Transcript of joint press conference, Canberra
MON 31 OCTOBER 2011
Subject(s): Qantas; Fair Work Australia
PM: Thank you very much. I am joined by the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese and the Minister for Workplace Relations, Chris Evans.
Earlier this morning, Fair Work Australia granted the Government's application to terminate all industrial action relating to Qantas. This is a win for passengers stranded around the country and around the world. This is a win for the one million Australians who work in tourism, and of course were so anxious that their customers could not get to where their holidays were going to be.
In making this application, the Government wanted to see industrial action stopped. That is, by going to Fair Work Australia, we have achieved what we set out to do: planes will be back in the skies, Qantas workers will be back at work.
We wanted to end all industrial action because we were very concerned about the circumstances that had left Australians stranded.
As Prime Minster, and the Government overall was concerned about the extreme action taken by Qantas that had stranded tens of thousands of passengers far away from home. We wanted to make sure that those passengers could get flights and were able to return home.
We wanted to see this industrial action at an end.
We also took this application because we were concerned about the risk to the national economy caused by this disputation and the industrial action.
This morning, I have spoken to a number of the participants in this dispute. I'm in the process of speaking to all of the participants in this dispute. I have made it very clear to them that my expectation now that industrial action has ceased is that they will get around a table and get this sorted.
There is a 21-day period now for the industrial parties to come together and to resolve this dispute. In that 21-day period, it is clearly my view that they should act quickly, they should get together and they should work this dispute out.
If they are unable to do so, then Fair Work Australia will impose a solution on them at the end of the 21-day period.
Before I pass over to Minister Albanese, I do want to affirm that the Government's action taken on Saturday was taken swiftly. We wanted to see this industrial action resolved.
The industrial action has now been resolved. That means that Qantas planes will be returning to the skies later today, and for a description as to how that will occur, I'll turn to the Minister for Transport now.
MINISTER ALBANESE: Thank you, Prime Minister.
Qantas safety case was received by CASA, hand-delivered at 10.23am this morning. The CASA safety team is currently reviewing this material. They're assessing the serviceability of aircraft, the management of the dispute issues arising from it, and sequencing of returning aircraft.
CASA is allowing Qantas to position flights. That is, empty planes flying to where their departure point will be for passenger services, as we speak.
CASA believes that Qantas passenger flights will commence around about 3pm this afternoon. The first priority has been Sydney to Melbourne, because it is on that route that there are most stranded passengers at the present time.
The Department and CASA estimate that Qantas will not be at full operation until Wednesday. There is a delay period because of the cessation of flights from 5pm on Saturday.
It's also the case, I should indicate, that Virgin Australia will be providing an additional 3,000 seats today. Virgin have moved over 75,000 people domestically and internationally between 5pm Saturday and midnight last night. So they've added 58 services to the network. That has, of course, been of great assistance as well to the travelling public.
PM: Just before we take questions, I'll ask the Minster for Workplace relations just to describe what will now happen at Fair Work Australia.
MINISTER EVANS: Thank you, Prime Minister. I think most of you are aware now that the effective decision of Fair Work Australia full bench last night is that all industrial action is ordered to cease. There is now a period of 21 days in which the parties are required to negotiate a settlement to their enterprise bargaining agreement.
If that's not successful, if they can't reach agreement, then the Fair Work Australia will make a declaration. In the old language, they'll arbitrate the decision, arbitrate the matter and make a decision which will be binding on the parties. But there will be no industrial action, either by Qantas or the unions - the three unions affected - during that period until they either reach an agreement or there's a declaration made by Fair Work Australia.
The Government stands ready to support the negotiation process. Obviously, it'll be managed by Fair Work Australia. If there's anything we can do to assist, we will, but the Prime Minister has delivered a very strong message to the parties, as we have been doing for some time, is that they ought to get on and maturely fix it.
It's highly regrettable that it got to this, but the responsibility on them is now to fix it and that's the government's expectations.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there is criticism today that you didn't do enough, quickly enough to step in and stop the fleet being grounded at all, that you could have stopped it happening at all. Could you answer that, and could you and the Ministers also answer exactly when you and/or your office first knew of the possibility of the fleet being grounded?
PM: Okay, I'll take both of those questions.
On the first of them, the swift action the Government took has brought the dispute to an end. Flights will be in the air this afternoon. We have achieved what we set out to do, which is the end of industrial action and Qantas getting back to its business of flying passengers where they need to go - and that is a win.
It is a win for those stranded passengers around the nation and around the world, and of course, for our tourism operators.
In terms of timeliness of the actions taken, we were advised around 2pm on Saturday that Qantas was grounding its fleet at 5pm in preparation for a lockout. That was the advice that the Government got from Qantas at 2pm. We did not have any earlier advice that planes would be grounded at 5pm.
Having heard that, we took immediate steps to get the matter to Fair Work Australia.
Fair Work Australia commenced its hearings that night. Fair Work Australia continued its hearings yesterday, and concluded them early this morning. As a result, planes will be back in the sky this afternoon.
Now, I know that there has been discussion about another section of the legislation, Section 431. Let me make it very clear the issues about Section 431; it is a section which enables a minister to make a declaration about industrial action. It appears in the Fair Work Australia Act. It has appeared in earlier versions of industrial relations legislation. It has never been used. It is capable of judicial review.
If that judicial review happened, you would have to have a hearing with all the facts put on the table. That is, all the facts put on the table the way the facts were put on the table before Fair Work Australia.
The Government therefore faced a choice: whether to use this procedure which we have used which worked, or whether to use this last-resort procedure in Section 431 which has never been used and which would have taken us into new legal terrain.
We determined to use the section that we did use, and it has got the result that we wanted.
I would note, too, that we received the clearest of possible advice from our departmental advisors to take the course that we did take.
PM: On the advice questions, with timing of advice, I'll turn to Minster Albanese on that.
MINISTER ALBANESE: Can I indicate that the first time in which I was informed that there would be the grounding of the aircraft through a lockout was when a staff member from Mr Joyce rang one of my staff on Saturday afternoon.
In terms of the timing of that, my staff member was rung at 1.26 PM. At 1.38 PM, my staff member rang me and told me to expect a phone call from Mr Joyce. I didn't receive one so I rang him at 1.51 PM. I still didn't receive one, so I rang him at 1.55 PM. I still didn't receive one, so I rang him at 1.58 PM. Apparently, through security measures, it's harder to get phone calls in, so I'm not sure what time Mr Joyce rang me, but it was certainly after 1.58 PM, after I had tried on a number of occasions to get hold of him.
That was the first occasion in which Mr Joyce or anyone else from Qantas had ever raised the issue of a lockout.
Now, I listened to Mr Joyce on Fran Kelly's program this morning, and as a result I rang Mr Joyce, and he will confirm that at no stage did Qantas, Mr Joyce, or anyone else raise with me the possibility of a lockout of the Qantas work force until we had that conversation that afternoon.
JOURNALIST: But if (inaudible) Mr Albanese, he raised this on several occasions with the Government and you shouldn't be surprised in the least. Who did he say he raised it with, and when?
MINISTER ALBANESE: Well, I indicate to you that I had a phone conversation with Mr Joyce about an hour ago after he finished his press conference. I indicated to him that this was my recollection of events, that I did not recall him ever raising the possibility of a lockout of his work force. He confirmed to me that that was also the case. I also indicated to him that I would be making that public given that there was some speculation about that. He agreed that he would, he agreed with my account that it had never been raised publicly, the possibility of a lockout.
JOURNALIST: Well how did he explain the discrepancy from his earlier-
MINISTER ALBANESE: -That's not up to me to explain.
JOURNALIST: But did he explain to you?
MINISTER ALBANESE: Well, what it's up to me to explain is to put the facts out there.
Qantas had certainly raised with me, on a number of occasions - we had face to face meetings, phone conversations - the problems they were having with the fleet and the grounding of the fleet in terms of the grounding of particular planes, and seven aircraft had been grounded.
As you would be aware, Mr Joyce has indicated, and we have a difference as with regard to interpretation of that in terms of timing, but he indicated that obviously if planes kept being grounded at a rate of two a week it would reach some point whereby there were a range of aircraft grounded, and therefore the airline would not operate.
But at no stage – at no stage - did he indicate the possibility of a lockout of the workforce which has precipitated his announcement of a 5pm shut down of Qantas, both domestic and internationally.
JOURNALIST: Minister and Prime Minister, Minister when you spoke to Mr Joyce on Saturday, the Prime Minister has said today that he had alternative options that he didn't use.
Did you put that to him in that conversation on Saturday, and if so, what did he say to you, and has the Government, either the Prime Minister or the Minister, had that conversation with him since - and what reason does he give for why he chose that option and not others?
MINISTER ALBANESE: I don't intend to go through song and verse of all the details of conversations that I have with CEOs, but suffice to say that it is fair to argue that Mr Joyce put it very clearly that this was a decision that had been made by the Qantas board. He acknowledged that at no stage had he asked for government intervention, either up to that time or indeed at that time. He informed me that he was simply letting me know of the decision of the board that was made that morning. I certainly indicated to him my concern about what the board had decided, and about the timing of it.
PM: Thank you, before we take any questions, I'll actually ask the Minister for Workplace Relations to describe some of the options that are available under the Fair Work Act.
MINISTER EVANS: Thank you, Prime Minister. Just to make the point that the suggestion that there was no other option open to Qantas is not right. The advice I have from my department is that they had a range of options. They include accessing a number of provisions in the Act which would have allowed them to seek intervention and termination of industrial action because of the threat to, the economic threat to Qantas and its employees.
Or they could have applied under the 424 provisions, which we used, which went to significant economic damage to an important part of the economy.
Or they could have made application for a suspension of industrial action to enable a cooling off period.
There were a range of measures open to Qantas under the Fair Work Act other than the one which they chose to use, and I'd just make the point that I, when I received the call from Mr Joyce on what was still Saturday morning in Perth, it was to advise me as a courtesy that they were taking that action; that that was a decision that had been endorsed by the board; and that they may have to shut the airline down earlier, if the information became public, because of their concerns that they would have to close the airline rather than keep flying after announcement.
So, the clear implication to me was that it was, decision had been taken, and that would apply at 5 o'clock or earlier if required, and when I pressed Mr Joyce as to whether or not there had been a change in circumstances given that the aircraft engineers had suspended their industrial action for three weeks, whether there'd been a change of circumstances on that day, he was not able to answer that, and he just made it clear that I should be aware of their circumstances.
But I pressed him as to whether anything had changed to bring about this course of action and he said that his only, his answer was that this was the only option available to Qantas.
PM: Thank you.
Just before we take the next questions, though, can I - in terms of that discussion, say - I do not accept that Qantas's only choice on Saturday was to take the extreme action of grounding all planes and leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded.
I do not accept that.
Just in terms of getting the facts on the record, because there have been some other claims made which should be corrected, there are claims in newspapers this morning that Mr Joyce was seeking to speak to me, and had I taken his call, the planes would have not been grounded. That is untrue, and Mr Joyce has confirmed today that that is untrue, so those reports in today's newspapers are wholly wrong.
There's also been some speculation - and reporting - that Mr Joyce requested the Government in his telephone calls on Saturday to use section 431 of the act. Any reporting of that nature is wholly untrue as well.
Yes. Yes, Dennis?
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) 431, you've mentioned the legal uncertainty of using it, when did the Government actually look at using 431. What was your legal advice on that, and when did you get that?
PM: Well as the Minister for Workplace Relations has made clear, the advice we received from the relevant department on Saturday was that the appropriate course was to use the section that we did use, section 424.
I also think perhaps the best thing to do would be to look at the outcome. What is the outcome?
The Government wanted to see industrial action cease. We wanted to make sure stranded passengers could get their flights. We wanted to make sure this damage to the national economy was brought to an end. And we have succeeded.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) 431, using 431 before Saturday?
PM: Dennis, you misunderstand the nature of 431 in asking that question. 431 requires the same test of damage to the national economy as section 424 does, the section that we used, until the dispute escalated.
And let's remember, Friday, Qantas was talking about negotiating this dispute through. That was the advice on Friday. Saturday, the nature of the dispute changed when Qantas decided to ground the fleet at 5pm and to proceed with a lockout.
It wasn't until that change of circumstance, Qantas moving from talking about negotiation to that escalation of the dispute, that any of these questions presented as live questions for government determination.
Anybody who puts any other version of the facts in relation to that is simply not telling you the truth.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) response Tony Sheldon said today that there, the union is considering a legal challenge to the Fair Work ruling.
In your conversation with Mr Sheldon that you've either had or are about to had, are you going to tell him to drop that as part of your wish to have this sorted out?
PM: Well, no appeal has been filed to Fair Work Australia's ruling.
The advice to us is that it is a robust ruling, it's in operation now and it will continue to be in operation, so the industrial dispute has been terminated. The opportunity is there now for parties to get around a table and sort this out. If they're unable to, then Fair Work Australia will sort it out for them in 21 days’ time.
But let's be very clear for members of the travelling public - Qantas planes are moving back into the sky. As this 21-day period of conciliation goes through, Qantas planes will be travelling in the sky. They will be working as people expect Qantas to work.
If the parties don't resolve it and Fair Work Australia arbitrates it, Qantas will continue to function as normal during the days of that arbitration.
Mr Joyce in his press conference today used the terminology - as you would expect him to as CEO - that people can now book Qantas flights with confidence.
JOURNALIST: A couple of questions. Firstly, on Section 431, if it's never been used and it is open to appeal, what's it there for, and can you describe a situation where it would be used or could be used?
Secondly, in terms of the industrial dispute, one of the criticisms Qantas had was that the unions were asking for things about company decisions and management that they should not be asking for. Do you think there's any room in Fair Work Act to maybe include - re-include an allowable strike provisions clause?
And thirdly, Qantas gave evidence in the hearing yesterday that they decided on 26 October that talks with the TWU had failed. Do you think they'd planned this for more days than they're letting on?
PM: Well on matters related to the TWU, I might refer to Minister Albanese.
On the other questions you ask, the current section in the legislation replicates sections in earlier versions of the Act - it is there as a last resort. It has never been used, and consequently, because it has never been used, there's not, you know, certainty about the way in which courts would deal with that provision. So you know, it's there as a last resort should a last resort circumstance ever present.
What the Government determined to do quickly on Saturday afternoon, with the first hearing Saturday night, was to use a provision of the Fair Work Act, which would enable us to get an order that the industrial action be terminated, that passengers could start moving again, that people would no longer be stranded.
We achieved what we set out to do, and that is a win for passengers who will be able to start getting back on planes rather than being stranded, and of course, we were motivated by our concerns about the national economy and the economic damage, including to the tourism industry.
Now, you had three questions - one's going to Minister Albanese. What was the second?
JOURNALIST: The other one was Qantas had decided on the 26th that their talks with the TWU had failed-
PM: -Minister Albanese will respond to that.
MINISTER ALBANESE: I read this morning in The Daily Telegraph that Mr Joyce had a meeting in my Marrickville office the Friday before last. I don't normally disclose private meetings, but given it's appeared in the press, on this occasion I will, and confirm the fact that I have had three face-to-face meetings with Mr Joyce in the past eight days prior to his announcement.
The Government wasn't sitting back doing nothing here. The Government was attempting to facilitate discussion between the parties.
I had a meeting between myself, Mr Joyce and Mr Sheldon on the Friday before last in my Marrickville office. I chose the Marrickville office so it wouldn't get out because I attempted to have a without-prejudice discussion to see where two people who I have a good relationship with could get to. In terms of the details of those discussions, it's not appropriate to reveal them.
It is however, notable that after that meeting, Mr Sheldon and the TWU called off, as they said they would, the planned industrial stoppage they had scheduled for Wednesday.
I then had a further meeting with Mr Joyce in my office later that afternoon about the economic impact of the dispute on Qantas, and I had a further meeting with Mr Sheldon and Mr Joyce on last Wednesday afternoon.
It was my view that considerable progress was being made, and you will note that there were reports indeed in the newspaper early last week about the progress that had been made with spokespeople from both Qantas and the Transport Workers Union indicating that that was the case.
Under those circumstances, that is part of the reason why I found quite extraordinary - quite extraordinary – that I received the notification that I did from Mr Joyce on Saturday afternoon. I believe that if both parties, both the employer in Qantas, and the employees, act like adults, they can certainly get this done.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in terms of the issues in this dispute that have to with Qantas' proposed restructuring of its international division, does the Government have a view on that, and specifically, do you have a view about whether anything that the company proposes to do runs foul of the Qantas Sales Act?
PM: Well on the Qantas Sale Act, I'll go to Minister Albanese.
I'm not going to be drawn as the conciliation process unfolds over coming days on individual issues in this dispute. What we need now, and I've conveyed this directly to the parties myself this morning, is we need them to get around a table and use this opportunity to get this fixed; to get this done. They have a 21-day period. It's in their interest that they start and they get it done as quickly as possible.
On the Sale Act, I'll refer to Minister Albanese.
MINISTER ALBANESE: With regard to the Qantas Sale Act, the Government has made our position very clear: that we will not countenance any breach of the Act. We have a watching brief, and as Qantas makes announcements or makes its position further clear as issues develop with regard to its plans for restructuring, the Government will seek advice as that is made. But we've made it very clear that we intend to uphold the Qantas Sale Act.
At the moment there is nothing that has been proposed that I have advice is in breach of the Act, but we of course have not seen the full detail of that because many of those details have not been finalised.
PM: We'll go over there. We'll go over to Lenore and then come back to Michelle. Lenore?
PM: Sorry. Just don't trade places I'll be in even worst straights. Laura?
JOURNALIST: Hello. Could I just clarify, some of the employers and others have been suggesting that this dispute itself is, shall we say, a love child of the Fair Work Act because it's given greater powers to the unions to pursue a wider range of issues beyond workplace conditions. I was wondering whether you could address that particular point please.
PM: I'm happy to address that particular point.
It's certainly true that the bargaining system we introduced under the Fair Work Act does enable working people to bargain on things like job security, and so they should - they should be able to bargain on job security.
It's not appropriate, and I don't think it's right for Australian workplaces that, for example - and this should not be taken as a reference to the Qantas dispute, I'm using a hypothetical example, so please note that - but it's not acceptable to me that we could have a situation where an employer agrees with his or her employees that they are to be paid a certain wage, and then during the life of that agreement, when the employees are obligated to not take industrial action - that's the rules under the Fair Work Act - the employer starts employing contractors at cheaper rates and making those employees redundant.
That is not acceptable to me. I can understand that people want to bargain on job security matters.
Now, let's remember bargaining doesn't mean agreement. It means that you get to raise the issue and you get to have the conversation. Work Choices was all about leaving employees without any ability to pursue issues on their own behalf, without any real ability to really have a voice.
The express desire of the Howard Government and the Liberal Party, of Cabinet Ministers like Tony Abbott, was to make sure that employers had all of the say and working people had none of the say. That wasn't right, and working people rightly rejected it in the 2007 election.
I owe Michelle a question.
JOURNALIST: Ms Gillard, you said that you're now talking to all the parties. Do you think it would've made any difference if you had become involved in this in a more high-profile way, getting the parties together as your minister did but with the extra clout coming from being a Prime Ministerial meeting, or do you think you did everything that you could've to get this dispute resolved before the weekend?
PM: I believe I did everything that I could and I believe the Government pursued the appropriate strategy. At every point, I have been in contact with and briefed by my Ministers. I was obviously well aware of Minister Albanese's discussions; well aware of Minister Evans' discussions and the like. They were using their good offices to see what could be done, as I think should be very transparent to you now from the information made available during the course of this press conference.
Clearly, that wasn't going to lead to an outcome because Qantas determined on Saturday to take the extreme action that we have seen. Now, my view is with the Government having taken the right steps quickly to bring this industrial disputation to an end; with the Fair Work system delivering a termination of the industrial action; with the Fair Work system delivering a 21-day conciliation period, it is now in the interests of all of these parties - and I put obligations on their shoulders equally - it's in the interests of all of these parties, each trade union and Qantas, to get round a table and get this fixed.
Thank you very much.