BILLS;Qantas Sale Amendment Bill 2014;Second Reading – 17 Jul 2014

In the interests of those in the Senate and those people listening and those who might have sensitive ears, I will not torture them with singing the first part of my speech, but I am sure that all Australians know the tune for these words:

I’ve been to cities that never close down, from New York to Rio and old London town.

But no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.

Senator Di Natale interjecting

Senator BILYK: No, sorry, Senator Di Natale, I will not sing in public. Qantas may have used Peter Allen’s classic song in their commercial, but whether they truly still call Australia home is going to depend a lot on how this bill is handled in the Senate. Labor supports keeping Qantas Australian. An Australian carrier is important for local jobs, for local skills, for Australia’s security and for regional Australia. But, unfortunately, this government has found a new export market—Australian jobs.

It is typical of this government and their small-minded, small-govern approach—their Tea Party approach thinking—to take the attitude that the best solution to any economic problem is the free market. They think there is no role for government in the economy other than to get out of the way and let the market do its job. This is exactly the kind of attitude they had when they opposed Labor’s economic stimulus plan in 2009, and we all know what the economists have had to say about that decision. If those opposite had had their way, Australia would have lost 250,000 jobs in that period. Now those on the other side are up to their old tricks again—sending Australian jobs overseas under the pretence of saving jobs, because they do not realise their warped free-market ideology is doing the exact opposite.

The issue of Qantas jobs is one of particular importance to my home state of Tasmania, as nearly 300 Qantas workers are employed at the Qantas contact centre in Hobart. It is also of particular interest to me because in a previous life, before being elected to parliament, I worked for the Australian Services Union, the union that represents the inside workforce at airlines, so the Qantas employees and the previous Ansett employees. We all know I was very involved in the Ansett campaign when that airline went under. We lost hundreds of jobs there and I am afraid that it now looks like we will lose more hundreds of jobs out of Australia.

The Australian Services Union has coverage of inside workers, particularly those in call centres and the clerical staff in the airports. Qantas recently campaigned to close down the call centres in Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart. The ASU’s Victorian and Tasmanian Authorities and Services Branch contacted me earlier this year to convey their concerns about the future of those jobs, particularly in Hobart, but obviously other state branches also had concerns for their branches and the jobs there. Qantas had decided to undertake a review of its telephone sales operations in Australia and originally would not rule out closing down any or all of the three contact centres based in Hobart, Brisbane and Melbourne. So I was very pleased, after a great and strong campaign by the Australian Services Union, to receive the news that at least the Hobart contact centre would remain ope

It was unfortunate that the workers in the Queensland Qantas call centres were to lose their jobs. I have voiced concern and sympathy for those workers in this place previously. But I would like to say, ‘Good on the Australian Services Union Victorian and Tasmanian Authorities and Services Branch, especially Igor Grattan and Kath Ryman, the Qantas delegates and the workers overall for having that strong campaign and such a successful campaign.’ I hope they can find the same sort of strength that they had then now to help maintain their jobs.

What is really at the root of the problem is the attitude of management and the high salaries that management have been able to pay themselves over the past few years while really trying to work on privatising Qantas. Senator Sterle spoke earlier about some of those costs. He mention $600,000 for chairing the committee. It’s not bad work if you can get it! I am just surprised that you can get paid that much money when your campaign is to actually privatise the company. That is another argument. I believe it has been a campaign by Qantas management for a long time to try to get rid of Qantas, but I do think that this government has been particularly manipulated into helping them achieve that goal.

As I said, I do hope that all jobs can remain at Qantas. I do not necessarily think that that will be the case, but I hope that it can be. But if this bill passes the Senate in its current form then I believe that certainly the jobs of my constituents will be under threat and the jobs of all Qantas workers throughout Australia. They will have a very uncertain future. That is unacceptable. I believe this because the bill we are now debating removes important protections ensuring that Qantas remains an Australian airline which is substantially based in Australia.

We can see that what the Abbott government’s bill will do is cede ownership and control of Qantas to foreign interests. It would send Qantas maintenance, catering and administration jobs overseas and it would send Qantas headquarters offshore. It would mean that the Qantas Australians have grown to know and love for 94 years may no longer be called ‘Qantas’ anymore. It is amazing, isn’t it, the difference that an election can make to changing the attitude of the Liberal and National parties—and it is amazing how short their memories are when it comes to the positions they used to take compared with the positions they take now.

In December 2009 Labor released an aviation white paper which was the result of a process of consultation with the transport and tourism industries. At the end of that process our white paper recommended that Qantas should remain majority Australian ownership but that the 35 per cent and 25 per cent rules should be repealed. These are the rules which relate to the level of ownership of Qantas by foreign airlines and a single foreign person, respectively. The then shadow minister, now Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Truss, said at that time:

The Government’s decision to allow a single foreign investor to own 49 per cent of Qantas would deliver effective control to a foreign investor, including possibly a competitor airline. Loss of effective Australian control could leave Australia without an airline primarily committed to our interests. What safeguards will be put in place for the Australian flying public, particularly those in regional areas?

Isn’t it interesting how such a modest proposal to amend the Qantas Sale Act elicited such concern from the now Deputy Prime Minister about regional services but I have not heard a peep out of him about what the current bill will do to regional services. Then there was the shadow Treasurer, now the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, who said at the time:

Qantas has, over the years, tried to increase foreign investment in the airline. We have been very concerned for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Qantas is an Australian icon and Qantas undertakes significant tasks in the national interest and there have been numerous examples where Qantas—an Australian-owned airline and an airline that relies heavily on government regulation—has undertaken tasks in the national interest. Our experience has been that when companies have majority foreign ownership or majority foreign control—not necessarily the same thing—but when they have majority foreign control, then it actually has an impact on the social responsibilities of those companies here in Australia.

I think that is a pretty succinct argument for retaining an Australian owned airline from the then shadow Treasurer and now Treasurer in response to what I believe, once again, was a modest proposal from Labor in government.

But where are these concerns from Mr Hockey today when his government is looking at the removal of the wholesale provision of the act? Coming from the position they had in 2009 to the bill that is now before the Senate today has been an absolutely astounding act of acrobatics. This is not just a backflip. We have seen a few backflips on that side. This is not just a backflip; it is a triple backwards somersault with a pike! If maintaining the Qantas Sale Act protections was the government’s position five years ago then the obvious question for the coalition is: what has changed in the past five years? We have yet to hear any really coherent answer to that question. So blinded are the government by their ambition to pass this bill they seem to have lost sight of what Qantas actually wanted.

In the interests of time, because other senators want to speak, I have been asked to cut my speech short today. But I do want to just say that we need to retain Qantas as a national carrier. The workers need to be able to put their hands on their hearts and say, ‘No matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.’