Subject/s: Qantas, Manus Island
HOST: Anthony Albanese, thanks for joining us.
ALBANESE: Good morning Virginia.
HOST: You’ve had time overnight to look a little more closely at what the Government’s proposing. Is the Opposition still saying it’s going to oppose this?
ALBANESE: Absolutely. You don’t save Qantas by flogging it off. What they are proposing is a wholesale getting rid of everything in the Act that makes Qantas an Australian airline. Getting rid of the provisions not just for ownership but that it be based here, that its headquarters are here, that two-thirds of the majority of the board have to be Australian, that a majority of its activity in terms of maintenance and catering and its activities have to be based here. What they’re essentially saying is that it’s OK just for those jobs to go overseas.
HOST: But if you oppose this, if you don’t support this, how then is Qantas and all those jobs, how are they supposed to survive?
ALBANESE: Well, listen to what Qantas has been saying, Virginia. Qantas themselves have been saying that the Sale Act is not the major issue, that they wanted a debt guarantee. Now, why is that the case? This argument about equal playing field needs to be addressed. The fact is that Virgin has access to capital from a Singapore Government-backed airline, from a UAE-backed airline and from a New Zealand Government-backed airline. They have that in place right now. They’re not asking for any money from the taxpayer. What the Government indicated over recent months was they were going to support the debt guarantee. Joe Hockey outlined the conditions and said they had all been met. So that was factored in by Qantas management, by the workforce and importantly, as well, by shareholders. Then, at last minute, last Thursday, the Government decided to go on this ideological free market crusade. The aviation sector internationally is a very regulated sector. That makes sense when you think about it – you don’t want planes doing what they want when they want. By definition there is government intervention in world’s aviation sector. Eight of the 10 world’s largest airlines are government-backed airlines.
HOST: Just to jump in there though, you’re backing Qantas’ calls for a debt guarantee. We’ve heard from Hockey that as a Treasurer he can’t countenance that, he can’t countenance the idea of burdening the Australian public with exposure with $6 to $7 billion worth of debt. Are you saying if you’re in Government you would be comfortable with exposing Australian taxpayers to that debt?
ALBANESE: That’s an absurd figure that he must have made up over breakfast because that’s not what we’re talking about here. What Qantas was seeking was not any payment from the taxpayer.
HOST: Not the taxpayer but being exposed to that?
ALBANESE: Well, $6 to $7 billion has never been mentioned by Qantas. They’re not about to buy that many new aircraft. If you look at the restructuring that they did last Thursday, it was about foregoing the potential purchase or the leasing of aircraft that they had foreshadowed previously. Joe Hockey said himself that himself this was important. Joe Hockey himself has to explain why the position has changed. Warren Truss is the Transport Minister. When he was the shadow transport minister he was out there opposing any lifting at all, even of the limited restrictions, the 35/25 rule which is the amount of capital that can be owned by individual shareholder or by an airline. He opposed that and said that would threaten the Australian national interest and also particularly have an impact on regional Australia.
HOST: Look, I want to get to that 25/35 matter in just a moment because with I know it’s something you dealt with back in 2009. But let’s be realistic here for a moment. The Government is not coming through with the debt guarantee. You’re going to oppose what the Government has proposed. So what on Earth does Qantas do in the meantime? Overnight they’ve said that you need to help us now. So what happens to this company?
ALBANESE: Well, the Government, the Government had indicated very clearly that they would be helping. Last night they made a decision after interestingly everyone in their Cabinet spoke and had different views very clearly. That shows how controversial this issue has been within the government. It’s about time that the Government stopped playing politics with every single issue. Yesterday they were out there having the absurd argument that this was all about the carbon price. That was their response during the whole of Question Time. Qantas repudiated that. It is a fact, Virginia, that Qantas and Virgin voluntarily asked to be included in the scheme.
HOST: All right, I do want to return to that question though because they’re the Government but you have a role to play in this as well as do the in dealing with legislation that comes before comes before the Senate. What role do you propose to play now in making sure that Qantas survives if there’s this standoff between two positions in politics?
ALBANESE: Virginia, we are taking the position that we said we would take last week and last month and last year. The Government, having told the markets that they would take a different position, have back-flipped and have said no, we won’t do that, we will just go to this ideological crusade, pretending that the aviation sector is this free market operation globally and it’s OK for Qantas to send jobs stick overseas.
HOST: Well look, let’s stick with that, time is tight this morning. Virgin is majority foreign-owned and yet there are thousands of Virgin jobs here in Australia so if you’re concerned about jobs staying in Australia, foreign investment doesn’t necessarily change that.
ALBANESE: It does, Virginia, if you move maintenance overseas. It does if you move your head office overseas. It does if you move your focus from being an Australian national airline into an international airline.
HOST: The international division would of course stay that way.
ALBANESE: Because it has to, Virginia. That’s the belling of the cat here. Having not noticed that that is a fact – that the whole international aviation regime is based upon air services agreements, agreements between government to government, based upon the location of those airlines – should have registered with government cabinet members last night that the basis of aviation is national interest. That’s what occurs around the world. Australia is saying we’ll give up our national interest, we won’t worry about having a national airline and previously people such as Warren Truss have argued that that is indeed essential for a whole range of reasons it’s essential for other countries. But for us as an island continent it is more important than countries that have land transport borders.
HOST: Just one more on this and then I want to get to on a couple subjects. Let’s go back to that issue we raised 2009, of course, you proposed changing the single investor rule and the foreign investor airline rule. Is this now for you and the Opposition a matter of percentage negotiation between you and the government, just what lifting of ceiling you’re prepared to go through? Or is it absolute?
ALBANESE: Not at all. When we had the Aviation White Paper we had proper decision-making processes. We had a Green Paper and a White Paper that took place over a year. There were consultative forums with the sector, with industry, with the community participation in that. And what that with was a recommendation that to maintain the 51% majority Australian ownership but that the 25/35 provisions weren’t essential.
HOST: Yes, indeed but my question this morning goes to whether now the Opposition’s is absolute or whether it’s a matter of negotiations around the percentage ceiling?
ALBANESE: No, we would be prepared to consider that 25/35 proposition if the Government had a proposition for us to consider. December 6 was the Qantas downgrade. Since then I have said we will be constructive. I put up a number of options, besides a there were other options besides a debt guarantee, there would be an equity injection, it was one option. The Government indicated that it was going to go down the debt guarantee path. Therefore in order to be constructive we indicated that we’d be supportive of that and now the Government withdraws its position and says we’re not being constructive. I mean give me a break. They have been playing games and politics with the employment prospects of Australians not just who work directly for Qantas but those who work in the tourism sector, the freight and logistics sector and they’ve been playing acting politics rather than actually acting like a government.
HOST: I just quickly want to touch on Manus Island given your former leader, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was the author of the Manus Island detention solution. Are you feeling any personal disquiet now that it was your government that has created a place that is clearly manifestly unsafe?
ALBANESE: I feel disquiet about the whole of asylum seeker policy in terms of it’s not easy. My position is the same as it was in government. Am I comfortable with everything that happens in immigration? I would be amazed if anyone who dealt with these complex issues was. These are difficult issues. There is the issue stopping drownings at sea, that is vital. There’s also a need to make sure that we give proper respect to the dignity of people who are involved in seeking asylum.
HOST: And is Australia doing that with the fact Manus Island solution?
ALBANESE: Look, the fact is, the fact is there aren’t easy options here. What we need to do is to make sure that there’s transparency here. What is extraordinary is the way that people are finding out more off Indonesian newspapers or reports from overseas than they are off their own government and I believe in the long-term that is unsustainable. It’s appropriate that Scott Morrison and the government actually let the Australian people know exactly what is going on.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.