Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2007


Economics Committee; Reference

6:02 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move the motion as amended, in the terms circulated in the chamber:

That the Senate notes that Qantas:
plays a unique role in the Australian economy and in Australian society;
provides an essential service to regional Australia and is a major employer; and
is the backbone of the Australian tourism industry.
That the following matters be referred to the Economics Committee for inquiry and report by 20 March 2007:
the proposed takeover of Qantas by the consortium Airline Partners Australia, including:
the impact on air services to regional Australia and the tourism industry,
the implications for Qantas’ 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,
the potential taxation implications,
the level of debt Qantas will be asked to carry, and
the implications for air safety;
conditions that the Government should require for a sale;
the need to improve and clarify the regulatory environment covering commercial arrangements which affect the national interest to allay community concerns and provide investment certainty; and
any other related matters.

I want to speak very briefly to the terms of reference for the inquiry, the parameters of the inquiry and the reasons for it. Last year, the national government was considering selling its shares in the great Snowy Hydro scheme but backed out in the face of community and legal concerns at the time. Now, the nation and this parliament are considering the sale of Qantas—the flying kangaroo. This time it is an $11.1 billion buy-out by a consortium, Airline Partners Australia, from the private equity sector, and it is backed in large part by foreign money, as you will know. Tens of thousands of Australians work for Qantas—in fact, 38,000. Just about every Australian, all but a very small handful these days, has flown with Qantas. For all people in regional Australia, Qantas provides an important link to the rest of the country.

Our parliament has a responsibility to thoroughly investigate the terms of the takeover and to be satisfied that it is indeed in the national interest. The way to thoroughly investigate that is to have a Senate inquiry so that all players can come before that inquiry. That would include members of the public, the business sector, people in the airline industry, the staff of Qantas, of course the unions and the tourism industry—all players. They would have the opportunity to come before the Senate and put a point of view.

The Greens have several concerns about the sale and we are indeed opposed to it as it stands. These concerns are reflected in the terms of reference. A Senate inquiry would allow all of these matters to be aired and discussed in public—certainly in a much more public manner than the Foreign Investment Review Board investigation which APA has now subjected itself to. That investigation is essentially a secret inquiry. What I am proposing is an open, public inquiry. I do not think the two should be held one after the other. They should be held together because time is running out. If the Foreign Investment Review Board decision is positive and the Treasurer endorses that, there will be a very small amount of time potentially before this Qantas takeover takes effect. APA, the consortium bidding for Qantas, was not required to submit its takeover to the Foreign Investment Review Board, but, as I said, it did so. We are concerned that air services to regional Australia could be under threat and that regional services may require protection in the form of conditions put upon the sale. The competition concerns surrounding Macquarie Bank being a major partner in APA and the owner of Sydney airport need to be thoroughly analysed and investigated.

And then there is the worrying track record of the potential owners—specifically, the US giant Texas Pacific Group. A word on that: this is a Texas based private investment firm with an interesting track record. In 2004, Texas Pacific attempted to buy Portland General Electric, the state of Oregon’s largest power company. Oregon’s law required that any utility sale resulted in a net benefit to customers. Texas Pacific assured people that no specific jobs were threatened, it was no slash-and-burn corporate takeover and they had no plans to sell it off in the near future. They would support the idea of keeping it in local hands.

Despite these reassurances, Texas Pacific refused to reveal the details of its plans to the public but released the plans to several of the parties that would decide on the deal. The details were leaked and, according to Oregon paper the Willamette Week, they revealed that Texas Pacific’s plans for Portland GE directly contradicted their public statements. The documents showed that Texas Pacific planned wholesale lay-offs and dramatic cuts in maintenance to increase earnings. And the planned exit strategy made it highly unlikely that they were not going to act in that fashion.

So we do need an inquiry. We need to know what the plans really are. I do not think we are going to be able to take the word of APA. And, anyway, it is not giving any assurance about employees or employee conditions. That is, to me, a direct public assurance, if you like, that there will be lay-offs at Qantas, and that there will be changes and the loss of the rights and the terms and conditions of current Qantas workers.

So we have a Foreign Investment Review Board investigation—fine. Let that go ahead. Whatever government or financial agency investigates Texas Pacific or APA, it is not going to be a public investigation and on the public record. Let APA come before senators so that the obvious questions can be put to them. Let Macquarie Bank do the same. And, indeed, let us have the board of Qantas before a Senate inquiry so that publicly they can explain the ramifications of this sale and what safeguards there are for Australia, for domestic travel, for international travel, for tourism, for air safety, for the 38,000 employees and a host of other matters that will no doubt arise in the short life of this inquiry.

Let me say again to people who may be concerned in here—and I am hoping that, in particular, the National Party will support this inquiry; I have read that they will do so—that this is an inquiry that is extremely important for rural and regional Australia. But let me also say this: to hold off until after the Foreign Investment Review Board has made a decision and then the Treasurer makes a decision is to give the Senate inadequate time to really feed into the process of the public knowing about the fate of Qantas.

It is our responsibility to act on this now, to move expeditiously, to have the inquiry rapidly put into place, to have the information put before the public so that the public—not least those 38,000 employees of Qantas—can have a say in the fate of this great iconic Australian company, this flag-bearer for Australia right around the world. I commend this inquiry to the Senate and I certainly hope that we will see a vote to allow it to come into being later in the proceedings tonight.

6:10 pm

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

From Labor’s point of view, Qantas is a crucial economic asset as well as a national icon. So we do believe that these financial arrangements, this takeover, warrant extremely close scrutiny. The best way to do this is, without a doubt, through the tried-and-true regulatory processes of the Foreign Investment Review Board and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and we do welcome scrutiny of the Qantas deal by these bodies.

That process should create an opportunity for those who would acquire Qantas to give adequate assurances to, and satisfy the concerns of, Qantas’s staff and the Australian flying public. But we believe that we should look at the principles upon which we should consider this motion in these terms: if a Senate inquiry helps to scrutinise the deal and assist the regulatory process, then we will support it.

Since Airline Partners Australia have notified the Foreign Investment Review Board and supplied it with details of its bid for Qantas, I can see no reason why they would not be prepared to be open and transparent with a Senate inquiry. A Senate inquiry would give Airline Partners and Qantas the opportunity to make their case convincingly and, in this case, in a public forum. It is noteworthy that the Airline Partners bid for Qantas includes commitments to: remain Australia’s national flag carrier, with no intention to break up the airline; continue to employ and train thousands of Australians, with no intention to change Qantas’s existing strategy of continuing maintenance operations in Australia and creating globally competitive maintenance operations; continue its commitment to regional Australia, with no intention to reduce regional services; continue to operate under the same laws and regulations that apply today, including those restricting foreign ownership; continue to provide practical assistance to Australians in times of emergency; and retain Qantas’s highly recognised and regarded brand and logo. If we can rely on all of that, the buyers should probably have nothing to fear and everything to gain by opening the bid to scrutiny and demonstrating to the Australian people that they are serious about their commitments.

There is a matter which, I must say, gnaws at me. I have had occasion to look at matters such as the Qantas Sale Act and the processes that apply in relation to the operations of Qantas, and I had a look at the Qantas press releases about the creation of Jetstar international. Qantas were announcing that that was their new low-cost international operation. There was a problem with that, and the problem was that the Qantas Sale Act and their own memorandum of association, as I understand it, require that any international operations of Qantas be conducted under the Qantas brand. But this is an operation that is operating as Jetstar international.

How is that done without breaking the act? I am not a legal expert, but probably because Qantas have made arrangements with two citizens of another country to have them own 51 per cent, with Qantas to provide all of the aircraft, services and staff, as I understand it, for Jetstar international. What that tells me is that we need to be particularly cautious about legal arrangements that are in place and commitments that are given, and to understand them fully.

I think the Australian public would like to be assured that, if commitments are given, they are watertight commitments. I think they would like the Senate to look at arrangements which are put in place and make a judgement as to whether they can be circumvented, perhaps in the way that Qantas has found to be able to get out of the obligation to operate Jetstar international as a Qantas brand. That probably is being done for good commercial reasons but, without that arrangement as to ownership, it would breach the Qantas Sale Act. The intent of the Qantas Sale Act was that Qantas operating internationally would be the national flag carrier—it would have that kangaroo on the tail and it would retain that very distinctly Australian flavour.

Having said that, we were of the view—and we are very pleased that Senator Brown has agreed to amend his motion—that this matter pertained more to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics than to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, which I might say performs very well. Qantas is a key part of our national economic infrastructure and therefore the appropriate forum for the inquiry is the Senate economics committee. We believe that, in relation to the regulatory environment in which this takeover is occurring, this inquiry could help to clarify the regulation of takeovers and foreign acquisitions and to improve public confidence in the regulatory process. For those reasons, the opposition will be supporting this proposed reference. It certainly is not one that could do any harm and it has the potential to do a great deal of good.

6:17 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

6:23 pm

Photo of Ian CampbellIan Campbell (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

6:31 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

6:45 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be very brief because I want this to come to a vote and we have just five minutes left. Isn’t it remarkable that not one National Party senator contributed to this debate? In fact, there are none in the chamber. The Minister for Human Services, Senator Ian Campbell, came in and dismissed this motion to refer the matter, the sell-off of Qantas, to the Senate economics committee with the words: ‘It’s populist and a waste of time.’ Has there ever been a better example of the arrogance of the Howard government, now that it has control of both houses of this parliament, than it using this Senate as a rubber stamp to block a short, sharp and public inquiry into the sale of a national icon, with 38,000 employees’ futures at stake, air safety at stake, the tourism industry at stake, regional air services at stake and, internationally, Qantas’s great name as an Australian talisman at stake as well?

What do we have? We have a consortium called Airline Partners Australia, based essentially in Texas, with a record that very much needs to be put under public scrutiny, about to take over this company. There are many people in the Australian community—I saw one poll showing that 80 per cent of Australians are against it—indicating that they do not want this to happen. Why not? Because this company wants to turn Qantas, with its marvellous record, into a milking cow. They will rough it up. They will cut it back. They will make millions out of it. And the government says: ‘Well, the public can be as concerned as they like about it—the Australian people can be worried about this and the 38,000 employees can be worried about this—but we’ll block an inquiry which doesn’t have the power to alter things.’ It is an inquiry that would not have the power to alter things but that would at least give us transparency into this company: who they are, who’s behind it, who’s going to make money. Macquarie Bank is going to make $100 million simply from its job in the middle. And the government says, ‘We’ll keep that all under the carpet.’

It is an affront to the Senate and it is an affront to the people of Australia that the government is going to vote down an inquiry—not a decision-making process but an information-taking process. The government has put the blinkers on and has shut the public out. What a rotten way to treat the people of Australia, Qantas and Qantas’s 38,000 employees. This government has lost touch with the people of Australia. It will come to rue the day that it took this attitude. ‘A waste of time,’ says the minister. What an affront to the people of Australia, who are concerned and who want information about the potential sale of Qantas.

I have moved this motion as amended and put it to the Senate so that those members opposite can show to what extent they are going to allow the Australian public and the good offices of this Senate to be sold out here tonight.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.