With calls to save Qantas from “Asianisation” outside, and at times angry attacks on management defence of its decisions inside, the Qantas AGM in a University of NSW lecture theatre in Sydney this morning has turned into a sometimes ferocious showdown between shareholder unionists and the executive.

The arguments were still raging as this was published. The national secretary of the TWU Tony Sheldon accused management of lying about the cost advantages of Virgin Australia, pointing out that they paid more for casual labour and used between 6-7 employees to turn around jets compare to 3-4 at Qantas.

His claims led to CEO Alan Joyce agreeing that was true but arguing Virgin had other advantages, while chairman Leigh Clifford objected to being called to task for previously claiming that unionists in Australia had too many rights.

An 85-year-old economic historian, a Mr Tilburn, tore into the board for failing to resolve industrial disputes in a timely manner, saying there were scoundrels on both sides, but that it had to stop waging war on its employees to move forward.

He was preceded by the federal secretary of the licensed engineers union, Steve Purvinas, launching into an attack on Qantas for showering gifts including bottles of Grange, upgrades for family members and iPads on parliamentarians to curry favour.

In a meeting in which the question and answers session was dominated by union members, the assistant national secretary of the ASU Linda White engaged management in a dissection of its claim that not a single Australian job would be lost through its Asian venture to launch a single-aisle premium carrier in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

That discussion lead to Clifford saying he knew of no current moves to mount a private equity bid to take over Qantas and adding that he believed that the failed 2007 bid would have been a disaster had it gone through.

After the initial rounds between the union shareholders and the management table, the rhetoric began to cool with a to and fro discussion between Clifford, Joyce and their antagonists.

Before the arguments between the table and the floor broke out, Joyce made one claim that was completely false, when he said the Airbus A320 NEO jet wouldn’t have happened if Qantas hadn’t taken a leading role.

The jet would have been built without Qantas, because of the need for more than 20,000 such new single-aisle jets in the world by about 2030.

Peter Fray

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