House debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020


Aviation Legislation Amendment (Liability and Insurance) Bill 2020; Second Reading

1:10 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Aviation Legislation Amendment (Liability and Insurance) Bill 2020. This bill amends the Civil Aviation (Carriers' Liability) Act 1959, raising liability caps for death and injury, and raising the amounts of insurance needed for domestic flights. In doing so, this bill addresses shortcomings in the current insurance and liability framework that were identified way back in the 2009 national aviation white paper. This bill will raise the liability cap for domestic passenger death or injury from $500,000 to $725,000, requiring carriers to increase the amount of insurance to that figure for domestic flights. It excludes compensation for purely mental injuries arising on domestic flights and makes other relatively minor changes.

The bill also includes a technical amendment to clarify that carriers and those employed by the carrier share the same scope of liability. This means that workers such as cabin crew and other airline staff cannot be sued independently from the carrier and potentially held liable for a broader scope of injuries than the carrier. It is, of course, important that aviation legislation is kept up to date with changing circumstances, but, of course, updating the liability and insurance framework is not the largest challenge facing the aviation industry today. While Labor will support the changes contained in this bill, the government must do more to secure the future of the industry, and I will be moving a second reading amendment to that effect.

Aviation has played an essential role throughout COVID. It has transported essential workers, it's repatriated Australians stranded overseas, it's facilitated border closures and quarantine arrangements and it's ensured that important health supplies and other essential goods are available throughout the country. Throughout this crisis, Labor has taken a constructive approach, offering support when the government is on the right track and criticism when it is wrong. When it comes to aviation, the government has delivered a piecemeal and inconsistent approach. Instead of recognising airlines and the aviation industry as key parts of our national infrastructure, especially in regional Australia, the government has chosen to pick winners and to let other parts of the sector wither on the vine, presiding over mass job losses in this sector. Rather than coming up with a plan for the whole industry, the government has sat by while Virgin Australia fell into administration, denied JobKeeper to thousands of aviation workers and refused to clarify what ongoing support it will offer the industry, even as Qantas was forced to sack 6,000 workers and then, most recently, outsourced 2½ thousand.

Before COVID, our nation's airlines directly employed 45,000 Australians, while the industry supported more than 206,000 jobs in every corner of our country. It was crucial to our tourism sector, employing over half a million Australians and accounting for over eight per cent of our total export earnings. It was crucial to our regional communities, delivering supplies and tourists and linking them with the coastal capitals. Aviation allowed us to visit our families on the other side of the country, to visit friends and to enjoy more of our vast, beautiful land. For years, our strong airline industry has been underpinned by two full-service major players, in Qantas and Virgin, who have delivered affordable services that regularly reached all Australians. As we recover from this crisis, aviation will again be crucial. Now, as our internal borders come down, it is aviation that will enable business travellers to once again get in the air, will allow families to go on well-deserved holidays and will finally reunite those divided from their loved ones by COVID restrictions. As we reopen to the world, aviation will deliver the tourists who will reignite regional communities and regional economies across Australia, from Broome across to Cairns and to Townsville.

But if the Morrison government does not come up with a clear plan for aviation, there is no guarantee that it will be there in the same way that it once was—or even in the way that the economy needs it to be—as the world once again takes flight. Aviation has been there throughout the crisis. Runways have remained open for essential flights and pilots, cabin crew, maintenance workers, cleaners, baggage handlers and everyone else in the industry who were able to work—and who largely were on JobKeeper—continued working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But the Morrison government has spent the last months crossing its fingers, hoping that somehow the industry will survive. It says, 'Well, you know, other airlines have failed internationally.' Other international governments have actually stepped in to make sure that their airlines are continuing to be viable and to make sure that they're there after the crisis. The government might want to highlight where the failures have been, but how about highlighting where the successes have been?

Since this crisis began, I've spoken with pilots who are terrified of the damage being done to their colleagues' mental health. There are cleaners and baggage handlers with no idea how they'll pay the mortgage, cabin crew who lived through the Ansett collapse and are now facing down further redundancy and highly skilled maintenance workers with no idea where they are going to get their next job from. These workers used to be united by their industry. Now they are united by both their hardship and the heartbreaking fact that their government, this government, frankly has ignored many of their pleas. When Virgin came asking for help, the government ignored them, leaving it entirely up to the market. Their last request of the government before entering administration was for $100 million worth of assistance. The market has decided, when it comes to Virgin, that 3,000 jobs are gone, and the result is fewer flights to regional areas. Every route cut and every last job lost from Virgin has been because of the decisions this government has made, to leave the fate of Virgin to the market. When Qantas came to the government asking for clarity regarding ongoing support, particularly in relation to JobKeeper, the government said, 'We're going to tell you nothing.' The very next day, Qantas cut 6,000 jobs. Just last week, we saw that Qantas cut another 2½ thousand jobs, preferring to outsource rather than maintain their own workforce.

Throughout the crisis, we've heard and seen firsthand the dangers of insecure work. Now we are seeing more people pushed into insecure work under the policies and decisions of this government. The government should have done more. The government could have done more. They could have put conditions around JobKeeper to make sure that workers remain connected with their workplace, not an outsourced workplace or a different workplace entirely, but they didn't. These workers are paying the price. When the Australian Airports Association wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister on five occasions, asking for help as their members reported losses of $300 million per month, the Deputy Prime Minister couldn't even be bothered to respond—not a peep, not even a 'Thanks for writing'. I'm pleased to hear he's now engaged with them. When these workers came to parliament last week, one of them stood up, in front of the media, and asked, 'How do I explain to my three girls that it's not whether you do a good job or not that matters; it is just that they can bring someone else in and do it for cheaper than you? How do you teach your kids the value of that?' It's a question that none of us can answer. We tell our kids to work hard, to do their best and to believe that they will be rewarded with stable, secure jobs and a good income. These workers know that that is simply not true.

These aren't the only aviation workers who were forced this year to realise that the truths they took for granted were not truths at all. When dnata workers were put on standdown and were all set to receive JobKeeper—they had all been told by their company that they would be receiving JobKeeper—the Morrison government took the deliberate decision to change the eligibility requirements to exclude them. It did so by way of regulation in the Senate, and, unfortunately, One Nation decided to deny them JobKeeper.

Even as Australia's biggest accounting error saw the number of people on JobKeeper revised down by three million, the government continued to deny support to these dnata workers—5½ thousand Australians. These workers, who pay their taxes in Australia just like everyone, were denied support simply because of who now owns their company. They all used to work for Qantas. Let's not forget that it was the Morrison government that approved the foreign takeover of their work. We know that dnata is one of the companies being considered by Qantas's new outsourced operations. If they were to receive the contract, what would that mean for these workers, in relation to them receiving JobKeeper? What would it mean for them being able to actually get work? It is a ridiculous situation, but it is where we are at under this government.

Throughout the crisis, the Morrison government has repeatedly promised that it would take a sector-wide approach to aviation. Just saying that you're taking a sector-wide approach doesn't mean that that is what you're doing. Taking a sector-wide approach means that you apply, in an even-handed way, the support across the sector and that you are blind to whose ownership it is and you are blind to the structure, but what you are not blind to is that it is Australian workers who are going to reap the benefit. For most of the sector, this so-called sector-wide approach to aviation has meant complete and utter neglect. Councils own airports They are lifelines for regional communities, from Longreach to Bendigo to Exmouth. When councils came asking for JobKeeper for their essential, highly skilled and security checked security workers, the Morrison government said, 'No, you don't get JobKeeper. You're on your own.' It's pretty hard to get some of those workers in some of those places.

Australia's airline industry and regional communities across Australia are dependent on two strong, competitive full-service airlines underpinned by budget carriers, regional services and a plethora of corporate and aviation support industries. The 2009 aviation white paper recommended that this structure be protected in the interests of passengers. With our two major airlines still being able to fly between the east coast capitals, but without a competitive industry, regional tourism economies from Cairns to Broome to Launceston will struggle with recovery. Labor is glad to see that Virgin has emerged from administration, but it is a sad fact that the airline won't fly to as many regional destinations, it certainly won't be flying to as many international destinations and it won't employ as many Australians. Every route and job lost in aviation, every family forced to move and every community that has lost its link to the rest of our nation, is a direct result of the decisions made by this government.

The government may claim that it has taken a sector-wide approach, but it has it refused to support Virgin, refused to answer letters from the airports, refused to help dnata workers and refused to assist with Qantas workers. At the same time, it has been willing to support Rex with an untied grant of $54 million. This has enabled the airline to go to market, to raise capital, and to expand. Virgin's final ask before entering administration was $100 million, which was a small price to pay for 16,000 direct jobs. But, of course, the government said no and they let Virgin fall into administration. When Rex faced similar difficulties—not quite the same, but similar—the Morrison government stepped up to secure their cashflow and to secure the thousand jobs. Since receiving that grant, Rex has expanded into the capital city markets, even moving to purchase aircraft previously operated by Virgin Australia. I'm not criticising that decision; Rex is an important airline to many communities. But it is really hard to see why Rex receives such different treatment. That is not a sector-wide approach. The fact is that there is only one airline in Australia which is emerging from this crisis with plans to expand, and that is the only airline that received $54 million in untied grants from the National Party. The Deputy Prime Minister is yet to furnish us with a convincing explanation as to why one majority foreign owned airline—and it is a majority foreign owned airline—was given taxpayer relief while another was apparently entirely ineligible. Perhaps it's simply a matter of one airline having the right connections and the other not.

Throughout this crisis the government has had endless opportunities to act to protect workers at airports, at dnata, at Virgin and at Qantas. Whilst this bill might update existing legislation, it does little to secure the future of the aviation industry in this country. Labor will be supporting the bill, but we do, again, take the opportunity to urge the government to provide a plan for aviation, to ensure that in emerging from this crisis—not in a few years time but now—we have the right policy settings in place to ensure that we have a strong aviation sector post COVID, one that continues to employ thousands of Australians and which contributes to the wealth and growth of this country from our cities to our regions and to our remote towns.

In particular, when it comes to the fate of the 2½ thousand Qantas workers, the government does need to say very clearly— and there is now a court case underway—whether it supports workers being made more insecure. That is the decision that this government has made.

That being said, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) criticises the Government's failure to take a sector-wide approach to supporting the aviation sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the livelihoods of thousands of aviation workers at risk; and

(2) calls on the Government to develop a sector-wide aviation recovery plan to support the industry to recover from the impacts of COVID-19".

It's fine to bring in these pieces of legislation which improve insurance and it's fine to bring in legislation about drones, but what it isn't fine to do is completely and utterly ignore the pleas of the aviation sector and, in particular, the pleas of those 2,000 Qantas workers who are now being placed into insecure work because of this government's failure to have a plan for aviation.

There is a test coming for this government in three weeks time. The largest proportion of support for the aviation sector runs out at the end of December, and because it runs out at the end of December we have Qantas and Virgin both saying that their recovery plans will be put at risk if the government does not do something actually support this important measure. So the government has an opportunity within the next three weeks to come back and say whether it does support the aviation sector, whether it wants the aviation sector to continue to flourish in this country and whether its recovery plans are going to be on track. It also has the opportunity, with JobKeeper running out in March, to say whether it intends to provide specific support for the aviation industry. I think it is important that the government comes forward with its plans for aviation much more clearly and much sooner.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read second time. To this the honourable member for Ballarat has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.