Apr 21, 2020










SUBJECTS: Coronavirus; Virgin Australia; support for Australian aviation industry during COVID-19; aggressive deregulation; loosening of COVID-19 current restrictions on elective surgeries.


MATT THISTLETHWAITE, MEMBER FOR KINGSFORD SMITH: Welcome everyone. I’m Matt Thistlethwaite. I’m the Member for Kingsford Smith. And I’d like to welcome you all to Kingsford Smith Airport and to the electorate of Kingsford Smith. It’s fantastic to have the Labour Leader, Anthony Albanese, here with us today and Tony Burke and Senator Tony Sheldon, as well as representatives from the Transport Workers Union, the Australian Services Union and of course, the wonderfully dedicated and hardworking staff from Virgin Airways that we have with us here today. Sydney Airport, Kingsford Smith Airport, is the economic powerhouse of the electorate that I represent, and Sydney. This is an employment hub. It’s the biggest employer in my electorate. As you can see today it’s on its knees at the moment because of COVID-19. Virgin Airlines is a vitally important part of that economic story for the community that I represent. And for Sydney and wider Australia. It employs thousands of Australians, like these hard-working people behind us here today. And, unfortunately, this morning, these dedicated workers and their families and friends have woken up with the terrible news that Virgin Australia has gone into voluntary administration. They’re worried. They’re concerned about their futures. But they’re asking a vitally important question of the Morrison Government. Why won’t you step in to help? Why won’t you make sure that Virgin Airlines survives and that we have a workable aviation sector here in Australia? We all know that we need competition on domestic routes if tourism is going to get back on its feet here in Australia. The Australian people are asking the Government, if Australian tourism is to thrive, then Virgin Airlines must survive. And I’m very glad that the Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese, is here with us today. Because no-one in the Parliament knows the aviation sector better than Anthony Albanese. He’s been the longest-serving minister in that portfolio. He put together the Aviation White Paper that has been the basis of competition and the Australian domestic airline industry and international airline industry. And I now want to welcome Anthony to say a few words.


ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much, Matt. And I’m not pleased to be here. I would have liked to have been here to get on a plane, not to talk to workers whose jobs are threatened by this current circumstance. But I’m here with Matt, Tony Burke and Tony Sheldon, because Labor is absolutely committed to ensuring there’s a viable two-airline system here in Australia. We regard it as absolutely essential to Australia’s future economy. We rely upon domestic aviation to get around the country, whether it’s for work or for recreation, and Australian jobs depend on it. This is about people. The people behind me. It’s about whether they’re able to put food on the table for their families. It’s about not just the 15,000 people who depend directly on Virgin Australia for their jobs. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of Australians who depend upon tourism for their jobs. It’s about the millions of Australians who depend upon a two-airline system in order to be able to afford to get around this country. The Government says that they want a market-based solution. But it is Government policy, and it’s good policy, to protect Australians’ health, which has shut down this market. There is no market here today. Scott Morrison cares about his job. We’ve seen that with Malcolm Turnbull’s book, the extent to which he was prepared to fight to get the one job that he wanted. What I want is a Prime Minister who fights for every job of every Australian. And that is why the Government should be doing at this point in time. Anyone who’s flown with Virgin Australia knows the pride that their employees feel about their company. They know the pride that they feel about providing services to fellow Australians. And they know that it is an essential industry for an island continent, separated as we are by such vast distances. Right around the world, governments intervene in airlines. Indeed, Virgin Australia’s shareholders, such as Singapore and Etihad and the Chinese airlines HNA, are based upon government support and ownership. That is the standard model around the world. Here in Australia, we’ve developed a very good system with two full-service airlines with budget arms, Tiger and Jetstar, providing affordable service for Australians. Indeed, if you look at real terms, flying in Australia is 20 times more affordable than it was three decades ago. It has made a substantial difference to the way that our economy functions. But, most importantly, it is a reminder that nothing beats face-to-face contact. All of us have been reminded during this period of social isolation how difficult it is for us to give up that face-to-face interaction with each other. Airlines and aviation ensure that we can do that, and the experience that we get, whether it be the baggage handlers, whether it be the people at the check-in desks, whether it be the flight attendants, the pilots, all of these workers who we will hear from today, are proud of their job, and the least they can expect is Government that will defend it. I will ask Tony Burke and Tony Sheldon to make some comments. Then we’ll hear from some workers. And then I’m happy to take questions.


TONY BURKE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS: Thanks, Anthony. We’re standing together with these workers today because we’re standing together with 16,000 workers across Australia. Shoulder to shoulder. A metre and a half apart. And for all of these workers, they’re in an unusual situation right now, because there is a decision waiting in front of the Government as to whether or not their jobs survive. This is not a time for the Government to be complacent. The Government will either be complacent, or 16,000 Australians will keep their jobs. And these are Australians who have the highest level of professionalism, the highest levels of safety, the highest levels of service. Their business is only at risk because of a decision of Government. And it’s a decision of Government that can keep them in work. I should also refer briefly to an announce we’ve made in the last hour about a disallowance motion that we’ll be supporting. Even though the Government has been saying companies should not be taking advantage of the current crisis, last week Christian Porter introduced a new regulation to do exactly that.


ANNOUNCEMENT IN BACKGROUND: Reminder that social distancing measures are now in place. Health authorities advise keeping a safe distance of 1.5m for all passengers at all times. While you may be standing in a queue, or awaiting departure, don’t forget to leave a little space between you and your fellow traveller. 1.5m cannot stop the spread of infection. Thank you for keeping everyone safe.


I’m used to interjections, so that works. The decision that Christian Porter has taken is, instead of a company giving workers seven days’ notice of changes to an agreement, they can just give them 24 hours’ notice. Now, workers at the moment are wanting to be cooperative. There are examples where they’re negotiating with companies to keep them afloat for variations in hours, for variations in pay in some situations. But this is a situation where workers will get no time to check, to get advice from their union, from a consultant, from a lawyer, from other workers. It gets put to you one day, you vote on it the next, and you could have to vote by a show of hands in front of the employer. And the changes that happen aren’t limited to the pandemic. People in this sort of situation can find themselves effectively pressured into agreeing to pay cuts or condition cuts that become permanent. Labor, when Parliament resumes, will be supporting moves to overturn that regulation. This is a time when the Government should be working with the goodwill that is out there in workplaces across Australia, not playing and pandering to some of the worst elements that want to take advantage of people. It’s not a time for complacency. It’s a time to look after people in their jobs.


TONY SHELDON, LABOR SENATOR FOR NSW: I’ll just say this very bluntly, and that is that if Scott Morrison allows this company to bleed out and allow corporate raiders to feed on the carcass of Virgin, then that’s not a national aviation policy. That’s a policy that sees 16,000 families in Australia not being stood up for by the Prime Minister. It’s incredibly important that these families behind us don’t follow the same course that we saw with Ansett and the lack of action there. Like a number of us, we went through the Ansett collapse and saw the devastation to hardworking Australian families, the lives that were lost. That’s not a national aviation policy to follow Ansett. It’s incredibly important that this Government looks at the people standing behind us and the families standing with them to make sure that we have a national aviation policy that protects our tourism industry, protects these Australian workers, and protects an aviation industry through Virgin to make sure that we have the capacity to move out of COVID-19 and this crisis. During the Ansett collapse, 176 days where workers stood side by side to make sure that airline got put back in the air, and that failed. The consequence of that was a 20-year long hiatus before Virgin came back into the aviation industry, to give serious competition to provide regional services and to provide the sort of tourism industry support that our country needs. I’ll just say this on behalf of all the people here, and many Australians. Scott Morrison, the national interest is the people standing behind me. Don’t let this company bleed out, and don’t let the corporate raiders act like vultures and pick the bones of these jobs and these workers’ families. Thank you.


ALBANESE: Thanks, Tony. I’m going to ask Michael Kaine, who is the national secretary of the TWU, to introduce some of the workers directly affected by this.


MICHAEL KAINE, NATIONAL SECRETARY OF THE TRANSPORT WORKERS UNION: Thanks, Anthony. This is a moment in time. This is a moment in time in our country. Scott Morrison and the Government will be on the wrong side of history if they do not step up right now and do what they should have done weeks ago, and that is take an equity stake in Virgin Airlines. This is not a time for politics. This Government has stood above politics when it put in place the JobKeeper package. And we would have liked to have seen it go further. But let’s not belittle that moment in time. It’s not the time now for Scott Morrison and the Government to go into a shell. It’s the time to hold the line, to continue to put aside political tendencies and to support the representatives of 16,000 workers that are behind me. Today, we make an appeal to Scott Morrison. It’s time to sit down with workers and workers’ representatives and figure out the pathway forward for Virgin. It’s time to send a clear market signal that the Government will step up. And take an equity stake in Virgin that will give confidence to the administrator, it will give confidence to the market, it will bring Australia in line with the rest of the world that supports aviation, governments with direct stakes in aviation. That’s what’s required so that this external shock doesn’t occur each and every time, and always workers at the forefront and bearing the brunt. Today, Scott Morrison, we ask you to look into the eyes of these very brave workers who are going to tell their story directly to you and the Australian people. They’re going to ask you, on behalf of the Australian people, to intervene today, and urgently. And first I’d ask Kara to step up.


KARA, VIRGIN AUSTRALIA EMPLOYEE: Virgin Australia has invested so much into thousands of their staff, and myself, both professionally and personally. We need two strong, viable airlines to keep the Australian economy going. For those of you watching today, please take a moment to ask yourself what a monopoly in the Australian skies would look like for you. You, the people that we have the absolute privilege of coming to work every day and serving. Thank you.


KAINE: Thank you, Kara, for those heart-felt words. And now Flynn, please.


FLYNN, VIRGIN AUSTRALIA EMPLOYEE: Like many Australians, we wake up every morning and wait for what our last day might be on Earth, so we as cabin crew of Virgin Australia, live our lives to the top priority, and that is your safety, you as Australians, that trust your safety in us for your travel, whether it be simple, Sydney to Melbourne for some work, or a holiday overseas. Your safety is in our hands and is our top priority. We have worked tirelessly in a seven-week training course and recurrently training every six months to make sure your safety is top priority. We wake up because we love our job. Our job is our life. You have your jobs at home. This is our job. If we don’t have Virgin Australia, we are nothing. I see it as Virgin Australia is something like my other mother. I love it like another mother. It is family to me. Each and every person behind me, and plus another 16,000 more across the
globe. Virgin Australia is our family. Without it, it’s like we are losing a family member. You feel the grief of losing a family member, that’s what we will feel if we lose Virgin Australia.


KAINE: Thanks, Flynn. And now to the hardworking people under the wing, Scott.


SCOTT, VIRGIN AUSTRALIA EMPLOYEE: Mr Morrison, I address this to you. My name is Scott as well. I have been with this company for 16.5 years. I was with another company that Tony Sheldon mentioned before, with Ansett. I have been in this tarmac for 25.5 years. These people behind me, not only my mates, they’re my brothers and sisters. Sir, I could not do your job and I don’t envy you, but please let me do mine. Don’t clip our wings.


KAINE: And now to those that we trust our safety with in Virgin every day. Ken.


KEN, VIRGIN AUSTRALIA EMPLOYEE: Hello. My name is Ken. It’s been a sad time for us all. I didn’t expect to speak today, but I came here to support my colleagues, my teammates, and my friends. It’s been sad that the Federal Government hasn’t been able to provide us with tangible support, and we are all hopeful that this process, this voluntary administration process, will see us through the other side. There’s been precedent for that previously, with companies like Ten News and such. These guys behind me, as well as my colleagues in the cockpit, have been providing Australia with fantastic service, fantastic on-time performance, so many other metrics that we have been beating, other fellows across the road on. And I really hope to see it on the other side. Thanks very much.


KAINE: While that announcement is on, can I just mention the work that’s been done across the union movement. These workers behind us are so brave a whole variety of unions in aviation. The United Service Union, an important one. Thomas, could I call you up while we wait for that to finish?


THOMAS RUSSELL, UNITED SERVICE UNION OFFICIAL: Hi. Scott Morrison said everyone with a job is an essential worker. The country can’t afford to lose these jobs. They support not only, obviously, the 12,000, more than 12,000 direct employees of Virgin, but all the tourism in other states. We remember what happened with Ansett when it collapsed. All the devastation to the workers involved. Their loss of entitlements and waiting for years to get what was owed to them. If the Government can support all the other businesses that they’ve done with their aid packages, they can support Virgin Australia, because we know what the country will look like without competition. An effective monopoly will be terrible for our economy and it will be much more costly for Australians to travel. So, save these Australian jobs. We can’t afford to lose them. Thanks.


ALBANESE: Well, thanks very much for all the workers who have given such heartfelt comments about what this company means for them, and what their jobs mean for their identity, who they are, as well as their capacity to look after their family and their friends. Happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: Why should Australian taxpayers stump up money for a foreign-owned company?


ALBANESE: Well, when you go back a step, the Government’s been prepared to intervene to support Rex. I support that. They have been prepared to intervene. Rex, I have met with their boss in Singapore. And the fact is the Government intervened there. What we’re talking about here is the Australian national interest. If 16,000 people directly lose their jobs, that is 16,000 people who are on the Centrelink queue, not contributing to the national economy as we emerge from this crisis. And the key to coming out of this crisis stronger is to make sure that the structures of our economy remain in place. That’s what JobKeeper is about. Keeping relations between an employer and their employees. And the fact is that this is about the interests of these workers, but also the national interest. The Government says it provided a billion dollars. Let’s get rid of that myth. A complete nonsense. The money was around about $150 million, backdated. The rest of that money was for charges and fees to be waived for things like air traffic control, Air Services Australia fees and charges. The planes aren’t flying. Therefore, there’s no fees to be waived. Four hundred million dollars of that has been given to Air Services Australia. An entity of the Government that has previously provided dividends to the Government in order to help its revenue streams. And paid for, of course, by Virgin Australia, Qantas and the other airlines. So, this is in Australia’s national interest. This should be regarded as an investment that will produce a return, a return in jobs, a return in future economic growth. Because the consequences, particularly, for our regions, if you take out Virgin Australia from regional flying, particularly in a place like Queensland, it will have significant impacts on employment growth in those regional cities. One at a time.


JOURNALIST: How big a risk would it be, though, for taxpayers to put that money into aviation, when we really don’t know how that industry is going to look in the wake of COVID-19? We don’t know, for instance, the travelling that’s going to happen?


ALBANESE: What we know is that we got the structure right with the Aviation White Paper, with essentially two full-service airlines, with budget airlines attached to them. And we know that we got that right during the period in which I was the Aviation Minister, because we know that it served the country well. And what we know is that, if you have a single airline, we’ve seen it before, go back and have a look at the prices which people were paying to fly from Sydney to Melbourne when you had an effective monopoly during that period. So, we know it will have an economic impact, and we know also that regions have been better serviced than they have ever before. Because of the competitive nature of the airline system. And part of the other solution, you’ve got to look at the counterfactual. What is the alternative? The alternative is people losing their jobs. The alternative is a single Australian domestic airline with perhaps, perhaps competition, as Scott Morrison has raised, in the past, not just during this crisis, of removing the restrictions on foreign airlines flying domestic routes in Australia. That was a push when this Government came to office. What that would do would ensure that foreign airlines, Singapore, for example, might want to fly between Sydney and Melbourne, they would jump at that. But they certainly wouldn’t be flying to Wagga, be flying to Coffs Harbour, be flying to Ballina. They wouldn’t be doing that. They would be cherry-picking. And what you’d then have, as a response to that, is that foreign-based entities, like Jetstar Asia, potentially coming into Australia to fly as well, when you get rid of cabotage. An undermining of conditions. An undermining of the fact that Australians are proud of the safety record of our domestic aviation sector, it’s the best in the world, bar none. And the idea that we would give that up. And also, it will have an impact on our international sector as well. We fought very hard to get Virgin Australia access to the US system. What that’s done, what that’s done is provide competition on that route. That’s so important as well for Australians. One at a time. I’ll come back.


JOURNALIST: If I may. Two questions. What is the extent to which you think the Government should take an equity position, 100 per cent, 50 per cent, just a bit? And the administrator this morning has said he’s already received expressions of interest to recapitalise. Why would you not let that process go through its course?


ALBANESE: The concern that we have about letting the market rip on this is that people will be looking at coming in, looking at the profitable sections, the profitable routes, potentially, of an airline. So, Sydney-Melbourne, Sydney-Brisbane, consistently in the top 10 in the world. Sydney-to-Melbourne has, indeed, at various times been first, the most travelled-on route in the world. They won’t be interested in flying, as I’ve flown on Virgin, into your Gladstone or into Townsville, or into Mackay. They’ll be interested in cherry-picking, people losing their jobs through a restructuring of the company. And our concern is that the Australian national interest needs to be served with two full-service airlines. And we know that the sort of build-up of the skills of the people behind us is the greatest asset of this airline


JOURNALIST: What is the equity that you’re recommending?


ALBANESE: Well, the fact is you don’t need, if you have Government entity as a market signal, what that will do, you don’t need a huge amount. In the past, discussions took place with other airlines. At that time, indeed, with this Government, so towards the end of 2013, there was examination. And Treasury were providing advice to me prior to the election, and then after the election of Joe Hockey as the Treasurer, that looked at an equity injection into Qantas. That was considered at the time. It was publicly debated at the time. At the time, the view of Treasury was that a small equity injection would send a market signal and would then be able to be down-sold down the track, once we get through this crisis. We have to bear in mind that this crisis isn’t a result of market failure, it’s a result of a Government decision to shut the market. And that’s why talk of market-based solutions at the moment is a triumph of ideology over common sense. That is what it is. Now, Scott Morrison has said that there isn’t a blue team or a red team. Well, there’s a red team behind me here. They’re wearing the Virgin Australia uniforms proudly. Proudly contributing to our national economy. It’s about time that Scott Morrison put aside the ideological blinkers and gave the support that is required. I said I’d come back.


JOURNALIST: Can I ask, you talk about this is not a solution, a market solution. But isn’t it the case that Virgin was in trouble before this all happened?


ALBANESE: The idea that this would be happening, were it not for the coronavirus, is, quite frankly, absurd. What Virgin has done over a period of time, over the last 20 years, is build up its capital. So, yes, it is true that Virgin has only run at a profit in a couple of those years. But that’s because of the investment that you see around you. It’s the investment in people, it’s the investment in planes, it’s the investment in infrastructure that has occurred. Now, I’m not saying that every decision of Virgin management has been correct. I’m not here to make those judgements. But the fact is that the aviation sector is a very difficult sector. On average, on average, when I was the minister, one of the briefs we had for the Aviation White Paper was that, on average, every single year, double digits of airlines disappeared around the world. Here in Australia, we have been very effectively served in recent times by the two-airline system. And when Tiger’s owners, and I’m someone who ground Tiger for safety reasons, once it was brought under this umbrella, there haven’t been any of those issues. We have a very effective, efficient system. I joined with Matt in saying that Sydney Airport, people who work here, this is the largest employer in my electorate as well. It is the largest employer in terms of Sydney, in terms of its economy. We rely upon aviation so much. And what we should do is have a Government that is as committed, as committed to the interests of working Australians as the people are who are behind me.


JOURNALIST: Sir Richard Branson put out a video in support of the workers in the company, saying that the Federal Government needs to step in. But would you like to see him do more?


ALBANESE: Look, I would like to see everyone do more. But what I know is that the Government, the current Federal Government, have a responsibility here, because it is a direct result of Government policy that we find ourselves in these circumstances. And the Government has been complacent. One of the things that strikes me about this Government is that, in the initial stages of any issue, they’re complacent. The first thing they do is to step back and step away from the problem. Now, I hope that what they do is, like on wage subsidies, where they said it was absurd, they said it wouldn’t work, and then we saw the Centrelink queues form. Then they changed their mind. It’s a good thing that they change their mind. They need to give consideration to this, because workers and their incomes and their families are dependent upon it.


JOURNALIST: On another slightly related matter, Mathias Cormann this morning was talking about how the Government has a plan for aggressive deregulation as part of the Government’s policy, to be built around the Budget in October for getting business to invest and employ people coming out of COVID. When you hear that language, what do you hear?


ALBANESE: What I hear is right-wing ideology from the Government. And at a time whereby one of the issues that has characterised Australians during this crisis, I say this. Is that there is not a single example of a trade union in this country seeking to do anything other than help out their fellow Australians at this crisis. There’s been no attempt to use the fact that many unions are in a powerful position at the moment, because it is the unionised workforce that has tended to be relied upon at the moment. People who work in transport, our nurses and people in the health sector, people who work as childcare workers, as teachers. What they’re all doing is being flexible, putting the national interest first. The Government has praised them. We’ve had discussions about Sally McManus and Christian Porter being besties. What we have is the Government foreshadowing that they’re coming after workers’ wages and conditions as soon as this crisis is over. By further deregulation, including of the labour market.


JOURNALIST: Do you see it in IR terms? When they talk about aggressive deregulation, it might involve environmental protections, what other things?


ALBANESE: Well, I think that one of the things I said in Parliament a couple of weeks ago is that Australians should take some comfort in the fact that the Government’s been prepared to do things that it’s uncomfortable with. It’s recognised at this time the role of government and the critical role that government plays in our lives, not just at a time of crisis but other times as well. If the Government thinks the answer is when we get through this crisis to simply withdraw and have a market-based solution, whether it be to the labour market, to the environment, whether it’s let markets rip, unfettered by proper government to ensure the national interest is served, then I think they haven’t learned the lessons of this crisis.


JOURNALIST: On the health sector, Mr Albanese, did the Government jump the gun with elective surgeries, now that they’re looking at reinstating it?


ALBANESE: Oh, look, on that issue, I think the advice from the health experts at the time was to undertake that. That was prudent advice. It is appropriate that a precautionary approach be taken to issues such as that. And at the time there was a great deal of concern about making sure that beds in ICU, in particular, would be made available to people. The Government’s examining that. I haven’t sought to politicise those issues. The Government shouldn’t be politicising this issue. It should be acting. Thanks very much.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).


ALBANESE: I await the advice from the health experts. They should be the people who determine those matters. Not politicians. And I know there’s potentially questions on there, but is there anyone online who wants to ask a question?


JOURNALIST: You mentioned that taking an equity share in Virgin could help send a signal to the market. I guess part of the rationale would be that the Government investment might increase its equity. Is there a risk that a small equity investment now will grow into a much larger commitment over time?


ALBANESE: Well, you’d have to ask the Government about Inland Rail and why it is investing billions of dollars in Inland Rail as an equity injection. Inland Rail that John Anderson found would not produce a return on capital in 150 years. That’s not, by the way, $1.4 billion. That’s $9 billion, $9 billion for an Inland Rail line that, by the way, the $9 billion doesn’t get it to the port of Brisbane, doesn’t get it to the port of Melbourne, doesn’t get it to the port of Gladstone. They literally have taken Inland Rail at its literal term. So, you’d have to look at why it is that this Government and compare the number of jobs that are coming from that project, it is a project I support, I think there’s problems with the financing of the project, but it’s a project that we began when we were in Government, but you compare it with their attitude here, the impact on regional Australia of the removal or disappearance of Virgin Australia will be devastating.


JOURNALIST: On that issue of equity, (inaudible).


ALBANESE: Well, it’s not up to me, quite frankly, at a press conference to outline the structure of a company and how all of that would work. Quite clearly, I’ve indicated our principal position going forward. That would need to be discussed with the Virgin Australia board. Now I have had discussions with Paul Scurrah, the CEO, as I’ve had discussions with the CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, and had contact with other airlines at this point in time. But there is no doubt that support would be welcomed at this point in time. Thanks very much.


JOURNALIST: (Inaudible).


SHELDON: Well, the Ansett collapse, it was 176 days of many workers trying to get that airline back in the air. And on that occasion a failure by the Government, which has substantial consequences, economically, for the personal consequences for many Australians. I saw people that lost their lives, committed suicide. I saw people that turned around and never got a job back in any industry. What this Government needs to be thinking about is the economic and the personal consequences. Many of these people standing behind me live in the Prime Minister’s electorate. He likes to talk about the Shire. Now, how about he stands up for it. Australians during the Ansett collapse were left a terrible burden. I don’t want to see this burden on these families here. And I don’t think any Australian should be wanting to see that happen. And I don’t think Scott Morrison should allow that to happen. Thank you.


ALBANESE: I think that’s a pretty appropriate way to conclude this press conference. Can I think people for coming and can I particularly thank, and I’d ask my colleagues to join with me in thanking the workers?