Senate debates

Monday, 22 July 2019

Bills

Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2019; In Committee

6:23 pm

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

I'm extremely disappointed that, given the legitimate questions about this bill about watering down and undermining the role of CASA as a safety regulator, the bill didn't get sent to a committee. I think there are many unanswered questions that should have been sent to a committee. During the second reading debate I heard Senator Fawcett and Senator Patrick talking about getting rid of unnecessarily bureaucratic requirements that CASA, they allege, was imposing upon aviation, which in fact didn't have anything to do with safety. I want to ask the minister, how can you assure me that in fact safety isn't being watered down? It may well be that the intent of these changes is to deal with bureaucratic, unnecessary requirements that add to the cost of aviation. But these changes allow for far more than that. These changes allow, basically, for safety to be undermined, traded off, reduced. Minister, can you give me some assurance that that in fact is not going to be the case?

6:24 pm

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

Yes, I can. Safety remains the primary consideration for CASA and this bill does not change that. The bill is not intended to and would not in any way impede CASA's ability to make operational decisions relating to safety. The bill relates solely to CASA's work in developing and promulgating standards and not individual decisions or directions.

As mentioned earlier, the type of decision to stop flights of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft on safety grounds would in no way be impacted. Subsection 9A(1) of the Civil Aviation Act instructs:

In exercising its powers and performing its functions CASA must regard the safety of air navigation as the most important consideration.

Subject to section 9A(1), the bill proposes that in developing and promulgating aviation safety standards, CASA must consider the economic and cost impacts on individuals, business in the community of such standards and take into account the differing risks associated with different industry sectors and that was something well articulated during the debate—the need to take these things into account. The short answer to your question is: there is no watering down of CASA's primary objective, which is to keep Australians safe in the air.

6:26 pm

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

I hear that, but by saying it's the 'primary', the 'most important', still doesn't mean that by putting in these economic and social considerations, you're actually weighing these things off against each other. As I said, I understand that the intent was to get rid of unnecessary costs that in fact weren't helping with safety. But my reading of this bill is that it goes far further than that. It's not just my reading. The pilots that have written to us are concerned. The quote I read out from the pilots association said that the danger to the public safety interest comes from a regulator that gets role confused and starts to act like an economic regulator. These are the kinds of things that needed to be considered in an inquiry into this bill, because there are different interpretations of what is being proposed here. By adding in these social and economic costs, it may have the best of intentions to not be impacting on safety, but I cannot see it. There's no way of reading it, other than to know that the primacy of safety as the thing that CASA is concerned about is being impacted.

I think the community service flights that Senator Patrick talked about were in fact a good case study of how the regime should work. If there was a sense that by putting safety as the primary consideration that there needed to be other factors that were taken into account, then it would be appropriate for the parliament to be disallowing the regulation, for us as a parliament to make that judgement, rather than for the safety regulator to make that judgement. I am deeply disappointed. There's probably nothing more that you will be able to tell me that will set my heart at rest that we are not undermining the safety standards of our civil aviation safety agency.

6:28 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move Jacquie Lambie Network amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 8699 together:

(1) Schedule 1, page 3 (before line 4), before item 1, insert:

1A Subsection 9A(1)

Repeal the subsection, substitute:

(1) In exercising its powers and performing its functions, CASA must regard the achievement of the highest standard of safety of air navigation, at the lowest charges consistent with both public demand and an economic return to efficient operators, as the most important consideration.

(2) Schedule 1, item 1, page 3 (before line 8), before paragraph 9A(3) (a), insert:

(aa) ensure that those aviation safety standards maintain or improve the overall safety of the civil aviation system; and

These amendments change the language in section 9A of the Civil Aviation Act, which states 'CASA must regard the safety of air navigation as the most important consideration'. Everybody wants a safe aviation sector, but we want to see an aviation sector that is sustainable as well as safe. When it comes to aviation safety, the safest passenger is the one that never gets in a plane in the first place. The easiest way to prevent aviation accidents is to shut down aviation altogether—if every plane is grounded, every plane is safe. Excessive regulation is doing just that—keeping planes safe by keeping planes grounded. This is all made possible by the rules around the regulator, CASA, which currently has to consider safety as the highest priority above all else. It is required to ignore other considerations like cost, as if it is unrelated. Putting one pilot in the cockpit isn't as safe as having two pilots in there. And having two pilots isn't as safe as having 10 or 12 or 20. But which airline could afford to fill half its seats with pilots on the payroll? Sure, you would be safer but your ticket would be so expensive that nobody would be able to afford it. The reality is that proposals to make aviation safer—

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30

The reality is that proposals to make aviation safer are already limited by what is affordable. If a regulation makes travel one per cent safe but doubles its cost, does anybody here seriously think cost is not worth considering? If a regulation can save a dollar and maintain the same level of safety it should be supported. Every regulation should be assessed for the costs and the benefits. Right now, the legislation is geared only to how regulations impact on safety. The reality is that cost always has to be considered. The regulation pretends that it doesn't, but that is a legal fiction. It makes you feel safe, but it doesn't keep you safe. If the only consideration was cost every seat on an aircraft would be fitted with an ejection capsule, every second row would be filled with security officers from the AFP and you'd require every plane to be replaced every five years, just in case. Every one of those changes would make air travel safer, but every one of those changes would send the sector broke in the process. The reason these safety standards have not been adopted is that the costs aren't worth the benefit. Cost is always considered. Cost is already being considered. But the Civil Aviation Act does not recognise it is happening or allow for it to happen.

Safety matters—nobody is arguing it doesn't—but every safety decision ends up being paid for by the end user. Some operators already are being squeezed out by ever-increasing costs, and every new regulation adds to the price of doing business in the sector. The impact of these changes is regressive. They hurt people on low incomes the most because they are the people least able to absorb the higher price of a ticket. The impact of these changes hurts the bush more than anywhere else. Small-town air services are shutting down because the cost of staying open is too expensive for them to maintain. This pushes people off planes and onto roads. Is that really safer for the traveller? People are driving on roads that aren't as well maintained, in vehicles that aren't as well regulated and with a licence that isn't as difficult to obtain. And that would happen in the name of safety.

These amendments ensure that safety remains a priority but not the only priority. That reflects what should be common sense. Making decisions about safety without thinking about cost simply leads to businesses with superb safety records being driven to closure. These amendments retain the commitment to safety but recognise that CASA has a responsibility to strike a balance. A plane in a hangar may be safe, but that's not what planes are meant for. It's not the job of the regulator to ground every aircraft in the country. It should be the job of the regulator to keep aircraft in the air and keep passengers and pilots safe while they're there, and that is what these amendments seek to do. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support them.

7:34 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Lambie for her contribution. She places a lot of effort into these things, and she has with this. It is important to put on record that the view of the government is that Senator Lambie's first proposed amendment would compromise safety, because it would create ambiguity within the act. That ambiguity would be created by obscuring safety as the sole most important consideration for CASA in undertaking its safety and regulatory functions. Senator Lambie's other amendment, which has been raised by the pilots association, does not improve the bill and could in fact lead to further ambiguity. So I just place those points on record, with regard to those proposed amendments, but I do thank Senator Lambie for her contribution on that.

In general, though, there have been many contributions made to this debate, and we thank the opposition and Senator Patrick for their support of the bill. With regard to the key concern raised by Senator Rice, I think it's important to stress, on behalf of government, that safety will remain the most important consideration by CASA in all of this. I thank the Senate and commend the bill.

7:35 pm

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

I just want to take the opportunity to put the opposition's position on these amendments on the record. We won't be supporting the amendments moved by Senator Lambie—and I might also take the opportunity to explain why we opposed the amendment moved by Senator Rice; it's basically for related reasons.

But, more broadly, when it comes to aviation safety, the position the opposition and Labor have tried to take is a bipartisan one. This bill has been around for some period of time. Prior to the election we worked with the government to strike what we thought was an appropriate balance between safety—which, of course, is absolutely vital and must always be CASA's paramount responsibility—on the one hand and easing the burden of red tape on small aviation operators on the other. We've worked very closely with the government to try and improve this, and we believe that the bill, as it now stands, moves us closer to achieving this balance.

We're aware that the government's bill was developed in close consultation with the general aviation industry over a number of months in 2018 and also earlier this year. We fully understand what Senator Lambie is seeking to achieve with her amendments. As I understand it, they are to give assurance to small aviation operators that excessive safety regulation will not put their viability at risk. That is a worthwhile objective, and we understand where Senator Lambie is coming from; however, we do think that the intent of the amendments from Senator Lambie is already captured in the government's bill.

From our perspective, the bill is seeking to balance safety with the risk, environment and cost involved, particularly for smaller operators. While we understand that there will always be groups in the community that will say that a particular piece of legislation gets the balance wrong, one way or another, and no piece of legislation will ever be perfect, on balance we think that this bill does get us closer to achieving that important balance between safety and the impact on smaller aviation operators. That's why, on balance, we have decided to support the bill without the amendments being put forward by Senator Lambie.

It's for a similar reason that we opposed the amendment moved by Senator Rice. Again, we think that the bill, as put, does get the balance right. We don't think that it's necessary to refer it to an inquiry, and that's why we're prepared to support it as it currently stands and voted against Senator Rice's amendment as well.

Now of course the opposition will continue to monitor the implementation of the bill, and if we think that it hasn't got that balance right and that additional reforms are necessary then of course we'll be willing to look at it and make further amendments as required. As I said, I thought it was important for us to put on the record why we've taken the position of opposing the amendments tonight.

7:39 pm

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

The Greens will be supporting Senator Lambie's amendments. We still don't think they make this bill something that we will support overall, but we feel they are an improvement on trying to reach what I understand is the intent of the bill of removing bureaucratic measures that don't actually improve safety and reducing costs by doing so. But we feel that this bill, as it stands, is still very ambiguous as to whether indeed safety remains the prime consideration and whether indeed, with or without Senator Lambie's amendments, that we will actually be reducing our safety standards.

In his summing up then, Senator Watt said that Labor felt that the bill was going to balance safety with the risk environment and cost, which, in and of its very self says that they are going to be weighing up economic and social factors and potentially reducing safety standards. We continue to be very concerned about that.

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendments moved by Senator Lambie be agreed to.

Question negatived.

Bill agreed to.

Bill reported without amendments; report adopted.