QANTAS - ABC 24 Breakfast Transcript
- Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations
- Leader of the Government in the Senate
ABC 24 Breakfast
Monday 31 October 2011
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: More now on our top story and Qantas is expected to be back in the air by about mid-afternoon. The Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Jeff Lawrence says Fair Work Australia’s decision is a positive outcome.
Jeff Lawrence: It’s unfortunate that it’s taken the intervention of the Federal Government to force Qantas to negotiate about these issues around job security. And, to end the lockout. But that has been necessary and the fact that the Federal Government has taken that action I think, has led to this generally positive result.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Jeff Lawrence there. And now for the Federal Government’s take on events overnight, we’re joined by Chris Evans the Federal Workplace Relations Minister. He joins us from Canberra. He’s managed to make his way there. Chris Evans, good morning and thanks for joining us.
CHRIS EVANS: Good morning Virginia.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: How do you respond to this news from Fair Work Australia overnight?
CHRIS EVANS: Well obviously we’re very pleased. It was our application to intervene and ask Fair Work to make the orders it did. So the Government’s pleased. We thought someone had to act in the interests of the passengers who were being affected and the impacts on tourism, the aviation industry, and as you saw, thousands of quite distressed people. So the result is a good one and it should see them flying again this afternoon and that’s obviously a great result.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But Chris Evans, the Government only intervened because it was forced to. You can’t really present this as a situation where the Government has gone on the front foot.
CHRIS EVANS: Well, that’s right in a sense that we were forced to when Qantas decided it was going to lock out its employees - and as a result closed down its airline. That came as a shock to us. We were advised prior to that that they were still keen on negotiating settlements with the trade unions. There wasn’t currently industrial action being taken by the engineers which was the major dispute that was occurring. So it was a surprise to us but we met and took the decision to seek intervention and that’s been successful. But it would have been much preferable if it hadn’t come to this and we’re very disappointed that it had to come to this.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Well when you say you wish it hadn’t come to this, there was another option open to the Government and that was to use a provision under the Fair Work Australia Act and to have ministerial intervention to terminate the action. Why did the Government decide not to do that?
CHRIS EVANS: Well the first thing to say is that the parties had options. Qantas had the option to seek the sort of orders that we sought. They chose not to do that. We had the option of doing what we did which allows for the settlement of the dispute by the parties under the supervision of Fair Work. The declaration provision has never been used. It’s an extreme power used in the last resort. It doesn’t settle the dispute; it doesn’t allow the parties to go forward. So it’s not one, as I say, that has been used before. That was an option that was available to us but the option again of Fair Work Australia and seeking orders was, we think, the right one and that’s proven by the fact that Fair Work made those orders.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Look, one could argue that, but going back to that ministerial option which as you say has not been used before and you regard as quite extreme, if the Government had got in first and done that, we would not have had these 48 hours of a major airline grounded all around the world and all the personal and financial costs associated with that. Even if you use what you describe as a very tough interventionist, ministerial action.
CHRIS EVANS: Well Virginia I am not sure that’s right. I have seen that suggestion in the papers, people seem to be backgrounding to that effect. What I can tell you is…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Well it is one argument at least, we have to consider this morning.
CHRIS EVANS: Well it is one argument, it’s just not true. The Qantas Chief Executive rang Minister Albanese and myself around two o’clock on Saturday, Eastern standard time, and said that at five o’clock they would be closing the airline down, having taken the decision to lock out their employees. He also indicated they would do that earlier if the information leaked and that he was calling us as a courtesy call. Qantas had taken their industrial action to lock out their employees which came on top of the union’s ongoing industrial campaign. The Government was faced with a situation that Qantas has been closed down as a result of that action and obviously we sought to do what we could to fix the problem and quite frankly the action we took did allow for the resolution of the dispute.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But the suggestion was put to you much earlier than that. I’m not talking here about the only three hours the Government and everybody else was given as well. You were notified of this; well at least you were called on to act by at least the Premiers of New South Wales and Victoria and back then, that ministerial option was open to you. Was that strongly considered by you or by the Prime Minister at the time that letter from the Premiers?
CHRIS EVANS: Well the letter from the premiers was reported in the press long before we got the letter. Quite frankly, we regarded that letter…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: When did you receive the letter Minister?
CHRIS EVANS: Well as I understand it the Prime Minister’s office got it late last week, on Friday. But I first heard of the letter, as did the Prime Minister, when the press rang us about it. So we regarded it as a bit of a stunt. But we were in close consultation with the unions and Qantas right up until that decision was taken. We were assured by all parties they could get a negotiated settlement. The engineers had suspended their industrial action; the pilots’ only industrial action up to that stage was wearing red ties and making announcements. But there is no doubt the engineer’s action had been taking an impact on Qantas and we were very concerned about that. But when Mr Joyce rang us on the Saturday that is the first we knew of that proposition. There is no suggestion that they had asked us to intervene. Quite the opposite – they were keen for the negotiations to continue. So the Government was acting in accordance with advice from both of the parties, that they thought they could resolve the matter. And as I said, we were taken aback when advised that Qantas were taking the decision it did, the day after its general meeting.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I interpret from what you are saying this morning then Chris Evans that you believe you were somewhat misled by Qantas?
CHRIS EVANS: Well we were certainly very surprised that they took that action. I mean, it is the most extreme form of industrial action an employer can take, to lock out thousands of its employees, some of whom were engaged in very minor industrial action, in order to… having the result of closing the airline down, causing the chaos that we saw over the weekend. That is a very extreme, provocative action and we were very disappointed that that occurred. We’d been counselling the unions to settle, we’d been advising them not to take action that would disrupt the public. But both sides, quite frankly, had got to a point where the Government was very concerned. Qantas’ action lifted the dispute to a whole new level and that’s when the Government decided to intervene. We of course had to make our case to Fair Work Australia. There is quite a high threshold – like damage to the national economy – in order to get the sort of orders we got. We were able to argue that successfully after the last two days.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Well, just finally then, even as a Labor Workplace Relations Minister, can you not see though when it comes to Qantas’ argument about the way that the world has changed; the way that the aviation industry is under such pressure and it’s such a commercial cut-throat environment, that they need to be more realistic about their demands as well? Would you send that message to some of the Qantas unions as well involved in this dispute?
CHRIS EVANS: Well we have done and have done for months. We’ve taken the view that Qantas is facing challenges as a result of the changes in the aviation industry but we’ve also taken the view that employees have the right to be concerned about job security. They have the right to talk to their employers about what decisions mean…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Do they have the right to demand job security in this kind of environment though Chris Evans?
CHRIS EVANS: Well they have a right to have a discussion and a negotiation with employers about it, yes. Paid paternity leave and all those conditions go to the question of security at work and we think that’s an appropriate issue to be discussed. But people don’t have the right to ruin the business. And what we’ve got is a bit of a contest between what the employer wants to do and employees’ legitimate concerns about their job security. That’s why you have negotiations. That’s why you are supposed to try to resolve these issues. And that’s what we encouraged the parties to do. And that’s what they said to us they were doing. And so now they will have to do that before Fair Work Australia and if they can’t resolve these issues, Fair Work Australia will make orders that if you like, arbitrate the claim.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just like the old days.
CHRIS EVANS: Just like the old days.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Chris Evans, good to talk to you this morning, thanks so much.
CHRIS EVANS: My pleasure.