First Europe, and then the globe, will be linked by flight, and nations so knit together that they will grow to be next-door neighbors… What railways have done for nations, airways will do for the world.
And how correct he was. Aviation has transformed our world, shrinking the way we perceive distance while growing the global economy. Today it supports almost 63 million jobs and generates some $2.7 trillion in global GDP.
Australia is benefiting from the growth in this sector, which contributes in excess of $30 billion every year to the Australian economy and supports more than half a million jobs. Tourism has driven a significant proportion of this growth. Over the last 20 years, international passenger movements have grown at an annual average rate of some 4.5 per cent, while domestic passenger movements have increased by 2.5 per cent.
But aviation is also pushing boundaries and unlocking new opportunities in other ways through advancements in technology. On 24 March this year, QF9 departed Perth for London, the first ever direct flight connecting Australia to Europe. This is a game changer for WA and a glimpse of things to come for Australia. Consequently, it is in this context that we must consider the Airports Amendment Bill 2016, which seeks to amend the Airports Act 1996 to streamline processes for development at and around federally leased airports.
The fact is that our airports are critical pieces of national economic infrastructure. They connect towns and cities across the nation to each other and are our gateway to the rest of the world. But their operations can impact significantly on the social amenity of the communities of which they are a part, which is why developments at our airports must be well planned and communities properly consulted. Already there is much development occurring around the nation’s major airports, including the new greenfields airport underway in Western Sydney. In addition, major developments are at different stages of progress in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, which are all getting new runways. While we need to ensure that the aviation sector continues to grow, we must also see to it that communities which live in proximity to airports aren’t disproportionately affected by this growth.
Labor strongly supports this investment in aviation infrastructure. However, this investment must be underpinned by a social compact between airports and the communities that live around them. Consequently, Labor is proposing two amendments to the Airports Amendment Bill 2016 to ensure that this occurs: firstly, that the monetary trigger threshold for major development plans be reduced to $25 million and, secondly, that the automatic approval of requests for shorter public consultation periods in relation to major development plans be removed.
As mentioned, this bill will streamline processes for development at and around federally leased airports, which Labor largely welcomes. Unlike most other infrastructure, the federal government is the consent authority for major airport development, with states and territories playing a secondary role. This has a number of implications. Firstly, under existing federal legislation, 19 of the 21 federally leased airports are required to prepare a master plan every five years, which is then subject to approval by the federal minister. What that means, literally, is that every five years you have a process whereby development not just over those five years but with a 20-year forward horizon has to be approved by the minister. It means that we have strategic direction for development around airports. It means that communities can have ongoing input into the operation of airports.
This is a critical change, and it arose from the 2009 aviation white paper, undertaken under the former Labor government. This was the first time ever that we had had a strategic plan for aviation with a green-paper and white-paper process in this country. One of the important processes of reforms that came up through that white-paper process is the legislation that we are dealing with here today in terms of moving further amendments. Importantly, the master plan update process does require that community consultation.
Secondly, major developments at airports, including certain projects that currently cost more than $20 million in construction, require federal approval of a major development plan. The 21 airports subject to this legislation are Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin, Bankstown, Gold Coast, Alice Springs, Camden, Townsville, Tennant Creek, Archerfield, Mount Isa, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Perth, Essendon, Launceston, Parafield, Jandakot and Moorabbin. Western Sydney Airport is also included. The Airports Amendment Bill 2016 will make a number of changes to the existing approvals process. These include moving eligible airports from a five-year master plan to an eight-year cycle. However, the main gateway airports of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth will remain on a five-year cycle, as will Western Sydney after representations from Labor, because with the new airport you will need to ensure that there is closer monitoring over its initial years of operation.
Additional changes include that an updated Australian Noise Exposure Forecast will be required in each master plan—that is, you will have out there, in a transparent way in each master plan, a clear update of what the noise impact will be for each of these airports around Australia. All 21 airports will enable that process, which will, of course, need to include the community consultation as well. The legislation proposes to lift the monetary trigger for the requirement for a separate major development plan for certain major projects from $20 million to $35 million. Our amendment that we will move in consideration in detail to reduce that back down to $25 million will receive the support of the government as well. I thank the incoming minister, Minister McCormack, who is certainly more consultative than some of his predecessors. That is a constructive dialogue that has occurred with the new minister. This is essentially a CPI increase from the previous figure of $20 million to $25 million. That is a reasonable change, but I think people want to ensure that that scrutiny isn’t reduced. Hence, the figure of $25 million is a sensible resolution, and I think it’s a good sign that the minister has been prepared to accept Labor’s proposition on that. It will also introduce three-yearly cost indexation thereafter, so that will get around the issue of what the figure should be in the future. The automatic indexation removes the need to come back into the parliament and make amendments to the act. This will, of course, also allow for better definition of cost elements of the trigger.
The monetary trigger, however, already sits alongside subjective alternative triggers for requiring MDPs as well, based on significant environmental or other impacts. If anything of significance is occurring and, regardless of the value, it is going to have a significant environmental impact, the major development plan is automatically triggered regardless of the value of that upgrade of the airport by any particular project which may be under the monetary threshold. This is a sensible reform as well.
The changes will include establishing a decision time frame of 15 days for the minister to consider reduced consultation periods for major development plans. What is in the proposal originally was that a plan would be deemed to be approved if the time frame were not met. This aligns with existing provisions in the act relating to deemed master plan approval after a 50-day period. What we will be proposing in our amendment that we will move in consideration in detail is a process so that the request, rather than being assumed to have been approved, will be assumed to have been refused. What that ensures is that something can’t be approved due to omission, or due to a failure to take action, and will ensure the conscious involvement of the minister but also that those processes around the approval of the MDP are kept in place. It will enable the minister to extend, by more than once, the period during which major developments are required to be substantially completed. Failure to comply can lead to civil penalties under existing legislation. For example, when I was the minister there were occurrences whereby a project simply hadn’t been completed. What this will do is allow for that period of examination to be extended. Again, a common sense resolution that is about making a practical change to the operation of the act.
It will also allow airport operators to notify the minister if exceptional circumstances mean that a major development cannot proceed. At the moment, if an approval is given for a particular project and it can’t proceed, because of circumstances of a failure to receive financing for a project or for another reason, the act provides for civil penalties to be imposed under the existing legislation. This is also a sensible change. According to the government, these changes will relieve inefficient outcomes for the industry while lifting unnecessary and onerous administrative burdens.
Labor has supported the broad consultative mechanisms involving local community engagement, proper assessment of community impacts and reasonable mitigation measures to address these impacts. Generally, the package reduces the burden on approval for development of the affected airports and creates more flexibility around legislative time frames whilst ensuring that the protections for consultation and other measures are not diluted.
We support the amendments. We’ve put forward the two amendments to the Airport Amendment Bill. We are pleased that the government has seen the virtue of our practical amendments and will be supporting them when they are moved. The first amendment is that a major development plan must be completed in a number of circumstances, including when a monetary trigger is reached. The current monetary trigger of $20 million was determined back in 2007, so a rough guestimate would indicate that increasing the threshold to $25 million is practical. The $25 million essentially reflects the changes in construction costs over that 10-year period. The opposition looked at the ABS construction CPI, which showed that costs have increased by 20 per cent since 2007. Hence, a consistent position of applying basically a 20 per cent increase to that threshold, so a practical figure of $25 million is reasonable.
With the second amendment, the simple fact is that communities do require proper consultation. Currently, the public consultation period associated with draft major development plans, as specified in subsection 92(2A), of the act is 60 business days. However, the minister can approve a shorter period of not less than 15 business days if asked in writing by the airport operator to do so, and as long as they are satisfied that the proposed development is consistent with the airport masterplan and does not raise any issues that have a significant impact on the local or regional community. The proposed amendment inserts a new subsection 92(2BA), which would provide that if the airport makes a request for a shorter consultation period, and the minister does not make a decision on the request within 15 business days, then the minister is deemed to have approved that shorter period.
Labor couldn’t support such an amendment, because it had the potential to undermine the rights of local communities to have their say. In the words of the Bills Digest prepared by the Parliamentary Library:
This amendment seems to raise the possibility that the Minister could simply not decide on the request, and then be deemed to have approved the short period, even if the development is inconsistent with the airport master plan, or raises issues that have a significant impact on the local or regional community.
Not for the first time, the people in the Parliamentary Library who do the Bills Digest have got it right. We’re very fortunate to be able to benefit as lawmakers from proper advice.
It should be well within a minister’s capability to consider within 15 days a request for reduced consultation, and, where that doesn’t occur, it certainly isn’t appropriate that the request would be deemed approved anyway. I wouldn’t suggest that some of the ministers under this government who’ve had control of infrastructure might have slept through 15 days, but, if you were cynical perhaps, you might come to that conclusion and be concerned that it would be deemed to be approved by not making a decision. That would not be appropriate.
I’m sure that the current minister—and it’s been a revolving door; it’s got to be said. There have been four of them in the last very short period of time. I’ve got on with all of them okay, it must be said, and have had reasonable working relations with them. Nonetheless, I do not want to see circumstances whereby decisions are deemed to have been made by not making a decision. That is not a sensible way to legislate.
Of course, this Airports Amendment Bill—you will note, Mr Deputy Speaker—is the Airports Amendment Bill 2016. It’s been around for a while. That would indicate perhaps that the people who’ve had responsibility for it aren’t as dynamic as they could have been, given that it is now towards the middle of 2018, so that makes my point, I think. It’s good that Minister McCormack has gotten on top of this issue so quickly, it having just sat on the Notice Paper for so long.
I’m very proud of Labor’s record when it comes to aviation. We have always sought to balance the needs of the sector with the rights of the community. Aviation is an important economic asset for the nation. In an island continent such as ours, we by definition rely in modern times, in this century, on aviation to connect ourselves with the world, whether that be by Australians travelling to and from the world—we’re great travellers—or, importantly, by attracting tourists to come here as well and therefore creating jobs.
The aviation white paper had a range of reforms which this legislation reflects, prohibiting developments incompatible with aviation use on federal airport sites, for a start, unless exceptional circumstances exist. So the priority of airports is aviation. That sounds an obvious thing, but the fact is that, because it was federal land, a whole range of developments that were incompatible with aviation were considered to be supported in a range of airports, particularly the smaller airports, where general aviation is so important.
Secondly, we required federal airports to establish community aviation consultation groups. Before the aviation white paper and legislation, they didn’t exist in most airports right around Australia. The interests both of the airports and of the communities around them are served by proper consultation. A range of airports do it better than others, but it is important that that be mandated so that for issues such as aircraft noise and the impact on communities there is an opportunity for communities to have that direct input.
We obligated federal airports to submit more detailed master plans, so no more could you have changes made which, essentially, hadn’t been properly scrutinised. We introduced the new major development plan trigger, activated by any development with a significant community impact, regardless of size or cost. Before white paper, that was not a consideration. We established the Aircraft Noise Ombudsman. That was an important reform that has meant that communities have somewhere to go that is independent of the ownership of the airports and independent of the government. It’s important that they could have confidence that there was an office that was dealing with aircraft noise, which can be an issue not just for major airports but for the many secondary airports, particularly around our capital cities. Of course, we also banned a range of older, noisier aircraft from operating at our airports.
I conclude by saying that Labor strongly supports investment in aviation. We understand the importance of the role that aviation plays in supporting jobs. We’re committed to growing the sector. But the simple fact is that this investment must be underpinned by the social compact between airports and the communities that live around them. That’s why we’ll put forward those amendments to the Airports Amendment Bill 2016. That’s why I am pleased that the government, and the minister, in particular, have indicated support for those amendments. I commend the bill to the House with the knowledge that the bill’s flaws will be fixed by those amendments that we will move in the consideration in detail stage.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.