Thursday, 22 June 2023

Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Senator Susan McDonald, has demanded an urgent review of a decision to close Torres Strait Island airstrips after she questioned CASA staff in Senate Estimates last month about people having to risk their lives travelling in the Strait by boat.

Just three weeks after the hearing – in which Senator McDonald foreshadowed a tragedy happening – speech pathologist Wendy Richardson was lost in the Strait when the boat she was in flipped in rough seas.

Senator McDonald said she knew Ms Richardson and was distressed by her death, offering her deepest sympathies to Ms Richardson’s family.

In Estimates on May 23, Senator McDonald asked CASA chief executive Pip Spence why CASA had closed airstrips on Murray, Darnley and Mabuiag islands for safety reasons when aircraft had been operating on them without incident for 20 years.

Ms Spence said commercial aircraft used on the islands were not suitable for the relatively short airstrips but Sen. McDonald pointed out those same aircraft flying in a private capacity were permitted to use the strips.

“It makes no sense,” she told the hearing. “I think it is pretty shocking that we have actually gone backwards as a result of regulation. For the people on those islands, I think it’s a poor outcome”

“…People are now forced to travel in dinghies across notoriously treacherous water inhabited by  crocodiles and sharks. …it will be cold comfort if something terrible happens to somebody [because] we won’t let people land on places anymore where they’ve been landing for 20 years.”

A dismayed Senator McDonald called on Federal Transport Minister, Catherine King to fast-track planned upgrades for Torres Strait airstrips so people would have a permanent solution for  travel between islands by boat.

“CASA made a questionable decision to close these strips and offered no alternatives for people needing to travel and they are forced to use boats,” she said.  “CASA must provide an exemption to allow air travel to restart to and from these islands before there is another tragedy.

“I am distressed that we are seeing CASA make decisions without sufficient evidence that, instead of offering tangible safety benefits, in fact which put people in high-risk situations.

“Minister King must review the closures, order the fast-tracking of airstrip upgrades and ensure the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is addressing issues in a timely, logical and effective manner before another life is lost.”