With a federal election tomorrow, it is timely to reflect on the role the federal government plays in Australian aviation.
From CASA, to Airservices, to taxation levels, supporting research and development, to education policy, elements of the federal government, and its policies, touch aviation across a broad spectrum. But is it a force for good?
The glass half full view is that we have a healthy airline sector with two strong, competing airline groups, a vibrant regional aviation sector thanks to the boom in fly-in/fly-out resource charter work, an air traffic management provider leading the world in the rollout of technological innovations, world class flight training organisations and tertiary education providers, a healthy privatised airport sector, and even the odd manufacturing success story, from Jabiru to Quickstep.
But that aviation ecosystem has developed in Australia largely without government help and intervention. Governments of both political flavours have been largely hands-off with regards to aviation policy – and generally that is no bad thing. But the bedfellow of being hands-off is benign neglect, and the sector could be so much stronger still if a government had the vision and creativity to implement policies that removed unnecessary impositions, supported aviation and allowed it to flourish.
I don’t think we need a ‘national champions’ approach such as that taken by China or even the French, but policy settings sympathetic to aviation could see the sector, across its many fronts, flourish to be an even greater jobs, knowledge and export income generator.
And to facilitate that the aviation industry needs not just a voice, but a champion. And this is where successive governments, including today’s Labor administration, have failed. There is, and hasn’t been for years, anyone at the federal government’s cabinet table championing the cause of aviation. Today’s Minister with responsibility for aviation, Anthony Albanese, is liked and respected by those who deal with him, but even with the best will in the world he can’t be an effective advocate for aviation when his ministerial and government responsibilities are so vast. Under Julia Gillard as prime minister, Albanese was Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, as well as Leader of the House. And now, under Kevin Rudd PM, he is not only Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, but the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, the Leader of the House, and the Deputy Prime Minister!
Clearly he is a capable operator to be entrusted with so many responsibilities, but no wonder aviation policy falls so far down the list of priorities.
Yes, back in 2009, we had an Aviation White Paper, but its value was limited and its vision narrow, plus it raised expectation in industry that the government could not (or would not) meet. And yes, progress seems to be inching forward on a second Sydney Airport site – a decision timeframe that neatly always falls after the next federal election.
But the aviation glass is half empty too.
Why is it that aviation was hit by the carbon tax when other transport sectors were not? How has it come to pass that relations between industry and CASA are as bad as they have ever been, and regulatory reform as slow and contentious as it ever was? Why has CASA been downsized and de-skilled in the name of cost-cutting so much that its approval processes are so slow it externalises costs back onto industry in foregone revenue generating activities? Why is general aviation, that training ground of civil aviation, in alarming decline? Why are some of the country’s most important airports seen by their owners as property developments with irksome runways in the middle? Why are many council-owned regional and rural airports struggling to pay for maintenance and upkeep of runways and taxiways? Why haven’t burdensome security regulations been reviewed a dozen years after 9/11? Why isn’t the pilot training industry supported by HECS-subsidised training courses? Why isn’t there a second Sydney airport and an increased movement cap at the current airport? Why is there a looming shortage of LAMEs?
Those are just some of the issues facing aviation in Australia today. So why isn’t there a minister for aviation or – at the very least a parliamentary secretary – who can champion aviation’s development and work to address its issues?
And indeed why isn’t there a minister, and government policies, that champion aviation’s opportunities and potential as well?
Thanks to our isolation from the rest of the world and our large, sparsely populated land mass, aviation has been, is and will remain central to Australia’s economic and social development. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.
This editorial first appeared in the August edition of Australian Aviation.