Thursday, 6 March 2014
Qantas Sale Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
It is a good thing that the government has agreed, after some trepidation this morning, to have this debate now because this is an important debate and the opposition thinks it should be had now, not in a fortnight. That is a good thing because the government has had plenty of time to work out a position on the future of one of Australia's most important companies. It is an important company because of the 30,000 people it employs. It is an important company because of its role in tourism and promoting Australia. It is an important company in terms of its role in productivity and moving people around this country.
Of course, in December we saw the status of investment in our national carrier downgraded by Standard & Poor's to junk status. That is a significant event. Since then, we have seen thought bubbles, speculation, backgrounding and leaking from the government about how this would be dealt with. We were told by the Treasurer a couple of weeks ago that there were four criteria for government intervention to assist Qantas, and they have been ticked one by one.
There was a very clear press conference from the Treasurer making clear to Qantas, and everybody else as well, his position as the Treasurer of the nation. So Qantas, believing that to be the case but knowing there were still tough decisions to be made, then embarked on the difficult restructuring process, which they have announced, and the loss of 5,000 jobs. The only problem is that the Treasurer either changed his position or had it changed for him. We do not know exactly what changed the Treasurer's mind—perhaps one day we will—but we know it changed. Therefore, I am fearful that Qantas may need to go even further than they have already announced.
We are now told that the only issue facing Qantas is access to capital and that that can be fixed in one fell swoop by the wholesale removal of part 3 of the Qantas Sale Act. So we have this legislation brought into the House today. I fear that we have more policy on the run. I read from the explanatory memorandum:
A detail-stage regulation impact statement has not been completed. An exception has been granted by the Prime Minister.
So we have a major piece of legislation before the House and no detail-stage regulation impact statement despite this government's rhetoric about being calm and methodical—we just heard it again from the member for Wannon. We have had months of speculation about what could be done. We have been told that we have had detailed due diligence about a debt guarantee. We have the Treasurer using changed language: it has gone from a debt guarantee to unsecured loans. There are all sorts of vagaries about what has gone on in the government's consideration, and this is the result.
This is a very significant change of position from the government. We have just had the member for Wannon lecturing the House on the need for a free-market approach, but that is not the approach the government told us they would be taking just a few months ago. On 5 December the Deputy Prime Minister said:
If the Labor Party is interested in looking at changes to the Qantas Sale Act well then they should talk to us—
and then we might be able to come to some kind of arrangement. But he said it is 'not even a subject that can be talked about'. It could not even be discussed, he said, 'because it would simply be a waste of time and political energy when it is obvious that I think the majority of the Australian people, and certainly the majority of the people elected to the parliament at the present time, especially in the Senate, do not favour that course of action'. So the parliament is meant to take in good faith the government's actions when the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia told the parliament and the people just a few months ago that this would be a complete waste of time, and we are meant to not be cynical.
Then, of course, we have the position of the Treasurer, who was at the dispatch box two days ago beating his chest in the typical huffing and puffing fashion that he excels in. He lectured the Labor Party about our position and pointed out some things Labor ministers said in 1992 when his position in 2009 was very clearly against amendments to the Qantas Sale Act that would not even have got rid of all the restrictions. This is the error that the member for Wannon just repeated in the House by alleging erroneously and—dare I say it—mischievously that the previous government had a secret plan to abolish the foreign ownership restrictions for Qantas. It was not secret and it was not to abolish them. It was public and it was to relax them. Removing the restrictions of 25 per cent and 35 per cent of ownership in Qantas was in the aviation white paper. The Labor government thought that that was an idea worth pursuing, and it lasted a day before the then shadow Treasurer shot it down and said, 'No way; the Liberal Party won't go along with any change to foreign ownership rules for Qantas.' He told us that Qantas had important social obligations. Not only would the then opposition Liberal Party not go along with getting rid of the 51-49 rule, but they would not even countenance getting rid of the 25 and 35 per cent rules. And, again, we are meant to not be cynical.
We are now told by the government that foreign investment is so important and that access to capital is so important. There is one person in this House who has knocked a foreign investment application in the last 12 months, and it is not me; it is not member for Lilley; it is the member for North Sydney, the Treasurer. He had an investor in an Australian company, GrainCorp, ready to go and ready to invest in agribusiness—a business which has so much growth potential in Australia—and he said no because he was bullied by the National Party. He is the only one who has rejected foreign investment in Australia in recent times. So he is not in a position to lecture us about the importance of foreign investment.
If removing the Qantas Sale Act is the panacea, the thing that is so necessary for the future of Qantas, then the government has some explaining to do—not just about this change of position but about what comes next. Unlike ADM and GrainCorp, there is no investor in the wings that we are aware of. There is nobody saying, 'If these foreign investment restrictions were lifted, we would invest in Qantas immediately.' There is nobody saying: 'We'll be the white knight. We'll come in, invest in Qantas and save the jobs.' Such an investor just does not exist. The government is yet to explain how, even if one did, and the Qantas Sale Act amendments passed this House and the other place today, that would be the immediate assistance to Qantas which Qantas have said they need.
If there were a change in the ownership of Qantas, Qantas would be broken up. The government themselves accept that that would be the inevitable consequence of the passage of this bill. The government are not seeking to amend the Air Navigation Act in a way that would stop the breakup of Qantas. I would argue that the inevitable result of the passage of this act and an increase in foreign investment in Qantas over and above 49 per cent would be the breaking up of Qantas into separate companies—domestic, international, Jetstar and frequent flyer. That is the only foreseeable result. That would be a major change which would not only need Foreign Investment Review Board approval, which is a long process, but also require new licences to be issued, a change to Qantas which would take years to implement. It would not be implemented immediately.
There is another important point. Honourable members have pointed out, correctly, that the conditions in the Qantas Sale Act accompanied the privatisation of Qantas in 1992. Honourable members opposite have correctly pointed out that this was an initiative of the Keating government. It is one that we recognise, acknowledge and are proud of. But there was a covenant with the Australian people. There was an agreement with the Australian people about the conditions of the Qantas Sale Act—that we would remove this significant government asset into private hands with restrictions placed on it. It is, of course, the role of a parliament to amend, and what one government makes another government can unmake. That is true. But this should not be done lightly when there has been a covenant entered into with the Australian people about an important asset like Qantas, which was in government ownership for so long, and which both sides of parliament agreed should be removed from government ownership.
We have made clear our threshold issues. We have made clear our views about what can and cannot be dealt with in this process. Now that the legislation is before the House, we can engage further in that conversation. We have made clear—just as when we proposed, in government, removing the 25 per cent and 35 per cent thresholds—that we are open to that conversation and we are prepared to be constructive in opposition, unlike the then shadow Treasurer, now Treasurer. He was not constructive in 2009. He did not say, 'Let's look at this.' He did not say, 'Qantas is being starved of capital so let's all work together as a parliament.' No, he waited 24 hours before shooting the idea down, meaning it would never pass the parliament and could not be progressed through the parliament. We are not taking that approach. Now that the legislation is before the House we will take a more constructive approach.
It is also important that this parliament, both this House and the other place, work very carefully and, dare I say it, methodically through the issues. I welcome the fact that the other place has decided to engage in a Senate inquiry which will report quite quickly—by the end of this month, as I understand it. That is an appropriate thing for the Senate to do. We will engage very constructively in this process because this issue should not be about political point scoring. It should not be about what the Deputy Prime Minister told us in December would be a complete 'waste of time and political energy'. It should be about working together to get a good future for Qantas.
We are up for that. We are prepared to do that. We acknowledge that we have a Prime Minister who is determined to play politics on this and so many other issues. Of course, in this House, politics will be played. But there is an overriding national responsibility on this House to work these issues through and to have a constructive engagement on them. The future of Qantas is far too important to Australia for us not to—not only for the 30,000 Australians who work for Qantas but for the millions of Australians who value Qantas's contribution to our economy. As far as we are concerned, in this House, we will do what it takes, as the government should do, to ensure that that contribution continues for many years to come.