Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Regulations and Determinations

Civil Aviation (Community Service Flights — Conditions on Flight Crew Licences) Instrument 2019; Disallowance

3:30 pm

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

I move business of the Senate notice of motion No.1 standing in my name for today:

That the Civil Aviation (Community Service Flights — Conditions on Flight Crew Licences) Instrument 2019, made under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998, be disallowed.

I rise to speak on my disallowance motion on the Civil Aviation (Community Service Flights — Conditions on Flight Crew Licences) Instrument 2019. This instrument is directed at Angel Flight. Angel Flight is a charity which coordinates emergency flights to assist people in regional areas who need to access specialist medical or mental health treatment that would otherwise be unavailable to them because of vast distances or high travel costs. If someone in, say, Kimba in South Australia needs repeated chemotherapy treatment over a period of time, they would normally need to travel by road to Adelaide, a six-hour drive and back. That's quite a burden on people who are sick. The alternative might be to drive to Whyalla for a regular public transport flight to and from Adelaide, at great expense.

We all know in this chamber that there are huge costs associated with regional travel. It's simply not affordable for people who require medical attention. I'm not talking about emergency medical attention but simply appointments that they can't have in their local towns. They have to spend a lot of money on flights and so forth. Angel Flight is set up whereby pilots—who are certified as safe by CASA—volunteer their time and their aircraft. They get some contribution to fuel such that it eases the burden on the pilot. They carry these people, and they've had over 45,000 flights helping Australians.

In 2011, an Angel Flight flight crashed 31 kilometres north of Horsham Airport in Victoria. The pilot had flown into reduced visibility conditions due to low cloud, rain and diminishing light, leading to disorientation, loss of control and impact with terrain. Tragically, the pilot and one passenger died on impact. The second passenger died later in hospital. I might emphasise—and it's relevant to what I'll say later—that the accident was not related to maintenance.

In 2017, an Angel Flight flight crashed just after leaving Mount Gambier airport. The pilot took off in low cloud, lost visual cues and probably became spatially disoriented, resulting in the loss of control of the aircraft and collision with terrain. Sadly, again, all on board lost their lives, including 16-year-old Emily Redding. It is a truly sad thing. There's no question it was a tragedy, but, again, I emphasise that no maintenance related issues were identified in the accident.

On 14 February this year, before the ATSB report was finalised into the Mount Gambier accident, CASA introduced the community service flight instrument that we are discussing today. The instrument set a standard for Angel Flight, but it was a standard that Angel Flight already met. Minimum flight hours and a minimum time in command were set in the instrument, but they were already requirements of Angel Flight, so, in that respect, the instrument wasn't offensive. The offending parts of the instrument centred around three things: (1) the exclusion of helicopters being used for community service flights, (2) a restriction on those who can fly on board Angel Flights, which make it unlawful for there to be an Angel Flight mentor on board the aircraft, and (3) an increase in maintenance requirements for aircraft involved in flights. I'll deal with each of these issues, one by one.

In relation to helicopters, Ms Rebekha Sharkie and I met with CASA, after we lodged the disallowance in the last parliament, and questioned why helicopters could not be used to conduct Angel Flights. CASA could not explain the decision, and on 8 April they introduced an amendment to the instrument repermitting the use of helicopters. Interestingly, in respect of mentoring, at the Senate inquiry that looked at the ATSB report into the Mount Gambier crash, CASA appeared and conceded they did not really intend to prevent mentoring on board the aircraft and that they would look to clarify the situation. Of course, pilots are always very conservative. They will look to the rules and they'll try and stick to them to the letter. Finally, on maintenance, with the benefit of the ATSB report into the Mount Gambier crash, we now know that neither Angel Flight aircraft that crashed had any concerns in respect of maintenance. Maintenance played no part in relation to those crashes. Yet, the instrument increases the maintenance regularity for aircraft participating in Angel Flights.

I need to stop here and advise the chamber of the Angel Flight philosophy. Once again, Angel Flight pilots are CASA-certified pilots. They are safe. The aircraft they fly in are CASA-certified. They are safe. These are people who volunteer their time to help others in the community. I actually have a pilot's licence. I could jump into—well, I probably can't; I haven't flown for a while, so it would be unwise to fly with me—but theoretically I could jump into an aircraft with my colleague Senator Griff, and we could fly to Kangaroo Island, do something on the weekend, enjoy some fishing, and I could fly back. Yet, for some reason, a certified pilot can't do the same thing with someone who simply needs a medical appointment in the city. So, we have a problem here. You can have a highly qualified pilot fly someone in a plane to a sporting event on the weekend, and that's okay, but the same pilot in the same aircraft may not be able to fly a person to a medical centre for an appointment.

Additional requirements are going to be placed on Angel Flight aircraft, and they won't be a small imposition. It's not like you take your aircraft and roll it down the road to the nearest garage and get it serviced. You have to find a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer—and they're getting rarer and rarer by the minute—and you might have to fly some considerable distance, after you've booked in, to get your aircraft inspected. It's a significant event in the context of an aircraft pilot and/or an aircraft owner. It is not an insignificant burden. It takes time and money to do that. CASA has now introduced an instrument that, from a maintenance perspective, does nothing in respect of safety in relation to Angel Flight except add cost to it. Yet again we are seeing CASA trying to kill off the general aviation sector.

The irony of all this is that, just a while back, the chamber passed the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2019, which is a government bill that seeks to rein in CASA's overregulation. It is listed to pass through the House of Representatives today. The operative part of that bill says this:

… in developing and promulgating aviation safety standards under paragraph 9(1)(c), CASA must:

(a) consider the economic and cost impact on individuals, businesses and the community of the standards; and

(b) take into account the differing risks associated with different industry sectors.

The government has signalled—and the Senate has signalled, and there is no doubt in the other place—that they will command by legislation, probably by the end of today, that CASA recalibrate its approach to safety. Safety is, of course, important, but there will never be zero risk associated with flying. Yet we have a situation here where CASA is introducing a maintenance requirement that will cost money and is not necessary, yet Michael McCormack is adamant it should go through. He introduced the bill here to address this very problem, and yet he's exacerbating it by allowing this instrument to go through.

The chamber must realise that we are dealing with an organisation, CASA, that would prefer to see no aircraft flying ever, because that's the way they'll get a zero safety case on their ledger. No flights equals no accidents. If CASA were in charge of road transport, none of you would be allowed to drive on the roads. It's as simple as that. An accident would occur and CASA would ban you. They'd regulate people out of business. The further irony that we've got here is that, by doing this, there will be fewer Angel Flight pilots inclined to fly and fewer aircrafts available to do that, which will put these people who require medical attention back onto the roads, where it's more likely that there will be an accident. Just giving the statistics for South Australia, in 2018 there were 80 fatalities on South Australian roads, and 56 of those were on rural roads. Indeed, there were 34 fatal crashes in the Limestone Coast region between 2012 and 2016, which is near Mount Gambier, where this last Angel Flight crash occurred.

Since this instrument has been introduced, we've had an ATSB report come out. Sadly, that ATSB report directed its effort not just at the crash—and I concede what they did in respect of the crash was professional, and they did make useful findings as to what had happened. By the way, they did not make any recommendations in respect of that crash, but they turned their attention to Angel Flight, this organisation that seeks to assist people in regional areas. Using statistics—and we all know about statistics; 'lies, damned lies and statistics' is the saying—they came to the conclusion that it was seven times more likely that you'd have an accident on an Angel Flight than on a private flight. They did that by excluding prepositioning legs, the leg from where the pilot lives to where the patient needs to be picked up and, after they have done the service of taking them to a medical appointment, getting back from where the patient is to where the pilot lives. That data was excluded.

They found that there was pressure on Angel Flight pilots. You know what? They did that without talking to one single Angel Flight pilot. Not one single Angel Flight pilot was talked to. Do you think they asked the question, 'How many times has an Angel Flight cancelled due to weather?' That would give an indication of how the organisation was faring in terms of making sure people weren't taking off in bad conditions. Do you think they asked? Do you think they found out about how many times one of those flights had been cancelled? No, they didn't. In that respect, the report was incompetent.

The Senate committee, the government-dominated committee, chaired by Senator McDonald, who did a really good job throughout the process—very fair, very measured, extracted evidence—made some findings and some recommendations, and those recommendations included two things. The first recommendation was to deal with the issue of mentoring. Once again, I concede that CASA was happy to take that on board, and it indicated to the committee that it would consider that. Nonetheless, that's one of the recommendations from the committee. The second recommendation from the committee was that the additional maintenance requirements that have been placed on Angel Flight without any justification should be removed. Once again, Senator McDonald did a really good job chairing that committee. I'm very interested to see how she votes on this disallowance. And we also had Senator Brockman—I guess I can even up the score—who was very surgical in his questioning around the statistics associated with Angel Flight. He actually took on the doctor inside the ATSB responsible for those statistics and pulled out some glaring errors. For that, I thank Senator Brockman. I'm interested to see how he votes on this disallowance. Senator Sterle stood strongly on this as well. I note that the report that was handed down by the Senate RRAT committee was unanimous. There were no dissenting reports; there were no additional comments. I congratulate the committee chair, Senator McDonald, for getting a bipartisan report. That's often a difficult thing to do in this place.

The general aviation community knows that what is being done here is wrong. We have a Senate committee that has recommended changes. I've asked for those changes to be made by CASA. I sat down with CASA and said, 'I will withdraw my disallowance if you simply accept the recommendations of the Senate committee.' These are recommendations that are grounded in the evidence that we took from the ATSB, from Angel Flight and from CASA. But, no, it's the modus operandi of CASA to shut down general aviation.

Shame on all the Nationals in this place if they vote against this—shame on anyone who cares about regional communities and the people that live in these regional communities—and make it that little bit harder for the people who live in those communities. They're already suffering from the fact we're removing, on a regular basis, services from those communities. A lot of them are doing it tough in relation to farming, and now we're going to make it just that more difficult by removing some of the very good people that volunteer their time to help and volunteer their aircraft just so that CASA can continue in its attempt to destroy general aviation.

I don't know whether the House has passed the bill yet. It's listed for today. The parliament is commanding CASA re-adopt or recalibrate the way it thinks about aviation safety regulation, yet they stand in opposition to this parliament, passing regulations that are harmful, that are costly, that are unnecessary. I urge the Senate today to disallow the instrument that has been put forward.

3:49 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition today does not support Senator Patrick's disallowance motion. We note that the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport has inquired into matters associated with community service flights. We note that the committee made a couple of recommendations, which, as we understand it, the government are currently considering. So we in the opposition are looking forward to seeing the government respond to those in due course.

We understand that community flight charities such as Angel Flight do indeed provide a valuable service to regional communities across Australia, and we pay credit to the organisation and the volunteers that give their time to help regional families who need to attend medical appointments in major centres. We also very much respect the role of CASA as the independent civil aviation safety regulator. There's no doubt in our nation that our community has the expectation that CASA will establish and enforce a regulatory system that keeps all passengers, whether fare-paying or not, safe when they take to our skies. Indeed, Senator Patrick highlighted to us his own experience as a qualified pilot and said in his own words that he wouldn't suggest people take a flight with him as a pilot.

The opposition take a bipartisan approach to aviation safety because we know that the community puts a very high premium on safety in our skies. We understand very much, however, the concerns raised by Angel Flight. It is also essential that we have the highest safety standards applied to these important flights. We will continue to monitor implementation of this instrument and any impacts on community service flights and the community service flight community. We will be working with the government to address any of these concerns going forward.

3:51 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

The government does not support Senator Patrick's disallowance motion. As has been acknowledged, these issues were canvassed in the recent Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport report, which looked at, among other matters, maintenance requirements relating to Angel Flight.

The government acknowledges the great benefit provided by community flight charities such as Angel Flight in regional Australia. We appreciate the generous donation of time and expertise provided by volunteer pilots in support of this valuable work and the contributions that many make towards such organisations. We note that one of the two recommendations in the Senate committee's report includes a proposal to remove the provisions for additional aeroplane maintenance requirements which are beyond those required for airworthiness in general aviation. In this regard, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's view remains that the inclusion of the modest additional maintenance requirements for these flights is an appropriate and proportionate measure to address the identified risk of a high-use private aircraft undertaking passenger flights, and that these additional requirements are likely to affect less than 10 per cent of private aircraft engaged in these flights. The government supports CASA, our independent civil aviation safety regulator, to use its expertise and professional judgement to determine appropriate safety measures for flights carrying passengers.

Passengers, whether they are fare-paying or not, are generally less able to determine the level of risk in the service they are boarding and rely on the regulator to ensure aviation safety is maintained. While acknowledging that CASA's instrument places additional requirements on pilots—largely around the recency of experience and overall experience—these measures are a practical approach to mitigating any flight risk. Since commencing on 19 March 2019, we are not aware that the instrument has resulted in a lack of availability of pilots or their aircraft for community service flights. Therefore, given our regulator's advice, the government does not support the disallowance motion before the Senate.

3:54 pm

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

What I hear with people standing up are nice, kind words—everyone feels good—but it's not leadership. If CASA comes to this place and proposes a regulation, what I would see is absolute fear in exercising a judgement as to whether or not that creates an imposition on general aviation that is not worthy—that doesn't increase safety.

There's no question, no question at all, that if this instrument stands as it is at the moment there will be additional costs. There is no question about that. But no-one in this place will stand up and say that there will be an accident because of it, because no-one can make a link between the additional maintenance requirements that have been imposed by CASA and the safety of Angel Flight flights. It just doesn't exist. In fact, Senator Birmingham has suggested that there has been no impact.

I have been informed that, just on account of the fact that the ATSB now says that Angel Flight flights are seven times more likely to have an accident than a private pilot, than a private operation, that has caused Angel Flight's insurance companies to contact them indicating a significant increase in premium. That will have an effect on that operation. So to stand and say there has been no impact—there has been no impact as a result of the instrument; there has been no impact as a result of the ATSB report—is simply wrong. It's ill-informed. Again, I urge—

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

You might want to check carefully what I said there—

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

Well, Senator Birmingham, perhaps that is true. What I'm suggesting to you is that there is an impact on the operation. There is an impact on the operation. Perhaps you don't care too much about your insurance because the Commonwealth covers yours, but that's not the case for Angel Flight. Once again, we have people in this place who receive regular wages and have everything covered for them, allowing for regulations and allowing for things to occur that simply increase costs for no apparent reason, and that is unacceptable. I urge the Senate to support my disallowance.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion as moved by Senator Patrick be agreed to.