Thursday, 20 March 2014
Civil Aviation Amendment (CASA Board) Bill 2014; Second Reading
Australia has an outstanding record when it comes to aviation safety. This outstanding record is down to the experience and professionalism of the men and women who are responsible for safety across the aviation industry. Another important factor is the non-partisan approach both sides of politics have taken to aviation safety. We certainly have our arguments in this place about many matters but aviation safety is not one of them. Labor will support this bill.
The Civil Aviation Amendment (CASA Board) Bill 2014 expands the size of the CASA Board by two members, increasing the breadth of expertise on the board. The minister for transport says this is a necessary change, so Labor is supporting the bill. I have to say I am a little sceptical about the reason advanced. Initially, I thought perhaps this should be referred to as the civil aviation amendment, CASA, Sophie Mirabella bill, but she got submarines instead! To be fair, the National Party hate Sophie, as they demonstrated by campaigning against her extensively in her electorate—
Which two National Party mates are about to get a phone call—
Senator Ryan interjecting—
would you like me to speak for 20 minutes?—a phone call from Minister Truss saying, 'Have you still got your membership ticket to the National Party? Yes? Good. You're on the CASA Board.' So I look forward to seeing which National Party stooges get appointed, in true National Party fashion, to this board.
In a country like ours, air travel is critical to how we go about our business, so it is important that we work together to guard the safety of the travelling public. I want to put it on the record that the previous Labor government put the highest priority on aviation safety. In 2009, we strengthened CASA's independence. In December of that year, Labor produced the nation's first ever national aviation policy statement. The white paper process included over 530 submissions from the industry, state and local governments, and the community, and I want to congratulate all of those—as I said, 530 submissions—around the country who made a contribution to that reform and to that aviation policy statement. Of course, safety was the chief concern.
As a result of the white paper, Labor strengthened baggage and passenger screening requirements; we tightened the aviation security identification card scheme; we improved security screening standards and training programs; we modernised air traffic management, including the use of satellite technology; and we boosted CASA funding by $90 million over four years from 2010, to provide it with funding certainty. These sensible reforms were supported by the coalition. But the thing about aviation safety is that the job is never finished. CASA has met emerging challenges in the past and must continue to do so in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, transport safety is too important to be a political battleground. However, there is a role for an opposition to raise concerns about the direction of government. It is of concern that the government's austerity drive may lead to cuts in the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. That is right: the Australian Transport Safety Bureau is facing cutbacks to staffing levels at the moment. The ATSB employs 110 people who investigate accidents, safety concerns and near misses in air, sea and rail transport—and what an excellent job it has done over many, many years. I am sure everyone in the chamber would agree with that. But there are now reports that the coalition is looking to cut these numbers by 20 per cent—a 20 per cent reduction in the number of those who investigate accidents, safety concerns and near misses in air, sea and rail transport. That is of great concern to the Labor opposition, and I urge, if not counsel, the government against these cuts to the ATSB or any other safety agency.
I note that the financial implications of appointing two extra board members to CASA will be $160,000 a year—$160,000 a year—and, at the same time, the government wants to cut 20 per cent of the staff at an incredibly important safety agency. It just does not make sense. Two lucky-dip National Party members are going to get put on a board, at a cost of $160,000 to taxpayers, yet 20 per cent of the staff at a safety bureau that looks into aviation accidents, near misses and other safety issues are going to lose their jobs. It seems to me that this government has its priorities all wrong.
They said before the election: no 'nasty surprises'—no surprises at all, in fact—from this government. Well, there are going to be some very surprised people at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau if these rumours are true, and there are going to be two excitedly surprised National Party members or friends of Minister Truss pulled out of the lucky dip. I used to talk about ABC Board appointments being from former prime minister John Howard's Christmas card list. We introduced a system to stop that—an independent, rigorous system. From what we are seeing here, we may need to look at something similar, because if the government can find $160,000 to reward a couple of National Party stooges it should also be able to find the resources to exclude our transport safety authorities from cuts for the sake of cuts. There is no room for austerity when it comes to safety.
CASA has done an excellent job over the years in keeping our skies as safe as possible—including in its current configuration, which is the product of those rigorous Labor government reforms in 2009. This bill does not change that structure, which is why we support it. As I said, in this context the bill is a continuation of the parliament's bipartisan approach to aviation safety, an approach that has served us well over the years.
I will, for anyone interested, be running a sweep as to which two National Party cronies get appointed to this committee and I look forward to suggestions. But I do commend this bill to the Senate.
I was planning just to make some plain remarks about the Civil Aviation Amendment (CASA Board) Bill 2014. After Senator Conroy's contribution, however, first I have to say that there is only one thing more stupid than a senator who claims to wear red underpants on his head—and that is someone who comes in here without having done his homework and then makes crass party political comments about an issue that had its origins in a Senate inquiry that was supported by all parties. His own people led an inquiry into both the ATSB and CASA, and the recommendations that flowed from that were for improved governance of CASA—including getting aviation experience, both technical and operational, on the board. The former government, who did not bother to respond to that Senate report prior to the proroguing of parliament, have let the country down by now turning around and taking a crass political approach to this. Senator Conroy should have taken the time to speak to senators on his own side in order to understand the background to these changes.
In the election policy put forward by the coalition, we had already started to respond to the recommendations of that report. Two key measures were flagged. One was this change to the CASA board. In the minister's second reading speech he made it very clear that, as recommended by the report, these additional members will have operational and technical experience in the aviation industry. That will enable the board of CASA to, in an informed manner, set a strategic direction for the nature of the regulator and will also enable the board to hold the organisation to account for its delivery of that role.
Far from being a jobs-for-mates thing, as Senator Conroy just asserted, this change to the CASA board has its origins in an inquiry undertaken when the Labor government was in power. That inquiry was supported by all sides—Senator Xenophon, Labor, ourselves—and it recommended that the board should have technical and operational experience. If Senator Conroy had done his homework, he would have been able to provide a far more informed contribution to this debate, as opposed to giving a speech that was about as stupid as wearing red underpants on his head—his previously stated preferred position.
The coalition is putting this measure in place now because one of our other election commitments was to have a review of CASA's approach to regulation and regulatory reform. Again, this was highlighted in the inquiry into aviation accidents. So the coalition government has pre-empted the fact that it needs to have that inquiry into regulatory reform. The actual recommendation was that it should perhaps be a Senate inquiry, but what the government has said is: 'No, we will get an independent panel, including a well-respected Australian member as well as international members from the UK and Canada, to look at regulation in Australia—how the regulator is performing and what changes are perhaps required.'
When those recommendations are received, we want to have in place a CASA board that has the experience—not just the broader corporate experience that people like the current chair and others bring but specific technical and operational aviation experience—to look at the recommendations of the ASSR panel and make appropriate recommendations to government. Having that expertise will also enable the board to look at the recruitment of a new CEO or director of safety for CASA who will be able to implement the strategic direction the board wishes to set.
One of the problems we have had to date is that, because people have appointed directors in the absence of that ongoing strategic direction, we have had direction being set by a personality—regardless of which director we are talking about. Is it a big regulator? Does it impose regulations with a big stick? Is it a consultative regulator? Is priority put on education and empowerment of industry? In recent years we have seen a large swing in how the regulator approaches its role and its engagement with industry. For the benefit of the industry, and to make it both safe and sustainable, we need a consistent strategic direction. In its election commitments, this government, in responding to the thorough Senate inquiry—and I am very pleased to see on the Notice Paper that the government will be tabling a response today—looked to put in place the enabling capabilities to make sure that the review of aviation safety is handled in a way that starts to give that longer term strategic direction for CASA.
Senator Conroy said that there have been no concerns with CASA or ATSB, that they have done an exemplary job. He clearly has not done his homework and looked at the Senate report. That report made headlines around the country because it said that there were problems. It is clear from the number of submissions that have come into the review being headed up by David Forsyth that the industry also recognises that there are issues. The faults are on both sides. It is not all CASA's fault. But has the organisation been an exemplary regulator in how it engages with industry? Has it recognised not just the need for the industry to be safe but the need for it to be sustainable as well? The answer to those questions, both from the Senate report and from the nature of submissions coming into the inquiry, is clearly no. The Productivity Commission has just released their suggested audit framework for regulators. That is going to be an interesting template against which to look at the approach that CASA has taken and the recommendations that come out of the review by David Forsyth.
This bill enacts one of the election commitments of the coalition, a commitment which, contrary to the accusations from senators opposite, is not about party political jobs for mates. It had its origins in a Senate report that called for better governance—governance informed by operational and technical experience. It is my pleasure to commend this bill to the Senate.
This session on Thursday is normally for legislation that is not controversial in nature, but I will have to take this opportunity, however, to respond to some of the comments by Senator Conroy. His profoundly inappropriate and baseless comments concerning the former member for Indi and close friend of mine Sophie Mirabella, were clearly an attempt to goad members of the government and I am not going to dignify them with a response.
His comments about the National Party and CASA, however, betray his own mindset and the way in which he and the Labor Party actually treat important government instrumentalities. When we look at the behaviour of the Labor Party, and in particular might I say, Senator Conroy, the thuggish behaviour, the slurs and slanders he clearly delivered—because he had not had his attention this morning or he had just had some jellybeans out of Senator McEwen's office and so he got a bit of a sugar hit—about the National Party were just completely disassembled there by Senator Fawcett's contribution and his great technical knowledge in this area and his involvement in the Senate inquiries.
Let us also turn to Senator Conroy's own behaviour. When he was organising the NBN, no less than a person who is a former Queensland secretary of the ALP who had to resign in disgrace from parliament, Mr Mike Kaiser, suddenly landed himself a corporate affairs gig where, apparently, a member of the Labor Party and Senator Conroy's own faction, had to be paid near $½ million to lobby Senator Conroy to create the biggest white elephant in Australian history. Senator Conroy loved to compare the NBN to the Snowy scheme, as did many of those opposite. If indeed it was anything like the Snowy scheme, we would still be building the Snowy scheme. The people of Tumut would still be waiting for dams to be finished. Senator Conroy's great white elephant, as every transparent audit since the change of government has shown, betrays his desperation to divert attention from that.
Senator Conroy's form on jobs for the boys has been excellent even by Labor standards. Remember, this is an organisation that gave its own members money. I have read out a list before in the Senate of grants that ministers of the Labor Party gave to organisations and unions affiliated to the Labor Party, sometimes their own factions, who then paid money—completely separately of course from a different pot of money—to the Labor Party in affiliation fees or donations or in campaign expenditure. If you did that in the corporate world, I think you would end up going to jail. It is effectively a case of political money laundering that the Labor Party is expert at—jobs for the boys and granting money to unions under the rubric of training. Every business in Australia of course is responsible for its own training, but not the trade union movement. We have got to give them some money and then of course they can make their hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations. That is the sort of thing that this government will stop.
Finally, I have to turn to Senator Conroy's sledging of a former member of this parliament and of the National Party. Quite frankly, all I will say is that Senator Conroy's lack of respect for institutions and respected people in Australia was shown in this place only a few weeks ago. He put on a performance that, quite frankly, embarrassed this parliament. It embarrassed me as a member of this parliament when he attacked without foundation Mr Ziggy Switkowski purely in an attempt to divert attention from his own utter, complete and now obvious-to-all failings in exercising any oversight on behalf of the taxpayer over the NBN.
Then of course there was one of the more outrageous examples I think anyone can remember in this parliament, his attack—and he has still refused to apologise—on Lieutenant General Campbell in Senate estimates hearing later that same week. That was the performance that I know most members of this parliament were, quite frankly, embarrassed by. One can always ask questions without sledging. One can always ask questions without character assassination. But what Senator Conroy did merely to divert attention from other things that day was to attack a respected person whom I have seen members of his own party walk up to and apologise to in airport lounges. But not Senator Conroy—he is too big for that. He is too big to admit that he will apologise.
But turning to the last act, his allegation regarding funding cuts. Those funding cuts were from the 2013 budget. Those funding cuts that Senator Conroy was talking about are Labor's funding cuts. Those funding changes were in the forward estimates of the budget brought down less than 12 months ago when those opposite were sitting on this side. I did not see Senator Conroy complaining at that time. He may have expressed outrage in caucus in the same way he behaved in Senate estimates committees, but I did not read about it, which was odd at that time as their caucus was a little leaky. Senator Conroy stood here. He sledged people, he sledged institutions, as he has for the last few weeks, and he did not even know what he was talking about, that these were Labor's own funding cuts.
This bill represents one of a number of initiatives being implemented by the government to strengthen the nation's independent aviation safety regulatory agency, CASA. The government will use the amendments provided for by the bill to add aviation experience to strengthen the board's operations. I appreciate the bill has bipartisan support and I thank senators for their contribution and commend the bill to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.