Monday, 31 October 2011
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans. I refer the minister to the statement on 18 October 2011 by Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, where he said:
If this overtime ban continues, we will be grounding even more aircraft.
Does the minister concede that the action taken by Qantas on the weekend was threatened, impending, probable or, at the very least, possible, and that such action would cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it?
Government senators interjecting—
If so, why didn't the government take action under section 431 of the Fair Work Act or at least prepare for action under section 431 of the Fair Work Act, as the Prime Minister had written the act?
Senator Joyce is right to refer to the fact that there had been overtime bans in Qantas applied by the engineers union which had been taking a toll on Qantas's capacity to maintain its fleet. As a result of that overtime ban their maintenance had fallen behind and they took the decision to ground a number of aircraft and reduce the number of flights they were conducting each week. But Senator Joyce would also be aware that Qantas continued to say both publicly and privately that they sought to negotiate a settlement with the union and that they did not request government intervention and they did not encourage government intervention. They wanted to be able to negotiate settlements with the unions. They made that public and that was also their position in private. At no time did they ask the government to intervene, nor did the trade unions. Both parties maintained publicly that they could settle the dispute.
So it came as a surprise to all of us, I think, when Qantas took the decision to lock out their employees effective from Monday. They took the decision not only to lock out the engineers but to lock out the pilots and to lock out the TWU baggage handlers. This is despite the fact that the TWU had had I think a total of about six hours industrial action in stop work meetings and the pilots' industrial activity consisted of wearing red ties and making announcements as to the need to maintain Australian pilots.
Honourable senators interjecting—
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I refer to the Prime Minister's statement this morning that the government did not invoke section 431 of the Fair Work Act because its effect was legally uncertain and this would have led to delays and uncertainty for the travelling public—even though she wrote the act. Did the Prime Minister, or indeed any member of the government, seek legal advice on the use of section 431? If so, what legal advice was sought and when?
The government was in receipt of advice from my department about both section 424 and section 431 and the other sections of the Fair Work Act as to the options open to the government in terms of intervening in the Qantas dispute with the three unions. We acted on the advice provided to us following the decision by Qantas on Saturday to lock out their employees and shut down the airline. That advice recommended action under section 424 to seek Fair Work Australia's intervention and to seek orders from them to terminate the industrial action. That advice was followed and it was successful. It worked; the advice we followed worked. It ended the dispute. It terminated the industrial action and has allowed passengers to again fly with Qantas.
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Was that advice all gathered together in the last three hours? You stated in your own words that you were ambushed on the weekend. Is this yet another example of the government not so much being ambushed but being caught flat-footed for events that were obviously impending, as we have been seeing the senior members of Qantas around here for quite some time? Is it to be anticipated that this will be another stuff-up just like the live cattle trade ban was?
The government has been actively engaged in trying to find a resolution to the various Qantas disputes and in supporting the parties in their enterprise bargaining for some time. Both Minister Albanese and I have been meeting with Qantas and the unions over recent months. There have been a number of meetings where we have discussed options, put propositions and done whatever we could to see if we could assist in that regard. We have also been taking advice from my department for some time now as to what our options might be in the event of certain circumstances developing inside Qantas. It is the case that the decision by Qantas to lock out its employees—an unprecedented action by an airline—did come as a surprise to us. But we had already been in the position of working with the department to make sure we had the best advice available and were able to act quickly, and we did. (Time expired)