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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 3081

Senator STERLE (Western Australia) (11:05): I rise to contribute to the Qantas Sale Amendment (Still Call Australia Home) Bill 2011. But, firstly, I want to acknowledge the hard work and commitment from Senator Xenophon. I also want to acknowledge my fellow RAT committee member and friend Senator Gallacher—for those who do not know what RAT is, it is the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee. We saw a few cameo appearances on the way, including from Senator Edwards, who was at each and every hearing, and from Senator Ludlam, who made a very good contribution early in the piece.

Before I go further, I really need to clarify one very, very important issue. The beauty of being able to contribute to Senate debates and to parliamentary debates is that our second-reading contributions can be far-reaching, as they involve every topic that may be around on the day. Senator Edwards made a statement that desperately needs to be corrected. Senator Edwards, dutifully reading from the notes from the shadow minister for transport's office—Mr Truss, I think—actually had a little crack at us because the modus operandi of the opposition seems to be, 'We have to turn everything around to the carbon tax.' I heard a contribution that had nothing to do with the bill—and that is fine. Senator Edwards chastised the Gillard government for increasing the passenger movement charges by some 17 per cent—which is correct. The reasons for these passenger movement charges are many. As you would know Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall, with your vast experience in the aviation industry, they cover things like airport security, biosecurity and the like. We also know after that very tragic incident at Sydney airport in 2009 or 2010, when the bikies were warring each other, we should put taxpayer funds into increasing not only biosecurity but also aviation security.

But it is rather hypocritical for someone on the other side to make this an issue when back in 2001, with the support of the Labor opposition, the then minister—I believe it was Warren Truss but if I am mistaken I will correct that—raised the PMC charges by some 26 per cent. I am led to believe that back in 2001 we had some very serious issues with foot and mouth disease. If the opposition wants to have a go at us for putting Australia's aviation security and biosecurity security at the forefront of protecting our great country then I suggest that, rather than suffering from foot and mouth disease, Senator Edwards, through no fault of his own but with the help of Mr Truss, has just suffered foot in mouth.

Moving to the bill: as I said, it was referred to the Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee. We held three public meetings, the first here in Canberra on 4 November 2011. The only unfortunate part of that was it was very hard to get into the nuts and bolts of the bill, because, as we would be well aware, the previous week saw the unprecedented decision to shut down our national carrier. Quite rightly, senators were not only aghast but also quite cranky. The majority of the committee directed questioning around the reasons for not only jeopardising the travel plans of some 80,000 passengers—not only in Australia but also throughout the world—but also causing the immense damage it did to our economy. The committee asked how we could ever have got to the stage where one person—that is what Mr Joyce is—could make the decision to ground the national carrier?

We also took evidence in that inquiry of aircraft not only being grounded once they had landed but also actually being pushed off. The evidence is in Hansard, in the public arena, from one of the pilots through the Australian and International Pilots Association, that the aircraft was boarded, the doors had been shut, and the push-off, I think they call it, was made from the airbridge at Los Angeles airport. I believe the aircraft was an A380. It was pushed back some 10, 15 or 20 metres and then the call came through, 'Bring it back; put it back on the airbridge.' There was absolutely no explanation to the crew, no explanation to the passengers on the plane: 'There you go, tough, we're grounding it.' All because, I am led to believe, at some stage pilots had the audacity to wear red ties. If I can bring down an airline with this red tie then I will go down in folklore. The pilots also made some announcements saying, 'If you're going to fly, can you please support Australian pilots on Qantas aeroplanes.' I still shake my head.

On 24 November there were also some 13 submissions, which were well read by the committee. Then we had Qantas come back on 6 February to endeavour to clear up a few concerns that we had. As I said, the assistance that I received from my fellow committee members was very much appreciated. There were a number of recommendations that came from that inquiry. One related to the Qantas Sale Act—I think it was recommendation No. 4 or 5—and it encouraged the government to look into it a bit deeper. Maybe we might have to strengthen the Qantas Sale Act so that Senator Xenophon's fears are not realised.

The bill would require Qantas, its subsidiaries and any associated entities to have their principal operations centre located in Australia. It requires the majority of heavy maintenance and flight operations conducted by Qantas, its subsidiaries and any associated entities to be undertaken in Australia. In addition, it requires that the Qantas board includes directors with flight operations experience and aircraft engineering experience and enables shareholders to seek injunctions to enforce certain provisions in Qantas's articles of association—that is, its constitution—that are mandated by the Qantas Sale Act 1992.

While we talk about that, it must be made very clear that the government does not support this bill. As I said, the Senate Standing Committee on Rural Affairs and Transport examined it. We did that thoroughly. I will say, as a fellow who has been threatened with law suits by Qantas on a number of occasions in the good old days when I was a TWU organiser—let us get that on the record—that I love Qantas; make no mistake. I love the red-tailed kangaroo on the back of that aeroplane. As Senator Xenophon or Senator Madigan said, there is nothing more heart warming, when you are overseas and in an airport lounge, than seeing all of a sudden that white kangaroo on a red tail go by. It really does make you feel that you are nearly home.

I am fully supportive of Qantas as a company. It employs just under 38,000 employees. I also want to let you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that for years I was part of enterprise bargaining negotiations with Qantas under a previous regime, under a previous board. Qantas at the time was a very decent employer. Qantas, at the time that I was a union organiser and threatened with suits by Qantas for misdemeanours that I still say I am innocent of, was at the end of the day a group of decent people who wanted the best for their employees. They wanted the best for their shareholders and they wanted the best for their country. Lots has been said over the last year about the way things have been happening, but I just want to touch on some other misnomers that need to be corrected for the record, not only in relation to the threat to bring down an airline because the pilots wore red ties. There are a lot of innuendo and a lot of accusations swirling around about members of the Transport Workers Union—yes, I am a member of the Transport Workers Union, and am very proud to say they have not thrown me out yet; nor will they, I hope! There were some 200 meetings to renegotiate the enterprise bargaining agreement. In case you did not quite hear that: there were 200 meetings. I am told very clearly—and I was kept informed all the way through—that, in those 200 meetings, Qantas did not want to talk.

There is some mischievous media out there, but we all know that you do not believe everything you read. If you actually believed everything you read you would think there were greedy ground-handlers, which Senator Gallacher, who is in the chamber, used to be; not greedy, but a ground-handler. He knows the industry backwards; better than I or these greedy baggage-handlers or these greedy catering staff who wanted only to send the airline broke by demanding ridiculous pay rises. No-one gave a fat rat's backside about the point that baggage-handlers and catering staff work around a 24-hour shift cycle. They do not have the luxury of the majority of Australian employees, who can have a good night's sleep, get up in the morning, go to work and do their eight or 10 hours or whatever it may be; they have rotating shifts. I remember walking into Qantas flight catering back in 1997. It had 260 employees. I could not believe it was the norm to accept that your shift for the week might be two afternoons and three nights, then you would have a weekend off and come back and do five nights. I am sure Senator Gallacher would be able not only to quantify that but talk about it in a lot more depth.

So these are not radical maddies who want to bring down an airline. In fact, when you walk into Qantas, whether it be in baggage handling, the freight centre or the catering centre, you get this strange feeling that they are family, that they do not see Qantas as a rogue employer. It is their family and if you dare speak ill of Qantas, don't they give it back to you! So it was incredible to sit watch the nonsense that some carried on with, that the TWU were going to bring the airline down. They were not asking for massive pay rises. The quantum when I was organising—when Senator Gallacher was the National President of the TWU, and the hardworking South Australian Branch Secretary—was normally around three per cent a year. That was about it; there were a couple of times where it might have been five per cent. But these negotiations were actually what I said they were: negotiations. No-one had a gun to anyone's head. They were negotiated in good faith, ratified by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and signed off, and everyone got on with the job.

So, on 200 occasions, all the TWU wanted, on behalf of their members—and they made this very clear—was job security. Before I get howled down by the captains of free enterprise over there, I see absolutely nothing wrong with a worker in Australia wanting job security and wanting job security not only for themselves but for the next generation of Australians. What is wrong with that? As long as their employer is buoyant and is making money, there is nothing wrong with that. As any decent parent in Australia would, we should put foremost in our minds job security not only for us to be able to provide for our children but so our kids can get a damn job too. They should be able to get a good paying job. They should not have to fight for the ridiculous, disgraceful rates of pay, such as those in China, that I hear thrown around the country as those we have to compete with. I do not want to compete with China. I do not want my kids to compete with China. I want my kids to be employed under Australian wages and conditions, and I am quite prepared to fight till my last breath on that. So when I hear the nonsense that 'Mr Joyce and the board of Qantas had to act, and had to act straight away because the TWU were damaging our major brand', I think, 'You want to talk about damaging a major brand?'

I look through the members of the board of Qantas, and I see there some interesting people who have wide-ranging life skills and business skills. There are probably some very decent human beings who would be fantastic employers. Then there are a few other characters who—well, I do not have the ability to say much about them, but I do have to raise certain questions. I look at the chairman and independent non-executive director, Mr Leigh Clifford AO. I do not know Mr Leigh Clifford from a bar of soap. What I do know is that Mr Leigh Clifford was appointed to the Qantas board in August 2007 and chairman of Qantas in November 2007. Fantastic. I also see there are a couple of other board members who have been around for a little while: General Peter Cosgrove, the darling of the Howard era. Okay, he was probably a fantastic soldier, but he has been on the board only since 2005. What experience he has in aviation, I don't know and it is not for me to say. But another one, Patricia Cross, has been an independent non-executive director since January 2004. I flick through and I come to Dr John Schubert, from October 2000—he is no newbie; he's been around a while and seen a bit of it. And of course there is Mr James Strong. He has been back on the board since July 2006 but let us not forget that Mr Strong, as Senator Gallacher would remember, was the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Qantas between 1993 and 2001. If I remember rightly, at the time we were negotiating enterprise bargaining agreements with Qantas, Senator Gallacher, he was the boss and it was all signed off; no-one was forced, dragged in kicking and screaming with baseball bats held over their heads. That is great—tremendous.

Now I want to go back to when Mr Clifford was appointed the chairman of the board. Bear in mind that the unions are supposedly going to destroy this great icon, this great business, and that it employees are out to knock it off. I will give Mr Clifford the benefit of the doubt. I do not know whether he was employed on 1 November 2007, when the shares opened at $6 and they closed at $6.05. I do not know whether he was appointed on 30 November 2007, when the shares opened at $5.75 and closed at $5.85. What I do know, though, very clearly, is that while the board of Qantas is trashing its own employees and bemoaning how they would risk the airline and how they just want to kill the Qantas brand, I can confirm, and I want to share with the Senate, that the opening share for Qantas on 8 May, which, correct me if I am wrong, was the day before yesterday. I should know; it was my dear mum's birthday: Happy Birthday Mum! Oops-a-daisy, I will cop it when I get home!

On 8 May, the opening share price for Qantas, the Spirit of Australia, under Mr Lee Clifford's chairmanship was $1.55. And under the astute leadership of Mr Leigh Clifford AO, the shares closed at $1.53.

Before I get screamed at from those opposite, there is absolutely no argument that there are numerous global challenges for Qantas. I fully and wholly understand that as much as anyone in this building. When you are a global business you are subjected to global challenges. I also know the volatility of rising fuel costs. I also remember back in 2000 laughing to myself and thinking: '$1 a litre fuel? It is never going to happen.' I know: I get it.

But it is very disconcerting to see what happened at the Qantas AGM, just 24 hours before the board of Qantas, that great Australian company, the Spirit of Australia, made one of the greatest decisions to have jeopardised the travelling public and a national icon. I was at the AGM, proudly representing Qantas workers and proudly in the company of the national secretary of the TWU, Mr Tony Sheldon. At the meeting I witnessed the reappointment of some of the people I have named here. Not only did they get another term but also another pay rise. And good luck to them. I have no problem with pay rises as I have spent my working life fighting for them. I also spent my working life—sadly not a lot of it—putting my hand out and taking pay rises for myself. But I was there when the board, in its wisdom, 24 hours before grounding our national carrier, proudly announced a 71 per cent increase for their CEO, Mr Joyce. I did not make that up. I thought to myself, 'Nice gig if you can get it. I would love a 71 per cent pay rise.' I do not give a fat rat's backside if any employer gets a pay rise. If the board deemed that Mr Joyce was worth a 71 per cent increase, that is fair enough—no problem. But what I do struggle with is when a CEO of a company gets a 71 per cent pay rise and condemns his employees for wanting a three per cent pay rise. If Mr Joyce had said, 'I cannot take a 71 per cent pay rise because I am bagging the living daylights out of my employees,' that would make him a greater Australian. So, we just need to get balance. I support pay rises, I support Qantas, but we do not support the bill.