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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Page: 12317

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the House and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (15:46): What an extraordinary position put by the Leader of the Nationals. In 15 minutes there was not a single word of criticism of Qantas management for the unilateral decision by their board to lock out their workforce and ground the airline.

Mrs Griggs interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): The member for Solomon will change places with the Chief Opposition Whip if she wants to continue to interject.

Mr ALBANESE: There was not a single word of sympathy for the 68,000 Australians who were inconvenienced by the Qantas unilateral decision. The fact is this: there are in industrial disputes often two sides—employers and employees. They bargain between each other and have discussions in order to settle their industrial agreements. Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, said this about his view of industrial relations:

… parties to an industrial dispute should make their own arrangements … without any government involvement.

That has been the position of those opposite. That was the position with regard to Work Choices, where they changed the balance totally in favour of employers from a system where you had a fair balance in the workplace between employers and employees—and we have seen it all on display here.

After 2 pm on Saturday, Qantas notified the government of their decision to lock out their workforce on Monday night from 8 pm and to ground their fleet, national and international, from 5 pm. The consequences of that for this iconic Australian company were severe. The fact that it was done on the weekend leading up to the Melbourne Cup Carnival and the fact that it was done while CHOGM was taking place in Perth add to the damage to the company's reputation as a result of this unilateral decision. When I spoke to Mr Joyce on Saturday afternoon after 2 pm, I asked him if there was anything the government could do. His position was very clear: he argued that the board had made a decision on Saturday morning and he was simply informing the government of that position.

At no stage prior to Saturday afternoon had Mr Joyce or anyone else from Qantas raised the prospect of a lockout of their workforce. At no stage had anyone from the opposition or the government or anyone else, in the millions of words that have been written and spoken about these issues, raised the simple idea that Qantas would take what in the words of Mr Joyce was the 'unbelievable decision' to lock out its workforce and shut down its entire domestic and international operation. Yet these clowns opposite would suggest that it was a government decision to do that. It was very clearly a decision by Qantas, yet those opposite are incapable of uttering a syllable of criticism of this extraordinary position. Imagine what those opposite would say if the pilots had rung up and announced that they were unilaterally from 5 pm refusing to fly aircraft and shut it down! This was an extraordinary position. People had been boarded on planes and were taxiing to the ends of runways. Planes were recalled and people offloaded.

This is not Rio Tinto—this is not a company which has relationships with businesses at the top end of town or internationally. This is a service industry that relies upon its workforce and the relationship with its workforce to deliver good, positive service on the ground. You do not get met by Alan Joyce when you book in to a Qantas flight. When you sit on the flight you do not get served by Alan Joyce. The plane is not flown by Alan Joyce. The plane is not fixed and made safe by Alan Joyce. This is a massive miscalculation by the company.

I have been a friend of Qantas and will remain so. This is an iconic Australian brand, but it is an iconic Australian brand which is about not just its executive but also its workforce. The relationship is interdependent: to have a successful Qantas you need the commitment of its workforce. You need sensible outcomes, which is why I went the extra yard and convened meetings in my office between Mr Joyce, Mr Sheldon and me. Real progress was made; with a bit of goodwill there could have been an outcome. Indeed, as a result of those discussions eight days before the announcement of the lockout, the Transport Workers Union cancelled their industrial stoppages last week, and both Qantas and the TWU are on the record in the media in the early part of last week about the prospects of a resolution in the common interest.

Yet we know now from Fair Work Australia that, the day before I had that meeting, Qantas management had received a report about a lockout of its workforce and the safety implications for the airline. On no occasion in the face-to-face meetings, in the phone conversations or in the text messages with other government ministers and me—not once—did anyone from Qantas say, 'By the way, we're thinking of locking out our workforce and shutting down our business.' Quite frankly, that was an extraordinary and reckless decision that has an impact not just on the company but also on the national economy.

When this government was confronted by this unilateral decision by Qantas, we acted. We were told after 2 pm that Mr Joyce would be on his feet from 5 pm to 5.20 pm on Saturday. I was on my feet at 5.45 pm with a comprehensive response including the appeal to Fair Work Australia and the fact that we established a task force in my department as well as the fact that we moved 3,000 extra passengers on Saturday night thanks to Virgin Australia. We acted in a comprehensive fashion. Fair Work Australia went through 16 hours of hearings to come up with a decision, and we got Qantas back in the air.

Let us be very clear about the statements Mr Joyce has made. Mr Joyce cannot say and will not say anywhere that he gave anyone in the government any warning whatsoever about the lockout that led to the grounding of the fleet. What Mr Joyce did say, very publicly, was that aircraft were being grounded due to the engineers' actions, that seven aircraft had been grounded, that if it continued more aircraft would be grounded and that it could reach a point where Qantas would have to take further action. At no stage did Qantas ask for government intervention in this dispute. That is a point that has been confirmed by the Qantas CEO, Mr Joyce. Indeed, Mr Joyce told Senator Evans, the workplace relations minister, that, were the information to go public before the 5 pm announcement, then Qantas would bring it forward and ground the airline immediately. They raised safety questions, and I spoke to CASA about whether there were any safety concerns whatsoever which would justify the grounding of the airline. We had a clear indication from CASA that that was not the case.

All this occurred one day after the Qantas AGM. The Australian Shareholders Association, talking about the matter, said, 'Today the ASA believes that management had the ability to make applications under the Fair Work Act without disrupting customers and damaging the airline's global brand.' That is what shareholders had to say about this decision.

Yet from the opposition—the only people in Australia who are not happy that the planes are back in the air—we have not once heard a word of criticism against Qantas. We have not heard a word said about how it was reckless to elevate a dispute to the level where it hurt the national economy, which is what the Qantas submissions to Fair Work Australia did. Their submissions and their statements were saying that they were taking this action in order to cause damage to the national economy. Yet there was not a single word of criticism from those opposite. Not once has anyone over there said that it was unreasonable for the travelling public to be held as hostages. This was not just a lockout of the workforce; this was a lockout of Qantas's own customers. It is an extraordinary position for a company in the service industry to take.

Perhaps we know why. We know their ideological commitment to Work Choices. We know that the Leader of the Opposition has had all sorts of problems in the past with being straight with people. Indeed, in a speech to the Sydney Institute on 5 June 2007, he had a cracker of a quote which says a lot about his character. He said, 'one man's lie is another's judgment call.' The Leader of the Opposition was asked two questions today. The first was, 'Did anyone from Qantas speak to you or your office prior to Saturday about the possibility of a grounding?' It was followed up with, 'Mr Abbott, the question was whether your office was forewarned of the dispute—can you answer that?

Mr Abbott responded like this: 'Ah, look, my office was in regular contact, ah, with Qantas. Qantas—as anyone in Parliament House would know—ah, have basically been patrolling the corridors of Parliament House for weeks now, alerting people to the seriousness of the dispute. Thanks very much.' Then he ran; he ended the doorstop. Today, have a close look at the transcript of what he said in his personal explanation—have a close look at what he had to say. When was he notified of the specific grounding of the fleet at 5 pm Saturday? That is the question that he responded to; it is not the question he was asked by journalists, and it is not the question that he evaded twice—not once but twice. Of course, the opposition have form when it comes to these issues.

We on this side of the House have a balanced approach to workplace relations. We have criticised unions, and I have criticised unions, when they have stepped out of line, and I will continue to do so. But I will also continue to criticise management when they step out of line. This was a militant action which was totally out of proportion to the debate that was occurring. Indeed, over many months there have been more Jetstar cancellations than there have been Qantas cancellations while this dispute has been going on. (Time expired)