Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee; Report

5:58 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee's report on the Performance of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, and in particular its report on the June 2017 crash of a flight conducted on behalf of Angel Flight Australia. Today it is 40 degrees in much of Western Queensland. This is not because of climate change; it's because it's October and it's summer. It is 24 hours by bus from Cloncurry to Brisbane; it is 12 hours to Townsville. Thanks very much to the Labor government in Queensland there are reduced medical services through much of regional and remote Queensland, so people have to travel to the big cities. It is currently $683 to fly to Brisbane and $881 to fly to Townsville.

I have long believed that regulation of any industry should be outcomes based. It should be effective and it should be reasonable. There should be transparency of the clear connection between the problem to be solved and the legislative solution. The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee that I chair has had the opportunity to hold an inquiry into the performance of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and, in particular, its report on the June 2017 crash of a flight conducted on behalf of Angel Flight Australia. It was the findings of this report that formed part of the rationale for the introduction by CASA of the Civil Aviation (Community Service Flights—Conditions on Flight Crew Licences) Instrument 2019, the CSF instrument.

The CSF instrument introduces a number of requirements for community services flights in relation to pilot experience and date of last flight, the number and type of passengers allowed on board, allowable aircraft types, aircraft maintenance schedules, flight notifications and various flight rules. At the hearings, we heard extensive evidence from numerous industry representatives, stakeholders and observers, and we used the feedback from these people to make two very clear recommendations. These were: to amend the instrument to remove the provisions for additional aeroplane maintenance requirements beyond those required already for airworthiness in the general aviation sector; and, second, to further amend the instrument to clarify what constitutes 'operating crew' for community service flights, particularly as it relates to additional pilots and mentoring.

The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee believe both these reforms would strike the right balance between safety, ease of implementation and the benefit of a service that does so much good for so many people, thanks to the generosity of volunteer pilots in our vast nation. Despite these recommendations, CASA, having indicated it will accept the second recommendation to provide further clarity on the mentorship, has made no changes to the words of the instrument in this regard. But, more importantly, CASA has not accepted the unanimous recommendations of the committee to reject the additional maintenance requirement, which, once again, adds cost to an increasingly unfinancial sector. The requirement for the additional maintenance was not able to be demonstrated by CASA either in its written submission or when appearing before the committee. Indeed, the idea that this was only a small increase to costs fundamentally demonstrates the extraordinary disconnection between this regulating body and the reality of life and services available in regional, rural and remote Australia—the very places that rely on Angel Flight. In taking this course of action, CASA doesn't display a desire to act on collaboration and consultation and shows a refusal to accept commonsense reform.

This lack of understanding of the gradual and relentless increase in cost and regulation within the aviation industry with no demonstrable link to safety improvement other than a precautionary principle concerns me enormously, as a resident of this huge outback country. We could be much better served if only aviation were affordable for general aviation and charter businesses.

CASA's proposed regulatory changes would not have prevented the June 2017 accident and, with no reference to additional maintenance requirements in the ATSB report, it is hard to understand to what end CASA had made the change, not to mention the fact that CASA's approach risks driving pilots out of the Angel Flight service, which is so critical to Australians living in rural and remote areas. Without pilots, people with chronic and serious conditions face driving many hours to obtain treatment, or face the extreme costs of regional airfares. It is painfully apparent that CASA imposes regulation simply for the sake of it.

Everyone elected to this place comes with a responsibility to represent the communities that sent them here. Those communities have an expectation that we will support the standards that they expect—the standards of transparency and common sense—and they expect government to direct these independent bodies to do their will. Of course, that is not possible. These independent statutory bodies have taken on a life of their own, but I am here to tell you that I could not and will not accept a report that so clearly and in depth examines the evidence and the challenges for regional and remote Australia and the challenges to the aviation industry and stands by while CASA, once again, imposes maintenance requirements that are unreasonable, costly and, once again, seek to strangle opportunity and aviation in this country.

You can only begin to imagine what Bert Hinkler, Charles Kingsford Smith, John Flynn and all the other great aviators of this land would think if they came back now and saw what we have done to our aviation industry. There are not only aspects of practical and reasonableness in opposing this instrument but also humanitarian aspects. Regulations need to be strict, but not so strict as to strangle, and I believe Angel Flight will be strangled by these proposals. So it is for this reason that I did support the disallowance motion moved by Senator Rex Patrick. This is not voting against government legislation; this is voting against an instrument that was created by an independent statutory authority that is slowly crippling our aviation industry.

6:06 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd also like to speak to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee's report in support of Angel Flight and the service that they provide to so many rural and regional families across this country, including the support that they provided to my own family for a number of years.

When my son was diagnosed with autism back in 2012, at that stage—pre the NDIS—we were reliant on assistance through state government. It took 12 months for the state government to get in contact with us in Moree to see how they may be able to offer assistance to my son through disability support programs. Thankfully we had not waited 12 months to help our son, because the key with autism is intensive and early intervention—the key to that being 'early'. Unfortunately, many families at that point in time were forced to wait.

We had endeavoured to start on a very good, high-quality early intervention program out of Sydney, but that was requiring us to travel to Sydney every month—my son, myself and, at times, therapists who we were training to conduct the in-home element of the program. The cost, when it was just my son and me, was often up to $2,000 return from Moree to Sydney because of the $500 per person each way that was required to be paid. As you can imagine, $24,000 a year that is not even for the therapy, let alone accommodation and other costs while you're in Sydney for four to five days a month, is not sustainable for many families. It certainly wasn't sustainable for us for a very long period of time.

Facetiously suggesting to the state government that they might be able to help fund my son's program, and them not being able to do that, their suggestion was that they could offer a referral to Angel Flight. Angel Flight was an absolute godsend to our family. It was the only service that we were able to access that we did not have to personally fund. The insinuation that I have heard over the last couple of months in what would appear to be an almost determined act by CASA over a sustained period of time to somehow strangle this absolutely vital community service, for reasons that are absolutely beyond me, that they are trying to take away a service that provides a vital lifeline for families is just absolutely incomprehensible. And the most offensive part that I have heard is the suggestion that somehow rural and regional families do not understand that these flights are being conducted by non-commercial pilots. I can assure you that we understand that. Angel Flight does an exceptional job in educating the people who use the service. We are spoken to by Angel Flight and we are given lots and lots of information to read. We are signing pieces of paper, not only when we first use the service but every time we use it. We are aware that we will be flying in various types of aircraft. We had one flight in a wonderful, brand new, incredibly impressive aircraft that had just been purchased by the managing partner of a very large consulting firm. We also had trips in much less salubrious, smaller aircraft, in which we had a much less-comfortable flight to Moree, but these flights were equally gratefully received by my family and particularly by my son and I.

It is offensive to suggest that people in rural and regional communities are somehow unable to make an educated decision about using the service. Whilst any accident that results in the death of anybody is tragic, the fact of the matter is that there are more deaths on our roads than have ever been caused in accidents by this service, and we do not see cries to shut down the transport via road of people with chronic illnesses or those requiring care and access to therapy. People need to be able to access these services. At one stage we flew on a quite large plane from Moree via Brewarrina with a number of families, including people who were suffering from breast cancer who could not make the trip via road. This was a vital service for helping these people to continue their lives and prolong their lives for as long as possible. So it is incredibly important that Angel Flight receives the support it can get and that it is not overly burdened by regulation, such that it is put in a position where it is unable to provide this service, which is so vital to so many families across rural and regional Australia.

I particularly would like to commend Senator Rex Patrick, Senator Susan McDonald and Senator Slade Brockman. All of us share a passion for this service, and we appreciate the important role that it plays within the communities we live in and represent. We understand the important work that it does. I, for one, wish Angel Flight a very long existence. To all the families currently utilising the service, I hope you don't need it for very much longer, but for the families that may require it in future, I hope the service is there for you far into the future.

6:12 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee on the performance of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. I acknowledge, as Senator Hughes did, all those who participated in the inquiry. I particularly would like to thank the secretariat for their work on the inquiry. I was a full member of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee when the inquiry on the promulgation of the particular regulations we're talking about kicked off. Senator Patrick, Senator O'Sullivan—who has now left us—and I did have some concerns about those regulations. These concerns led us through the inquiry, which was very ably chaired by Senator McDonald, having done so as a relatively new senator. It was probably a difficult issue, and I acknowledge and thank her for her chairing of the inquiry hearings.

As Senator Patrick mentioned earlier today, I did have some concerns about the ATSB report. You cannot blame government agencies for the way that their reporting is sometimes sensationalised in the media—for example, talking about the flights of Angel Flight being seven times more dangerous. Unfortunately, it was made easy for the media to come up with those very inflammatory headlines, because of the report the ATSB produced. I still remain concerned with the fact that their principal conclusion was based on two data points, separated by six years, over a 10-year period. I find it very difficult to believe that you can draw statistically significant conclusions from such a dataset. It worries me when that information is then used by a large number of media outlets to paint a particular view of the risks, because these risks, as Senator Hughes and Senator McDonald have so ably outlined, are risks that are weighed up by people living in very remote parts of Australia.

If you live in Newdegate, in my home state, you've got a 1,800-kilometre round trip to Perth if you need to see a specialist, if you need any particularly invasive hospital care or regular treatments for things such as cancer. If you live in Cue, you've got a 1,300-kilometre round trip. But these are not on major highways; they are on country roads. Anyone who's driven on country roads or anyone who has even looked at the statistics for driving on country roads knows that there is a level of risk involved in taking those long trips on those country roads, of durations of sometimes 10 hours or more. Yes, there is risk involved in flying in light aircraft; there is no doubt about that. I think everyone in Australia, particularly everyone in the bush, knows that there are risks involved in flying in light aircraft. But to put the idea out there that somehow the statistics we use are an accurate portrait of what those risks are—I don't think that is fair or reasonable.

I didn't disagree with all the regulations. In fact—although I don't want to put words into the mouths of others—I believe that most of us on the committee actually supported the majority of the regulation that was put forward, in particular the requirements for pilots to have a certain level of experience, competence and time in the particular aircraft, and felt that they were sensible changes that would seem, on the face of it, to deliver a safety benefit. However, the one I found particularly difficult to accept—and this is the one that was highlighted in the committee's report—was the requirement for an additional level of aeroplane maintenance. If I'm the owner of a private aircraft and that aircraft is safe enough for me to take my friends up in, is safe enough for me to take my children up in, has met the requirements of being considered a safe aircraft for the purpose of general aviation in Australia, then I see no reason to add on to that a further maintenance requirement that risks more people leaving general aviation.

All of us in this place who have anything to do with the bush spend some time in light aircraft. All of us in this place who have an interest in rural and regional affairs spend some time in light aircraft, because there is just no other way of getting around rural and regional Australia. My experience, talking to GA operators and GA pilots throughout Western Australia, is that that part of the industry feels under significant pressure from regulations such as these. Additional maintenance requirements are not something to just be shrugged off. Pilots take them seriously—they have to be taken seriously. So, additional maintenance requirements beyond the requirements for any planes in the general aviation sector did not seem to me to be warranted. However, as I've already stated, I agreed with large parts of the regulation.

As such, I did not support Senator Patrick's disallowance. It's a very blunt instrument, a disallowance. Unfortunately, it means you knock out everything. You literally throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is something where I do have a great deal of concern both for the Angel Flight pilots—the community flight pilots—and for that sector. Giving rural and regional Australians access to those services is very important, and I will continue to monitor this area very closely and look to see whether the regulations as promulgated have a negative impact on that sector.

6:20 pm

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

I rise to take note of the report. I wish to congratulate Senators McDonald, Hughes and Brockman for their statements. Senator McDonald, as the chair of the committee, clearly articulated how the committee felt in relation to the ATSB report and, indeed, the instrument. In her speech she talked of an instrument that imposes maintenance requirements that are unnecessary and of how these are slowly crippling our aviation industry. Senator McDonald, with great courage, crossed the floor this afternoon to support the disallowance. Her standing has certainly gone up significantly in my mind. I often criticise but I'm never afraid to talk about it when I think people have stood up and said something really sensible. I'm not a party to government in any way, shape or form; I just call it as it is.

Moving to Senator Hughes: she spoke from the heart. She's someone who has used Angel Flight. She has talked to me privately and said—and I hope she doesn't mind that I share this—it was a great saviour for her. I know that she's so very grateful for the service that Angel Flight provides. I was with her up in Papua New Guinea, with Save the Children, and she spent some amount of time talking about what they did for her family.

Senator Brockman spoke very sensibly on his analysis of the ATSB report. Very correctly, he indicated that there were many sensible things in the regulation. Indeed, I wasn't opposing everything that was in the regulation. I was basically very concerned about the mentoring arrangements, although I accept what has been said in the chamber tonight, which is that that may well be adjusted. But, certainly, in relation to maintenance, I do have a problem. He's still monotone—but very sensible!—and I thank him for his contribution in relation to the report.

The role of senators is one of leadership; and we shouldn't just accept that, because CASA say something, we need to back CASA. We need to look at things that CASA present to this chamber and analyse them. We need to look at them and apply judgement on what it is that they have to say. We shouldn't simply tick things because CASA say, 'This is the case,' and because we need to support CASA as people have to have confidence in CASA. We should call them out when things are wrong. In that respect, the government—and I'm referring not to the senators who have spoken tonight but the government—has been weak. Indeed, I'm going to be critical of the opposition. I think the opposition is weak. I exclude Senator Sterle, who I note abstained from the vote. He abstained in clear view of everyone. It is not acceptable for us to simply tick and flick things that come through this place, certainly when they are going to have a very detrimental effect on a most valuable service to regional Australia.

It is clear, there is no question, it is undisputed, it is undoubtable that CASA has erred in respect of this particular instrument. I might say, and I say this in a considered manner, that Mr Carmody has exercised poor judgement, and it's my view that, in the context of all of the regulation that has been imposed upon CASA and in respect of this fundamentally flawed instrument—and, to tap into what Senator Brockman said, there are only certain aspects of this instrument that are flawed, particularly with respect to maintenance—his tenure at the head of CASA must be reconsidered.

Question agreed to.