The new CEO of CASA, John McCormick, made some comments about its critics at the conclusion of a Senate Estimates Committee hearing on October 20.
The white or final Hansard record is less entertaining than accounts of the pink or first draft Hansard, but let’s look at the former, since it constitutes the public record.
Before concluding, I would like to make an important point, one that should probably have been made long before now. CASA is certainly no stranger to criticism, complaints and variably informed expressions of dissatisfaction with the things we do and the way we do them from the diverse industry we regulate, amongst others.
I welcome this, as a responsible director of any regulatory authority should welcome balanced, reasonable and constructive advice about where we may have gone wrong, or where we may at least be seen by some to have gone wrong, or where we might do better. Well-meaning criticism can be helpful, even if it is wide of the mark, and it gives us a better understanding of the way our actions are perceived and experienced.
So let me be clear: I have absolutely no interest in discouraging or dissuading our critics from drawing CASA’s actual or assumed shortcomings to my attention, to the government’s attention, or to the attention of the Australian public.
As I said, I welcome and embrace this. At the same time, however, let me be equally clear in highlighting the very significant difference between candid, robust criticism of CASA’s actions as an organisation and what cannot fairly be characterised as other than mean-spirited, injudiciously self-serving and frequently false accusations about, and the vindictive public disparagement of, individual CASA officers by name and by station.
This is wrong and unfair and, in some cases, I think it is downright cowardly. It does nothing to advance the interests of our safety or organisational improvement, and it almost certainly is not intended to do either. If left unaddressed, it impugns the reputations and integrity of committed, capable and professional individuals who are dedicated to the critical, and sometimes thankless, regulatory and other safety-related tasks, and it takes a serious toll on the morale of the entire staff in ways that, I dare say, some of those who try to conceal what is often nothing more than demagogic vitriol behind the facade of a pointed evaluatory critique could not begin to understand.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
CASA is and I, as the Director of Aviation Safety, am, and all our employees are fully accountable for our words and actions, including our regular appearances before this committee, Chair. Clearly, these critics have no intention of exposing themselves to anything like the kind of scrutiny to which we are, and should be, subject.
Frankly, I seriously doubt whether many of them could withstand it if they were. To those who constantly challenge CASA to lift its game I say, “Thank you and keep it coming.” To those whose intent is merely to insult, denigrate, vilify and, in some instances I suspect, to defame individual CASA officers, unless and until they might be held accountable for their words and actions, I can only say, “Shame”. Thank you, Chair.
McCormick would be aware that his real job description is to prevent the crash of an Australian airliner during the tenure of the government of the day.
And the second most important requirement of his job description is to keep the airlines happy.
The two requirements are not completely compatible.
The underlying managerial culture of modern enterprises in deregulated markets is to push the productivity metrics of the business to within a millimetre of breaking the people or the equipment, and to lift output by double-digit figures year in year out.
Unfortunately in the airline game, that can kill hundreds of people at once, and CASA is the safety regulator at a time when there are abundant warning signals about standards in Australia and abroad.
McCormick now heads an authority that was found wanting in material matters by an ICAO audit of safety oversight conducted before his taking up his appointment.
One of his tasks is to drag CASA up to a position where it has people who know what they are doing and are properly trained and directed in carrying out their duties.
He also heads an authority that has blood on its hands over the Transair disaster near the Lockhart River airstrip in 2005. Under his predecessor Bruce Byron, CASA knew that Transair was dangerous and in breach of requirements, but did not act effectively on its knowledge, did not warn the public, did not perform its obligations under the Air Safety laws and in the very room he gave testimony, denied that it had anything to apologise for.
Last year CASA was caught red-handed by its own special audit of Qantas as being gravely incompetent in its oversight of the national icon. At the time CASA denied any responsibility for the oversight and enforcement of airworthiness directives, and has, as of this day, not even launched a prosecution against Qantas for allowing a sub fleet of Boeing 737-400s to fly for five years without the completion of a compulsory airworthiness directive concerning the forward pressure bulk head.
Now the good news is that CASA has a minister in Anthony Albanese who auditions for a role in the Australian Children’s Choir every time he gets to his feet in the house to sing the praises of Qantas.
But McCormick, be warned, the minister is no fool, he just doesn’t like journalists who belong to no one and will write it as it is. Everything public about airlines has to be harmony, light and happiness, and buried under sanctimonious platitudes if not delivered standing beside a priest in full drag after Sunday prayers.
The state of public administration of aviation in Australia is well below par, and by all accounts you are well qualified to address this.
However, an uncritical media is not your friend in pursuing this objective.
Your reference to “cowardly attacks” and how you would welcome well-meaning criticism are puzzling.
The purpose of criticism is to inform the public of failings in performance, disclosure or compliance with relevant laws.
It is also to state the bleeding obvious, and report and analyse events and affairs in precisely those terms that the image makers and media managers advise the executive cadres not to use.
It’s all about plain talking.