool for aviation interests at the expense of proper utilisation of existing state infrastructure and affordable housing.

As a matter of probity, I note that my constituents in the housing industry in Canberra and the region have raised with me their concerns about the matters described. I also put on record that, as I have previously declared, the ACT Division of the Liberal Party has been in receipt of donations from the Village Building Company, one of those housing interests.

Senate adjourned at 01:37 (Wednesday)