Tomorrow’s Senate Inquiry into proposed legislation to force Qantas to Still Call Australia Home has already done two things.
- Set up a fierce debate about the current management of Qantas and its off shore strategies to avoid the costs and obligations of being the Australian carrier envisaged in the Qantas Sale Act of 1992, and
- Set up the proposed bill (unless rewritten) to go down in flames.
However, as a curtain raiser, tomorrow’s scheduled appearance by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce presents an opportunity for committee members to ask some very hard questions about his deliberate inflicting of immense harm on over 100,000 customers to force Fair Work Australia to shut down the legitimate industrial action by the airlines’ long haul pilots, licensed engineers and ground staff which the tribunal had approved.
The problems with the proposed legislation are another matter. The Qantas (Still Calls Australia home) bill contains what might be termed ‘utopian’ if noble aspirations that are undeliverable in the real world, even though there are alternative ways of achieving some of the objectives, such as simply banning the rotation of fatigued Asia based flight attendants through Jetstar domestic flights, something denied by the airline despite documentary confirmation in a number of TV current affairs programs in recent months.
The scope of the proposed bill, and the real, everyday problems it raises, are not readily crammed into 300 word stories or audio/visual bites. To understand them, the submissions actually have to be read and considered. It takes around six hours. Before they are read again while you write lots of marginal notes. The submissions are available here.
The preeamble to the submission by the Australian and International Pilots Association says:
It is critical to this Inquiry that there is a widespread public and political recognition that AIPA is highly motivated to see Qantas succeed in a business sense so that we, directly, and more broadly the rest of Australia, benefit from that success.
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However, AIPA, in combination with what we believe to be the majority of the Australian public, is committed to see the success of this great Australian business occur with the minimum leakage of contributions to the Australian public purse, employment opportunities, skills development, national infrastructure and national reach in time of emergency.
There has been a spate of recent announcements about Qantas shifting its ‘centre of gravity’ to Asia. Qantas has linked the abandonment of major routes to Europe and the subsequent fleet and employment reductions to the need to free up capital to create Asian businesses. AIPA believes that the intention of the so-called ‘national interest’ protections in Part 3 of the Qantas Sale Act 1992 (‘QSA 92’) was to prevent exactly this sort of ‘refurbishment’ of a classic Australian icon.
The choice for Parliament is a simple: you must choose to take positive action to reassert the public expectation of a strong national flag carrier in Qantas or to look the other way while a high risk strategy with our national icon is played out in the business ‘bone yard’ of Asia. There will not be another chance to get this right.
However the submissions by the Department of Transport, CASA, and Virgin Australia actually tear apart the way the bill’s provision would work more lucidly than the predictable opposition of the Qantas response, which seems confused as to whether it is a marketing pitch or serious argument and is signed by its public relations personality, Olivia Wirth, which signals to the committee members how important Qantas really thinks they are.
In brief form (you have to read the documents yourself) the proposals being considered by the committee would involve Australian intervention in regulatory affairs of other countries, shutting down low cost air travel within Australia, negotiating the physical intervention of CASA in the safe regulation of aviation in other countries, which is a novel thought considering it struggles to discharge is obligations within Australia, and totally distorting the commercial operating environment of Qantas to make it possible to do things its management has clearly lost interest in doing anyhow.
How, or whether, the inquiry can come up with better ways of keeping Qantas honest about being Australian, and insisting that all Australian carriers adhere to equitable labor laws and maintain rather than degrade safety and maintenance standards is a real concern.
The proposed bill, as most submissions point out one way or the other, is riddled with the risks of unintended consequences, with one this long term observer would add, which is that it might accelerate the complete abolition of the Qantas Sale Act.
Recognising that Qantas is currently free to commit suicide by inferior management might also be the only way forward.
Although it doesn’t say so in a single line, it is clear from its actions that this is precisely what Virgin Australia is hoping for.