General aviation is very important to Australia. Nowhere is it more important than in West Australia. It is essential therefore that regulation of the industry serves to assist its safe and efficient operation. Unfortunately this is not the case; basically because the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) who is responsible for the oversight of aviation in our country is corrupt, inefficient, and full of cronyism. They are the perfect example of Lord Acton's view that "All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely".
"CASA" hides behind the mantra of safety, using this as a justification for their high-handed abuse of power and disregard for any semblance of due process. I do not intend to dwell on the obvious cosy relationship that exists between CASA and our two major airlines. To some extent this is understandable as there are enormous stakes at risk and it is sensible that any shortcomings are fixed quietly and quickly; provided of course that they are fixed and not just covered over. There is no doubt however that the incidents that have plagued Qantas recently have been sufficient grounds for the withdrawal of the companies Air Operators Certificate (AOC) from many small general aviation companies. I say many because CASA's predilection for cronyism ensures that commercial aviation companies that play the CASA game are treated far more leniently.
The recent tragedy now being played out in South Australia may be a case in point. It is alleged by Dick Smith, a man who must have some credibility, that there were many adverse reports on the airline involved, but no action was taken. It is not good enough to accept the charge and counter charge. The public is entitled to the facts. Any minister worthy of his position would ascertain the facts, make them public, and take the appropriate action. Unfortunately the chance of this happening with the incumbent minister are not good.
The action of CASA in the case of Whyalla Airlines must be contrasted against the actions taken against two West Australian commercial operators who had their Air Operator's Certificates cancelled in the most arbitrary fashion without any semblance of due process. I have seen CASA's "show cause lists", and it is quite clear that there was no life threatening incident. Many of their claims are very old and have been dealt with. Most of their issues are administrative and certainly do not warrant the enormous financial jeopardy that they so nonchalantly impose on the operator, or the advantage that they bestow on the opposition.
I spoke to Mr. Toller the chief executive of CASA about the trivial nature of many of their complaints and he said "You do not understand; when we know that someone is not maintaining safety standards, we often have to rely on little things to get them. We add all the little things up." He said. "This of course ignores the fact that the most probable reason that they could not get any evidence of wrongdoing is because it never happened". Such an attitude seems more related to their policy of getting what they consider to be marginal out of the industry. Such a policy is outside their mandate and in any case gives untrammeled scope for capricious or corrupt action. CASA will say that an aggrieved party can go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In a present case the earliest chance of an AAT appointment is four months away which is not a good option when you go broke by the day. In any case it is seldom that the AAT will counter CASA as they get snowed by the bogus safety arguments.
CASA does not come cheap. It costs the industry about seventy million dollars a year. Despite this heavy expenditure, our safety record is not as good as the crowded skies of the USA. I have used general aviation far more than most people will ever do and I do not consider it unsafe, but I know that this is due to the responsible attitude adopted by most of the participants.
What to do? Like many of the problems of Government the solutions are not difficult. They do require a Minister capable of understanding and prepared to take on the entrenched interests. That is the difficult part.
A responsible Minister would consider scrapping CASA and subsuming it into the Department of Transport where its actions would be more transparent and its staff more accountable. Shifting jurisdiction to the Supreme Court, where legal remedy would be more quickly available and making CASA liable for compensation for loss of business, when they are shown to be wrong, would be good starting points.
4 October 2001