Meet The Press - Interview with Eric Abets and Tony Sheldon

Release date: 23/10/2011

Discussions about the Qantas dispute, the carbon tax, the Fair Work Act, coalition’s asylum seeker policies, are the unions destroying Qantas? And Julia Gillard’s leadership.

PAUL BONGIORNO, PRESENTER: Hello and welcome to ‘Meet the Press’. In a week when Australia’s most high-profile visitor flew in from London, the tourist industry began sending out warnings that the Qantas dispute was threatening its viability. No worries for the Queen with cancellations, all lost luggage welcomed with courtesy but no curtsy.

JULIA GILLARD, PRIME MINISTER: As I greeted the Queen, she extended her hand to shake hands and obviously I shook her hand.

PAUL BONGIORNO: But not too many glad hands at the national flag carrier as the nine-week-old war between Qantas and its key unions rolled on with strikes and disruptions.

ALAN JOYCE, QANTAS CEO (Oct 13): These three unions are not representative of the broader union movement.

BARRY JACKSON, AUSTRALIAN & INTERNATIONAL PILOTS ASSOCIATION (Thursday): What I’d ask Alan Joyce to do is get back to running the airline and that includes talking to his staff.

JULIA GILLARD, PRIME MINISTER (Thursday): Qantas has put an offer on the table. And so my message still is ‘get round a table and get it fixed.’

PAUL BONGIORNO: Some of the nation’s biggest energy companies turned the tables in the Carbon Tax debate, warning the Coalition’s threat to scrap the tax creates uncertainty and puts a risk premium on investment.

SENATOR BOB BROWN, GREENS LEADER (Tuesday): The irresponsibility of this Leader of the Opposition is going to shove up power prices and increase greenhouse gases.

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ, SENATE OPPOSITION LEADER (Tuesday): Absolutely not. The Coalition has got the most certain policy and that is no Carbon Tax.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Senate Opposition Eric Abetz is a guest. Later, Transport Workers Union National Secretary Tony Sheldon. First, Leah Craven has what’s making news this Sunday, October 23.

LEAH CRAVEN, REPORTING: Thanks, Paul. Here are the major stories for this morning. Libya’s new leaders will declare the liberation of the country later today as Libyans queue up for a final look at their long-time dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, whose body is lying in a cold storage room in a Misrata mall. The Transitional Council says the body is likely to be handed over to the family in the next 48 hours as rebel fighters return home to scenes of jubilation. The Queen will attend church in Canberra this morning before a lunch hosted by the Governor-General. Her Majesty presented new colours and praised the Royal Military College in Duntroon yesterday in its 100th anniversary year, while the Duke of Edinburgh traded bon mots with alumni of the Commonwealth Study Conferences, a program he launched more than 50 years ago. Police removed Occupy Sydney protesters from Martin Place in the city early this morning, arresting 40 people. Four are expected to be charged with numerous offences, including assaulting police. The demonstrators are part of a global protest against corporate greed. The ‘Sunday Telegraph’ says Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is considering people power to select Liberal candidates in two seats in NSW. He will launch a pre-emptive strike on Julia Gillard, with the state’s Liberals opening pre-selections tomorrow. And those are the headlines this morning. Back to you, Paul.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Thanks Leah. Welcome to the program, Eric Abetz. Good morning, Senator.


PAUL BONGIORNO: Has the Qantas dispute reached a stage in your view of threatening the national economy?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ:  If it hasn’t reached the stage of threatening the national economy, it is getting very close to it. And the Government unfortunately is impotent in this regard because I think Julia Gillard fears Tony Sheldon may well soon become her boss when he becomes the national president of the ALP. And so we’ve got this bizarre situation where the Minister for Tourism, Martin Ferguson, is willing to weigh in to the dispute and tell it as it is – talk about the damage it’s causing, but  Ms Gillard and Senator Evans, the responsible minister, are quite silent in relation to this issue.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, the Prime Minister seemed to buy in earlier in the week – we did see the engineers put their strike action or their bans on hold for three weeks. Do you put that down to the Government or merely union tactics?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: The suspension of industrial activity by the union leadership is an industrial tactic. What it does is create even greater uncertainty for the tourism industry and the travelling public – as a result of which, people won’t be booking three weeks in advance with Qantas. And I simply say to the workers – and especially the union leadership that are driving this dispute – if you want job security, how about providing security to the brand and to the travelling public and calls for consumer boycotts of the company that actually pays your wages is not exactly the smartest thing to do.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Do you have any sympathy for the unions? They make a fairly strong case that what we’re seeing here is the dismantling of Qantas in breach of the original Qantas sale act?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: I don’t agree with argument. With these disputes, it’s always an issue of two sides negotiating and hopefully they can resolve issues. But when you have union leadership talking about boycotts of the brand up until Christmas, as we go in to the busiest time of the year, you really do have to start asking what is motivating the union leadership by asking for such a damaging cause of action, because Australians do have alternatives. They do have Jetstar, they do have Virgin, they do have Virgin, they do have Rex, they do have Skywest and all the other airlines.

PAUL BONGIORNO:  So what should the Government do? In fact, what can it do? I see a number of industrial law experts say that unless there’s an all-out strike or a lockout, there’s really nothing under the Fair Work Act the Government can do?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: The Government, I think, has to ask itself and say to the Australian people, “Is this the way they intended the Fair Work Act to operate?” It is now their legislation. It was the legislation that was going to resolve all these matters.

PAUL BONGIORNO: It needs teeth in other words?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: Well, what it needs is a minister and a Prime Minister that is willing to use the toolkit Labor provided for itself to deal with these matters. And it is for Labor to explain why they are not acting, why they’re impotent. And  I fear the reason for their impotence is that Julia Gillard in particular is concerned that her boss will soon be Tony Sheldon, the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union.

PAUL BONGIORNO: An interesting way of looking at it. Well, Tony Abbott has been criticised by Liberal heavyweights Peter Costello and Peter Reith for comments like this.

TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER (Sept 28): We want to work within the existing act and the existing act obviously has no place for individual statutory contracts.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Now Senator Abetz, we know the existing act doesn’t, but it does have a thing called “industrial flexibility arrangements”. And it wouldn’t be too hard for an incoming Abbott Government to turn these flexible arrangements in to AWAs, would it?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: The individual flexibility agreements were deliberately put into the legislation after Labor realised that you do need flexibility. We now have the Minister, Chris Evans, acknowledging that the individual flexibility agreements are not being taken up as was anticipated because they have been made too restrictive, either by Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, the modern awards, or whatever. And so the Minister himself has flagged that the Government is looking at fleshing out the individual flexibility agreement arrangements. And given that we’re going to have a review of the operation of the Fair Work Act, commencing as of January 1 next year, I encourage everybody that has a view on how we can flesh these out to make them actually work for the benefit of workers and employers, they should make a submission.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, just finally in this segment, an incoming Abbott Government, would it have a root and branch review of the Fair Work Act?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: The Fair Work Act is the framework under which we’ll operate. We have said that now on a number of occasions. What we will do is identify the practical problems and then provide practical solutions to those problems, hopefully in dialogue with both the trade union movement and employer groups and individual workers and small businesses, so that we get a system that looks after everybody’s interests. I think we swung the pendulum too far. Some of the activities by trade union leadership in recent times suggest that might be swung the other way too far. So we just want a sensible middle-of-the-road, practical-solution-for-practical-problems approach and that’s what we’re committed to doing.

PAUL BONGIORNO: That’s very non-threatening, Senator. Time for a break. Whether we return with the panel – does the carbon tax face a filibuster in the Senate? And Bob Katter should definitely stick to his day job.

BOB KATTER, INDEPENDENT MP (Tuesday): (Sings very badly): You can all be very sure Bob will work an eight-day week. I know and I hope you know it too, I can assure you Bob Katter junior will do the best for you. I know and I hope you know it’s true.



PAUL BONGIORNO: You’re on ‘Meet the Press’ with Senate Opposition Leader Eric Abetz and welcome to the panel, Alison Carabine, ABC Radio National Breakfast and Malcolm Farr, Good morning.


PAUL BONGIORNO: The Carbon Tax will be fiercely debated but resolutely passed when the Senate returns in a week. The Greens’ numbers are the key, and their senators are already aggressively dismissing Tony Abbott’s blood oath to repeal it.

SENATOR CHRISTINE MILNE, GREENS DEPUTY LEADER (Tuesday): It’s the great big new lie of Australian politics he’s telling. On the one hand, he needs people to believe that he will repeal the clean energy package and on the other hand, he knows full well that he wouldn’t do it.

ALISON CARABINE, ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST: Eric Abetz, there is a growing body of opinion that your policy to scrap the Carbon Tax and all related measures can’t be delivered. The policy has been good for an opposition but is unworkable for a Coalition Government. Don’t you have an emerging credibility gap here?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: Absolutely not. The credibility gap is with a Government that promised no Carbon Tax and is now foisting one on the Australian people. We have kept the bipartisan position that was there before the last election, which was no Carbon Tax. If the Australian people give the Coalition the privilege of Government after the next election, it will be because we have promised to dismantle the Carbon Tax. On that basis, it will beholden upon the Parliament to help us unravel and dismantle the Carbon Tax, just as Kevin Rudd demanded that of us in relation to matters workplace relations after the 2007 election.

ALISON CARABINE: But by the time of the next election, the Carbon Tax and its associated apparatus would have been the law of the land. Tony Abbott’s blood pledge to scrap the tax may have worked a treat with the public but you are spooking some business, especially the electricity sector. Don’t they need the type of investment certainty that you should be delivering?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: You are assuming that the next election will be two years away. Nobody really knows when the next election will be. In relation to certainty, we as a Coalition are saying right now, up-front, before coming to Government, what our policy will be and businesses can make the judgment as to whether our policies are likely to be endorsed by the Australian people. And if that i  s likely to happen, whether they should be planning on that basis. It is quite strange that people assert that somehow the Coalition is introducing uncertainty into the equation when it was Labor, only 12 months ago, that was saying ‘no Carbon Tax’ and then did a complete backflip. That’s what creates uncertainty in the investment community and we have been very certain – we’ve been very clear – and we have had the same approach since before the last election.

MALCOLM FARR: Senator, what sort of reception are you going to give a carbon pricing legislation in the Senate? Are you going to filibuster and try and push it off to a vote next year, are you going to  accept the inevitable and the majority view of the Senate? The indication so far over the cigarette packaging is that  you’re prepared to dig big ditches and stay there – what’s going to happen?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: I don’t agree with your assessment in relation to plain packaging, but moving on to the Carbon Tax, we will fight the Carbon Tax every single step of the way because we are opposed to it and we will remind every single Labor Senator, especially those elected at the last election, that they had been elected on a promise of no Carbon Tax. And it’s passing strange –and this is what a lot of Australians are asking – how is it when every single Labor and Coalition member of the Parliament is elected on a no-Carbon Tax platform that somehow it can get through the Parliament? What it shows is that Bob Brown is running the show and Julia Gillard and Labor ...

MALCOLM FARR: It’s all the numbers ...

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: are meekly following.

MALCOLM FARR: It’s the numbers of the Parliament, the democratically-elected members of the Parliament have a view and we know what that view will be in the Senate in terms of this legislation. It’s not an abrogation of democracy, it’s an exercise in democracy. So how does that give you a right to try and block it?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: No, because these people in the democratic system actually were elected on the basis of no Carbon Tax. And so that is something that these elected representatives cannot overcome. They made a solemn promise. Julia Gillard stared down the camera lens and said, “There will be no Carbon Tax.” When we as a Coalition said, “don’t trust them,” Wayne Swan came out, accused us of being hysterical. It’s now quite obvious we weren’t being hysterical, we were being historical, and history will record this as one of the biggest attempted deceptions of the Australian people.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well Senator, the Coalition’s asylum seeker policies came under fire during the week. The Navy said turning back the boats was never safe and one of the architects of the Pacific Solution said it would no longer work. Here’s Mr Metcalfe.

ANDREW METCALFE, DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION AND CITIZENSHIP (Monday) : The combination of circumstances that existed at the end of 2001 could not be repeated with success.

MALCOLM FARR: Senator, could you outline the circumstances in which a boat intercepted in international waters could be turned around and sent back to say, Indonesia?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: Australia did that, as I understand it, about half a dozen times with success. And what we need to remember is that the Coalition has a suite of policies. We don’t say “Nauru is the only solution,” we don’t say “temporary protection visas are the only solution,” we don’t say “turning back the boats is the only solution.”

MALCOLM FARR: But it’s a solution...

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: Keep in mind, Kevin Rudd was most anxious to tell the Australian people just before the 2007 election that he would turn back the boats.

MALCOLM FARR: Tony Abbott’s been saying that since the August election campaign. It’s never been made clear how that would be done because Indonesia doesn’t want boats being propelled back to it. And the Navy has warned it would be very, very dangerous. But you persist with the policy. I just want to know the circumstances in which it could be implemented?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: The circumstances would clearly be if those that are confronting the illegal ships or boats coming in to Australia, make the determination that it is safe – number one – to do so. That the boat is appropriately seaworthy to be able to take the journey back. And it would have to be a measure and a decision undertaken by those in the field – if you can use that term – about the ocean and the sea, but those that are there practically engaging with them would need to make that call. But we are saying if it were determined that it could be safe, that it could be undertaken, like it was done half a dozen times before, that sends a huge message to the people smugglers and those that would seek to engage them.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Thank you very much, Senator Eric Abetz.


PAUL BONGIORNO: Coming up, Tony Sheldon from the TWU on the Qantas rolling strikes. And syndicated cartoonist Zanetti has this none-too-sympathetic view of the engineers’ bans.

(Cartoon showing Engineer with Qantas plane taken apart behind him): “What? Do you expect me to put it all together again?”

(QANTAS THEME: “I still call Australia home” over cartoon  and playoff to break)


PAUL BONGIORNO: You’re on Meet the Press. The Qantas engineers have put their strike action on hold, passing the stop-work baton back to the baggage handlers and other members of the TWU who begin their walk-offs on Wednesday.

OLIVIA WIRTH, QANTAS (Tuesday): Is their campaign working to damage the business? Absolutely. It’s impacting on our customers, it’s impacting on the passengers, it’s impacting on the employees, it’s impacting on the sustainability of this business.

PAUL BONGIORNO: And it’s welcome back to the program, Transport Workers’ Union National Secretary Tony Sheldon. Good morning, Tony.


PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, how do you answer Olivia Wirth there? Are the unions destroying Qantas to save it?  

TONY SHELDON, TWU NATIONAL SECRETARY: I think it’s critically important. First of all, this Olivia Wirth, a spin doctor, paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars to run a line. I think what really needs to happen is the people behind the Qantas dispute – Alan Joyce, the chairman of the board, Leigh Clifford, should be the ones answering these questions. But quite clearly, the company nine months ago made a decision to start training people in LA to do baggage handlers’ work. The CEOs accused the best pilots in the world, Qantas pilots, of being kamikazes. And we saw the hysterical comments nearly two weeks ago where 35 thousand employees were alleged to be threatening various personalities within the Qantas group. That’s not the sort of comments that somebody makes when they’re trying to keep the brand high in the public’s mind as being a brand they can trust.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, it did go back to Fair Work Australia this week. Is there a stand-off? I mean how long is this going to last?

TONY SHELDON: I think the question that’s been raised amongst the 4,000 and certainly soon to be 300 more employees in the areas we cover, along with the other workers across the Qantas group and that’s how far is the Qantas management prepared to go? And one of the things we believe is underlying this dispute is the intention by Qantas to offshore more jobs to put the debt into Qantas whilst they float the operations for Jetstar and a new you beaut Asian carrier, which may return quite a bit of money, in the first instance, for the executives and directors that vote for it, as we saw at the last APA bid, failed APA bid, when they tried to privatise, equitise the business.

ALISON CARABINE: Tony Sheldon, you have drawn parallels between this dispute and the battle for the waterfront. There was much at stake for Patrick Stevedores and the MUA back in 1998. This time around what’s at stake? This dispute’s more about than just pay and conditions, isn’t it?

TONY SHELDON: Well, it certainly is about more than pay and conditions. It’s about whether somebody gets paid, what they get paid, what the conditions are, whether it be in Australia or overseas and the outsourcing of labour and job security. We’ve seen in this economy, over two million people are now casuals, people that don’t have job security. Many of whom are asking for job security and decent arrangements so they know how they can feed their family each week, so they can pay their rent, putting food on the table. Those sorts of questions are really at the heart of the problem with Qantas. They’ve said they want to outsource within this country at many hundreds of dollars a week less and outsource overseas with many thousands of dollars a week less.

ALISON CARABINE: What we’ve seen so far has been as much a PR battle as an industrial relations battle. Qantas is an Australian icon. Do you believe that you’re winning the hearts and mind of the Australian public, not just the Australian travelling public? Are they on your side on this one?

TONY SHELDON: I think what everybody wants, and that is for this dispute to be resolved. That’s the thing that’s a common position amongst both the work force and also the travelling public. I think what you look at with the Qantas strategy, particularly with the likes of Leigh Clifford, the Chairperson of the board, where he’s had a love relationship with WorkChoices and has a very ideologically-driven approach to his workforce, both within Qantas and elsewhere. I think he’s driving a lot of this agenda.

MALCOLM FARR: If any industry is going to be affected by globalisation, it’s the international aviation industry. Aren’t you, in effect, hankering for the days when QF1 rode the skies, and Qantas lived off that and was the Australian flag carrier and everybody saluted as one flew overhead? There’ve got to be changes and aren’t you standing in the way of those necessary changes?

TONY SHELDON: First of all, I’m very supportive of both their expansion in Asia and also with the operations they’ve created in Dallas. There’s some fundamental problems about some of the decisions made, about how they’ve gone about that. They can actually create more Australian jobs, decent paying Australian jobs in this country and also expand overseas. This is a greed-on-greed strategy which involves decreasing the workforce and this country’s rights, decreasing job security and joining the two million other people hankering for job security in this country.

MALCOLM FARR: If we can go on to ... we learnt today that you’re going to be Julia Gillard’s boss after the December conference – I don’t know what you’ve been talking to Eric Abetz about, but he’s confident of that. What would your advice be to the Prime Minister? Would it include the advice from Peter Beattie that to end all the leadership speculation, she should call on a spill, get it over with and then proceed?

TONY SHELDON: Look, I think Julia Gillard is going to be the person and I’m confident, will be the person who will go to the next Federal election. The question of presidents of political parties, I think Peter Reith had of been elected and I’m not quite sure who Eric Abetz voted for, but a frightening thought – there was a choice between the guy who brought soldiers to our waterfront to the person Stockdale who’s on the Macquarie Bank as a director and a director of a number of other major corporations.

ALISON CARABINE: What would your advice be to sort out the leadership tensions because they’re a drag on the Government?

TONY SHELDON: Look, I think what’s critically important here, is that Julia Gillard is a very strong leader. The logic of what’s going to happen over the coming months is that people are going to be focusing on –  now that the Carbon Tax has been dealt with – they’re going to be focusing on what the consequences are for an Abbott Government. Tony Abbott has announced that he’s going to bring an extra $1,000 a year to every household having to pay because of his carbon abatement plan. How will he is going to distance himself from the $70 billion black hole that he’s been putting to the Government with all the programs he plans on dropping off?

PAUL BONGIORNO: Thank you for being with us today Tony Sheldon and thanks to our panel, Alison Carabine and Malcolm Farr. A transcript and a replay of this program will be on our website and our Facebook page. Until next week, goodbye.


Click here to read the transcript on TEN News website

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