Topics: Review Qatar decision; Qantas; Devil in the details of Labor’s IR reforms; Territory representation;

09:20AM AEST
1 September 2023


Laura Jayes:  Well, international airlines are questioning the government’s aviation white paper, saying the terms of reference don’t address competition adequately. Joining me live now is Liberal Senator Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon, great to see you. Let’s start with Qantas and Qatar and the mess that it has become. It is the Government’s problem well and truly now. Yesterday Anthony Albanese said there would not be a review of that Qatar decision. Wayne Swan seemed to be saying something different this morning. What do you think should happen?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, LJ. Well, there are two big factors at play here. One is the policy issue and the Government’s actual decision and the implications of that to reject guitar’s application to put more flights to and from Australia. And the other is how that decision was actually made. So, on the policy front, Wayne Swan is dead right. There should be a review of that. It should happen quickly, transparently, and we should understand that there is a full analysis in terms of economic modelling and other factors and implications there, because what we’ve seen is from the tourism industry and others real concerns that the decision itself is going to hurt the recovery of our tourism industry, post Covid. Hurt the ability for people to be able to get to Australia and fill up our hotels and our bars and our various tourist venues, as well as add to costs for Australians who are seeking to leave Australia, including those leaving Australia to go and do business overseas and to drive and grow other parts of our economy. So, it’s remarkable to be in a situation where the Federal President of the Labor Party, Wayne Swan, has this morning contradicted what the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, said only yesterday in calling for a review. But Wayne Swan is right, the decision should be reviewed but it shouldn’t end there because the other factor is how was this decision made in the first place? And we need transparency and answers about what the role of Mr. Albanese was in the making of this decision. What discussions did he have with other parties? What commitments did he give to other parties and what power did he exert over transport ministers? Catherine King in making this decision?


Laura Jayes: Yeah, they’re all good questions. The ACCC is also said this morning that they would be seeking Qantas through the Federal court system, I assume. They want them to pay Qantas to pay more than $600 million worth of fines. Does that seem right to you?


Simon Birmingham: Well this is a huge potential penalty that the ACCC has flagged. Now, obviously, many people would be rightly outraged to read the claims that the ACCC is making against Qantas, that they were knowingly selling tickets on flights that they knew had already been cancelled. Now, if that is proven and proven in the scale and conduct that the ACCC is alleging, then of course there should be very serious penalties applied for that type of conduct. But there are legal processes to run through there. We want to see Qantas to be a strong, profitable national carrier and we’re proud of what it is in terms of being a strong and profitable national carrier. But it also needs to make sure that it acts in compliance with consumer affairs laws, that it is ethical in its conduct. The concerns that are being raised here are very concerning. It’s welcome that Qantas made the decision to extend availability of access to flight credits and Bridget McKenzie, the Shadow Transport Minister, has been clear that other airlines, Rex and Virgin, should follow suit with Qantas in that regard and make sure that people who have those flight credits as a result of the disruption that Covid caused over the last couple of years in aviation, should have the maximum time to be able to access and use those credits to be fair to them and their consumer interests.


Laura Jayes: Are you questioning where the Qantas board is in all of this or has Alan Joyce been able to just act carte blanche with impunity as a single CEO by not consulting either his executives and his board not, you know, tapping him on the shoulder behind the scenes at least.


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are quite a few different issues at play here in terms of the ACCC allegations against Qantas. If they are proven and we should have regard for due process and the legal process there and Qantas is right to defend itself in terms of these accusations, but if they are proven, then it would be a grievous breach of consumer laws worthy of appropriate penalty. But also then Qantas should look within as to how that breach occurred and the responsibility that lies for that breach. And so, I give full respect to the process. But if these claims are upheld, then there really are consequences that should be, of course, for Qantas in complying with the law and the penalties applied, but also within because the board and management will have accountability for how such grievous breaches came to be.


Laura Jayes: The new CEO is the current CFO. Is that a problem?


Simon Birmingham: Again, I’m not going to prejudge in terms of the accusations that have been made. There’s a legal process there to follow. And I want to be clear that Qantas, it’s important to Australia, is a successful airline and a successful national carrier. And so, it enjoyed the support of the government that I was a member of to make sure that it could survive through the Covid-19 disruptions and they were massive disruptions. And Qantas also played an important role in helping us to be able to repatriate Australians from overseas. And so there are many good things that Qantas has done and does do. And so, this is not about being anti Qantas. It’s about making sure that consumer laws are upheld, consumer rights are respected and Qantas is clearly facing pressure on a number of fronts. They’ve made one decision this week that is very welcome, but that decision, of course, has been significantly overshadowed by these ACCC allegations that are very, very serious. They would not be being brought to bear if the ACCC did not believe they had evidence to make these claims. And that process will be one where if it is upheld, then there should be serious penalties and there should be serious soul searching within Qantas as to where the responsibility lies, what cultural changes are necessary to ensure that it is never, ever repeated.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, they were dragged there though. Didn’t seem like Qantas did that willingly at all. It came under and after significant media pressure. I want to quickly ask you about the IR laws as well and what has been slated here. Business have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements when it comes to the consultation period for these, you know, changes to IR laws. There’s such tight NDAs that I’m told that some of these groups can’t even give that information or consult with their own members. Have you ever heard anything like that happening before?


Simon Birmingham: This is a completely ridiculous way for the Government to go about negotiating legislation and policy. These are the biggest economic reforms this government is undertaking. I wish that weren’t the case because they are regressive economic reforms. But these industrial relations reforms are the biggest and most sweeping of any of the areas of economic reform this government is undertaking, and yet they are regressive and will be anti in terms of the productivity agenda. They are contrary to the productivity agenda of our country and it’s remarkable to think that businesses are being invited to engage in discussions, have had their hands tied behind their backs in terms of their ability to properly engage and consult with their membership and frankly, to properly advocate, you know, somehow it’s okay for the Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke, to front up to the National Press Club yesterday and to give a selective speech about only some parts of his industrial relations reform agenda and to get out in advance of releasing the legislation by only talking about parts of it. Yet business, who is going to be impacted by it, whose profitability, productivity and competitiveness will be impacted by it. They aren’t even allowed to talk about any of the parts of it until we reach a point where finally the details will be released next week. The devil will be no doubt in those details and it looks and sounds like it will be really serious devil in the details of these bills.


Laura Jayes: One thing before I let you go, is there some talk about an expansion of the Senate? This I understand that you’re resisting. It would make the basically the representation for the NT and the ACT bigger?


Simon Birmingham: So, the Labor National Conference called for an expansion of territory representation in the Senate, and the Government has been quietly trying to pursue this through a parliamentary committee process. But we ought to be clear Anthony Albanese did not go to the last election telling Australians that he planned to increase the size of the Parliament to create more members of Parliament and the costs and an expansion that comes with that. So, if Labor wants to increase the size of the Parliament, they should be up front and take that to the next election, not seek to manipulate the size of the Parliament and parliamentary representation by sneaking it through in the life of this Parliament. Having not forewarned voters, that was their intention prior to the last election.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.