Both sides of politics have had good sport hurling insults at each other over Qantas this week. The government accuses Labor of populist politics; Labor accuses Coalition figures of being hopelessly inconsistent between their time in opposition and government.

Treasurer Joe Hockey was in quite a pickle given his own previous statements, having to explain his former professed opposition to greater foreign ownership of Qantas. And did he stand by a previous statement that “when companies have majority foreign ownership or majority foreign control then it actually has had an impact on the social responsibility of those companies in Australia”, his opposite number Chris Bowen asked him? “In relation to Qantas, no,” Hockey said, and sat down.

Commendable honesty from Hockey, but it would have been more honest if he’d simply admit that one of the few luxuries of being in opposition is that you can hold any position you like without the responsibility of having to implement it.

Let’s accept that both sides have been guilty of populism and inconsistency in shuffling between government and opposition, let’s acknowledge that hypocrisy is the grease of parliamentary politics, and move on to the substance of the issue: the government has made the right call on Qantas, and moreover made it despite the political risks attaching to it. One of the fatal flaws of the Rudd government was its inability to hold a tough line against corporate rent-seeking; the Abbott government has, not without some inconsistency, demonstrated greater discipline in the face of business pressure.

There is much to criticise about this government, but credit where due: its decisions on the car industry, SPC Ardmona and Qantas are important in breaking the back of an Australian business culture of demanding regulatory or financial assistance from governments.

If only Hockey would extend it to all the other areas of the economy, where sectors like mining, financial services and agriculture get distorting and inefficient assistance from Canberra …

Peter Fray

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