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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Page: 12324


Mr ENTSCH (LeichhardtChief Opposition Whip) (16:21): I will follow on from the earlier comments by the shadow minister for transport and Leader of the Nationals, who again confirmed that it has been established as a fact that the Prime Minister and other Labor ministers were contacted by Qantas and warned about the potential move to ground its fleet. In the lead-up to his decision, Mr Joyce spoke to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, and then to the Minister for Tourism and the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations about the issue. They did absolutely nothing at all. They completely failed to act. Earlier today senior Qantas executive Olivia Wirth confirmed that she had personally spoken to the Prime Minister's chief of staff to let the Prime Minister know that Mr Alan Joyce was available to speak to the PM. In fact, Ms Wirth said Mr Joyce was standing by, ready to talk with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister did nothing in response to those approaches, and Qantas sources have confirmed Mr Joyce waited until five minutes before his decision to ground the fleet to hear from the Prime Minister.

This is a gross failure to act by the Gillard government and this could well have been avoided if they had acted. Instead they chose to sit on their hands and do absolutely nothing. We talk about the huge inconvenience to the thousands of people who have been left stranded in Australia and around the world, but that is nothing compared to the cost to the Australian public and to the Australian economy in general. It has been a huge blow in particular to my area, the Cairns and Port Douglas region. While the shadow tourism minister in his contribution talked about the national impact of the government's inaction on tourism, I would like to keep mine very local.

Nowhere has the government's failure to act been felt more acutely than in Far North Queensland, in particular Cairns and Port Douglas, which rely on tourism as their main economic driver. Operators have been hit by a perfect storm of economic blows over the past couple of years. We have endured the global financial crisis; we have been hit by the high Australian dollar; we have had the nation's highest unemployment rate. The tourism industry was forced to stand by and watch the impact of the New Zealand earthquake and the Japanese tsunami, both key inbound markets for Cairns. We then had the floods in south-east Queensland and Cyclone Yasi. While these two natural disasters did not directly impact on the Cairns-Port Douglas region, they sent a message across Australia and the world that Cairns was closed for business, even though the industry was unaffected and ready to greet visitors with open arms. This had a huge impact on businesses in the area, in spite of many representations and pleas to this government for assistance under category D for the extension of natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements. It fell on deaf ears. There was zero support for any business affected by these events in our region. We have seen over 400 of our small businesses fail in the last two years.

You could see that many of our businesses were certainly feeling the pinch and the Qantas debacle was the last thing we needed. For two days no international or domestic flights from Qantas were in the air. Quite frankly, it is almost the last straw for many of our small businesses. I received an insight into this disaster, this government's handling of the Qantas debacle, through one small business in Cairns. I had to change my Qantas flight to a Virgin flight and I was taken to the airport on Saturday by hire car. In passing I have to say well done to John Borghetti and his team for accommodating so many passengers affected over the weekend. The driver, who was also the hire company's owner, told me had already had eight cancellations. I was picked up at about 10.30 in the morning. He said he could possibly survive if the Qantas grounding lasted only one or two days, but if it was any longer than that—a week or two weeks—he said he could not keep going, particularly after two disastrous years. He also said he had accumulated $60,000 in debts that other companies owed him, resulting from the impacts of Yasi. It shows you the serious problems the industry has.

The trouble faced by that hire company is replicated right across the entire region. This is the type of small business that the Gillard government does not understand and, quite frankly, does not care about. The government does not comprehend how seriously tough it is for small businesses in a regional area such as Cairns and Port Douglas. Through this series of setbacks and body blows to the tourism industry, the Gillard government has done absolutely nothing. It has failed to act; it has sat on its hands; it has done nothing to help businesses going to the wall over the past two years. The Qantas debacle is but the latest example of this. There has been no coordinated approach or support for the tourism industry in Far North Queensland, because the Gillard government just does not comprehend the value of tourism to regions such as Far North Queensland. It does not understand and it just does not care. Businesses big and small in Far North Queensland are in absolute despair. They cannot keep going much longer, when they are constantly hit by forces outside their control. They cannot keep going without some sort of sustained, coordinated assistance.

The government could have taken action under section 431 of the Fair Work Act. We are told that failure to do so was a result of uncertainty in relation to that clause because it had never been tested. That clause was written by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister went ahead with section 424, which had never been tested either. Really, there is no excuse. Travellers and businesses had to endure 48 hours of chaos, which this government could have averted. It is very shameful. I sit here and listen to the other side constantly attacking us for supporting a business that is absolutely vital. I have not heard any comment from over there about the tactics that have been used by the unions in bringing us to this situation. This is something that the Prime Minister could have picked up the phone and talked to Qantas about on Saturday; she could have picked up the phone and talked to Qantas about this—and I am sure she was speaking to the unions—six months ago. She could have done it three months ago. She certainly could have done it last week, and she was given more than ample opportunity to do it on Saturday. She chose not to do it.

Again, this government have shown that they have absolutely no idea about what is required in relation to dealing with any sort of crisis. Let us have a look at it. Let us talk about the boats that keep arriving, the pink batts or the BER. The Labor Party knew there were risks but of course they failed to act. This is a very unfortunate problem that we have. All of these disasters that we see, one after the other, after the other, form a list far too lengthy to repeat at this point in time. I suggest that their successes could be measured on the back of a postage stamp.

Many people were sitting in airline terminals around the country and around the world because the Prime Minister was sitting on her hands. And there were many businesses up in my region sitting there holding their breath waiting for another disaster to fall upon them that was a direct consequence of the inaction and the total lack of understanding and caring of this terrible, disastrous Gillard government. (Time expired)