Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Economics Committee; Reference
Of course the proposed changes to the ownership structure of Qantas are a matter of importance and interest to many Australians. I think there is probably a very high level of interest in this building because, amongst us, we probably form an extremely solid customer base for Qantas. Qantas is an outstanding airline by any measure. It is an integral part of Australia’s history and heritage. It has an outstanding reputation internationally. I believe it has served Australia very well. It is in fact internationally a significant part of global aviation and has been for its entire history.
I was reminded of this fact when just before Christmas I was honoured in my former role as minister in charge of heritage to welcome back to Australia the 707 aircraft City of Canberra. The importance of that, Mr Acting Deputy President, if you missed the saturation television coverage of that event, was that it was the first jet airliner to be exported from the United States. Australia and Qantas were the first country and the first company to buy a jet airliner. That was back in 1959. And that purchase of the Boeing 707 by Qantas opened up Australia and opened up opportunities for Australians and for migrants to Australia and other people from around the world to start visiting Australia. It was probably one of the quintessentially important moments in the construction of what is now a phenomenal tourism industry in this country and, moreover, a burgeoning services sector. So there is no doubt whatsoever that the motion that Senator Bob Brown brings before us deals with an issue of great interest to Australians.
I think previous speakers from the Australian Labor Party have made it quite clear that there are a number of very important processes that the proposed change in the ownership structure will have to go through in order to progress. I think it is incredibly important that those processes—the Foreign Investment Review Board process, the procedures under the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975—are allowed to occur unhindered. That act gives power to the Treasurer to screen foreign investment proposals and to decide whether any particular proposal would be contrary to the national interest. That is what will occur.
Airline Partners Australia Ltd lodged a notification under section 25 of that act on Monday this week—that is, 5 February—and the Treasurer under the law has 30 days to consider that proposal, as he will do and as he has done on previous occasions. It is very important also to understand that the Qantas Sale Act 1992 applies to Qantas and nothing within this transaction lifts the legislated provisions of that act.
I remember for my sins being in this chamber when the Qantas Sale Act 1992 went through. As a young Liberal Party senator then in opposition who had promoted the concept of privatisation from the early years of the 1980s, when I was chairman of the joint policy committee of the Liberal Party of Western Australia and had invited Dr Madsen Pirie from the Adam Smith Institute to do a tour of Australia and promote the benefits of moving government business enterprises and the services of government from the public sector into the private sector, I recall being pilloried. I remember Mr Hawke, Mr Keating and other members of the Labor Party across the length and breadth of this country saying how privatisation was an horrific concept, that the sky would fall in, that all of these national assets would be flogged off—that the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas and Australian Airlines would go. They had that wonderful Australian comedian Graham Kennedy doing lampoons of it: ‘Selling the silver to pay the butler.’
To hear all of that during the 1980s and then come here in 1992 and see a massive fire sale of iconic Australian companies such as the Commonwealth Bank, Australian Airlines, Qantas and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, to mention but a few, was to some extent amusing for me as a new member of the Senate who had been committed to it. And the importance of 1992 is just that, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, as you would know better than most in this chamber. When the Australian Labor Party, Senator George Campbell and his comrades, came in here and voted to make Qantas a publicly listed company, albeit with strict foreign ownership requirements in place—which remain in place—they ensured that all of the stock in that company, all of the shares, were placed on a public register and allowed to be traded. They put them up in a marketplace known as the Australian Stock Exchange and onto the global marketplace. Of course, when that stock was put up there it made it possible for anyone to go and buy those shares within the law.
So it is a wee bit amusing that we have the Labor Party wearing their union supplied badges in here saying ‘Save Qantas’ or words to that effect. That is cute and populist, but the reality is that those Labor senators should look their union comrades in the eye and say that the reason that this sale is possible now is because of the duplicity and hypocrisy of Labor in power, which put it up on the block for sale.
The good and the reassuring thing for the passengers of Qantas and the employees of Qantas—so many thousands of wonderful Australians who work so hard to provide an outstanding service for Australian and international passengers, providing wonderful services domestically and internationally and running a very successful airline—is that the provisions of the Qantas Sale Act apply. The Department of Transport and Regional Services is going through a rigorous process to ensure that the sale goes through, and I think all Australians can rest assured that very proper processes will be gone through to ensure that this sale is in total compliance with the law. The government believe that is the proper process and that the Senate inquiry proposed for quite populist reasons by Senator Bob Brown is entirely unnecessary and, quite frankly, a waste of time.