Senate debates

Monday, 22 July 2019


Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:38 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition is pleased to support the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2019, as we have a proud record of bipartisanship when it comes to aviation safety. We supported the bill when it was passed by the House of Representatives in April this year, prior to the election being called, and will support it again through the 46th Parliament.

Labor understands the importance of the aviation industry, especially in regional Australia. This bill takes a balanced approach between the need to protect the travelling public and, of course, ensuring the viability of the sector. This bill is in response to concerns from some in the general aviation sector who have been concerned that CASA's strong focus on safety has resulted in overregulation, which can be costly for small operators. This bill is about general aviation and balancing the critically important need for safety with making sure that the regulatory burden is not too great for small operators to bear. The bill amends the Civil Aviation Act to ensure that when CASA develops aviation standards it takes into consideration the impacts and costs for those within the sector.

Labor will continue to monitor implementation and to work with the sector to bring forward additional reforms if they are required. Whilst we're comfortable with the bill, we do know that the Australian and International Pilots Association has called for the addition of a clause to legislate the requirement for CASA to ensure that aviation safety standards maintain or improve the overall safety of the civil aviation system. The opposition understands the main objective of the Civil Aviation Act is to enhance and promote safety in the aviation sector, so it will be important for the government to ensure that this focus is maintained.

Aviation is a critical part of Australian life. Unlike in times past, today's aviation services are much more affordable and aviation has become a critical component of our transport system. It is important for the movement of people, for the movement of freight, for access to medical services and expertise, for farming operations and to reduce isolation in the bush. A vibrant aviation sector is important for many industries, especially tourism. General aviation is the lifeblood of regional Australia. It is also where many of our commercial airline pilots learn their trade.

Labor has a strong track record when it comes to the aviation industry. When Labor was in government, Anthony Albanese, the member for Grayndler, as aviation minister, delivered Australia's first and only aviation white paper. An important element of this white paper was to ensure that the general aviation sector continued to be a safe, efficient and innovative part of Australia's transport system. Labor's aviation white paper was a comprehensive framework which brought all aspects of aviation policy together into a single, forward-looking policy direction. Labor initiated a number of key reforms in the aviation sector, including in relation to depreciation, restricted air spaces, secondary capital city airports, and the final burden of regulation being placed on airlines.

Labor will continue to advocate for the aviation sector to ensure safe, effective aviation services are available to the Australian community. Labor has heard the concerns of the general aviation sector that CASA's strong focus on safety has resulted in overregulation and associated financial cost burdens. The sector has pushed for the change that CASA, when formulating regulations, be required to consider not only safety but also the effect of any regulation on the viability of aviation businesses. Labor has worked in a bipartisan way with the government to ensure that they got the balance right. This bill amends the Civil Aviation Act to ensure that when CASA develops and promulgates aviation safety standards it must take into consideration the impacts and costs affecting the aviation sector. The bill incorporates existing regulatory practice in the legislation, making it clear that these issues cannot be overlooked.

The bill does not change CASA's primary objective, which is, and must always be, safety. Labor strongly supports aviation safety and the viability of the aviation sector. The opposition once again thanks the government for bringing this bill forward. I commend the bill to the Senate.

5:43 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2019. The Greens believe this is a dangerous bill. This is a bill that would put at risk our aviation safety regime and, consequently, be putting at risk the lives of Australians. The law currently sets out that, in exercising its powers and performing its functions, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority must regard the safety of air navigation as the most important consideration. What this bill does is change the remit of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority so that it must consider the economic and the cost impact on individuals, businesses and communities of CASA's standards, and take into account the differing risks associated with differing industry sectors.

Taking account of the economic and the social costs of safety standards is, in fact, something that does need to be done. But it should not be done by CASA. CASA's remit is to be making recommendations on the basis of safety. It is up to us in the parliament, if we feel that there are other economic or social considerations that need to be taken into account, to make the judgement as to how those regulations should change and how CASA's recommendations maybe should change because of those economic or social considerations. It should not be the remit of CASA to be making those political judgements. CASA needs to have its remit as a safety focused organisation preserved.

This just doesn't concern the Greens. These changes to CASA's remit concern the people who are directly accountable for the safety and operation of our aviation industry: the pilots' unions. Both the Australian Federation of Air Pilots and the Australian and International Pilots Association have raised serious issues with this legislation. The Australian Federation of Air Pilots have said that they have significant concerns that this amendment could also be a source for those seeking to stymie genuinely necessary safety reforms when there exists any cost impact on their interests. And the Australian and International Pilots Association is even stronger. They say that resistance by private interests cannot be allowed to control the system. The aviation safety regulator, they continue, 'has a difficult and narrow path to tread in ensuring that the public safety interest is met without unnecessary constraint on the public economic benefit and the participating private interests. The danger to the public safety interest comes from a safety regulator that gets role confusion and starts to act like an economic regulator.' The Australian and International Pilots Association then continues, 'In our view, CASA has already demonstrated a propensity to dilute the former role for a taste of the latter, particularly in the areas of fatigue management, airports and airspace protection.'

It should not be the job of CASA, a safety authority, to also assess, without the relevant expertise, the economic and social impacts of its proposed regulations. It's the job of parliament to balance those competing concerns—the competing concerns of safety, economics, accessibility and the public interest. That is parliament's job, not CASA's.

There are so many things that could go horribly wrong and that could have dire consequences as a result of this legislation. What happens, for example, if a major airline decides that it cannot meet the safety standards of its planes because it presents too much of an economic burden; or if companies decide they simply don't want to fit the bill? Would this be acceptable? If we let this happen, who would be responsible for a plane crash? You can see this scenario developing where you have airlines with ageing plane fleets serving rural and remote communities, who say, 'We just can't afford to keep our planes at the standard that they're currently at. If you're going to insist on this, CASA, then sorry, we're going to have to just stop flying, and rural and regional communities aren't going to be able to get the services they need.' It's up to parliament to decide how to deal with that dilemma. It's not up to CASA. It's not up to CASA to say, 'We reckon that, because we want these rural and regional communities to keep their air services, we are going to reduce the standards and we're going to allow this airline to fly with lower safety standards than what they've had up until now.' But this is what this change will allow. In fact, the explanatory memorandum says:

Whilst the amendments will ensure that CASA considers the particular circumstances of different participants when developing and promulgating aviation safety standards, the safety of air navigation will remain the most important consideration for CASA…

But that means nothing. What does 'will remain the most important consideration' mean when it is being offset by those economic and social concerns?

It means that safety is not just the prime consideration that CASA will be taking into account.

What I can see happening if this legislation goes through is that we'll quite likely be beholden to the business models of the big airlines, who don't want to compromise their bottom lines. And we know that big for-profit companies will do anything to trim budgets and expand their profit margins. All they're going to need to say is, 'We're just not going to be able to keep flying if you, CASA, insist that we have to maintain these standards.'

This bill has not been through sufficient scrutiny. These are very legitimate concerns and they need a robust hearing. It's not just the Greens and the pilots. What's the department's justification for this bill? How does CASA itself think that this bill will change how it functions? What do the independent aviation safety experts in academia and the private sector think will happen as a result of these changes? I would certainly like to know the answers to these questions, and the Senate should know the answers to these questions. So I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

", and the bill be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 10 September 2019."

We should be having an inquiry into this bill. This bill has got far-reaching and potentially dangerous consequences. I call on the Senate to support my amendment. I call on the Senate to be concerned with maintaining the safety of our air services, which we are so justly proud of in Australia today. I hope that the Senate will support that inquiry. But, if it doesn't go to an inquiry, then this bill, as it stands, is too dangerous. We need to know more information. We don't have justification. We have such serious concerns from the pilots and other safety standards, and there is far too much uncertainty to support this bill today.

5:52 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wasn't planning to speak on this bill but, having heard some of the concerns just raised by Senator Rice, I want to make a very brief contribution. Back when David Forsyth ran the inquiry into Australia's safety regulation for aviation, I worked with former Minister Truss, travelling much of Australia, speaking at many of the same forums and getting feedback from people. One of the issues that was raised consistently was that there were multiple occurrences where the requirements of CASA were bureaucratically correct but didn't actually have a safety outcome. In some cases, advice was given by CASA to industry which they didn't follow through because they basically didn't care about the economic impact. For example, if somebody wished to bring an aircraft into the country that was not the first of type, they would approach CASA and do all their due diligence about how long it would take them to bring the aircraft in and get it cleared and they would debt fund the aircraft when it arrived, but it would then sit on the tarmac for months because they didn't get the paperwork cleared by CASA as there was no regard for the economic impact of a lack of action on behalf of the regulator. Then there were things like check-in training. I know from my own aviation background—23-odd years both in the military and flying in the civil sector—that there are very sensible economies that can be had for things like check-in training. For example, as a pilot flying multiple types of aircrafts that are in a similar category—a twin-engine aircraft that's rated to fly in instruments—you can do an instrument rating on one complex aircraft and it very comfortably translates to another aircraft of the same category even if it's a different brand, if you like, of aircraft. Yet I'm hearing from the industry great concerns that CASA are now requiring them to do multiple tests every year on different aircraft types even though they're in the same category. So there are things that are not really economically viable for an individual pilot or company and that don't actually contribute to safety in a large way. I speak from experience.

So I hear the concerns, but the origin of this amendment goes back a number of years to when there was very extensive consultation with operators and pilots and aircraft mechanics—the LAMEs—into how CASA approached their regulation. The desire is not to provide an avenue for someone to say, 'We think that's going to lose us some profits, so we're not going to do it,' but for them to actually say, 'Can we achieve the same safety standard and take account of the economics for a small business?' That was the intent that came out of the Forsyth review and the associated discussions, and has bounced around now for a number of years. I'm very pleased to see that the opposition has been able to work with the government to come up with a form of words that makes sure that we keep companies viable, because I've got to say: a safe company is a viable company. A company that's scraping to make ends meet is far more likely to also end up taking shortcuts. I commend the bill to the Senate.

5:55 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Centre Alliance will be supporting the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2019. I have a pilot's licence. That's not to say I would recommend anyone fly with me—I don't have current hours up—but I do have one by virtue of the fact that they are perpetual. What that leads to is some background in relation to some of the things I'm going to say.

When I learnt to fly back in the eighties—I was a bit confused: as a submariner I wanted to go under water, but I wanted to fly on the weekends—you could go to just about any airport in Australia and there would be a flight school. You'd go to that flight school and you'd do your pilot training. It was very, very professional. It was a bit expensive but, nonetheless, it allowed you to learn to fly. From that, most pilots, once they learnt to fly, would either get their private licence or they'd get their commercial licence and move on to commercial activities. It was those pilots that then went into the GA sector, the general aviation sector. Unfortunately, we've now reached the situation where—Senator Rice is talking about aircraft not flying to rural areas. They're not flying to rural areas because there are no pilots anymore. There are no planes because everyone has been priced out of the market, and I'll give you some statistics on that shortly. It's not because they're unsafe; it is simply because of the overburden of regulation that CASA imposes upon general aviation. I'm sure if you put all of the documentation that you require to be able to fly into the back of your Cessna it simply wouldn't take off it would be so heavy.

To be very clear: the United States and other countries have much slimmer sets of regulations, but they also have much more traffic flying in their airspace and in much harsher conditions. Australia is blessed in many senses because it always has relatively good weather. We don't have to worry about significant storms or de-icing aircraft before we take off. We've got a relatively safe environment compared to other nations that have regard to the fostering of the industry. That has not been happening here, and it hasn't been happening here because of the legislation, which basically requires only the consideration of safety.

Senator Rice is correct in saying that safety is really important, but it is only one factor. If you want to have safe flying with no risk of accident, then don't let anyone fly. That's the extreme position. We've got to find the right balance, and right now the balance has not been struck correctly. GA—general aviation—is in a perilous state. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics did a report in 2015 that showed GA declined 18 per cent between 2010 and 2015. We've had AOPA suggest that this means we've lost about $500 million of economic activity out of the Australian economy per annum, not to mention the very devastating effect that this has had on regional communities.

I was involved in the inquiry into regional airfares which found that one of the contributing factors to high airfares is simply that airlines like Rex and QantasLink can't get pilots and that adds to the cost of people in regional communities flying, even when they've moved into the regular public transport sector, and that flying is the lifeblood of some of these regional communities. It's the way in which people get to education, it's the way in which people get to health, it's the way in which businesses connect and it's the way in which agriculture flourishes. If you make things so expensive, what we end up with is a doctor deciding to leave the town because it's too expensive to go back on a regular basis to visit family. They leave the town and then five other people decide to leave the town. It has a flow-on effect on regional communities. So whilst the economy had 103 quarters of continuous growth, at the same time general aviation experienced a 34 per cent decline in pilot numbers over 10 years. There has been a 35 per cent decline in Avgas sales over 10 years, an indication of how little people were flying. There was an 18 per cent decline in aircraft hours over five years, a 20 per cent decline in the serviceability of aircraft for a 12-month period, and a 15 per cent decline in maintenance and repair organisations over a 12-month period.

I have mentioned that the regions are a fantastic training ground for pilots to go into regular public transport, but we also have the organisations that do pilot training, charter work, testing, ferrying, surveying, photography and aerial work. Unfortunately, we're seeing pilots in these regional areas almost becoming extinct and that is harmful to Australians and harmful to our regional communities. It's not about saying let's not be safe; it's about, in some sense, reconfiguring CASA so they don't bombard people with regulation after regulation after regulation.

We've got this industry in decline and it hasn't improved since that 2015 report. Indeed, between April 2016 and June 2017, we saw 15 new certificates of air worthiness issued. But in the same period, we saw 29 certificates of airworthiness cancelled and a further 27 in a state of suspension, so we saw 57 cancelled or suspended certificates of airworthiness. That's four about month. It's an industry in crisis. I'm not going to be kind here; I'm going to tell the way it is. The Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport received briefings over and over again on the state of general aviation. CASA has basically been regulating general aviation out of existence.

Let me talk about a new regulation that CASA has recently introduced. I did move a disallowance motion, and it's back on the Notice Paper tomorrow, in relation to community service flights, just to give you a perspective of what is happening inside CASA. If you don't know what a community service flight is, let me tell you. There are pilots who are willing to give their time and their experience, who are licenced, who are safe to fly, who I can jump into the aircraft with and fly off to Kangaroo Island on the weekend if I want to or whatever. They are normally declared safe to fly through an organisation that is responsible for making sure everyone meets all of the general safety requirements. They will give their time to fly sick people from remote locations to major centres.

Let me give you an example: if you live in Ceduna and you need chemotherapy, you can take the seven-hour drive from Ceduna to Adelaide, do the chemotherapy and then drive back. That's pretty demanding. In fact, it just makes that treatment almost impossible. Under one of these community service flights—Angel Flight in particular—they will send a pilot out who will pick you up, fly you to Adelaide and then return you after your chemotherapy. What happens in that instance is that the people are not charged; there is no commercial gain made by these pilots. All they get is a bit of assistance in terms of fuel—a bit of a kick along. It gives them an opportunity to enjoy the pleasure that they are safely licensed to fly and they are allowed to assist people.

There have been two unfortunate fatal crashes relating to Angel Flight, one in 2011 in Victoria and one in 2014 at Mount Gambier. These were people who jumped onto one of these flights and ended up in a fatal air accident, and that is truly, truly upsetting. CASA looked at this and, in fact, the ATSB is still looking at the second accident right now. Hopefully, we'll see some reports on that shortly. But CASA then came along and introduced some new regulations about minimum hours and about some maintenance related stuff to do with aircraft. Initially, when they introduced it they said, 'Helicopters can't be involved in these community service flights'. We asked why: 'What was the safety basis for that decision?' Very quickly, the instrument was put back to the parliament and amended, allowing helicopters to fly. That was within the space of a day or two of advocacy.

But if you go back and look at these new regulations, they're not focused on these accidents and safety. In fact, I've questioned CASA; I've talked to CASA and put questions on notice to the ATSB. I might foreshadow that when they get to estimates they can expect me to send some torpedoes their way. Their answer was quite contemptuous, in my view. But we'll have that discussion at estimates. None of the changes that have been made, had they been there back in 2011 or 2014, would have made one bit of difference in relation to these accidents. Not one thing in these new regulations, had they been implemented back when these terrible accidents took place, would in any way have changed the circumstances.

So CASA had gone off and had a look at these two flights and decided they must do something. What they did, again, was introduce a burden on the industry that will see some of these flights no longer occur. Once again, it doesn't appear to be about safety. So, hopefully, when we get to 15 sitting days after tomorrow I'll be asking the Senate chamber to disallow that particular instrument. I'd encourage people about that, and I'll wander the halls of the building and make sure everyone understands how ridiculous it is. But this is what we face with CASA. As the industry has been declining, CASA has been building up its ranks; it's an empire that has grown quite significantly.

So I get where you're coming from, Senator Rice, in terms of safety. It is really important, but the words in this bill don't put economics ahead of safety. Safety is still the primary concern of CASA; it just says that they must have regard to making sure that we have a vibrant industry. That's the usual balance you have when you've got conflicting requirements: safety is paramount. Safety is paramount, so there is no problem here—

Senator Rice interjecting

Well, I've read the bill, and I sat in front of many, many pilots in the RRAT committee in the last parliament, and the industry is dying. You will get your ultimate aim, Senator Rice—there will be no planes flying in GA.

Senator Rice interjecting

You'll have ultimate safety in those circumstances! It's not like the airlines will dictate to CASA that they're not commercial if certain regulation doesn't get pulled. That's not what's going to happen here. I want, as I think most people here want, an efficient and sustainable Australian aviation industry sector where safety is paramount and important and where CASA gives consideration to industry as it makes rules. That means it doesn't make rules like it did with Angel Flight—rules that are meaningless, add cost and don't do one thing for safety.

CASA, as I said, has focused on safety to the point of running aircraft out of the skies—to the point where one day we'll have no GA aircraft. All of our pilots will then have to come from overseas. In fact, we've got a situation now where we've got a great environment for people to learn how to fly because of the safe, open skies that we have with very little traffic when compared to somewhere like the United States or Asia—great opportunities—but it appears the only people who can now afford to set up schools are Qantas, Rex and some overseas entities. We have to change that, and it's in that context that I commend this bill to the Senate.

6:12 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators for their contribution. Australia has an outstanding aviation safety record, and it's due to our strong regulatory framework. However, we need to continue to keep the balance right between risk and regulation.

The Civil Aviation Amendment Bill of 2019 ensures that CASA continues to consider the economic and cost impact on industry and communities when developing aviation safety standards. This bill is designed to support a regulatory environment which continues to maintain confidence in the safety of aviation in Australia without unnecessarily restricting innovation and growth.

It's important to note that this bill is not intended to and would not in any way impede CASA's ability to make operational decisions relating to safety. CASA must be allowed to ensure that aviation in Australia is safe and reliable. In practical terms, the bill relates to CASA's work in developing and promulgating standards, taking into account the differing risks posed by those sectors and not to individual decisions or directions. The bill would not, for instance, have altered CASA's ability to make its recent decision to stop flights of Boeing 737 MAX aircrafts on safety grounds. Safety of air navigation will still remain the most important consideration of CASA when it develops legislative safety standards, but CASA will also continue to take into consideration the cost—something I know is a key priority for our general aviation sector.

I'd like to thank those in the opposition and a number on the cross bench for their support for this bill. I'm pleased that this new bill will support local aviation businesses and communities while ensuring CASA can still do its vital work of keeping us safe in our skies. I'd like to thank all senators for their contribution, and I commend the bill to the Senate.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Rice be agreed to.