There is rising concern in the aviation sector that the Pel-Air accident investigation re-opening may, like some other recent reforms, be on a slippery slope leading to Australia losing its status, as well as its reputation, in matters of air safety administration.
The immediate concern is that the air safety investigator, the ATSB, has been too vague in its statements, including this one, about looking at possible errors in its investigation of the Pel-Air crash near Norfolk Island on 18 November 2009.
That was a small crash with big consequences, which are on-going, and have been reported at great length in Plane Talking and elsewhere, and led to a group of all party Australian Senators, discovering that the safety regulator, CASA, and the supposedly independent ATSB, had shown more concern for framing all of the blame for the crash on the pilot, rather than pursuing matters that cast grave doubts over the operator, Pel-Air, and the regulator, who had failed to carry out their obligations to standards and oversights, according to various definitions and regulations.
The reason for the Pel-Air inquiry being re-opened is that an independent peer review by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSBC) of the ATSB’s procedures and methodologies in arriving at its final accident report identified failings serious enough for Warren Truss, the deputy Prime Minister and Minister responsible for aviation among other things, to call for such action.
The release of the TSBC peer review was delayed because of resistance to the original draft copies within the Minister’s department and the ATSB, and the ultimate version, which sets out to make all of the appropriate soothing noises, left its extraordinary disclosures of internal turmoil, and dubious conduct of the inquiry, for the second part of the final version, perhaps on the assumption that anyone who carefully and attentively read the early parts would have lapsed into a coma before getting that far.
Nevertheless, the Minister acted, and on 6 December, based on very, very good advice, Plane Talking reported that a replacement for the chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan, would be announced, and some serious work on the matters identified in the TSBC report would occur.
That appointment hasn’t yet occurred, and the report in Plane Talking is either wrong or premature. Since then Plane Talking has seen correspondence which would suggest to a reasonable reader that a determined effort to frustrate what might be the Minister’s best intentions (or not) is underway.
It seems like the iron clad rule of life in public administration in Australia, that it takes precedence over the elected executive branch, and will run right over the top of injured or damaged parties without any concern other than keeping Ministers compliant, and administrative decisions untouched, is being pursued with determination.
But not necessarily success. The Pel-Air genie is out of the bottle, and Australia is in the humiliating position of attempting to maintain the validity of a nasty second rate accident report that by world’s best practice is a joke.
Mr Truss could emulate his Labor predecessor, Anthony Albanese, and run away from accountability for the quality of the report, and the woeful lack of progress in reforming and administering the air safety regulations of this country. It might however be very wrong to assume he is that weak, and no such assumption is being entertained here for the immediate future.
The problem for Mr Truss, and the ATSB and CASA is that the work done by his own coalition colleagues, Senators Bill Heffernan and David Fawcett, Labor’s Glenn Sterle, and independent Nick Xenophon, is notably and in copious detail, damning of the conduct of Martin Dolan, and the former director of air safety for CASA, John McCormick, and uncovered matters relating to the conduct of CASA and the ATSB that are in Hansard for everyone to find and digest.
Make no mistake, that conduct in relation specifically to the Pel-Air matters, as well as some necessarily broader issues, was second rate, prejudicial to damaged or injured parties, sub-standard by world’s best practice and inherently contrary to the safety interests of airlines and their passengers flying within or to and from this country.
Pel-Air, in the greater remit of the TSBC, and in the Senate committees that have probed those matters, is a small plane crash indicating much bigger questions need to be asked about the conduct of both authorities, as well as the now discredited position taken by the secretary of the department of Infrastructure, Mike Mrdak, that there was no safety benefit to be had in re-opening the crash inquiry.
The senators named above have no intention of letting this matter go through to the keeper. They will keep hammering away at this until the matters are cleared up, and Mr Dolan removed from his role at the ATSB, in the process of dealing with more serious safety administration issues.
The current public stance taken by the ATSB is highly unsatisfactory.
Who could possibly trust this body to inquire into itself, which is what it would be doing by reopening the crash investigation?
Pel-Air needs to be re-investigated, as best as can now be done, by an independent body. The TSBC was specifically precluded from looking into the actual events and causes of the Pel-Air medical evacuation flight being ditched in the sea near near Norfolk Island on 18 November 2009.
It might well be time to lift that silly prohibition made by a desperate ATSB when it hit upon the idea of a peer review, and have the TSBC do the job.
No-one associated with the culture of the ATSB in recent times, or in any way associated with the previous deeply flawed Pel-Air inquiry, should be allowed to run any part of this new inquiry. Australia’s air safety status and reputation is on the line.
Although it may seem cosmetic to some, and possibly futile because of salt water contamination, the flight data recorder on the crashed jet should be recovered and examined.
If the FDR isn’t there, a criminal investigation needs to be conducted as to who paid whom what amount of money and for what purpose to move it, or, what other circumstances led to its disappearance, or even its return to the site.
Which is another way of saying the investigation needs to be very, very thorough. We don’t need lying any more than incompetency in the administration of air safety in this country, and if the government is serious about ending this controversy it will insist the new inquiry puts all of these matters to rest, impartially and as forensically, and as fairly in terms of procedure, as may be needed.