Thursday, 6 March 2014
Qantas Sale Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
We have seen an extraordinary passage of events in the parliament this morning, where the government clearly do not have the confidence of their own convictions. What we have seen this morning is the minister responsible for this piece of legislation come into the House, read the bill and then have the opportunity to have that bill debated in full—the opposition granted the government the opportunity to have that bill debated in full. The government then tried to move a gag motion on a debate on their own bill. They tried to gag debate on their own piece of legislation. What this shows is that they do not have confidence in their legislation. They do not have confidence in their ability to manage this debate. It shows that the government are struggling to convert their seductive three-word slogans into serious policy, legislation and a legislative agenda to bring before the House.
It is actually a reflection of the haphazard decision-making process that has typified this whole matter. We have seen question time after question time being concentrated on the future of Qantas. There has not been a question time this year where the future of Qantas has not been debated. You would think, given all of that, they would be prepared to come into the House and defend the legislation which we argue is not in the national interest. That has not been the case.
The government has had many positions on this, as we have seen from the comments by the minister himself. He has obviously had a range of different positions on this matter over the last five years. In 2009, the then shadow minister had a position which was once in the interests of regional Australia, once in the interests of jobs and once in interests of the future of Qantas. At that point in time he had this to say:
The Government’s decision to allow a single foreign investor to own 49 percent of Qantas would deliver effective control to a foreign investor, including possibly a competitor airline. Lost of effective Australian control could leave Australia without an airline primarily committed to our interests.
What safeguards will be put in place for the Australian flying public, particularly those in regional areas?
That is a very good question: what safeguards will be put in place for the Australian flying public, particularly those in regional areas? We see nothing in the Qantas Sale Amendment Bill 2014 which would protect the interests of those who are in regional Australia and relying on the services of Qantas—the interests that the minister once protected, once stood for but is now selling out as he stands here and moves this legislation before the House today.
Of course, he is not alone. In 2009 the Treasurer, who has shown a great interest in this particular debate, had this to say when he was asked about the 25-35 rule for Qantas:
… this is something I have previously been on the record about. Very concerned about any dilution of Australian control of Qantas … We have been very concerned for a number of reasons … Our experience has been that when companies have majority foreign ownership or majority foreign control … then it actually has an impact on the social responsibilities of those companies here in Australia.
That is what the Treasurer said in 2009. It is what he thought in 2009 and we would argue that he was spot-on. We would argue that both the Treasurer and the minister were spot-on in 2009 when they made those observations about the future of Qantas.
This has been a chaotic debate, and the way that this has been handled over the last month is nothing short of a disgrace. We have seen a cabinet minister backgrounding the media on what they intended to do. We have seen the Treasurer himself sending smoke signals about the possibility of a debt guarantee. Then we saw the Prime Minister himself on one day send signals about what they were intending to do, on the next day saying almost the exact opposite. So you can imagine what people in boardrooms around the country are thinking as they focus on this debate. They are very concerned, and they are right to be concerned, about the government's lack of consistency when it comes to handling issues like this.
In question time a few days ago we heard the Prime Minister pose the question: why should we do for one company what we are not prepared to do for another? What should we do for one company that we are not prepared to do for another? He said that in relation to government support for Qantas. You can only imagine the discussion that has gone on around the Qantas boardroom in the last 24 hours, trying to synchronise these two comments. You can only imagine the discussion that is going on around the Qantas boardroom. They would be saying to themselves: 'If only Qantas were a company that transported wheat and not people, then we would have a chance of government support. If only we were a company that transported wheat and not people, then we might have the support of the National Party on this issue.' We know that they went to the wall over the sale of GrainCorp. They went to the wall and they were the ones in the cabinet room and backgrounding the media saying it would be a national travesty if we allowed a foreign company to come in and take over GrainCorp because it would not be in the national interest.
In the boardrooms of Qantas today and around the executive hallways of Qantas they must be saying: 'If only we were a real transport company, transporting wheat and not people. Then we would have a chance of some government support.' You can imagine them saying: 'If only we were a real tourist business, then we would have a chance of government support. If only we were in the business of making chocolate instead of transporting people around the country and around the world to their holiday destinations, then we would have a chance of government support.' We know the government is willing to support a business that is in the tourism industry. 'Unfortunately, as a national airline, we're not in the tourism industry. We only transport people around the world and around the country to go on holidays. We're not making Freddo frogs or chocolate bars and therefore we're not going to get the sort of government support that Cadbury has been able to enjoy.'
You can imagine the conversations that are going on around their boardrooms today: government inconsistency; saying one thing before an election, doing another; setting out clear principles and then contradicting them; sending up smoke signals that we are willing to support Qantas, willing to give them a debt guarantee, only to have an unholy barney in the cabinet room with one cabinet minister backgrounding against another minister to undermine a position that would have been in Qantas's interest. We have seen an absolute shambles and absolute chaos. That is the background to the bill that has come before the House today.
We have heard the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the transport minister stand in this place today and ask: why should the government come in and support Qantas when they are in direct competition with Virgin? Why should we do this? Why should we do one thing for Qantas? Why should the government come in and support Qantas and at the same time not be supporting Virgin?
I have the highest regard for Virgin and the CEO of Virgin. I think he has done a fantastic job bringing that company, that airline, from nowhere to having a significant presence in this country. As a member of this place who, from time to time, has to travel for work, I make sure that I spend some of that time on a Virgin aircraft. I think they are a fine airline. I think they are doing a fine job. But the argument does not stack up, because if you look at the corporate ownership, if you look at the structure of the airline, you will see that Virgin, like the majority of airlines around the world, enjoys the backing of one, if not more, government. In Virgin's case, it enjoys the backing of three governments. So the difference between Virgin and Qantas is that Virgin enjoys the support of three governments and Qantas does not enjoy the support of any, so the argument of a level-playing field simply does not add up. It is just another of the inconsistencies that the government has stacked up in this debate.
The people are not buying it, because they know the consequences of this legislation which is before the House today. Because it is not just about the ownership, as important as that is; the Qantas Sale Act also has important protections about jobs. It has protections in it about where the headquarters will be. It has protections in it about the provision of certain functions within this country—maintenance functions, catering functions, reservations functions—to ensure that this iconic Australian business employs Australians, and it does that. The people of Australia are not going to be conned. They are seeing over 5,000 jobs going from this company. Just yesterday, they saw over 1,500 workers at Mascot headquarters being told that they are going to lose their jobs.
As the Prime Minister stands here and says, 'We're going to do nothing to help this airline and this industry,' those people will be going back to their homes and their electorates, saying: 'I am losing my job. It was a good job. It was a well-paid job in a great company. I am losing my job, and the government is doing absolutely nothing to assist me or my family.' This is important: over 35,000 Australians earn a living working for Qantas—good jobs, highly skilled jobs, the jobs of the future and jobs that we should be supporting. We should be doing everything we can as a government and, on this side of the House, as an opposition to ensure that we support those workers, that company and that industry.
It is an important industry. I made light earlier in my contribution: if only Qantas were producing chocolate and not providing airline services then maybe they would get tourism support. But tourism is a critical industry in this country. It employs over half a million Australians. It is a $1 billion sector and it has been identified as one of the five supergrowth sectors that are going to backfill the economic hole in terms of employment and GDP as the mining boom comes off. So it is important to our future. It deserves our support and our attention, and those of us on this side of the House who are committed to ensuring that we have a vibrant company, a vibrant industry, are willing to work constructively with the government to ensure that Qantas remains a vibrant, Australian owned company, employing Australians and providing services throughout regional Australia and to the rest of the world. It is absolutely critical.
We understand that the airline industry not only in Australia but around the world is going through a tremendous shake-up. There are not many airline businesses in the world that are actually making money at the moment—very few in fact; you could count on one hand the number of airline companies in the world that are actually making money at the moment—so in this respect Qantas and Virgin are with the pack, not outside it.
But the people of Australia understand this. If this bill goes through the House with the government support then there will be one consequence and it will be on the heads of those opposite. There will be jobs lost. There will be jobs sent overseas. It will be inevitable that Qantas in two, three or four years time will be a company which is either owned directly or indirectly by a government of another country or the sovereign wealth fund of another country, and that will be a complete shame. We on this side of the House do not believe you can save jobs by sending them offshore. This legislation should be rejected.