Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Economics Committee; Reference
The Democrats support having this matter examined by a Senate committee, in this case the Senate Standing Committee on Economics. I agree with some of what Senator Ian Campbell just said—not so much that the Labor Party privatised things like Qantas but, even more unfortunately, that it did so deceptively, not by going to elections and openly saying, ‘We’re going to privatise the Commonwealth Bank; we’re going to privatise other things,’ but by in fact going to elections and saying ‘We won’t’ and then after elections ending up doing it, with the support of the then opposition in the coalition, who at least were ideologically consistent with regard to that particular position.
But that is not really the debate here. It is a worthwhile thing to note and a worthwhile criticism to make, but it is not the debate before the Senate. The debate before the Senate is whether or not it would be beneficial for a Senate committee to examine the issue of the proposed takeover of Qantas and, most importantly, to enable public input and public scrutiny. One of the reasons that it would not be a waste of time, as Senator Ian Campbell quite wrongly suggested, is that it would enable an open process. It would enable much more of the information to get out into the public arena.
One of the downsides of the Foreign Investment Review Board process is that it is not open; it is quite secretive. I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest that there is a degree of public unease, to put it politely. Or I could probably say there is a lack of public confidence in the Foreign Investment Review Board and, what is more relevant, a lack of confidence in the Treasurer and the decisions he might make. It is very rare for the Treasurer to decide to knock back something that has come through the Foreign Investment Review Board process. Not only is the Foreign Investment Review Board process secretive; it provides a report to the Treasurer and then the Treasurer’s deliberations are secret. It is a very inadequate process in the Democrats’ view.
As a general principle we would normally accept a proposal for a Senate inquiry unless we thought that it was either completely redundant or the committee perhaps had too many other things to do and the reference did not have a high enough priority. Neither of those arguments apply. It is not a duplication for the Senate to examine this issue. There are many issues that need to get out into the public domain that will not get there through the Foreign Investment Review Board process and the Treasurer making the decision.
Let us not forget all the people involved in this. Half of them are part of the government’s mates’ network anyway, so we are asking government people to make judgements about their mates. That is not denying that some people involved in Qantas are already government mates. I am not suggesting that the current system is pristine either, but in effect what Senator Campbell has put forward is that he accepts, as he said at the start, that this is an issue of great public interest, an issue of genuine significance to the Australian community and the Australian economy. The government’s approach is, ‘Just leave it to us; we’ll sort it out behind closed doors and don’t you worry about it.’ That is really the summary of the government’s position here. Whether that is genuinely Senator Campbell’s view or whether he has just been sent in to argue it, I do not know. The government are basically saying: ‘We will decide it behind closed doors. We will decide how many favours we will give to our mates this time round. You just leave it to us and trust us.’ Frankly, whatever the circumstances, whoever is in government, I do not think that any Senate should simply accept that it is okay for the government to say, ‘Trust us, we will decide in secret,’ but particularly not this government with their record around an issue as important as this.
It is understandable in these sorts of circumstances to hear terms like ‘national icon’ used about Qantas. As a Queenslander I take the opportunity to emphasise the ‘Q’ in the name Qantas and point out the origins of Qantas in outback Queensland. It is not just a national icon; I think it is fair to say it is a Queensland icon. It is easy to throw around this label of ‘national icon’ and to then use that as a nice protective wall to hide behind and say: ‘You can’t touch us because we’re a national icon. Let us do what we want.’ I think there are legitimate criticisms about how Qantas operates at the moment. It may be privatised but it certainly operates in a market that is less than open. It operates in a market that is quite comfortable for Qantas, thank you very much.
One thing that I would say, and which I think I can say on behalf of some Democrat colleagues as well, is that if a takeover and a change in the type of ownership regime around Qantas is going to be decided in secret by the Treasurer then there clearly will be a set-up where the new owners will be looking much more at profit and return and much less at the wider iconic role that keeps being talked about and the wider economic and crucial linchpin role that Qantas plays in many aspects of our national economy. If we are going to have a takeover and a move away from the current set-up to quite a different ownership regime then I believe there needs to be a review of the regulatory regime for airlines. I have heard similar views expressed by others, including some government senators.
Again, speaking individually and as a Queenslander, tourism is obviously a critical industry for Queensland, and Qantas is the major vehicle for bringing international tourists into Queensland. There is no doubt that the current restrictive arrangements on the route between eastern Australia and the west coast of the United States mean that there is overpricing and a higher cost for people flying into Australia. That undoubtedly has an impact on the tourism industry, not just in Queensland but elsewhere. One can accept that that may be an appropriate price to pay because of the broader social benefit that Qantas provides through its services to regional Australia and through being a major employer, but if it is going to adopt a new ownership regime that puts those things at risk or lower down on the priority chain then I really think that it can no longer expect to argue that it should have some protected arrangement under which to operate.
I should also say, as an aside—it is not directly relevant to the immediate question before the chamber, but I think it is relevant to the broader question—if we are talking about a takeover of Qantas, and obviously those people who are thinking of doing it think that there is good money and good returns to be made here, we need to be cognisant of the greenhouse implications of air travel. I say this in a wider sense. It is something that I think the aviation industry and the tourism industry in particular, as well as some other industries, need to take into account. Currently, emissions from air travel are not counted at all under the Kyoto regime, partly because it was too hard to figure out which country to apply them to. That might be a neat loophole for the purposes of accounting, but it does not make any difference to the environment whether or not we count them; there are still emissions and there is no doubt that greenhouse gas emissions from air travel are a very significant component given the small number of people involved. Per capita, air travel is quite a high emitter, and we have very high growth projections for air travel in Australia, both domestically and internationally.
Indeed, in my home city of Brisbane there is a proposal at the moment to build a second runway at Brisbane Airport. Most of the concerns about that are focused on aircraft noise affecting people living in the vicinity. I am sympathetic to that but I think the much greater issue is that the inevitable consequence of building that second runway will be the increase in emissions that will come from the increased air traffic. That is not being taken into account. Ironically, and in some cases quite bizarrely, it is not even mentioned in the voluminous environmental impact assessment documentation surrounding the second runway. Facilitating the single biggest environmental impact from the second runway, which will be increased greenhouse gas emissions, is excluded from the environmental impact assessment. I know that I am getting a bit off topic here, but I think this is an aspect of the climate change debate that we have not acknowledged enough and it is something that we as a nation—and particularly we politicians, because we do a lot more flying than the average person—need to think about a lot more. I guess that the people who are making these investments will factor in whether there will be higher costs from carbon trading and those sorts of things down the track. If they still think they will be able to make a good return, that is their business decision to make.
To return to the specific topic before the chair, there is no doubt that the sale of Qantas is a matter of significance to the Australian community. There is also no doubt that it is not significant because it is something people want to chat about over the barbecue but because it impacts on a range of industries in a very significant way. It potentially has quite significant implications. Therefore it is totally unsatisfactory to say that we can just leave this up to some secret project for the Treasurer to work out with some of his business mates, behind closed doors, to come down with a solution that we are all supposed to accept and trust. I think that is grossly inadequate. Frankly, I do not think it is even in the government’s political interest to try to keep this a secret. I think they would also benefit from having much more transparency and much more public debate.
In these sorts of debates, and the campaigns surrounding them, there can be a lot of hyperbole and a lot of issues raised that are not directly related to what is being proposed. I think a public Senate inquiry would flush those issues out and would demonstrate which arguments are furphies, irrelevant or exaggerations and would draw things down to the core issues. Without that, we will just get a shouting match in the media and in question time that will cut out the public and which will mean a far less rational debate. We will have that versus the government’s secrecy agenda on the side. Both of those are inadequate. The ideal approach that is right here before the chamber and that, in normal circumstances—if we did not have a government-controlled chamber—would be adopted without controversy is now at risk of falling over unless there are at least some coalition senators who are willing to act in the national interest.
It is yet another example of what happens when a government gets control of the Senate. I have no doubt at all that there are a number of people on the coalition benches who would strongly support having this inquiry. If the government did not have a majority here, I would also be very surprised if they did not just support this on the voices without even opposing it. But, because they have the chance to stop it, the chance to try to control the debate, the chance to try to put the process behind closed doors, they are going to take it.
That is not good for democracy. It is certainly not good for the role of the Senate. And I do not think it is good for genuine public debate. It is certainly not helpful in trying to resolve what is an important public policy issue for the Australian people. The Democrats strongly support this proposal for an inquiry. We urge at least some coalition senators to recognise the arguments and to vote in favour of it and let the public have their say.