Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 May 2020


COVID-19: Aviation

8:52 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to tell the stories of some of the hundreds of thousands of aviation workers across Australia who have been let down by the Prime Minister and this government. There is no doubt that the shutdown of flights was the right thing to do, a necessary thing to do, to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course no-one disputes it, but it's important to note that a shutdown was not a market failure; it was and continues to be government policy—a policy the government must take responsibility for.

It must also take responsibility for the people affected by the shutdown. Firstly, there are more than 10,000 workers at Virgin Australia and their families right around this nation. It is a company that contributes $30 billion to the Australian economy through many avenues, especially tourism, and workers lie awake through yet another night of broken sleep, rolling over to check their phones to find out the latest on what's happening with their employer. These Australians have a knot in their gut and have to look into the eyes of their partners and their children to again say, 'There is no good news.'

Workers like Matt and Bec live in the Prime Minister's electorate, in the Shire, with their three beautiful girls, Bella, Eva and Sophia—triplets who turned two just last week. I want to wish the girls a very happy birthday. Matt and Bec both flew internationally for Virgin Australia—a sometimes difficult lifestyle but one they made work. With JobKeeper payments set to end, they've had to move in with Bec's parents. Then there's Ellen, who has worked pretty much her whole career in the air. At 18, she started at Rex, before coming over to Virgin. Ellen was on one of the last flights back into the country from Los Angeles. For the safety of those loved ones, she self-quarantined, despite the government ridiculously exempting flight crews from this necessary action. This, however, meant that she missed out on the few Coles and Woolies jobs that were offered to aviation workers early in this lockdown. Now she is unable to find work. For her, it is made worse by the memories of the suffering her parents had endured during the Ansett collapse. Aviation runs in the blood of many families. Both of Ellen's parents worked at Ansett for decades. When the airline collapsed, it devastated her family, like so many others. Her dad moved overseas to continue to chase work and her mum was left to hold the fort back home. The financial struggle and the mental toll that came with the collapse led to her family breaking apart. Ellen's mum remains scarred, just like many others, from the loss of so many friends to suicide. No family should have to watch this history repeat itself.

But the families of the aviation industry have a friend in the federal Labor Party, especially in our Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, who, as Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, released a national aviation white paper whilst he was the minister. This contrasts with the absence of policy from Deputy Prime Minister McCormack. Maybe he should have read it and then he would have had something to base some policies on. I might also suggest to him that, if he hasn't got a copy, I'm more than happy to send one to him so he can read it. That policy paved a path for industry: certainty; maintaining and improving safety and security; and creating jobs right across the country.

Having just a single full-service airline in Australia will mean higher fares for passengers, lower wages for workers, and will cost our tourism industry billions. I call on the federal government to ensure that Virgin emerges from the voluntary administration process a full-service airline that will provide services across the country and into regional Australia. This is why I renew my personal call for the federal government to send a signal to the market by taking an equity stake in Virgin. This would tell the market and the potential new owners that the government supports a strong and viable aviation industry. Without this support, Virgin is likely to be stripped back to its bones. The golden triangle of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, which makes the lion's share of profits, would obviously stay. The regions, however, would suffer greatly—hardworking families like Matt and Bec with their three daughters, and Ellen, and potentially thousands more Virgin workers.

There's also another debacle in aviation at dnata. We have a situation where Australian workers have worked in the Australian aviation industry their whole lives, some of them for Qantas and other catering companies before the government approved the sale to dnata. These workers are now being denied access to the Australian JobKeeper scheme by our government because dnata is owned, ultimately, by the Dubai government. These workers cannot choose who owns their company. Retrospectively excluding the workers of dnata from the JobKeeper scheme is a cruel stroke of the pen that has left some 5,500 workers out of a scheme that was designed specifically to assist workers like them. These workers have no control over who owns the company they work for, but what they do have is Australian passports and a lifetime of work in Australia. They've paid taxes in Australia all their lives and now they are being let down by their own government, which doesn't seem to care.

I want to tell you the story of Natasha Crowden, who emailed my office. She was born and lives in Redcliffe in Queensland and has been paying taxes since she was 16. She has been at Dnata for roughly six years. She has a partner and a two-year-old boy, who just a few days ago underwent a medical procedure. Medical supplies are costing $20 to $30 a day. Natasha has now been without pay for eight weeks. The rent, electricity, water, phone, internet and rego bills have not stopped coming in. Her son had a tin of pineapple and tinned beetroot with ham for dinner again last night. That's how tight money is currently for her. She has no annual leave left, due to taking a year off on maternity leave when her son was born. Her partner works, but his hours have been cut down. She is not eligible for JobKeeper. Because of the government, she has been excluded. She is not eligible for JobKeeper or jobseeker. Some of her colleagues have been caught in a terrible situation. How many of them cancelled their applications when they heard that Dnata was originally entitled to JobKeeper? They were playing by the rules only to have the government move the goalpost on them midgame. Cancelling their applications has cost them time and money they can ill afford. It will now be another four weeks before they can get jobseeker, assuming that they can meet the requirements. Workers like Natasha need the government to step in and help. They need the government to work out a way to help Australian citizens who have been working and paying taxes their entire lives. It wasn't the workers who grounded the planes; it was the government.

I'm calling on this government to change its regulations, grant companies like Dnata access to JobKeeper to support these workers and produce a national aviation plan, without which we'll see no snapback for Matt, Bec, Ellen and Natasha and for many thousands more Australians and their families.