Qantas Ball Now In Labor’s Court

So now the Qantas ball is in Bill Shorten’s court.

Last night the Abbott Government announced it was not going to provide Qantas a government debt guarantee – that is, let the airline, which has a junk credit rating, piggy-back on the Government’s triple-A credit rating.

Instead, the Coalition wants to repeal part of the Qantas Sale Act, which places a limit of foreign ownership on Qantas that its competitor Virgin is not subject to, and (of course) get rid of the carbon tax.

(Happily, partial nationalisation is off the table.)

Thank goodness. A debt guarantee would have made a mockery of the Government’s professed free market sympathies. The last few months have seen an agonising debate within the Coalition as to whether they could do such a thing. It genuinely could have gone either way.

But a debt guarantee was only on the table because Labor refuses to countenance any repeal of the Qantas Sale Act.

Allowing in more foreign investment, in the words of Anthony Albanese, would turn the flying kangaroo into the “flying camel” or the “flying panda”.

Put aside the slightly xenophobic vibe there. Even if the Qantas Sale Act were repealed, the existing limitations on foreign shareholding in the Air Navigation Act would remain the same. On top of that, any investment would be subject to approval by the Foreign Investment Review Board and the Treasurer, who are supposed to take in all those nebulous ideas of national interest.

We’ve been loading up anti-foreign investment laws on our statute books for half a century now.

All this national carrier stuff about Qantas – the “still call Australia home” blather – is a political ploy. It’s the rhetoric of nationalism in the service of rent-seeking.

A debt guarantee is a corporate bailout, pure and simple.

And as with any bailout, the biggest winners of a bailout of Qantas wouldn’t be its unionised workforce but Qantas’ management.

Albanese and Shorten say they’re mostly worried to ensure that aviation jobs stay in Australia. But Qantas is shedding jobs while it remains in limbo for the Qantas Sale Act to be repealed.

Labor’s refusal to budge on the act – which would open up the airline to new sources of funding that aren’t Australian taxpayers – just adds to the instability of the airline and therefore the uncertainty of the jobs that Albanese and Shorten say they want to protect.

But ultimately, industry failure and job losses get blamed on the government in charge at the time, not its parliamentary rivals.

And, of course, Shorten’s Labor is not the first party in the world to discover the easy relationship between opposition and opportunism. Tony Abbott’s Coalition made antagonism into an art form. I wrote at the time that there was nothing wrong with an opposition opposing the government.

Yet Shorten’s approach on Qantas sits uneasily with Labor’s self-image as the party of change battling the conservative parties of reaction.

The ALP likes to see itself as the driving force behind Australian history. Labor’s role is to lead social movements and spur reform. The conservative parties are there to resist – there to restrain Labor’s overreach and sometimes reverse its excesses.

It was Labor that sold Qantas in the first place, as part of its broader liberalisation and privatisation agenda under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Yet how should we square that sort of progressive approach to economics (and opening the Australian economy was definitely progressive, in any literal sense of the word) with Shorten and Albanese’s proposed bailout of Qantas’ management under the cover of nationalism? Or its refusal to connect a global airline to global capital markets?

The Qantas Sale Act is a legacy of old prejudices against foreign investment, old philosophies of corporate nationalism, and old economic beliefs about industry policy.

Consumers are showing no loyalty to Qantas, so why should parliament give it special treatment?

The idea that the same consumers who grab cheap Singapore or AirAsia fares to Bali or a Virgin ticket to the Gold Coast would seriously punish a government for allowing foreigners to buy some – not all – of Qantas beggars belief. Certainly not if the policy was explained properly.

Every opposition lives with the ghost of its previous government. Particularly during the early years of the Howard government, the Labor Party struggled against policy that it had considered in the decade before: the introduction of the GST, for instance, and the privatisation of Telstra. There’s every reason to believe that had Keating won in 1996, he would have continued the economic reform he begun back in 1983.

With Qantas, Labor is fighting the legacy not just of Keating but also the Gillard government,which was just about to approve some sort of debt guarantee when Julia Gillard was rolled by Kevin Rudd in June 2013. Albanese had been personally negotiating a deal between Qantas and the Commonwealth. No wonder this seems like a settled question.

Perhaps Bill Shorten can rest easy. Historians tend to remember parties by what they did in government, not what they said in opposition.

But by refusing legislative reform, Labor is punishing the national icon it claims to love, and risking the jobs it wants to defend.