Subjects: Foreign airlines in Australia; northern Australia aviation proposal; proposed citizenship penalties for foreign fighters; Workchoices on Water; maritime security; marriage equality
DAVID SPEERS: Should foreign airlines be allowed to fly domestic routes in Australia? Cabinet is expected to consider this so-called open skies policy possibly as early as this week. It would allow foreign carriers to operate between towns and cities in northern Australia, only though above the Tropic of Capricorn so Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, Broome, Port Headland et cetera.
Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb is said to be the strongest proponent of this move as part of a push to open up northern Australia to more tourism and business opportunities. Not surprisingly, Qantas and Virgin are vehemently opposed to opening up their routes to other players and more competition. They warn this added competition on certainly the more viable routes would force them to cut back on the less viable routes.
Others in Cabinet, most notably the Transport Minister and Nationals Leader Warren Truss are strongly opposed as well. So whether this is actually going to happen or not, we’ll see coming out of the Cabinet meeting. Labor is also strongly opposed. I spoke a little earlier to the Shadow Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese. Anthony Albanese, thank you for your time.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you, David.
SPEERS: You’ve called this plan unilateral economic disarmament. Why?
ALBANESE: It is just that, David. The way that international aviation works is that no nation state gives up the right to conduct domestic aviation in its country to a foreign carrier. Qantas can’t operate from Rome to Berlin or Los Angeles to San Francisco.
SPEERS: Even though it does fly to both?
ALBANESE: It does certainly fly to both. But it can’t operate in the domestic aviation network and that’s the same with every other country in the world. What we’re talking about here is without getting anything back, Australia would give up essentially our sovereignty in terms of over our skies, to a foreign carrier to compete with domestic carriers which would undermine the whole of the network, not just Qantas and Virgin, but importantly smaller airlines like Air North, that service Australia’s north.
SPEERS: Sure, but is the difference with LA and San Francisco, Rome, London, that the north of Australia is underserviced when it comes to aviation at the moment? That there is more potential for tourism, for mining workers, everyone else who wants to go there to have more services available?
ALBANESE: Well, this is nonsense. The fact is that those ports are served very well and what we’ve seen is increased access in terms of aviation. The fact that we have two strong major airlines here in Australia; Qantas and Virgin, each with a subsidiary in terms of Jetstar and Tiger respectively. But also with relationships like Qantas have a relationship with Air North, for example, which means that not just the major ports like Darwin and Cairns, but places like Mount Isa and Cloncurry and Bundaberg and those areas are serviced as well.
SPEERS: And cross subsidised.
ALBANESE: Absolutely. The fact is that some of those routes are more profitable than others. The other thing is that due to the nature of our tropical north is that they’re seasonal. So during the busy tourist season Darwin and Broome and Cairns are a lot busier than they are during the cyclone and wet season. Common sense tells you that what would happen if you open it up would be cherry picking, and that would undermine the services that those communities rely on year round as well as undermining Australian jobs.
SPEERS: It would mean cheaper tickets available on those more viable routes, wouldn’t it?
ALBANESE: It might, in the short term – until such time as the Australian airlines were driven out, because it’s hard to compete with foreign wages being paid in Australia, and therefore you would see a retreat of our national carriers, and that space potentially then being filled by foreign carriers who over a period of time once the competition went, would increase their prices.
SPEERS: Speaking of foreign wages, you’re also very concerned about the government’s plans on shipping, which would mean that vessel owners no longer have to have collective agreements with their crews and in particular that only ships that spend more than 183 days a year in Australia would have to pay Australian wages. What’s going to be the impact of that, do you fear?
ALBANESE: This is just ideology before common sense. If a truck carries goods from Sydney to Melbourne, they have to comply with Australian standards in terms of safety. They’ve got to pay Australian wages and conditions. Similarly if a train carries those goods, so do the people who are involved in the rail sector. But if they’re on the blue highway going from Sydney to Melbourne undertaking the domestic freight task doing work in Australia, for Australia, they’re going to be paid foreign wages with the threat that undermines not just Australian jobs but those companies of course that have based themselves here in Australia, that have the Australian flag on the back of Australian ships, will simply disappear. Because they won’t be able to compete with the third world flagged carriers, like Liberia and these places that don’t have the same standards that we have.
SPEERS: But do you accept Minister Warren Truss’ argument that freight costs aren’t sustainable as they are when they are in, in his words, a downward spiral in shipping for the last few years?
ALBANESE: We are in a downward spiral, which is why we introduced positive reforms that weren’t about protection. If you’re in the United States and you want to take goods from San Francisco to LA on a ship, you have to have a US flagged ship; it has to be built in the United States as well.
These people live in a fairy land where there’s this free market out there. Nation states protect their national interests in shipping and aviation for reasons not just of economic interest but also the environment. It is not Australian flagged ships that have hit the Great Barrier Reef in recent times.
And there’s also the issue of national security. For a government that speaks a lot about protecting our borders, to open up essentially a system whereby Australian flagged ships with Australians working on board will be replaced by foreign flagged ships paying foreign wages with people who haven’t been through the same scrutiny that occurs in Australia, is quite extraordinary.
SPEERS: What are you suggesting there with national security? What risk could that pose?
ALBANESE: It’s very simple, David. We have a system of ASIC cards and MSIC cards, Aviation Security Identity Cards and Maritime Security Identity Cards, Australians who work in the industry go through a whole process.
If there’s a free-for-all around our coast without that proper scrutiny there are potential issues there that aren’t there in terms of Australian ships. Just the same as in terms of safety and the environmental standards that are there, the Australian ships have not presented a problem some of the foreign ships have.
SPEERS: Are you suggesting here that terrorists would be on these ships?
ALBANESE: No, I’m not suggesting that at all. I’m suggesting that there is not the same scrutiny that occurs on Australian ships. I’m also suggesting, very much so, which is why we had the Navy represented on the shipping reform groups that underwent two years of proper consultation.
There is a real link between the skills base that you need in the merchant fleet and the Navy. There’s a real transition and many people who work in one or serve in one cross over. Just the same as if we lose that skills base as an island continent, they’re the people who run our harbours, who run our ports. That stands to lose our economic capacity and our national interest.
SPEERS: Just before we leave this area, how do you make domestic shipping between Sydney and Melbourne for example more viable, more sustainable?
ALBANESE: Well what you do is to make sure that there’s a proper mix. At the moment if an Australian ship isn’t available, foreign ships have an important role around our coast. But the big increases in charges have been because of what’s happened at our ports. It’s not the difference between labour here.
A big container ship will be run by about 15 people, to run an entire ship from the captain right through to the people who are cleaning the ship. Now, that’s not a huge amount in terms of the wages bill compared to other cost structures that are there, in particular port charges. In recent times, the reason why there’s been an increase in shipping costs.
SPEERS: Let me just ask you, a couple of other issues; the citizenship debate. Do you have a problem with stripping citizenship from dual nationals, at least, who have been involved in terrorism?
ALBANESE: We’ll wait and see the legislation. I certainly have no sympathy for people who’ve been involved in something like IS or Daesh as it’s called. I have no sympathy for them whatsoever and the Australian Government should implement the full force of the law.
SPEERS: Including stripping their citizenship?
ALBANESE: We will wait to see legislation. Prima facie, I don’t have a problem with really strong action – as strong as possible. But it’s a matter of what’s practical and making sure that we fulfil the obligations that we have internationally as well including to not make people stateless. I think that’s a problem.
SPEERS: The Government’s given an assurance that won’t happen.
ALBANESE: Well, there’s a bit of a debate going on in the Government, David, which is why I can’t be expected to give a final view about legislation that frankly, you or I haven’t seen.
SPEERS: Now, same-sex marriage. Bill Shorten’s Private Members’ Bill introduced today, I think it’s the fifth or sixth time we’ve had legislation on this before the Parliament. You’ve seen these debates come and go before. What is it going to take do you believe from here for an actual Bill to succeed?
ALBANESE: Well I think it’s pretty close to succeeding. I’m pretty confident that there’s a majority now in the House of Representatives and the Senate. There just needs to be a free vote. Bill Shorten, in introducing the legislation today, made it clear when he said we care about the outcome, not who owns it.
What’s important here is the outcome. It is important that marriage equality occur. I suspect that then people will wonder what the fuss was about. It won’t be an ongoing debate and the Parliament should determine that. It should be done in my view as soon as possible. There’s a Bill before the House. Had Bill Shorten not presented that Bill, I think we would have still be talking and talking. What that will do is get things moving.
SPEERS: Will it, though? As you point out, the free vote is crucial in the Liberal Party. Is this going to actually bring about a free vote in the Liberal Party?
ALBANESE: Well, I think it will facilitate one. There’ll be a debate in the Liberal Party about what form of Bill takes place, whether it’s Bill Shorten’s Bill, or another one, we’ll wait and see. But the important thing is that this change occur because Australia is now, falling way behind the rest of the world.
We have a proud record in terms of the rights of women in terms of our democratic system. We were ahead of the rest of the world. South Australia and here, we have a proud record on social reform. On this one, I’m afraid we’re way, way back in the field. The rest of the world’s moved on. It’s time Australia got this done and then we can move on as well.
SPEERS: Anthony Albanese, thanks for talking to us.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.