Senator Nick Xenophon calling for Dolan's removal from ATSB

The scope for major changes in Australia’s air safety investigator, the ATSB,  its aviation regulator, CASA,  and their administrator the department of Infrastructure and Regional Development looms large following the Minister’s abrupt call for a fresh look at the Pel-Air crash inquiry report.

A great deal of political and administrative capital was invested in producing and defending  the vindictive, unfair and inadequate final report that the ATSB issued, and subsequently defended, concerning the Pel-Air crash of a Westwind corporate jet doing a medical charter into the sea near Norfolk Island on 18 November, 2009.

In what might prove a critical development in the public administration of air safety in this country, that report, released after many delays on 30 August 2012, seems set to be undone, or redone.

As might prove to be the case for  Martin Dolan, the discredited ATSB chief commissioner whose testimony before a Senate hearing into the investigator’s botched processes over its Pel-Air findings was rejected by an all party committee.

Independent SA Senator, Nick Xenophon, lost no time in calling for Dolan’s removal  “and the establishment of an Inspector-General of Aviation to provide much-needed oversight of the ATSB and CASA.”

The human suffering aspect of what at first glance seems like a minor hull loss in the middle of the night is difficult to discuss for legal reasons at present. However it was anything but minor for the six people onboard when it was ditched in the sea because it had reached its intended refueling stop at Norfolk Island, on its way from Apia to Melbourne, when it discovered the weather advice it had received was wrong, it was unable to land, and it no reserves to reach an alternate.

Pel-Air, the operator was a mess. It grounded its surviving Westwinds voluntarily after the crash. Its deputy chairman and former coalition aviation minister John Sharp, even gave a media interview in which he admitted there ‘was no plan B’.  The operator didn’t even have a written oceanic fueling policy.  It was an appalling state of affairs, all seemingly brushed under the carpet by two safety authorities and a federal department.

One of those people on the flight was quite seriously injured, yet more than five years later, she is being appallingly treated, even gloated over by some parties on the basis that Australia’s air regulations in respect of such accidents were so lax/ or non-existent, that anyone using them had no legal protection whatsoever.  (Which may not prove to be the case, of course.)

That regulatory vacuum persists to this day, despite lies from CASA under previous management as to how promptly it was going to fix the situation, and an apparent paralysis of that organization under a recently departed head of safety when it came to actually reforming or performing any of its obligations to aviation stakeholders and the public.

However the testimony of Dolan to the Senate, and the tale of administrative incompetence and lack of clear management on his watch during the bungled Pel-Air inquiry that is set out by the TSBC peer review ought to have him out of the door on skates.

The identification of the secretary for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Mike Mrdak with the Dolan, ATSB and CASA positions on the Pel-Air inquiry places him in a difficult position. Mr Mrdak took his Minister, Mr Truss, to a place where the Minister no longer wants to be, which is always in hindsight, a bad, bad move.

It was Mrdak’s department that told Truss to reject earlier calls, including from the Senate committee inquiring into the ATSB, to recover the flight data recorder from the Pel-Air wreckage and redo the findings, which were essentially a lazy and incomplete scapegoating of the pilot in charge of the Westwind.

The privileged Hansard records of the testimony of Dolan, the then director of air safety for CASA, John McCormick, and Mrdak are substantially incompatible with the findings of the TSBC.

It was Mrdak’s department that wrote the original position taken by Minister Truss that there was no point in retrieving the flight data recorder or correcting the accident report.  It will be interesting to see if Mrdak can perform the necessary U-turn, and repudiate his previous words, while remaining on top in Infrastructure.

When Minister Truss’s Air Safety Regulation Review panel, chaired by David Forsyth, reported at the end of May this year it anticipated that the TSBC report would be both critical and released in the near future.

It was however, repeatedly delayed, to the point where some feared it mightn’t even see the light of day, given reported resistance to its contents within the ATSB.

The report released on Monday was written in a manner likely to put a casual reader into a coma.  But for those who read the full document, it proved highly critical of the ATSB, setting out comprehensive failings in terms of collecting and assessing information.

There was dissent within the investigating team, to the point where a ‘coach’ appointed to assist in the inquiry, sought, eventually successfully, to be relieved of his role.

The TSBC dealt deeply with the disruption caused in the investigation by uncertainty over the appropriate relationship with CASA, which conducted parallel inquiries, including an audit that was withheld from the ATSB, into the Pel-Air Westwind operation subsequent to the crash.

As reported earlier in Plane Talking and examined by a Senate committee into the ATSB’s procedures in relation to Pel-Air, CASA suppressed an audit that found that the crash could have been prevented had the regulator carried out its own duties of oversight over the Westwind operation.

The stench from the ATSB and CASA over the investigative shambles led to a damning Senate committee report, in which the committee took that rare if not unprecedented step of giving a section of their findings to their lack of confidence in the testimony and conduct of the chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan.

Today’s decision to have ‘another look’, which to be clear, is a direction not a suggestion, reflects poorly on Truss’s Labor predecessor Anthony Albanese.

Mr Albanese broke several commitments to deal with the adverse Senate findings into the ATSB, and was ineffectual or unwilling in relation to the Pel-Air issues, which first arose on his watch with ample opportunity for ministerial direction or intervention.

Mr Truss has not escaped criticism in this portfolio either, and not just from Plane Talking.  But something has changed, this damaging and disgraceful report will be ‘fixed’ in its procedural or methodological shortcomings, there is already a new Director of Air Safety at CASA, and there may well be further changes for the better in the administration of air safety.

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