Nov 1, 2011

Transcript of Doorstop – Canberra

Subjects: Qantas Dispute

ANTHONY ALBANESE: With regard to the Government’s knowledge of Qantas’ decision that they say was made on Saturday morning to lock out its workforce from Monday at 8pm, to lock out its customers from Saturday at 5pm by grounding the airline, the Government has been completely transparent about what we were told and when. I have also said on a number of occasions, pointed out that at no time prior to this decision being communicated to the Government, did Qantas or the trade unions call for government intervention. It is also the case, as people would have observed, that while this dispute was simmering, the Leader of the Opposition was also not calling for Government intervention. Indeed, that would be consistent with what has been a view of industrial relations put by the other side of politics over a period of time and a view that continues to be put by Peter Reith, Jamie Briggs and others in the Coalition.   

What we saw on Friday was a front page story in The Daily Telegraph with letters that were clearly given to The Daily Telegraph by Premier Baillieu and Premier O’Farrell prior to them being sent to the Prime Minister, or at the very least, at the same time. But given the Prime Minister’s office only received them late on Thursday night, I’ll leave people to make their own judgment about that. On Friday morning, Tony Abbott changed his position and called for the Government to intervene. This was very different from the position that he had held in preceding weeks. And this morning we see an indication of perhaps why that is the case. In a doorstop conducted here at Parliament House, Tony Abbott was asked two very simple questions that he couldn’t answer. The first of those was a journalist asked Mr Abbott: ‘Mr Abbott, did anyone from Qantas speak to you or your office prior to Saturday about the possibility of a grounding?’ He refused to answer that question, and went on with a few sentences of waffle. The second question that he was asked was: ‘Mr Abbott, the question was whether your office was forewarned of the dispute. Can you answer that?’ His answer was this: ‘Ah, look, ah, ah, my office was in regular contact, ah, with Qantas. Qantas, as anyone in Parliament House would know, ah, have basically been patrolling the corridors of Parliament House for weeks now alerting people to the seriousness of the dispute. Thanks very much.’ He then ended the press conference.

The question is: why did Tony Abbott change his position on Friday morning, one day before Qantas say they made the decision to terminate – to lock out the workforce and to shut down the airline domestically and internationally at 5pm on Saturday and the day of the Qantas AGM? Tony Abbott’s got a few questions to answer, not just the ones that have been asked already by the journalists before he fled the press conference. They are these – I’m sure you might be able to think of some of your own: Was Mr Abbott, his office or any colleagues in his party involved in an orchestrated campaign in the lead-up to this announcement with Qantas’ decision they say was made on Saturday to lock out its workforce and to ground its fleet? Was Mr Abbott, his office or his frontbench advised that Qantas intended to lock out its workforce or ground its fleet before last Saturday? If so, when was Mr Abbott advised? What contact did Mr Abbott or his office or his frontbench have with Mr Joyce or Mr Clifford, the chair of Qantas, prior to Qantas’ announcement on Saturday? I’ve been pretty transparent, including precise times, about what contact I had with Qantas and about the details of those discussions. Can Mr Abbott categorically deny that he called for Government intervention on Friday morning without any prior knowledge that Qantas intended to lock out its workforce, lock out its customers, and ground the airline? Did Mr Abbott, his office or his frontbench have any prior knowledge of the letter from Mr O’Farrell and Mr Baillieu sent to the Prime Minister on Thursday of last week seeking calling upon them, the Australian Government, to intervene in this dispute, noting of course that the Victorian Government or the New South Wales Government could have also themselves, if they were serious about that, intervened in the dispute under the same section, Section 424 of the Fair Work Act, that the Government intervene.

These are serious questions for Mr Abbott. There is a considerable debate going on in this country about these issues, but Mr Abbott is almost alone in refusing to be critical at all of Qantas’ decision to lock out its workers, lock out its customers with the inconvenience to 68,000 travellers at least in Australia and internationally. He has refused to utter one word of criticism. Imagine the case if the pilots after 2pm on Saturday had given notice that from 5pm they would be refusing to fly any Qantas plane in Australia or internationally. Mr Abbott should be judged by his actions. We know that when he was part of the former government, we know that they were prepared to collude with employers on lock-outs. We had training of people in Dubai for the waterfront; we had all of that form is there, and we are entitled, I think, the Australian people are entitled to have answers to why Mr Abbott thinks that it’s okay to have contempt for the travelling public in the way that he has, and what did he know and when did he know it about these events.

QUESTION: Mr Abbott, is it your belief that Tony Abbott did collude with Qantas’ executives, and do you have any more evidence to support that if that is your accusation, other than those unanswered questions of today.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: My accusation is as simple as what I have read out, which is that Tony Abbott was asked really simple questions, clear questions – I’m not sure who asked them, but congratulations to you – clear questions, shouldn’t have been hard, should have seen them coming, couldn’t answer them.

QUESTION: Mr Albanese, as the Transport Minister, how would you view a decision by Qantas to inform the Opposition about its decision to take a lock-out and not you?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, I’ve made it very clear and I had the discussion with Mr Joyce yesterday, and he agreed with me on the phone that there was no occasion in public, in private, where Mr Joyce or anyone else from Qantas has raised with me the prospect of a lock-out of its workforce and a grounding of the airline. Mr Joyce himself described this action on Saturday night as unbelievable, and I think most people when they heard about this action didn’t say, oh, I thought that might happen. I think most people had the same reaction that I had as the minister.

QUESTION: Mr Abbott – sorry, Mr Albanese – I’m going to have to fire up my iPhone here because I’ve got a new statement that’s just come from Alan Joyce to us in response to questions from us in which he says, and I quote here: We made it very clear at this time – he’s talking about before five o’clock Satur… or before Saturday afternoon – in conversations over months I’ve clarified that with them. We made it very clear that we could ground the entire airline and that this was a real possibility and it could happen at very short notice with immediate effect due to the nature of an airline and requirements to minimise operational risk. He is standing by a claim that in conversations with ministers over a period of months he made it very clear the grounding of the entire airline was a real possibility. Is he a liar?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, he’s actually being careful about what he says there, Hugh, with due respect, because what he’s saying is what he said publicly, which is that we know that Qantas had grounded, I think it was seven aircraft in total. And he had said that if the engineers take action, then planes would be grounded. That is not what occurred on Saturday. On Saturday, according to Qantas, the board met, and unanimously determined to take a decision, not because of industrial action or safety concerns, to take a decision to lock out their workforce on Monday. They gave hours of evidence to Fair Work Australia in which they indicated that the decision that they made to ground the aircraft at 5pm on Saturday was made because of concerns that they had about once the workforce was notified about the lockout on Monday, so…

QUESTION: This is about warning, this is about…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: It’s very clear…

QUESTION: …a clear statement that warned you, that you were warned…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: …it is completely not the case that there was any suggestion that there was an imminent grounding of Qantas. Qantas had issued press releases, and I spoke about them in the Parliament yesterday, speaking about the grounding of aircraft, because of a lack of maintenance in terms of engineering. What they said publicly is what they said privately, that over a period of time, if the aircraft continued to be grounded due to engineers taking action, then that would put the airline in a difficult position. Now it is the case that the engineers at the time in which the Qantas board made this decision, and bear in mind that the advice and the notification put before Fair Work Australia, indicates that they did a risk assessment on 20 October at least, that was the date that was on it, so it would have been requested before then, about the impact of a lock-out of their workforce, that is why they grounded the airline, because of the lock-out of the workforce, and at no stage, at no stage, did Qantas indicate that that was a possible course of action. Mr Joyce confirmed that in a discussion with me yesterday, and if anyone can find me one bit of commentary, one piece from an opinion writer, in today’s 24-hour media cycle, one grab on ABC 24, and SKY, to give balance in terms of the 24-hour news cycle, where one person said, I think what Qantas will do is lock out its workforce and shut the airline, if you can find that, then that person has a perception that I didn’t have, and I don’t think anyone else here had either. I think it is a reasonable point for me to make that given that I had three face-to-face meetings, which included Mr Joyce in the preceding eight days, prior to our phone calls on Saturday afternoon, given the numerous phone calls that I’d had, given the numerous even text messages, and contact that I’d had with Qantas, the fact is, if Mr Joyce can say that he ever raised the possibility with me, or any other minister, that they would lock out their workforce and ground the airline, then that is simply not true.

QUESTION: But are you two talking about different things, or…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’m talking about why the airline was grounded, and I think that it is important that Qantas spent more time looking after those customers of Qantas who’d been stranded at ports around Australia, and around the world, and less time trying to spin their way out of a decision that they and they alone made, that they indicated very clearly to the Government, was a fait-accompli, made by their board on Saturday morning, and ministers informed as a courtesy, and at that time, at that time, Mr Joyce cannot say, because I’ve spoken to people he spoke to, and I know the conversation I had with him, Mr Joyce cannot say that at that time he asked for any Government intervention, he told us it was done, it was a decision that had been made.

QUESTION: Do you believe yesterday that in the interview that you responded to with the phone call, in that interview do you believe that Mr Joyce was saying he’d given the government notice of a lock-out?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well…

QUESTION: Was that his intention at the time, regardless of what was said later?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, it is not up to me. What I am trying to do in all of this, is to be honest, to be open, to be transparent, it’s not up to me to allocate motives, but it is clear that after Mr Joyce gave that interview, there was some misunderstanding, and there has been an attempt, including by the Opposition yesterday, to paint a picture whereby – and they alleged in Parliament, that somehow the Government knew that this was going to occur…

QUESTION: Was that Mr Joyce’s intention?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, it is not up to me to allocate motives. I have a good relationship with Mr Joyce, I have had a relationship with him as Transport Minister over a period of time, that is why I picked up the phone to him yesterday, and informed him that I would be making public two things that I wouldn’t normally. One, that his statement had been interpreted that way was wrong, and that I would be indicating, and I said to him very clearly during that conversation, I will indicate to the media that you agree with me, that at no stage did you ever raise with me the possibility of a lock-out of the workforce, and a shutting down of the airline consequentially, that I would raise that. And the second issue which I wouldn’t normally do, but given that the Daily Telegraph appeared on page three a meeting that was held on October 21, the day after, by the way Qantas received this advice with regard to a lock-out of its workforce, that a meeting occurred at the Marrickville office, that I would indicate, because I would be asked, I would indicate the three meetings, the meetings that I’d had with Mr Joyce. Normally if I have private meetings with people, including CEOs of companies, or anyone else, then those private meetings, it’s appropriate they stay private. I didn’t give it to the Daily Telegraph, I suggest you have a look at the page three article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Mr Joyce said Qantas didn’t give it to them either, I question that, frankly.

QUESTION: One more on a different issue, I understand you’re going to rush through the legislation probably today, called the Deterring People Smugglers Bill, can you tell us the background to it, and when you’re willing to…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, can I stick to…

QUESTION: Can we ask that at the end?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: …this issue? Well, there’s no suggestion about rushing through legislation today, I’ll deal with that at another time, when decisions have been made.

QUESTION:  What about the mining tax, is that going into Parliament tomorrow?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: That will go in this week, the normal process for legislation is that legislation is introduced on a Wednesday or a Thursday morning, I did a caucus briefing as Leader of the House for everyone, a little while ago. I do need to prepared for question time that commences in five minutes.

QUESTION: Are ministers split over the way…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Hang on, one, two, three.

QUESTION: Can you tell me the government’s position at the moment on Nick Xenophon and Bob Brown’s proposed changes to the Qantas Act?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I haven’t seen Nick Xenophon and Bob Brown’s changes to the Qantas Act, I’ve been a bit busy over the past…

QUESTION: It was introduced in August.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: …I have been a bit busy over – I don’t always pay attention to what goes on in the Senate, and neither Senator Brown or Nick Xenophon have approached me as the minister about that bill, they might have approached my staff. I did have a meeting scheduled with Senator Brown yesterday, it might have been about that, I for obvious reasons cleared my diary yesterday, so I’ll respond at a later time.

QUESTION: Are ministers split over how the Prime Minister’s handled this Qantas question?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Not at all.

QUESTION: So those reports are completely untrue?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: As the Daily Telegraph were told, prior to their being printed.

QUESTION: Mr Albanese, just going back to some of those suggestions that you made when you started this [indistinct], if the Coalition did have prior knowledge, surely that would not be tolerated by the Government, would it?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: That would be extraordinary, if that was the case. I don’t want to leap to conclusions about actions, I think that it is very clear that the Coalition have some real answers to make over this, if you look at the time line of what occurred, and when it occurred, about the changes in position immediately prior to this announcement by the Leader of the Opposition, then there are real questions to be answered. They were to be answered I think in a pretty clear way, Mr Abbott had a chance to answer these questions earlier on, he chose not to do so.