Published by Mr Dick Smith, 6th April 2021.
OPEN LETTER TO MR JOHN ANDERSON
FORMER MINISTER FOR TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL SERVICES 1998 – 2005
RE: 15 FATALITIES FROM THE LACK OF AIRSPACE REFORM
I am writing this open letter to you as I am amazed to hear that you are preparing to stand for preselection for a National Party seat in the Senate. Surely this can’t be so.
The aviation industry was part way through a major reform program when you took over as the responsible Minister. These reforms had been started under Labor Minister Kim Beazley, who was well informed, involved and supportive of the necessary changes. Further important reforms including the multi-million dollar cost saving portable Emergency Locator Transmitter approval took place under John Sharp.
When you became Minister, the reforms were stopped in their tracks.
As the longest serving Minister responsible for aviation (some six years and seven months) you had the duty to continue with the reforms that would have improved airspace safety and enabled Australia to be a world leader in flight training, inbound aviation tourism, charter operations, maintenance and manufacturing.
You didn’t take that opportunity, you did the opposite. Your lack of action has done immeasurable damage to the Australian aviation industry.
In relation to airspace, as the responsible Minister you issued a press release with great fanfare on 13 May 2002, announcing your Government’s decision to change to the National Airspace System (NAS) based on the proven US airspace model (see attached).
If implemented, this would have resulted in airline aircraft remaining in controlled airspace at airports like Ayers Rock and Ballina, rather than the less safe system that we have today – where airline pilots have to call other pilots while in cloud, and try to arrange “separation” so they don’t collide with each other. No other country in the world has such an unsafe system.
There are now 15 deaths that most likely can be attributed to your failure to introduce the NAS reforms as decided by your Government. There were six fatalities at Benalla on 28 July 2004, three fatalities at Mt Hotham on 8 July 2005, two at Coffs Harbour on 20 September 2019 and four at Mangalore on 19 February 2020.
Other than the media release, you showed no support for the airspace reform plan. Just as importantly, you did not allocate the time required to familiarise yourself with the proposal so you had the confidence to “sell” it. That was the prime reason the NAS safety upgrades did not take place.
Could it be that your bureaucratic advisers recommended that you not become informed on airspace because when people died in accidents, you couldn’t be held responsible? If so, it has certainly worked.
I wonder if at the time your bureaucrats advised, “Minister, hear nothing, know nothing, do nothing, say nothing and we will protect you.”
As the Brittany Higgins situation has recently shown this type of lack of accountability still continues in Canberra today. You were clearly a master at it.
You made further announcements that you were going to introduce reforms, however nothing was ever done. In November 1999, a year after you were appointed the Minister for Transport, you issued a press release stating:
“A new regulatory framework will make it possible for new operators to provide a control tower and rescue and firefighting services in competition with Airservices Australia. We will phase in competition for these services.”
In your next six years as the Minister for Transport responsible for aviation, you did nothing to ensure that the competition changes came in – they haven’t to this day. Small country towns, such as Ballina, do not have the higher level of safety that could be achieved with a locally operated air traffic control tower. At the present time, airline aircraft are blundering around in cloud, with pilots attempting to avoid a collision with other planes in an unsafe 1930s type system that is unique in the world.
Rather than show leadership and “sell” the advantages of your proposal, you said nothing. To this day, there are no locally owned air traffic control towers in Australia. In the USA, 50% of towered airports are operated under contract. Competition in these services reduces costs so it means more airports can receive the upgrade with a resultant increase in safety.
On 31 August 2004, you gave Airservices Australia, your air traffic control body, a written legally binding Ministerial direction (attached) requiring them to install an approach radar control service at places like Coffs Harbour if they were going to change the Class E airspace to “road block” Class C. This safety direction is still current, has never been complied with and you have never explained why.
On 25 November 2004, you reversed parts of the NAS airspace introduction and created giant “road blocks” in the sky over country airports like Coffs Harbour and Tamworth but without the radar upgrade. This has now resulted in multiple fatalities. Nowhere else in the world is there similar “road block” airspace.
On 20 September 2019, aviator Jeffrey Hills and his son Matty had departed Murwillumbah in their Mooney aircraft and were heading to Taree at a safe height above the mountains when they were refused permission to fly through the “road block” airspace above Coffs Harbour. They were forced to descend into the bad weather and mountains below. They crashed into a mountainside and both Jeffrey and Matty were killed.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau report on this horrific and needless fatal accident implied that the Air Traffic Controller and the pilot were responsible and made no mention that you had reversed the NAS airspace and put the “road block” in place. Then again their investigators would know that they would have limited career prospects if they told the truth and laid the blame on even an ex-minister.
I only remained the Chairman of the CASA Board for 18 months under your Ministership. My fellow Board members and I looked for direction from you in relation to the necessary reforms that needed to be done to improve the safety of airspace and to stop the continuing destruction of the general aviation sector. We got no support from you at all.
I resigned as Chairman on 22 March 1999 because it became obvious to me that you would not support the necessary reforms
Not long after my resignation, you introduced a Bill that abolished the Board. This is what it said:
“The Bill abolishes the CASA Board and retains CASA as an independent statutory authority, thereby providing the Minister with stronger and more direct control over CASA’s governance and accountability in the areas of CASA’s policy directions and priorities…”
In fact, it’s clear you abolished the Board for the opposite reason. You didn’t want the Board to recommend changes for which you could be held accountable. Could there be any other reason? In the next two years that you operated as Minister without the CASA Board, there were no reforms.
As you are aware, the Labor Government reinstated the CASA Board on 1 July 2009, nearly six years after you abolished it.
You will no doubt remember when I called you to advise that I had asked the CASA CEO to step down, as it was clear that he was not a reformer who would bring in the necessary changes. You were apoplectic and said that you would not support such action.
How different you were to the Prime Minister, John Howard. At the same time I was Chairman of the Centenary of Federation Council and I advised the Prime Minister that the CEO was not suitable for the position. Mr Howard gave me immediate support and we replaced the CEO with a person who would competently manage the program.
Undoubtedly the greatest damage you inflicted on the industry took place on 5 October 2000 when, as the Minister responsible for Aviation, you made the following media announcement:
“I don’t think that we should ever regard aviation safety as what is affordable … safety is something which has the highest priority. It is not a question of cost.”
That statement was both dishonest and irresponsible. Dishonest because you knew (or should have known) that you were responsible for both national and international (ICAO) air safety regulations that are prescribed at quite different levels because of cost and affordability. You also completely undermined the professionals within the Civil Aviation Safety Authority whose jobs were to perform cost and benefit studies so that the always limited safety resources could be effectively allocated.
Your irresponsible statement also allowed a small group of bureaucrats within CASA to change the reform program; from one directed at harmonising with the best and most efficient proven world practices, to one of increasing red tape and a “one-way ratchet” of more restrictions and complexity regardless of cost. It is still happening to this day and is the prime reason the Australian General Aviation industry has nearly been destroyed.
As the longest serving Minister responsible for aviation, you have no record of achieving any of the much needed airspace and regulatory reforms. If you look at your Wikipedia entry or search for your name in Google it is as if you were never responsible or even involved in the multi-billion dollar Australian aviation industry at all. There is not one entry that lists even one achievement, let alone your support in any way for the much needed reforms.
Fortunately the present Minister responsible for the Aviation portfolio, Michael McCormack has been involved for over two years in a move to get CASA to support the safer NAS policy so that low level controlled airspace can be introduced at Ayers Rock to help prevent a Mangalore type fatal collision.
John, in relation to the Senate, why don’t you support someone new having a go? Wouldn’t the best contribution you could make to the National Party, and the future of our country, be to seek out the most promising young candidate you can find, and support her for preselection?
Perhaps you could also use your influence to help facilitate the finalisation of the NAS airspace reforms before we have further unnecessary fatalities!