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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 31009

Mr JULL (4:10 PM) —I should preface my remarks today by saying that, prior to entering this place, I was an employee of Ansett Transport Industries for a little over 10 years. It was certainly a different Ansett in those days. It was the days of the Sir Reginald Ansett family, and I did not work in the airline; I worked with one of the allied companies. It is true that many of the workers of Ansett who now find themselves in this extraordinary situation were part of that old Ansett family, and I know quite a number of them who have been there more than the 26 years since I left. Certainly my heart goes out to them and to all the employees of Ansett who have found themselves in a situation which should never have evolved.

I think it is worth while going over some of the history of how this incredible situation has come about and comparing the actions of previous governments with what has been claimed in this MPI today. If you go back some 20 years when there was a move by TNT and News Ltd to take over Ansett, we saw new people at the helm. While Sir Reginald Ansett was still chairman of the company, the managing director was Sir Peter Abeles—and he set the airline on a new course. I remember somebody making a comment, at the time of Sir Reginald's death some 12 months later, that what he had seen in the last 12 months was probably enough to break his heart. We saw a buying spree, and all of a sudden Ansett went from basically a two-aircraft type operator to one that was operating 14 and 16 different types. We saw investment in a number of innovations that added so much to the cost of operating that particular airline. That went on, and a lot of people welcomed it, because there were new standards of service for Australians. That service was, of course, always spearheaded by the staff of Ansett.

We went through the period of deregulation, and notice was given of deregulation. I say quite categorically that I was one of those who promoted the concept of deregulation of the airlines, as early as 1976 or 1977—just after my election. But Ansett realised then that their costs were very high and they had to make a difference. They made a difference. They took on the pilots and we had the pilots dispute, which was the worst industrial incident that we have ever had in Australia. The dispute went for more than eight months and it sent literally hundreds of Australian companies to the wall. It was interesting, because it was necessary at that time to try to keep the air links open. And we saw, quite contrary to the then government's political philosophy, the importation of aircraft from overseas, on a wet lease basis with non-union pilots, to fly the airways of Australia. The RAAF was brought in to provide relief, and what tremendous relief they provided. The AFAP—for which I have not terribly much regard because I think they played the whole process quite stupidly—eventually collapsed and went to the wall.

That was just the start, because it was made known around the airline industry that the pilots were only the beginning and that there had to be this attack on the then general conditions of airline employment if they were going to be able to compete against any upstarts and newcomers that might come into the aviation business. The reality was that Ansett were not game to take on any more of the unions, because they knew that another strike would finish them there and then. And this has been the problem ever since. In actual fact, the cost of operating Ansett is about a third more than the cost of operating Qantas.

We saw that period when TNT sold out to Air New Zealand. We saw News Ltd making sure that they got the costs down as fast and as hard as they could and making sure that they got the profits up so that they could sell it. Then we saw the amazing situation of Air New Zealand coming in and paying probably $300-plus million more than the airline was worth. We saw a further struggle, with the advent of more low cost carriers coming into Australia. Consequently, we saw the airline going to pieces. We saw the grounding of the 767s last December and the regrounding of the 767s over Easter, and the writing was on the wall that Ansett was going to be in big trouble.

What really upsets me is the fact that the administrators cannot find out what has gone on. They cannot find out where the money is. It is quite interesting to look at some of the reports of the last couple of days. PricewaterhouseCoopers have estimated that the amount of money that will be required to pay all the employees in the Ansett group up to date is in excess of $700 million—and that is huge. We have to remember that those 16,000 staff at Ansett are very highly qualified people. We are not talking small money. We are talking about salaries of $150,000 and beyond for pilots. We are talking about senior cabin attendants receiving salaries of $60,000 or $65,000 per year. We are talking about some big income people, and the money is adding up.

The one thing that has not come out in this debate is that the government has pledged to pursue Air New Zealand for this money. This arrangement is temporary, and the government will do all it can to get the money out of that Ansett-Air New Zealand arrangement. There have also been other moves by this government to ensure that those entitlements come back. ASIC has already got this whole operation under investigation, and you can bet that the fine toothcomb of ASIC is going to try to work out exactly what happened and who was responsible. It is going to be a very interesting exercise indeed to try to land this responsibility.

Our opening speaker today, the member for Brisbane, made the point that what Ansett people want is jobs, and that is true. What they need more than anything else at the moment is to be able to get the food on the table. Everybody in this parliament, and particularly in this government, has to make the effort and do all they can to get those planes flying again. But when you have a company that has no books, when an administrator cannot even find out how much the company owes or is owed and cannot find any records of the staff arrangements to try to work out what the exact entitlements are, it is incredibly difficult to expect to have those aircraft flying in a few days, despite all the technicalities of it.

That is why I think the particular package that the government has come up with is very generous, and it is there as an interim. While there will be a $10 ticket tax applied to help pay for this, at the end of the day they are going to go Air New Zealand to get their entitlements. To give the union its due, it is going Air New Zealand regarding a letter of comfort that was given to Ansett by Air New Zealand on, I think, 8 September this year saying that the money was there and it was all going to be all right. Ninety-three per cent of the Ansett staff are going to receive their full entitlement under this arrangement. I would think that possibly that other seven per cent would be some of those who would be in the higher income levels or those who have had longer periods of employment with Ansett. The government, just as soon as the administrators can get through this unholy mess, is going to make sure that that money is paid as fast as possible. But I repeat: what is more important is to try to get those aircraft flying again and to get as many Ansett staff as we possibly can back into the air and back behind the computer reservation systems to ensure that they do have long-term employment, because the ramifications of this particular collapse are absolutely terrible.

When you look back at the history of Ansett, the history of that pilots strike and when you look back at the time when companies were collapsing all over Australia, you find that no compensation was given—but $800 million was paid out to the airlines to keep them flying at the time. When you look at the collapse of Compass, you see that no comfort was given. When the late Brian Gray approached the previous government, he was sent away—nothing was given. For the first time, compensation has come from this government—from a Liberal government. Compensation has never, ever come from a Labor government, and that is an even greater disgrace than some of the accusations that have been made against this particular government.

I believe this MPI is a fraud. The stance of the opposition is a political fraud. All I can say is: good luck to the government; keep going and get Ansett flying again. (Time expired)

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The discussion is now concluded.