Of course, there is no margin for error when it comes to aviation safety. It’s that simple. Another responsibility of the parliament is, of course, the need to avoid unnecessary red tape getting in the way of business activity. Business drives economic growth. It creates jobs and supports our standard of living. Aviation is an important business, particularly in regional communities. What this legislation does is go to the issue of general aviation. There has been a lot of concern from operators of general aviation about the regulatory burden that is placed upon them.
There was a very successful conference held in Wagga Wagga, in the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I had the opportunity to speak and to engage with the sector there. This legislation that’s before the parliament now arose out of some of the recommendations from that conference. It doesn’t go as far as some would like, but I believe that it is certainly a step forward, balancing the need to protect the travelling public and, of course, the desirability of ensuring that economic activity can occur.
The regulatory burden for an RPT service run by a Qantas or a Virgin or a Rex is very different from the regulatory burden that can be imposed on a small operator or on general aviation. To maintain that business in place is important, particularly in communities such as those in the member for Maranoa’s electorate. It is really important for a range of services that general aviation is able to operate, because many of those routes simply aren’t commercial for the big players.
What we’ve tried to do is to move forward the agenda. This bill before us, as I said, is in my view not perfect, but I’m not going to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good and the practical, which is why I have supported this legislation.
We always take a bipartisan approach to the issue of transport safety. On the issue of the safety of the travelling public, we must work together because these issues should not be partisan in this parliament. The way that we’ve facilitated the bringing on of this bill is an example of that.
Aviation is absolutely crucial in the 21st century. One of the things that we’ve seen in recent times—unlike when I was younger—is that aviation is five times more affordable today than it was 25 years ago. There are very few industries that you can point to where that is the case. The fact is that these days people will regularly go interstate to watch their football team or netball team or other sporting event without it being a big deal. The first time I hopped on a jet plane was to come here as a ministerial staffer. Before then I’d never been on jet plane in my life, and that wasn’t uncommon for people of my generation. The fact is that aviation is now much more available, and the general aviation sector is the backbone of broader aviation. From balloons to microlights, helicopters to business jets, hobbyists to professional pilots, general aviation directly employs more than 3½ thousand Australians. It performs essential services such as charter flights, search and rescue, firefighting, surveying and aerial photography, life-saving aeromedical care and aircraft maintenance.
It’s also an important training ground for the nation’s pilots, and that’s why the former federal Labor government, in which I had the privilege of serving as aviation minister, delivered the first ever aviation white paper. One of its stated objectives was the ‘maintenance of a safe, efficient and innovative general aviation sector’. This document provided a comprehensive, balanced framework, bringing together all aspects of aviation policy into a single, coherent and forward-looking statement. In particular, we introduced more generous accelerated depreciation rates for aircraft as an incentive for owners to upgrade their aircraft. We reduced the number of 24-hour restricted airspace areas from 81 to 15, we committed to the continued operation and growth of secondary capital city airports, we ensured the master plan of secondary airports maintained a strong focus on aviation development, not non-aeronautical uses that could compromise future aviation activities, and we reduced the financial burden of regulation on the sector by restricting increases in CASA regulatory service charges to rises in the consumer price index.
I understand general aviation’s importance to our nation and I’m optimistic about its prospects for expansion. In recent times, a section of the general aviation sector has expressed concern that CASA’s strong focus on safety has created a situation where the sector is over-regulated. There has been a push for legislative recognition in the Civil Aviation Act that CASA should not consider just safety but also the effect of safety regulation on businesses. Last July, we held the summit in Wagga Wagga, which was addressed by Minister McCormack. My point was that safety must always come first and that we must work together. We must recognise that regulators, as well as the minister, face intense pressures in bearing the responsibility for aviation safety, and I certainly felt it when I was the minister. I know from discussions with Minister McCormack that he had considered these matters very carefully before bringing forward this legislation. I have tried to consult with a range of organisations over this legislation and reform.
The bill amends the Civil Aviation Act to ensure that when CASA develops and promulgates aviation safety standards it takes into consideration the impacts and costs affecting the aviation sector. Existing regulatory practice is already based on that approach, but the bill incorporates the existing regulatory practice in the legislation, therefore making it very clear that these issues are important. The bill doesn’t change CASA’s responsibility to make safety its most important consideration, but what it does do is codify in the legislation the expectation of this parliament that CASA, when creating regulation, will take into account the reasonable expectations of those who are regulated.
For some in the aviation sector, this bill won’t go far enough, and I accept that. But it does take an important step in the right direction. It’s a sign of progress in an area where any change must be carefully considered, and that’s why it has been the subject of broad support across the sector. For example, Regional Air Express, the airline that services much of regional Australia said in a statement:
Regional Express (Rex) welcomes the proposed amendment to the Civil Aviation Act 1998 which requires the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to consider the economic and cost impact, in the development and promulgation of aviation safety standards, on individuals, businesses and the community and to take into account the differing risks associated with different aviation sectors.
In closing, I thank the minister for his cooperation on this issue. The job of transport minister is a difficult one. I hope to be able to experience that again the next time this parliament sits. But, in government or opposition, I would say that I want to work with my counterpart when it comes to transport issues and, in particular, when it comes to aviation safety. That’s why we’ve agreed on just one speaker a side in order to fast-track the passage of this legislation so it can get to the Senate. I commend the legislation to the House.