Oct 18, 2017

Speech to Australian Airports Association – ‘On safety, vigilance is everything’ – Parliament House, Canberra

Let me start by congratulating the Australian Airports Association and the NZ Airports Association for staging Airport Safety Week.

In Parliament, every MP and Senator has a very clear understanding of our collective responsibility as regulators of aviation safety.

Aviation safety is indeed a matter of life or death.

That’s why we take a bipartisan approach.

We understand that when it comes to aviation, our responsibility is to the safety of the 169 million passengers who fly around Australia and New Zealand each year.

To secure the highest possible levels of a safety, it is critical that we work in partnership with all groups – airlines, pilots and crew, air-traffic controllers, unions and, importantly, the 359 airports in our two countries and their staff.

That’s why it is gratifying to see events such as Airport Safety Week.

This event provides an excellent example of how your industry doesn’t offer platitudes about safety, but takes serious concrete steps to promote it and to remind all industry participants of the need for constant vigilance.

This is illustrated by the short video on the Australian Airports Association website promoting Airport Safety Week.

It speaks of the practical issues that people who work around airports should keep in mind for their own safety, and for that of the travelling public.

These include managing fatigue by taking proper breaks, ensuring you have the appropriate equipment and clothing and reporting any issue of concern to supervisors.

These are simple matters.

But when you think about it, the simplest of safety lapses in and around airports can have disastrous consequences.

There’s very little margin for error. That’s why I commend your organisations for your proactive approach.


Yours is the sort of diligence we aim to emulate in Government.

That was certainly the aim of the former Labor Government, which I was proud to serve as Minister for Transport.

We took a reformist approach which was evidence based, with the development of Australia’s first ever aviation White Paper to guide the industry’s future growth.

It included specific measures aimed at addressing skill shortages, lifting investment and improving planning.

We strengthened the independence of the industry’s safety regulator – the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) – by creating a board of experts to set the organisation’s long-term strategic direction.

The changes, which came with a 30 per cent budget increase, equipped CASA with the necessary legal powers to expand its surveillance program and deal decisively with safety breaches.

We also enshrined the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s independence when it came to investigating accidents by establishing it as a separate statutory agency, with a full-time chief commissioner and two part-time commissioners.

We introduced random drug and alcohol testing across the industry.

One of the greatest challenges we faced over those six years was the rising threat of terrorism, an issue that continues to dominate the thinking of regulators around the world.

In doing so, we faced conflicting needs.

The first was to make aircraft and passengers as safe as possible.

The second was to expedite movement of aircraft, people and goods through our airports.

Of course, safety was and always must be the overriding imperative.

But we did our best to work with the airlines, the airports and their employees to deliver the required levels of security without unnecessary imposts on travellers.

We rolled out the latest security technology at our major airports including next-generation body scanners, multi-view x-ray machines and bottle scanners capable of detecting liquid-based explosives.

We also increased policing, improved cargo screening, worked internationally to promote greater co-operation and tightened arrangements around the Aviation Security Identification Card Scheme.

The Labor Government also focused heavily on regional aviation infrastructure, investing $260 million on new and upgraded airport facilities in recognition of the increasing demand for air travel between our capital cities and regional centres.

In the years since 2013 we’ve continued to work with the current Government in a constructive manner.

That is as it should be.


The old saying goes that it is better to be safe than sorry.

But it is just as important to resist complacency.

It doesn’t matter how many times our safety systems work when a single failure can lead to catastrophe.

That reminds me of a lesson about complacency from the world of shipping.

A journalist once asked a ship’s captain if he was confident that his newly launched vessel was safe.

The Captain said: “In all my experience I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about.’’

He continued: “I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.

“I will say that I cannot imagine any condition which could cause a ship to founder.

“I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel.’’

His name was Edward John Smith.

He was the Captain of the Titanic.

A reminder that we should be ever vigilant and never complacent.