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Tuesday, 6 June 1989
Page: 3439

Senator SHORT(4.06) —The matter which the Opposition has brought to the Senate for debate today is a matter of real urgency, namely:

The need for the Government to ensure the future of Qantas and Australian Airlines by their sale to the public, as suggested by the Minister for Transport and Communications and supported by the Prime Minister.

On Sunday the Minister for Transport and Communications, Mr Willis, was reported-I repeat it for the Senate's benefit-as saying:

The ALP would have to face the stark choice of either finding the funds for the airlines, at the expense of other priorities such as welfare, or privatisation.

Mr Willis expressed the personal view that the privatisation route was the correct one and that both airlines should be sold 100 per cent to the public. It is an approach, I stress at the outset, with which the Opposition fully agrees. Amazingly we have in this debate today an amendment moved by Senator Evans on behalf of the Government which absolutely shoots down everything that Mr Willis, the responsible Minister, supported by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) said on Sunday. The amendment that has been moved by the Government does not ensure the future of Qantas Airways Ltd and Australian Airlines by their sale to the public. Indeed it deletes all reference to the sale of either airline. It talks instead about the continued viability and the question of ensuring their capacity to fund forthcoming fleet expansion.

In other words, out of the motion of the Opposition has been expunged entirely by the proposed amendment by the Government any reference at all to the fundamental issues that Mr Willis addressed when he raised and put back on the political agenda on Sunday the question of the privatisation of the airlines. Rarely would we have seen in any government such a major retreat and such an abandonment of the responsible Minister and, by implication, the Prime Minister of the day, such as in the pusillanimous amendment that has been moved today. Today the Government has come up with an amendment. I might say that it has been moved by Senator Evans who was the predecessor Minister for Transport and Communications to Mr Willis. In December 1987 when Senator Gareth Evans was the Minister he said:

. . . the choice between finding extra cash for public enterprises and spending on health, welfare and other social areas was a real one.

`There is a real choice,' he said.

`It's not a rhetorical device on my part to say we face hard choices between what we spend our scarce budgetary dollar on . . .

That was the whole implication of what Senator Evans said when he was the Minister. But he got rolled by the Left and the trade union movement as has so often happened with this Government. He got rolled for saying precisely the same things and expressing the same sentiments as has Mr Willis. What has he done today? He has had the hide to come into this chamber and move an amendment which negates everything that he ever said as the Minister, which negates everything that the current Minister said two days ago and which negates the support that Mr Willis received from the Prime Minister two days ago and yesterday from three of the other senior Ministers of the Government, namely, Senator Button, Senator Walsh and Senator Gareth Evans.

Senator Boswell —What a cop-out.

Senator SHORT —I have never seen a bigger cop-out than this. The Government has tried to move an amendment which will enable it to skate through its fundamental divisions as a party. Once again, we have seen a major sop to the left wing of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Senator Childs will like the amendment all right as will Senator Bolkus, Mr Hand, Mr West and Mr Howe. But what are Mr Willis, Senator Evans, Senator Walsh and Senator Button going to say? They have been stranded like whales on a beach with this amendment. Even the Prime Minister has been stranded, unless he has not already started backing away from his support for Mr Willis on Sunday. From reports in today's paper it looks as though he could be doing that.

This is a matter of urgency for several reasons. The intrinsic, economic and public policy merits of, and the need for, the privatisation of both Qantas and Australian Airlines nowadays are fully recognised in the community and by the senior economic portfolio Ministers of this Government. I say to Senator Macklin, in response to the rhetorical question he posed, that that debate has been and gone and like the troglodyte Left of the Labor Party the Australian Democrats have been left trailing in the wake of it because he has never opened his mind to see what the advantages of privatisation will be and what enormous costs to the community and the use of resources that large scale public enterprise brings. The Australian Democrats, along with the troglodyte Left of the Labor Party, have been left by years in the public and community debate and perception of this whole issue. That debate is over and it is about time that Senator Macklin and his Party woke up to that fact. The longer he does not wake up to it, the better from my point of view. He is going to go at the next election anyway; this will make sure that he goes even more dramatically.

Mr Willis and his predecessor, Senator Evans, are both firmly on the public record as advocating the sale of both airlines to the public as the only means of ensuring that they will have access to the capital injections required to enable them to maintain an increase in funds and, therefore, be competitive in a highly competitive marketplace. That applies particularly to Qantas which has to compete with all the other international airlines of the world. The airlines themselves have urged the Government over a long period to privatise them for the very same reasons as those that have been advanced by Mr Willis and, before him, Senator Evans. They have been endorsed by the Prime Minister, the Treasurer (Mr Keating), and the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh), and, on occasions, by Senator Button. But despite the overwhelming reasons in favour of privatisation of the airlines and the strong support of the Government's most senior Ministers, the Government has refused to act. Why? Because the trade union movement, which is the real determinant of what this Government does, has vetoed such an action. It was the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Simon Crean-not the Prime Minister, the Treasurer or the responsible Ministers-who announced the decision on privatisation after the debate at last year's ALP National Conference. Mr Crean announced, `Privatisation is dead'. He told the Government, `Your policy plans aren't acceptable to us. Your policy is dead'. The Government lay down before Simon Crean and said, `Okay, Simon, if that is what you say, then that is what will be done'. What a way to run a country. Who is running this country? Certainly it is not the Government.

It is not only the trade union movement which is frustrating the ability of the Hawke Government to govern. On privatisation the Cabinet itself-Senator Bolkus is the only Minister in the chamber, but he knows this very well; he is part of the division-is bitterly divided on the issue. Since Ralph Willis put the privatisation of Qantas and Australian Airlines back on the political agenda last weekend, at the behest of the organ-grinder, the Prime Minister, he has been assailed publicly by at least two of his senior ministerial colleagues. Stewart West was reported as saying last Sunday, straight after Mr Willis spoke, that he did not think a sell-off was warranted and he did not think that the Left would think that it was warranted. Another influential left wing member, Mr Hand, claimed that there was overwhelming evidence from Labor Party members rejecting Mr Willis's privatisation arguments. The convener of the socialist Left, Senator Childs-it is a pity that he is not in this debate today-said--

Senator Boswell —They gave him leave.

Senator SHORT —Yes, they would not let him near it. He said that members of the parliamentary Left and the unions would fight any privatisation proposals. The Victorian socialist Left member, John Saunderson, dismissed Mr Willis's statement by describing him as doing a `Rambo Ralph'. I have never really thought of Ralph as a Rambo, but obviously the socialist Left does. Even worse for Rambo Ralph, the administrative committee of the Victorian branch of the ALP only last Friday unanimously endorsed its traditional anti-privatisation policy. It is significant that that administrative committee in Victoria is cross-factional. Less than three months ago, the Minister for Social Security, Brian Howe, told the seminar in Canberra:

I don't think privatisation has any support within the Labor Party.

Yesterday, one day after his ostensible support, the Prime Minister appears to be starting to back off as well. So it is quite obvious that Mr Willis has a major task ahead of him if he is to succeed in having the ALP change its stance on privatisation. The Prime Minister was brutally and unceremoniously dumped on the issue at the ALP National Conference only 12 months ago. He had argued hard for privatisation at that time. He lost badly. His Party repudiated him and in many respects I believe that he has never recovered from that defeat at the Hobart conference. Not that Mr Hawke was always a supporter of privatisation. We do not have to go back all that far to find him vehemently opposed to it. Honourable senators should remember, for example, how he campaigned on a scare campaign of privatisation during the 1985 South Australian election. On 21 November 1985 in this Parliament, he stated:

As anyone who thinks about the issue of privatisation knows . . . it would mean higher prices, higher costs, higher taxes and higher fares . . . It is quite clear that in South Australia, as in Australia as a whole, privatisation would be an expensive and disastrous experiment.

He went on the same anti-privatisation binge earlier in 1985. At the time of the Nunawading by-election, he had this to say about privatisation:

. . . is a one-off fire sale, a sale of the century, of your assets-the assets of the people of Australia. They would transfer them into the hands of a privileged few, to the cost of every one of us.

Other Ministers made comments at that time in similar vein. They reflected the traditional Labor Party archaic approach-an approach really of the early twentieth century to public ownership. Senator Collins knows that as well as I do. It is that early twentieth century approach towards public ownership that is still very deeply embodied in the platform of the Labor Party despite the concerted efforts of the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers to have it altered at the 1988 National Conference. Indeed, the ALP's determination to stick with its early twentieth century approach to public ownership was strengthened by that conference. I will read from the platform that was produced following that conference. Under the heading `Public Sector', it is stated:

Labor is committed to the maintenance of the Australian public sector. We totally reject conservative proposals of privatisation of public enterprises and services which would lead to-

. . . .

weakening the sense of national and public identity associated with bodies such as the ABC, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank;

. . . .

Labor is committed to the provision of essential community services, including communications, health, education and transport, through the public sector, and will strongly resist efforts to privatise such services.

Indeed, the conference moved a resolution, which states:

a recognises that a fundamental tenet of the labour movement is a total commitment to full ownership and control of enterprises in the public sector.

b acknowledges that Qantas and Australian Airlines are likely to require substantial capital injections in the near future, in order to maintain their viability and market share.

In taking those two clauses together, the National Conference was saying, `Yes, we will pour a lot of money into Qantas and Australian Airlines but we will still have them 100 per cent publicly owned'. That is the essence of this whole debate. The senior Ministers responsible have said that that is just not possible. Therefore, I say to all members of the Hawke Government: there is an urgent need for them to support Mr Willis-and the Prime Minister, if he is still of the same mind-on the proposal to sell Qantas and Australian Airlines to the public. That is the only way to ensure the future of both airlines.

This debate is about more than just the future of the two airlines; it is also about whether the Government has at last managed to pluck up the resolve to take the hard decisions necessary to enable Australia to make its way in a competitive world and to start reversing the slide into which the Government's incompetence, ineptitude and lack of resolve have plunged it over the past six years.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Giles) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.