Thursday, 6 March 2014
Qantas Sale Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise particularly today as the member for Cook, which represents the Sutherland shire—as does the member for Hughes in part. There are two things about my community that I think are very relevant to this debate. The first one is that in the shire we are a very self-reliant community. People work hard, they have started businesses, they have established family businesses that continue to this day employing hundreds if not thousands of people, and they have always understood that the hard work and the investment that they put in is where their reward comes from and where their future comes from. They have always understood that business can be tough, that markets can be tough, and the way they have always responded to this has not been to seek a handout but to put the work in and to apply themselves to the challenges before them, and this has created an incredibly strong community. This great strength that exists within our community, from an economic and small-business perspective in particular, translates into a strong social community as well—one of self-reliance, but also one of generosity to those around them. The other thing about my community is that it is arguable that it has the largest number of Qantas employees of any other electorate represented in this place. It is that resilience and self-reliance that I know my community will draw upon as they go through what I know is a very difficult time—and this is a difficult time for my community and for the many, many people in my electorate who are affected by what is happening with Qantas.
This has been happening for some time; this is not a new issue. There will be many newcomers to this debate today, I suspect, but in my community this has been a long-term debate. They have, for some period of time, watched as the commercial and international conditions that sit around how Qantas performs and is able to perform have changed. They have seen that change for them. They have seen the change in the market share, which the Treasurer spoke about in this place yesterday. They have seen these changes, and that has been an issue of concern for them for some time.
It is important that we understand and acknowledge in this debate, as I am sure those in my community would like to, that Qantas has played, and, indeed, continues to play, a central role in Australia's national life and in our economic life as well. It has served, and continues to serve, our country; all of its employees have served our country extremely well. In good times and bad, Qantas has always been a great Australian airline. And since 1992 it has been a great Australian company. Its traditions and its success are things I think all Australians should feel very proud of. It has set standards. It is innovative. It has been able to connect Australia with the world, and connect Australians with each other across this vast continent. It is an extraordinary story, an extraordinary Australian story, and I want that story to continue. I do not want it to come to the shuddering halt that would be the product of the way that those opposite would seek to see its future. I want to see a future for Qantas—for the people who work for Qantas, for the people who have always supported Qantas and for the future of our aviation industry—and a role for those many Australians who would like to play a part in that future in the years ahead.
I am a passionate advocate of Qantas, but I am a realist as well. I know that a government that is serious cannot govern by nostalgia and sentiment. It cannot govern by emotion. It must govern by the hard realities of the challenges that we face. Qantas is facing a difficult and challenging international aviation market. There is no doubt about that, and the shadow minister is right to point out that it has principally been government owned and supported carriers that have been the dominant force within the international aviation market for a long time. It is not a new phenomenon. Those who remember what happened with Ansett and other things many years ago will remember that as well. The commercial issues that go around these challenging issues in the aviation industry understand that. It is not new. And so the question for us today is: how do we make Qantas stronger? How do we equip it to be able to combat the challenges that it faces in the future and to succeed—as it always has succeeded?
I and my colleagues on this side of the House have faith in Qantas's ability, and particularly the ability of the people in Qantas, the people who have always worked within Qantas. I have faith that in whatever aspect of their operations, they have the passion for and commitment to this business to make it succeed in the future. And to allow them to do that, we have to remove the constraints that are placed upon it. We cannot just pretend that the environment they are facing is some sort of myth. It is not; it is real. What Qantas needs is the ability to be able to work with equity partners that can play the role in the future that it needs them to play. We cannot keep those potential partners locked behind closed doors, as the Qantas Sale Act 1992 does. It prevents them from being able to engage in Qantas's future and to provide the support for that future. And by continuing to lock them out, we deny the opportunities that the Qantas employees will need to be part of a very successful Qantas in the future.
Qantas has the job of running this airline, not the government. That was decided by this place in 1992. Those opposite seem to be wanting to govern retrospectively now. They want to take us back to 1992. In fact, they want to take us back to before 1992. They want to say that the equity partner—default equity partner even—in Qantas should be the taxpayer. But we decided that back in 1992. So unless those opposite are suggesting that we should buy back Qantas—as they did, in large part, in New Zealand—and for the government to now be the controlling interest in Qantas, as the member for Gorton seems to think that somehow we still are, then they should put that view. And I think that is exactly what the shadow minister was doing today. He is suggesting, and those opposite are suggesting, that the equity partner that Qantas needs is the Australian taxpayer. Not only do we not agree with that position, but this parliament also did not agree with that position in 1992 when it decided—when Labor in government decided—to sell Qantas. And when you make that decision and you go forward and you decide that Qantas is going to be on a private path and not a government-run airline like so many others are, then you have to commit to a success as a private business into the future, and you have to give it the options and the opportunities that it needs to be successful in that environment. That means passing the measures in the Qantas Sale Amendment Bill, which is before parliament today, to enable Qantas to attract the equity partners it will need in its long-term future. We have decided that will not be the government. Those opposite voted for that back in 1992—unless they are now saying that they are going to recant. Having made that decision, we now need to lift those restrictions to enable Qantas to have a future, which will mean Australian jobs within Qantas in the future.
The other thing you have to do is to remove other restrictions that impede its ability to be profitable. The carbon tax bill for Qantas was $106 million—$106 million! The opposition sneezes that this is some trivial consequence for Qantas. Are they suggesting we should invest $106 million in Qantas? That is what the opposition seems to be suggesting. The opposition could do that effectively by getting rid of the carbon tax. There is $106 million support for Qantas today—year-on-year—$106 million and more because the amount will become greater under the previous government's carbon tax. There is some direct support, if you like, but delivered in a way that this government delivers support—by freeing up businesses in this country so that they are able to properly run their businesses. It is no different for Qantas than it is for the many thousands of Australian small businesses—I acknowledge the Minister for Small Business, Mr Billson, is here at the table—and the many small businesses in my community of the shire because they are doing the same thing. They do not come knocking on my door asking for a debt guarantee. They come to ask me to get regulation out of their way, which helps them to employ people and allows them to succeed. That is the spirit in small businesses in my electorate, as I know it is in small businesses around the country.
We have to let Qantas and its management take responsibility for future decisions, give them the things they need, the options they need to be able to put forward their plans for the company. The Qantas board runs the company. Boards, like governments, will be responsible, and managements will be responsible for the decisions they take and the impact they have on their shareholders and on their employees. That is the way we run the economy in this country and that is the way we should run the economy in this country. If those opposite are somehow suggesting something different, they should be very clear about that.
Qantas is a tremendous, wonderful, national airline. The good news is we have other national airlines today and Virgin is one of those. Protections already exist within the various legislation which governs aviation arrangements, which continue to apply equally not only to Qantas but also to any other national carriers that will be acting consistently with our international aviation agreements. The Navigation Act applies to other airlines including Virgin and Qantas' subsidiary Jetstar. Qantas international would stay majority Australian owned. As for their domestic operations, they are subject to review by the Foreign Investment Review Board—no changes there. Our international air service agreements impose ownership and control restrictions to ensure only Australian international airlines can access our traffic rights and under those restrictions, Australian international airlines must be substantially owned and effectively controlled by Australian nationals. At least two-thirds of the board members must be Australian citizens. The chairperson of the board must be an Australian citizen. The airline's head office must be in Australia. The airline's operation base must be in Australia. The government has no plans to change these criteria, which will continue to apply in Qantas' international operations—not to mention the Fair Work Act, the Corporations Act, immigration laws, for which I am responsible, and other regulations which affect every other Australian business. There are safeguards and there are protections regarding those operations.
Those opposite seem to be arguing that a foreign equity provider and shareholder in Qantas domestic is somehow going to run Australian domestic operations in another country. Apparently they are going to run a domestic aviation service in Australia by flying around some other country, which is absurd. As the minister for transport has argued very well in this place in recent days, Virgin is employing Australians in Australia. Australians are on those planes every day, moving millions of people around every single week. That is the future I want for Qantas as well because that has been Qantas' past, it is its present and it will be its future—so long as this place and the other place decide to put a vote of confidence in Australian business and in Australian employees. Qantas is a great airline. As a former managing director of Tourism Australia, I know from first-hand experience that Qantas has given unparalleled support to the Australian tourism industry. Sadly, under the previous government that went array and it will be for those who were responsible to explain that one day. Qantas always stumped up when it was in my field of operations. That will continue.
It will be a good future for Qantas. It will not be the same as its past. That is true for all businesses, as the Minister for Small Business would know. We cannot somehow wish away the circumstances that all businesses face today and pretend somehow we can be nostalgic and sentimental about these difficult decisions. For Qantas to go forward, this government and this parliament must get out of its way and free it up to find the partners in the future that it so richly deserves, its employees so richly deserve and await it. The only thing standing in between that is the Leader of the Opposition and his cohorts in the Senate. For my electors, I hope, the Leader of the Opposition will have a change of heart and will decide to support Qantas by supporting this bill.