Nov 2, 2011

Transcript of Doorstop – Canberra

Subjects: Qantas Dispute, Fair Work Act

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Qantas services have now returned to normal following the decision of Fair Work Australia to ensure that Qantas got its fleet back in the air. That will be a big relief for business passengers, recreational travellers, our international tourism, and the jobs and people who depend upon it. The Government acted swiftly on Saturday when we were informed after 2pm that Qantas had made a decision, unilaterally at its board meeting, they say on Saturday morning, to lock out its workforce on Monday evening and to ground its fleet at 5pm on Saturday afternoon. Qantas have confirmed that at no stage did they indicate to me or anyone else in the Government that they had a plan to lock out their workforce and ground their fleet. And, given that Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said himself at 5pm on Saturday that this was, to quote him, an unbelievable decision, it isn’t surprising that the Government was shocked by the news that this iconic Australian airline was grounding its own operations.

However, it’s pretty clear from the Shadow Treasurer’s comments last night on the 7.30 Report that some people were aware that this was going to occur. We know that on 20 October Qantas received a report because it was tabled in Fair Work Australia. That report was on the safety implications of a lockout of its workforce and a grounding of its fleet. Mr Hockey who melted down literally on 7.30 Report last night showed what the real game was. Having denied yesterday afternoon that he knew anything about this, last night, when asked a very direct question by Leigh Sales, on the 7.30 Report, he stated: well, I specifically heard they were going to undertake a lockout and a grounding at quarter to five on Saturday. We accept that was when they were told that the lockout was going to occur on Saturday at 5pm but he and Mr Abbott have been very tricky about the language they have used about this. That’s not the question. The question is: when did they hear about the lockout? And Joe Hockey last night on the 7.30 Report said: oh, weeks ago, they’ve been saying that weeks ago, publicly and privately. Mr Hockey was pressed about this issue by Leigh Sales last night. She said: but I’d just like to know specifically when you actually heard that, like I don’t want you to say generally. Joe Hockey’s response was: well, I can’t recall, I can’t recall.

So you’re the Shadow Treasurer of the nation, you get told that Qantas is planning to lock out its entire workforce including workers who have nothing to do with any dispute and, as a result, lock out its customers from taking their planes to their destination and you can’t recall when you were told. I think it was an extraordinary and explosive interview by Mr Hockey last night on the 7.30 Report, given the fact that the Government had raised issues of when the Leader of the Opposition was told about the proposed lockout and shutdown of Qantas in Parliament yesterday and in the media yesterday, it is extraordinary that Mr Hockey on the 7.30 Report last night gave the answers that he did. I understand he’s attempted to clean up the mess this morning but the record remains to those very direct questions that he answered last night.

The Government has raised the issues of the timing of statements. Now, The Daily Telegraph in their editorial today suggests that’s a reflection on The Daily Telegraph. They are wrong. I would expect The Daily Telegraph, given a drop from the New South Wales and Victorian premiers on Thursday night for Friday morning, to run it as a big story.

The question is, why did the Victorian Premier and New South Wales Premier, both of whom could have applied to Fair Work Australia under Section 424 at any time, who’d been not calling for Federal Government intervention, call for it on Friday morning and why did Tony Abbott, who had specifically not called for Federal Government intervention and has made an entire career including as a former minister responsible for industrial relations in this nation, in opposing government intervention into workplace disputes and saying that they were properly the domain of the parties for negotiation between them?  We know Mr Abbott wants to change the power relationship of those negotiations and wants all the power given to employers and none to employees but nonetheless he changed his language on Friday morning, just one day before the lockout was proposed, announced and indeed one day before the airline was shut down.

QUESTION: Mr Albanese, when it comes to language, you said you didn’t know about the lockout but was the airline telling you at any stage about grounding the planes?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: The airline had been talking very clearly and publicly about if the engineers’ in particular if industrial action continued then there would be a series of groundings. It is correct to say that if you continued to ground aircraft over a period of time it would reach a point whereby the airline would make a decision because of the proportion of the fleet that was grounded, that it was time to ground the entire fleet. That was a logical extension of that.  At no stage did Qantas indicate that that position was imminent at all and you’ve got to bear in mind the fact that the engineers had announced the previous week that they were going back to working overtime and had ceased the industrial action that the engineers were taking. So that is why this is such an extraordinary position and on Saturday the decision to ground Qantas wasn’t about the engineers, wasn’t about the issue of the immediate safety of the fleet, it was directly, in their own words, a result of the decision to lock out their workforce on Monday at 8pm. That is why they ground the fleet and those issues were never, every canvassed with the Government and Qantas have confirmed that that is the case.

QUESTION: Mr Albanese, the union movement, Jeff Lawrence, and also one of your own senators, Doug Cameron, have been calling for changes to the Fair Work Act to give greater protection to workers in these sorts of circumstances. Is the Government at all sympathetic to any changes to the Act?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We think that we have got the balance right in the Fair Work legislation, and we think that we proved that over the weekend. Here you had an airline shut down due to a decision made by the board of that airline. This was industrial action by the airline that was extremely militant in its nature. Had the pilots made a decision to shut down the airline by refusing to fly on under three hours notice, the Government would have been just as critical of the trade unions involved.

We think we’ve got the balance right. The fact is that if you compare this decision with what has occurred in the past, for example, the lock-out at Boeing in a similar related industry, that lasted four months, the actions of Patricks on the waterfront, where that dispute lasted for months. Here you had government-given notice on Saturday afternoon, under three hours, Government makes an announcement of our position, less than 15 minutes after Alan Joyce ends his press conference that we would go to Fair Work Australia, and we had planes back in the sky on Monday afternoon. That shows the system is working. As to the detail of industrial relations policy, that’s up to Senator Evans, frankly, and the Government to announce. But can I say that the government believes that its legislation is effective, and it’s been shown to be effective between Saturday evening, and Monday.

QUESTION: So are you saying in that last comment that there is the possibility of changes, or are you saying definitely that…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, I’m saying Michelle that I’m not the industrial relations spokesperson, I’m the Infrastructure and Transport Minister, and I’ll answer any question, and I am entitled to speak on behalf of the Government on that issue, I’m not the industrial relations spokesperson. I can indicate to you though that the Government believes that our legislation has got the balance right.

QUESTION: So this Government wouldn’t support – this Labor Government wouldn’t support the rights of low paid workers to haul employers before Fair Work Australia and force arbitration, as Jeff Lawrence has argued today?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, Jeff Lawrence will put his arguments, and employers will put their argument. The difference between this Government and our opponents, is that we support a balance in industrial relations, we support a balance, we’re not on one side or the other.  What they’ve shown, the Opposition, in the last three or four days, which is so extraordinary, is that they haven’t uttered a single word of criticism against Qantas. And for employers or employees this is a service industry, the public got locked out, the public, the travelling public were inconvenienced, and that inconvenience was maximised by the fact that it was done on the Melbourne Cup Festival weekend in Melbourne, it was done when CHOGM was underway, so we were on the international stage, the biggest event internationally that will occur in Australia, not just this year, but over many years, the biggest event to happen in Perth for decades, and the Opposition can’t utter one word, or one syllable of criticism of Qantas and its management. Imagine how Tony Abbott would be reacting if this was a shut-down due to industrial action by unions, rather than by an employer.

QUESTION: But it did end the running dispute, and fairly quickly, as you’ve just said.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: The government ended the dispute by going to Fair Work Australia, Fair Work Australia, which had a process of a proper hearing, in which the parties could present their evidence, it could deliberate on them, it could consider the national economic interest, the fact is that Fair Work Australia functioned effectively, under the circumstances, in which a company had made such an extraordinarily reckless decision in terms of the national economic interest, and as I’ve indicated to the company, and Qantas is a company that I support, this is an iconic Australian company, that’s important for our national interest, I think it’s very unfortunate that this self-inflicted damage was caused by the board decision that they say was made on Saturday.

QUESTION: Are you aware of reports last Wednesday that wires on a plane in Brisbane were tampered with?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: You’ve got some of the details wrong there, but I was advised, as you would expect on Thursday evening, that this matter had been referred to the Australian Federal Police.

QUESTION: Do you think that then doesn’t put forward more of a case for Qantas for their grounding, because it was days before the announcement?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: That was not used by Qantas in discussions that I had with them about the grounding. Be very clear, the grounding was because Qantas made a decision to lock out its workforce on Monday, that is what they say, and it’s extraordinary that there could be any dispute about it. The particular incident has been referred to the AFP, and therefore it is for obvious reasons, inappropriate for me to comment further.

QUESTION: Minister, the airline has said it made a decision on Saturday morning, but clearly a lot of people [indistinct].

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well of course there will be continuing examination of the circumstances of this decision, suffice to say that those with the knowledge of the aviation industry find it extraordinary that a decision could be made on Saturday morning to ground an airline nationally and internationally at 5pm on Saturday afternoon and be carried out with the efficiency in which it was.