Nov 13, 2018

Speech to Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association – Maintaining Skills in Australian Aviation to Protect the National Interest – Tuesday, 13 November, 2018

I’m glad to have the opportunity to address the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association.

It’s a chance to outline the Labor Party’s thinking on aviation-related issues in the lead-up to the next federal election.

It’s also an opportunity to hear the concerns of your organisation.

This is important.

Aviation is a globalised industry. It is constantly evolving.

The challenge for regulators is to ensure that as aviation evolves – change does not erode existing standards, particularly when it comes to safety.

That’s where your profession plays a central role.

You possess the specialist expertise that can help governments and regulators understand and respond to the full impact of change, without the overlay of commercial pressures.

Indeed, I note that your motto is: To undertake, supervise and certify for the safety of all who fly.

The ALAEA is of course a professional organisation that represents the industrial concerns of your 3,000 members.

But your advocacy takes on extra importance given your crucial expertise on issues of safety.

We need to hear your input.

But it’s not only about safety.

I’m concerned about the way in which the globalisation of the industry threatens the maintenance of aviation skills that a sovereign nation like ours must preserve in the national interest.

We must ensure that we do not allow the evolution of aviation as a global business to lead to the loss of the strategic aviation skills and experiences vital to our nation’s future.


To give you some context about the importance of maintaining skills, let’s take a brief look at the Australian shipping industry.

In the past five years, the Federal Coalition Government has twice attempted to destroy the Australian domestic shipping by exposing it to unfair competition from overseas-flagged vessels paying their crews third world wages.

Its proposed legislation essentially came from a position that lower shipping costs were more desirable than the maintenance of a local industry.

This was a ridiculous proposal.

It would have put Australians out of work.

But worse still, it would have resulted in the demise of a strategically important industry as well as the skilled workforce it trains and employs.

Given the synergies between our merchant fleet and our Navy, this would have been a betrayal of our national security interests.

It is simply common sense that an island nation would want to maintain a growing and home-grown maritime skills base.

Fortunately the Senate rejected the Government’s so-called reforms – or what I dubbed ‘WorkChoices on Water’.

Equally critical to our national security and economic sovereignty is aviation.

Indeed, for a country like Australia, which inhabits a vast island continent located in a remote part of the globe, there are only two ways to facilitate the mass movement of people and commerce both domestically and internationally – one is by sea and the other is by air.

The fact is the aviation industry underpins Australian business and tourism, adding more than $16 billion to the national economy annually and directly employing over 88,000 Australians.

It is an industry that not only connects us with each other, but also with all of the economic opportunity and cultural experiences the globalised world of the twenty-first century has to offer.

Furthermore, defence experts have long recognised the importance of maintaining a domestic aviation workforce.  This ensures Australia has a pool of highly skilled labour that can be quickly mobilised during times of war or other national emergencies.

And lastly – but most importantly – a strong, locally trained domestic aviation workforce is the best way to ensure that we do not put our world class safety record in jeopardy.

It is a hard won safety record that’s second to none.

Simply put, the national interest requires that Australia maintain a solid domestic aviation skills base.

And while the industry is composed of many highly skilled occupations – pilots, air-traffic controllers, firefighting and rescue personnel – none are more critical than the aircraft maintenance engineer.

Your members quite literally keep the planes in air.


But your part of the industry is under serious pressure. An ageing workforce, outsourcing and offshoring are all raising doubts around the very future of aviation maintenance here in Australia.

The latter of these – offshoring – does cause me some particular concerns.

This practice has resulted in job losses at Australian-based maintenance facilities and fewer training opportunities for aspiring Australian apprentices.

I note also, that as recently as August this year Tigerair Australia had to ground one of its jets after it returned from a maintenance facility in the Philippines with undetected faults.  Despite having been serviced at a Singapore Airlines owned facility, it was discovered that the plane’s cargo bay smoke evacuation system had not been installed correctly.

Later, it was discovered that a flight attendant’s seatbelt had not been properly bolted to a seat.

At the time, your secretary, Steve Purvinas, described the work as having been of the standard of a “home handyman”.

Steve went on to warn in a Sydney Morning Herald article:

“What concerns us most is other latent defects, hidden now, but waiting to resurface at 30,000 feet. They didn’t know about the seatbelts. What else don’t they know?”

Increasingly, airlines have turned to offshore facilities to conduct their heavy maintenance, and I know that the implication of this trend has long been on your organisation’s radar.

I not only share your concerns now, but I acted on them in government.

Indeed, it was one of the reasons the former Federal Labor Government took the decision to commission the development of Australia’s first Aviation White Paper, a road map to help secure the future of the industry while maintaining the highest safety and security standards.

Released in 2009, it addressed areas including industry skills and productivity, consumer protection safety and security, regulation and investigation, air traffic management, airport planning and aviation’s role in reducing global carbon emissions.

It also addressed the issue of overseas maintenance, noting that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority needed to be certain that overseas maintenance was conducted to standards acceptable in this country.

Publication of the paper came with extra financial resources for CASA to recruit additional specialised technical staff to enhance oversight of priority areas including standards of aircraft maintenance undertaken outside of Australia.

Five years on from the change of government, I am disappointed that the four Coalition aviation Ministers that succeed me have done little to advance this issue.

There is no excuse for such a hands-off approach.

As we have seen with shipping, the Coalition appears to operate on the basis that transport industries exist only as line items on some other business’s balance sheet, rather than as vital, strategically important industries in their own right.


For reasons of national security, economic sovereignty and safety, Labor will never waiver from the principled position that Australia needs a strong, competitive home-grown aviation industry.

And that must include aircraft maintenance.

The skills and expertise possessed by your members is an important national asset.

Accordingly, we need a set of policies that will not only bring back aircraft maintenance jobs to Australia, but develop our capacity to sell those services and expertise to the world.

Our starting point will be the previously mentioned White Paper.

And I do not underestimate the challenge.

In fact, it has been succinctly summed up by Australian Industry Standards, the government funded body established to develop the skills standards across a range of Australian industries, including aviation.

Echoing my earlier comments, this independent body has concluded:

“The offshoring and/or outsourcing of aircraft maintenance functions by Australian airlines in recent years has had a significant effect on the maintenance engineering training landscape. Several generalist engineering training providers have stopped their aviation courses.

“There is significant concern within the industry that closing engineering training facilities will impede the ability of training providers and maintenance businesses to rebound or take advantage of international growth opportunities.”

Little wonder then that what remains of the local workforce is fast approaching retirement, with the average age of a Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer now exceeding 50 years.

One of the first things Labor would look to do is establish a Strategic Aviation Workforce Development Forum and task it with developing strategic responses to the skills issues facing the aviation industry, and building productive working relationships across the industry and with training sectors.

Based on a recommendation in the 2015 University of NSW Business School report entitled The Future of Aircraft Maintenance in Australia, the Forum would seek to bring together representatives from employee organisations, the airlines, the GA sector, manufacturers of aircraft systems/components, aero-skills training providers, and the Australian Defence Force.

Your profession is not a sun-setting industry, and the next Federal Labor Government will explore ways to create new long term career opportunities right here in this country.

But government alone cannot achieve this.

All aspects of the Australian aviation industry, including our airlines, also have a role to play.

Our long term national interest demands nothing less.


I will now make a few comments about the broader industrial landscape.

What Australia needs most right now is co-operation in the national interest.

For five years the Coalition Government has pursued an ideological crusade to undermine unions and professional organisations like yours.

Its belligerence has been matched only by its indifference to the real challenges facing Australian families, including low wages growth.

Indeed, while the Government has talked up its economic management, the lived experience of Australian workers has been one of hardship and, in many cases, pay cuts.

A Labor Government would shift the industrial relations equation back to the middle-ground.

We want Australian businesses to be successful in the national interest.

But we believe that the products of prosperity should be shared by the many, not monopolised by the few.

Labor would restore the link between wages and productivity.

We would ensure collective bargaining is not undermined by corporate gaming of our IR laws including by preventing the use of sham enterprise agreements and employers simply terminating agreements instead of bargaining.

Additionally, Labor is committed to:

  • Restoring penalty rates and preventing award variations from reducing take home pay;


  • Introducing an objective definition of casual employment;


  • Stamping out sham independent contracting;


  • Introducing a national labour hire licencing scheme to better regulate dodgy labour hire companies;


  • Ensuring that labour hire is not used to undermine pay and conditions of direct employees through our same job, same pay policy;


  • Introducing a package of reforms to address illegal “phoenixing”, including a director identification number and stronger penalties against directors who avoid liability for employee entitlements.


I end today on a positive note.

While aviation faces challenges, I’m optimistic about its outlook.

But we need to develop our potential.

We need an ambitious, flexible business community with an eye for innovation.

We need organisations like the ALAEA which are prepared to not only pursue the immediate industrial concerns of their members, but also to collaborate on the long term challenges and opportunities.

But above all, we need a government that is completely focused on its role in working with industry and labour to create a vision for a better future and take the steps necessary to achieve that vision.

Labor stands ready to do exactly that.