Comment: Seatbelts fastened as Qantas Sales Act hits turbulence

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The federal government has sought to repeal the part of the Qantas Sale Act which restricts foreign ownership - but so far it's a policy that has refused to take off, writes Greg Jericho.

If there is one golden rule to being a political performer, it is that if you can’t execute a decent back flip, you have no business being on the stage.

This week members of the government had to perform some outstanding policy somersaults regarding Qantas.

In 2009, the Rudd Government released an Aviation White Paper, which recommended that the 25 per cent limit on foreign individual shareholdings of Qantas, and the 35 per cent limit on total foreign airlines’ shareholdings be removed. The white paper proposed retaining the overall 49 per cent foreign ownership limit.

Back then Warren Truss went on ABC’s PM and said of this proposal that it would mean he could not be “confident anymore that Qantas would put the interests of Australia first.”

On the same day, Joe Hockey said the proposal had him “very concerned about any dilution of Australian control of Qantas”. He noted that “first and foremost, Qantas is an Australian icon and Qantas undertakes significant tasks in the national interest”.

Well forget that.

This week the man making those arguments – almost verbatim – was Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, the same man who in 2009 was the one considering changing the 25/35 rule.

This week Joe Hockey and Warren Truss not only countered their 2009 views, they went further and advocated getting rid of the 49 per cent ownership requirement.

For Joe Hockey this presented little issue – it fitted nicely in with his new persona of the “End-of-entitlement Treasurer”. For Warren Truss the somersault was rather trickier. In Question Time he took a while to nail his landing.

On Tuesday after trying to explain he had changed his mind because Qantas’ position had become “markedly worse”, he quickly went to the old standby of the carbon tax.

By the week’s end he was suggesting that Virgin’s takeover of SkyWest in 2012 had changed his mind, because Australia “now have very strong regional airlines that have demonstrated that even with high levels of foreign ownership ... they are able to be competitive in this country and to provide safe and reliable services”.

It was shaky logic, but it was enough for him to keep his feet.

For Tony Abbott the difficulty wasn’t so much his past statements, but how to sell the current position. Back flips perfectly executed are all very well, but if you can’t adjust when the tempo of the music changes you’re not going to last very long on the stage either.

He began on Monday night by focussing on jobs.

During his media conference he went from saying that “the best way to maximise Australian jobs is to maximise Qantas’ ability to compete” to suggesting the policy was about “the best way to maximise good jobs...” to, “Now, I hope, I hope, that they maximise employment here in Australia.”

The more he spoke, the more it sounded like he was giving Qantas the opportunity to maximise profits by shipping jobs offshore.

This is because that is exactly what he is doing. No one really thinks this is going to lead to more jobs in Australia. At best the government can claim it will save jobs. Even that might be a stretch given the proposed changes will remove a section requiring a majority of Qantas’ facilities (maintenance, catering, training, etc) to be located in Australia.

He soon ditched this angle, and by Wednesday was all about being fair to the rest of the airline industry. By Thursday he replied to Bill Shorten stating:

“All the government is asking is for Qantas to get the same deal that Virgin gets. That is all we are asking. That is all we want. If it is good enough for Virgin, why isn't it good enough for Qantas too?”

It’s a question the ALP has been unable to adequately answer. Neither have they been able to explain any better than Joe Hockey or Warren Truss did in 2009 just why we need Qantas to be majority owned by Australians.

So while the LNP has somersaulted over them, the ALP has been caught looking flatfooted and a bit confused.

By Thursday Tony Abbott was able to admit “we, the then opposition, the Coalition, should have supported a proposal to remove the 25 per cent and 35 per cent restrictions in 2009.”

But what of that proposal? It has received scant attention by the ALP this week. In Thursday’s debate on the Bill, Anthony Albanese mentioned it but almost only as an aside. All other ALP speakers only raised it to hit Joe Hockey and Warren Truss for their statements from 2009.

Instead, the ALP’s thrust has been almost entirely blanket opposition rather than any suggestion of mature compromise.

Where the ALP could have shown themselves willing to meet the government half way – and at a position that would have them standing with both a majority of the voters and probably most of the National Party MPs – instead they were able to be painted as obdurate and not even faithful to their own position in 2009.

The key when attempting a back flip is make sure when you land you end up facing the right way. The government has achieved this. The ALP thus far seems unsure whether to flip or twist or stay on their feet.

At this rate they’ll end up on their face.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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