The efforts to destroy the ABC by making it host BBC quiz show Pointless as well as not providing transcripts of political interviews did not go unnoticed by aviation professionals today, who have found a record of what Darren Chester, the minister responsible for aviation safety, told Fran Kelly on ABC radio national’s Breakfast program this morning.
The transcript is provided below, with some further notes as to why the minister’s knowledge of his portfolio is of legitimate concern.
FRAN KELLY: Darren Chester is the Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. Minister, welcome to Breakfast. DARREN CHESTER: Good morning, Fran. FRAN KELLY: Airservices Australia says the job losses are all back office and technical. Can you guarantee, because I think a lot of people are pretty attuned to this, that not a single air traffic controller or airport fireman will lose their job?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, as you’d expect, Fran, as the Minister responsible I take the safety issue incredibly seriously, and since taking on this role I’ve met with the Airservices Chairman, Sir Angus Houston, and the Chief Exec and sought assurances and received assurances that there’ll be no impact on safety as a result of the restructure. Now, keep in mind Airservices has been through a phase of quite significant back office staff increases and the view was taken, and I agreed with this view more than a year ago, that there was a need to reduce the costs in terms of those service providers from the back office, and there’s no impact on the front of house office, if you like, where you’re talking about our air traffic controllers and the aviation firefighting rescue services.
FRAN KELLY: We always say that, Minister, what does that mean? All these 900 people are sitting around doing not much?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, they went through a phase during the mining boom where there was an increase in service provision that’s no longer part of what’s required from Airservices going forward. Now, it’s important to note that Airservices Australia isn’t just doing this off its own bat, it’s actually overseen by CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and it has been consulted throughout the process. Now, if the union has some genuine concerns, they can certainly raise those with Airservices, they can raise them with CASA, or they can come to me directly. It would be no surprise to you that I meet with stakeholders on a daily basis across my portfolio. If the union has genuine safety concerns, rather than put out a press release they could come and meet with me and raise those concerns.
FRAN KELLY: Well, they have raised concerns and they’ve lodged an urgent application with Fair Work Commission to stop the job cuts, now the Virgin pilots, they’ve also joined those speaking out publicly in terms of safety concerns. I think more than 500 jobs have already gone. Have you considered ordering the Board to slow the process down and so that some of these concerns can be addressed? DARREN CHESTER: Well… FRAN KELLY: Would that be a good idea? DARREN CHESTER: No, I don’t think that at all, Fran. I think it’s quite irresponsible and inaccurate to be scaring the travelling public with unfounded claims about safety issues. Now… FRAN KELLY: Well sure, but if you’ve got genuine concerns, then isn’t your – because any kind of air safety problem can be catastrophic, isn’t it responsible to speak out?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, what we’re talking there’s a total workforce of around four and a half thousand and the order of about 500 people have accepted voluntary redundancies. You’ve got Sir Angus Houston, who has an exemplary record in terms of service to the nation as a… FRAN KELLY: Sure. DARREN CHESTER: …military person who understands safety more than most. I’ve sought assurances from Angus and received them, I’ve sought assurances from the Chief Exec and received them in relation to the restructure process that there would be no impact in terms of air traffic control or the firefighting services. Both of those areas haven’t grown, while the staff numbers in the back of house have grown exponentially over the past decade, so I think it’s been a necessary restructure of an organisation which needed to cut back on some of its services behind the scenes which weren’t adding to its core business of providing safety for the travelling public.
FRAN KELLY: What about engineers? Earlier this year there were serious malfunctions in radar systems operated by Airservices Australia that led to some planes briefly vanishing from Sydney Airport tracking system. What about the engineers who keep that aeronautical equipment in working order? Are they amongst the redundancies? DARREN CHESTER: I’m not aware of the incident you’re referring to, I’m certainly happy to follow it up with Airservices, so that is not something that has come across my desk, I’m happy to follow it up for you. But I can only repeat the assurances that I’ve sought and been given, Fran, in relation to the safety of the travelling public. If the union has concerns and has genuine examples where they see safety as being impacted, the responsible thing to do is to come and talk to the Minister responsible or CASA, the agency responsible, who are overseeing Airservices, rather than simply issuing a press release. FRAN KELLY: So will you ring the union and say, why don’t you come in and talk to me? DARREN CHESTER: I’d be happy to meet with the union. I meet with unions on a regular basis across my portfolio, because they have a valid role to play in a range of my portfolio responsibilities. But the process in Australia for managing the safety of the travelling public is world class and one that we should be very proud of. I just think it’s irresponsible and unfair to the travelling public to be scaring them this way, rather than actually pointing out any particular concerns and allowing the agencies responsible to follow them up.
FRAN KELLY: Is this cost cutting exercise all about preparing Airservices Australia for privatisation? DARREN CHESTER: Short answer – no. FRAN KELLY: Because back in May an Estimates hearing was told the Government had paid KPMG $600,000 to conduct an efficiency review of Airservices, and the committee was told KPMG recommended a different ownership structure such as – quote – part private ownership. Why would the Government commission a report if you’re not thinking about a sale? DARREN CHESTER: Well, the Government’s commissioned reports into other agency bodies in the past and not proceeded with any privatisation. I can only tell you what I’ve just told you a few seconds ago – no, there are no plans to privatise Airservices. Airservices keep in mind has been heavily criticised in recent years by the industry as becoming too bureaucratic, bloated, and costing too much to maintain without adding any value to the safety outcomes, so on the flip side of the conversation you and I are having, Airservices come in for a fair bit of criticism that they’re growing exponentially. So no, there are no plans to privatise Airservices. I’ve made those comments publicly before and I making them here again today. FRAN KELLY: And will you release that report from KPMG? Because there has been an FOI request from the Opposition, I understand. DARREN CHESTER: I’m not aware of that request and I’ll happily follow it up for you. FRAN KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is the Federal Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester. Airservices is currently trying to implement the OneSKY air traffic control program, I’m sure you know a lot more about this than I do, but as I understand it, essentially it involves combining the separate civil and military traffic control systems into the one very sophisticated network by 2021, and that comes with a pretty hefty price tag, I think it’s about $1.5 billion. Will these job cuts have any impact on OneSKY? Have you sought assurances on that?
DARREN CHESTER: Well I think you have touched on a very, very important point. If you’re going to move to this modern air traffic system, we can’t do it with an outdated organisational model. So that is part of the preparation to move towards that OneSKY system, which will see our skies managed, what we will regard as the most efficient, modern and safest system in the world. So we’re going to see some pretty significant changes and improvements in terms of the longer term, but you’re right in terms of referring to the OneSKY program. It’s a very important program. We will see this – the civil services and Defence services working more closely in providing greater technology to improve even more significantly safety in our skies. FRAN KELLY: And just before we leave this issue, Minister, you stressed several times that you know public confidence in the safety of our air systems is paramount, is essential and I absolutely agree with that. Given that, and given the intervention by the Virgin pilots – these are the pilots who were using the air traffic control system – will you seek a meeting with the pilots and speak to them about their concerns in the interest of understanding as much as you can about the impact of these cuts? DARREN CHESTER: Look absolutely happy to give that undertaking to you, Fran. If the pilots or the union has a genuine concern on a safety issue they want to raise with me, I’m very happy to meet with them and discuss those concerns, just as I’m sure CASA or Airservices would be happy to meet with people …
FRAN KELLY: But proactively, will you go and seek a meeting with the pilots? DARREN CHESTER: I’m happy to have that meeting.
Some notes on the above:
The Minister’s professed lack of knowledge about the earlier radar issues at Sydney Airport (not to mention ATC issues between the adjacent Melbourne and Essendon airports) is horrifying. His two immediate predecessors were criticised for many things, but they were acutely aware of a number of issues concerning the competency of frontline Airservices staff because of training and fatigue related issues, which were highlighted by the ATSB in scathing reports into lapses in aircraft separation in Australian skies.
Those instances have declined, fortunately, in the last two years, because of the heat Mr Chester’s predecessors applied to Airservices, and the ATSB’s unusual candour when it came to the circumstances of some of those serious ATC incidents.
The RN interview this morning raises concerns that the current minister responsible for aviation safety may not have read all of the files, or that be believes anything that the bureaucracy decides to tell him.
When the executive branch takes the integrity of the administrative branch for granted, good government is compromised. It’s to be hoped that Minister Chester knows this and will act accordingly when it comes to putting aviation safety ahead of broad government policy dictates to slash costs.