Re-nationalise Qantas to save jobs

December 6, 2013
Re-nationalisation of Qantas would help end its financial woes and allow an integrated public transport system.

"Qantas in crisis: 1000 jobs to go; Warning of $300 million loss; [federal transport minister Warren] Truss rules out aid," was the dramatic headline on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on December 5.

The deep problems ailing Australia's national airline pose a clear choice between two options: allow the airline to battle on in the chaos of the international airline wars, or re-nationalise Qantas as a key part of a socially progressive and environmentally sustainable public transport policy.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said on December 4 that the company faced a pre-tax loss of up to $300 million for the six months to December. He said 1000 jobs would be abolished over the next 12 months, while the board would take a pay cut. Salaries would be frozen for executives, supplier costs reviewed and fleet usage optimised.

The Australian reported: "The new sackings come on top of previously-announced losses of up to 300 jobs due to the closure of the airline's heavy maintenance base in Avalon. Qantas's CEO declined to give a breakdown of the new job losses, saying the carrier was consulting with the ACTU, unions and workers.

“‘The Australian international market is the toughest anywhere in the world,’ Joyce said.”

Qantas has been in a struggle for market share with Virgin Australia for years, and Joyce has called for federal government intervention to assist the national carrier. He said the airline will do "whatever we need to do to secure the Qantas Group's future."

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey recently called for a debate on Qantas' future, including possible amendment of the Qantas Sale Act which bans foreign investors from owning more than 49% of the airline. Other options include providing a government guarantee for Qantas borrowings, or even the government taking back partial ownership of the airline.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament on December 5: "We appreciate that some iconic businesses, such as Qantas, are under significant comparative pressure. Obviously we grieve for every worker whose job has been lost. We grieve for them. We appreciate just how difficult this is for them, and for their families."

Abbott and his ministers don't care about the interests of ordinary workers — they are preparing a massive escalation of attacks on the union movement.

Independent Senator for South Australia Nick Xenophon has called for Qantas CEO Joyce and the entire board of management to quit. "The international reputation of Qantas ... is being trashed by the current management. That is why they have to go."

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Dave Oliver has supported government intervention to guarantee the airline's future. "There are a number of options floating around, that the government can buy equity in the airline or become a guarantor," he said on December 5.

Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon said on December 5: "Qantas' problem is not a lack of capital. It's a lack of management. It has outsourced its flight crew. It has outsourced its ground services.

"Now it is outsourcing its capital, and using this to justify slashing 1000 jobs."

But the crisis of Qantas and the entire airline industry goes much deeper than this. It goes back to the disastrous decision of the Paul Keating Labor government to privatise Qantas in the early 1990s.

Qantas was fully government-owned until 1993 and maintained the best safety record in the world and one of the world's best track records for being on time. With a fully unionised workforce, workers had secure, reasonable wages.

All this has now changed under a fully privatised Qantas. The solution lies in a radical change of direction.

Paul Cousins, from the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers' Association, says the job losses at Qantas have come as a shock and has called on the federal government to re-nationalise the airline to end its financial woes.

The re-nationalisation of Qantas could be the first step in the development of an integrated public transport system, linked to a massive expansion of the national railway network, with special priority given to the construction of a Very Fast Train system. A nationalised airline would have to be under workers' and community control, as part of a national public transport plan implemented by a genuine people's government.

Only such a democratic, socialist plan could effectively work to rationalise highly polluting air transport within a framework of fully unionised, green jobs with fair wages and conditions, in an environmentally sustainable, national public transport system. A publicly owned and community controlled national transport system is essential to drastically reduce carbon pollution in a world threatened by climate change.

Re-nationalising Qantas would be an important first step along this long and challenging pathway.

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