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Thursday, 20 September 2001
Page: 31149

Mr CREAN (3:31 PM) —The Ansett collapse is a national crisis and all government members can do is laugh about it. This is a circumstance in which a grounded airline—

Government members interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The Deputy Leader of the Opposition is entitled to be heard in silence.

Mr CREAN —It is the government's inaction that has grounded the airline. It is the government's inaction that has cost thousands of jobs around this country. It is not just the 16,000 workers that work directly for Ansett; it is those with the associated companies—up to 70,000 of them. The Treasurer seemed genuinely nonplussed, when we asked questions about 70,000 jobs, as to whether or not that was the magnitude. How out of touch is it: a government asleep at the wheel and then it does not even know the consequences of the crash. But that is this government: ineptitude, inaction, a grounded airline, and a country in crisis as a result of it because it is impacting on jobs and on regions. There are thousands of them in the tourism sector; not just the 70,000 directly impacted on by the direct relationships with Ansett but the thousands of businesses that rely upon Ansett getting people to holiday destinations or to their relatives or to work. This has happened under this government's watch.

What we want are solutions to get the planes back in the air, not excuses; and we want jobs, not redundancies. We want a strategy to get the planes flying again. That is why Labor has been calling for a roundtable of all the parties. The fact of the matter is that the administrator has been working very hard with the creditors. What we really need is to access those options by which the planes can be put in the air. That is a role that a government should play: a facilitative role, a preparedness to roll up the sleeves, to get involved and try and get a solution. Not this government. We have seen the ineptitude of two ministers over the last couple of days: the Prime Minister, we now understand, has taken control of this issue. It is now being run from his office, and he has called on the services of Mr David Crawford to help him. But we are told that Mr Crawford's role is effectively shadow liquidator—not looking for a solution except to liquidate the company. This is a government that gives up before it even tries. It is a government asleep at the wheel. They crash, they stare at the consequences and still they do not try for a solution. What this country needs is competent governance, and it is not getting it from the Howard government.

We have seen the ineptitude in the past week of the two ministers directly responsible for the handling of this dispute. The Minister for Transport and Regional Services was warned back in June—as far as we can ascertain it and have proved it on the record—that this was the crisis facing Ansett Airlines, yet he did nothing. There was the letter from Air New Zealand on 14 August to the minister which said:

The Group will not be able to repay loans without major disruption to the businesses. The situation is likely to be played out not over months but over the three weeks leading up to 4 September.

You cannot get it any clearer than that. That is written from the acting chairman of Air New Zealand to our Deputy Prime Minister and minister for transport on 14 August, saying that, if action is not taken, part of the group will go under. Yet not only did the government do nothing, we had the Deputy Prime Minister on the record in September saying that no information had come to him suggesting there was going to be a crisis. That was the letter of 14 August, and you would have thought they would have got the wake-up call by then—but no. They also had advice back on 27 June—as we have now established by way of question time in this parliament—when representatives of Ansett met with the Prime Minister and the minister for transport. They presented a document to the Prime Minister which showed that Ansett was in deep strife, that Ansett was losing $A18 million a week primarily due to lower revenue, which was 26 per cent below that of the prior year. That was the presentation that Ansett made to the government on 27 June. We understand a copy of this documentation was left with the minister. Yet in this parliament he denied ever having received it.

But the plot thickens because the Prime Minister helpfully submitted to us the document that the government relied upon—also a one-page summary. This is what the Prime Minister tabled in the parliament when we asked him what his state of knowledge was about Ansett back on 27 June. The document that he tabled was about Ansett, but do you know who prepared it? Qantas, the rival airline. The rival airline was advising the government. This government was following the Qantas brief, not the national brief.

We now know, in terms of the fuller brief that Qantas had, that they had a specific section in their submission to the government that said, `Ansett will not fail.' They were urging the government to adopt the Qantas option, the option which Singapore Airlines said it could not sustain. Singapore Airlines, we know, was the only other airline capable of injecting the capital into both Air New Zealand and Ansett that the minister and the Prime Minister say was the salvation of the airline. The very competitor, the very alternative, Singapore Airlines, was saying, `Proceed with the Qantas option and we will pull out,' and yet the government persisted. As a result, we have ended up with a one-airline policy in this country—effectively a monopoly by Qantas. The Qantas option has entrenched Qantas as an airline but it has put Ansett out of business. This government went down that path knowingly and without question and now we have the consequences we are looking at today.

This is a minister that failed to heed the warning signals—not the first minister, I might add. It is interesting that we have the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation sitting at the table. I presume he is going to talk in this debate, not the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and not the Minister for Sport and Tourism—but who would put her up after her performance? The Minister for Financial Services and Regulation also got the warning about the HIH collapse. This was the minister that knew in November about the HIH problems, and did nothing. As a consequence, we have had the biggest corporate collapses in the history of this country: HIH and Ansett.

The minister laughs at the two biggest corporate collapses in history that happened under their watch. What a disgrace! You do not deserve to hold office, Minister, because you do not show any interest in the workers, the policyholders or the regions being impacted upon by this disgraceful episode. Yesterday we saw the bumbling ineptitude of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services at the dispatch box. He could not even ad-lib a question that was written in front of him. When we were reading his answer out for him, he did not know anything other than stick to the script. When he was embarrassed in that situation, he sat down. He ran up the white flag, just as the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Health and Aged Care have run up the white flag in this government because they are not interested.

We saw the greatest performance of the lot yesterday with Minister Kelly, the tourism minister. Even her own people were attacking her yesterday for the stupid statement that the consequences for the tourism industry were a mere blip. She also had the gall to suggest that the solution was to bring in foreign aircraft and foreign crews. Slapped down she was by the Prime Minister when we asked him about it, but not before. The Prime Minister had not come out with any statement before we questioned him in parliament about it. The big issue that needs to be raised is this: when the Prime Minister answered that point he told us that he had spoken to Qantas the night before and he had said to them that they should not proceed down the path of getting foreign aircraft and foreign crews. Why then did the chief executive of Qantas go on radio the very next morning, ignore what the Prime Minister had said to him, and propose the solution. The reason? The Prime Minister thought that if this had got a favourable position they would have copped it. `Run up the flag,' the Prime Minister said. `I do not want to be part of it, but you run up the flag and let us see how it goes.' It got condemned, as it should have been, by everyone but the Minister for Sport and Tourism. The problem for this government is that they were looking for a foreign solution when they should have been looking for an Australian solution to get the Ansett aircraft back in the air.

Then we have got the tax. It is not enough to slug this industry in terms of loss of access to the airline routes and jobs, but then hit them with another tax. This from the government that said it would never, ever introduce any new taxes.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—I remind the member for Prospect that she has been warned!

Mr CREAN —It has put one on in the tourism industry. Let us just understand this: the Minister for Sport and Tourism was not even in the cabinet when the decision was taken. The week before she had promised the tourism industry that there would be no tax imposed upon them. Go and ask them; that is what she told them. So she is not only ineffectual; she is incompetent as well.

This is not the only collapse that is causing crisis and hardship to Australian families in terms of people being out of work. There is the HIH situation; there is the OneTel circumstance; there is Harris Scarfe; there is a litany of these companies that have gone under under this government's watch. They want to sit there and tell people how well our economy is going compared to the rest of the world. I will tell you how well it is going. It is going so well that its growth rate has been cut by two-thirds since it introduced its GST. This is a government that says that our economy is growing faster than anywhere else in the world—that is what the Treasurer says— but, if you actually go to the world growth forecast for 2002, Australia is ninth, and for last year we were 24th.

This is no mean feat. A year before the GST was introduced, the year in the lead-up to the introduction of the GST, this economy was growing at 4.2 per cent. In the last year since the GST was introduced, it has grown at 1.4 per cent. You cannot create jobs without economic growth. This was a government which, ahead of the world economic downturn, introduced a tax reform which slugged the Australian economy. That is why we are having these corporate collapses. That is why jobs are disappearing. That is why full-time jobs are being shown up in terms of significant reductions in the employment figures. The minister looks quizzical. He should look at the figures. Since the GST came in, there are 80,000 fewer full-time jobs. That is right; go and check the figures. He doesn't know. Does that surprise us? No.

Let us also understand what costs jobs— inflation does. The CPI has risen six per cent under the GST compared to 2.4 per cent in the previous year. The government talks about its great achievement in terms of the current account. What about foreign debt? It is now $311 billion, almost double what it was when this government came to office. Remember the debt truck? Remember when they campaigned in 1996 and said, `We're going to eliminate the debt truck'? They have eliminated it all right. They have parked it down an underground basement, closed it up and thrown the key away because it has turned into a semitrailer. That's your foreign debt achievement. Then you talk about family debt. Household debt is up 80 per cent, with Australians owing more than they earn, and with the interest burden at a decade high. All this under your watch, and you crow about how good the economy is. If the economy is going so well, how come people are being thrown out of jobs? How come they are in bigger household debt? How come the inflation rate is high? How come we have mugged the economic growth of the nation so that it has choked off job opportunities? You have been asleep at the wheel and the nation has suffered. (Time expired)