Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020


COVID-19: Aviation

5:51 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I want to talk about the thousands of jobs at risk in the aviation industry and the Morrison government's lack of action to save them. When the JobKeeper wage subsidy was announced, the Treasurer, Mr Frydenberg, said: 'Australians know that their government has their back'. Well, if only that were true. On 1 May, with the stroke of a pen, the Morrison government denied JobKeeper payment to companies operating in Australia but wholly owned by a foreign government. This cruel decision has led to 5,500 workers from the airline services company dnata losing access to JobKeeper coverage overnight. The 4,000 dnata workers stood down to date had little warning that they would soon be joining the unemployment queue, and dnata management had to deliver to those workers the awful news that the government had changed the rules, after workers had previously been assured that they were covered by JobKeeper. One dnata employee, Natasha, whose story was highlighted by the Transport Workers' Union, said her family had to eat the tinned and packet foods left over in the house, because otherwise they couldn't afford her son's medical supplies. I remind those opposite that these people are Australian workers. They have no control over who the company they work for is owned by. They've paid taxes in Australia, most of them throughout their whole working lives, and they deserve to be supported by their government.

Another company that the Morrison government has abandoned is the airline Virgin Australia. Virgin's 16,000 workers face an uncertain future after the airline was placed into voluntary administration and the government ruled out any further support. It's hypocritical of the government not to save Virgin when they've signed off on $100 million in cash grants exclusively for regional airlines, including the majority foreign-owned Regional Express. Despite not being a regional airline, Virgin Australia services a large number of regional destinations. It's not just the jobs of Virgin employees at risk. The company also supports many contractors and regional economies. But the potential damage if Virgin is allowed to collapse goes even further: it threatens to end competition in the air travel industry. If Virgin Australia collapses, Qantas will have a virtual monopoly, which will drive up the price of airfares. For another entrant to start up in Virgin's place and return genuine competition to the air travel market, it will take years of approvals, procuring aircraft, recruiting staff and establishing services.

This collapse would have a devastating impact on regional economies, particularly in my home state of Tasmania. As an island state, higher airfares will present a huge barrier to visiting Tasmania once the COVID-19 crisis passes. At stake is our entire $3 billion tourism industry, an industry which contributes 10 per cent of our gross state product. Our tourism industry has already taken a massive blow from the pandemic; if Virgin Australia collapses, it may take decades to recover. We're talking here about an industry which supports around 42,000 Tasmanian people, direct and indirect; that's one in six Tasmanian workers. The efforts of both state and federal governments to support Tasmanian tourism operators and their workers throughout the crisis will be wasted if we can't ensure continued airline competition.

Another consequence of the loss of airline competition will be the additional cost to Tasmanians travelling interstate and overseas. Many of these Tasmanians would already be suffering financially from the impact of COVID-19 and it would be a cruel blow if they are prevented from going on holiday or visiting friends and family they have spent months apart from because they cannot afford the airfare.

The government could save Virgin by extending or guaranteeing a line of credit or taking an equity stake in the airline. Any equity the government injects into the airline could be sold once the crisis has passed. I'd like to thank all those who have campaigned for the air travel industry—those who have signed petitions and sent messages to the Morrison government calling on them to stand up for Virgin and dnata workers. In particular, I think the Transport Workers Union and the Australian Services Union for their tireless efforts in lobbying the government to develop a national plan for aviation. They've been on the front line of the campaign and continue to stand up for thousands of workers and their families. I hope this advocacy will not fall on deaf ears. The Morrison government cannot stand by idly while thousands of aviation industry workers join the unemployment queues and airline competition collapses. They must act immediately and save the jobs of Virgin and dnata workers.