Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Economics Committee; Reference
I also rise to support this motion for a reference to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics for an inquiry into the proposed takeover of Qantas by Airline Partners Australia. As the motion before the Senate sets out, the terms of reference for such an inquiry go to such important matters as the impact on air services to regional Australia and to the tourism industry; the implications for Qantas’s 38,000 employees and its customers and frequent flyers; the implications of the proposed executive remuneration; the track record of the potential new owners; the competition implications of the sale and the potential taxation implications; and the general public interest.
I appreciate that both Qantas and APA have offered all senators briefings on the proposed acquisition, and I will take up that offer if this motion to refer the matter to a Senate inquiry is defeated. I also note that APA has voluntarily referred the proposal to the Foreign Investment Review Board for scrutiny, which is a necessary and welcome move. However, given what is at stake here, there should also be an opportunity for the Senate to examine the implications of any sale. There should be the opportunity for the Senate to undertake the work on behalf of the people of Australia, who are very anxious about the future of Qantas—and they are anxious with good reason. Qantas is, as we have heard, an Australian icon. It has been around for some 86 years. It is an essential part of our transport system. Australia, more than many other countries, relies on a healthy, competitive airline industry for its economic and community wellbeing. We also need our major carrier to be subject to government control to ensure that it continues to deliver what the nation requires.
Qantas is one of Australia’s biggest employers. Some 38,000 people are employed by Qantas and many thousands more rely on Qantas for their jobs as well. We should not forget that those 38,000 employees also have families who rely on jobs with Qantas. Qantas is also one of the nation’s biggest employers of apprentices and it employs many highly skilled tradespeople whom the nation desperately needs.
Today I attended an event organised by the Qantas unions—the Australian Services Union, the Transport Workers Union and the metalworkers union—at Parliament House. I acknowledge the fine work that those unions do to protect their members’ jobs and interests and to protect the welfare of an important company like Qantas. I know many senators and members have been visited by Qantas employees who are worried that a takeover of Qantas by the private equity investment consortium will jeopardise the future of the airline and its staff. Qantas staff are well aware of the dubious practices of some of the consortium partners in acquisitions of other businesses. Qantas employees do not want to see their jobs go offshore, they do not want their conditions slashed and they do not want skills and opportunities sent to other countries.
We have seen the wreckage of more than one failed airline in this country, and the one we all remember best is Ansett. That cost 16,000 Australian jobs overnight and many Ansett employees are still waiting for their full entitlements five years after the event in September 2001. Ansett’s demise was the result of corporate mismanagement and government inaction. The effects of Ansett’s demise on industry, tourism, skills development, regional air services and the economy was immediate and is ongoing. When Ansett was sold unconditionally we had so-called ‘rock-solid’ guarantees on job security, and then jobs were offshored to Mexico and New Zealand. Finance and administration were offshored to New Zealand and the company collapsed. While Ansett employees have waited years for their entitlements, employees of Gate Gourmet, a dependent company, will never receive any of their entitlements. We cannot afford another Ansett.
The 11 Qantas executives who stand to make some $30 million from this takeover tell us that all will be okay. But we need more than the promises provided so far by APA and Qantas. We need cast-iron, legislated guarantees.
In a recent poll conducted by Auspoll, 79 per cent of those Australians polled said they opposed the sale of Qantas. In that same poll, 75 per cent believed services to regional areas would suffer if Qantas is taken over with no conditions protecting regional services attached to the sale, 70 per cent believed jobs and conditions would be cut and 64 per cent believed aviation safety would be compromised. Australians need to be assured that this bid is not going to be at the expense of Australian jobs, that it protects employee entitlements and that it promotes the highest standards of air safety, regional services and competition. The public are worried, and I believe so are many government members, about this style. The public deserves a Senate inquiry to explore the full implications of the proposed takeover, so I seek the support of other senators for this very important reference.