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Ugly nationalism in support for Qantas bailout


Qantas A380 jet at Kingsford Smith Airport

The Federal Government is correct in its determination to be unsentimental in its attitude to financial assistance for Qantas. At the time of writing, it appears to have discarded earlier ideas of assisting the struggling airline by means of a debt guarantee. Instead it is pushing for Senate support to level the playing field through an amendment to the 1992 Qantas Sale Act to allow substantial foreign ownership.

The level playing field is certainly the only way to go if we cannot articulate and justify why we need a national carrier. So far Labor's attempt to do this has been quite fatuous, with shadow transport spokesperson Anthony Albanese focusing on the idea of Qantas planes in the sky being an advertisement for Australian tourism. His leader Bill Shorten has simply criticised the Government for the loss of 5000 jobs and made the facile suggestion that 'we would be the bunnies if we just waved goodbye to an Australian icon'.

It's time that defenders of the need for a national carrier produced substantial arguments to counter the growing acceptance that its time has passed.

The idea of a national (or 'flag') carrier is a legacy of the time when governments took the lead in establishing airlines to serve their populations because the high capital cost of doing this was not attractive to business. Now we have large overseas carriers such as Emirates that are much better equipped to take the financial risk and provide affordable air travel because of their economies of scale. They can provide comfortable and efficient international flights to Australia, and offer extensive domestic services through their equity in Virgin Australia.

It is also important to disentangle talk of a national carrier serving the national interest from the often ugly phenomenon of nationalism. Underlying mention of Qantas as an 'Australian icon' could be the sentiment associated with the 1990s resurgence of nationalism and its racist undertones.

We had Pauline Hanson's warning that Australia was 'in danger of being swamped by Asians'. A few years later there was John Howard's 'Fortress Australia' response to refugee arrivals and his popular vow that 'we will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come'. Now both sides of politics talk about nationalism in terms of sovereignty and border protection.

We can possibly interpret the results of an Essential Media poll released last Monday as an indication that the large number of Australians who want the Government to 'stop the boats' would also like to see Qantas re-nationalised, at least in part. It is true that the timing and execution of the re-nationalisation strategy worked for Air New Zealand after it nearly went out of business in 2001. But times have changed, with the rise of the airlines from the Arab Emirates. An amendment to the Qantas Sale Act would be Qantas' best hope for survival.

If, on the other hand, a foreign owned Qantas is not palatable, we need to move beyond the current jingoistic (and arguably racist) arguments for proper government support. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Qantas, Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese, racism, nationalism, aviation



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Existing comments

It appears that amendment of the Qantas Sale Act has little chance of passing in the Senate. As I understand it the argument for a Government debt guarantee is that without some additional access to funds Qantas cannot compete with Virgin and the deep pockets of its backers. If Qantas fails, its overseas-owned competitor would hold an effective monopoly in the Australian market. This would likely adversely impact customers here. As it happens I don't agree with this argument but can see why it has support. To characterise this position as "racist" and to gratuitously drag Pauline Hanson into the debate is - seeing that epithets are being deployed - fatuous.

John Vernau | 02 March 2014  

There is, I guess, a sometimes imperceptible line between genuine patriotism and narrow nationalism. I would argue that the first is not a bad thing. It is a hard cruel world out there and we need to be careful in allowing our nation to become de-industrialised and lose essential skills. The gradual haemorrhaging of Qantas - particularly in regard to its technical side - is part of this deskilling process. The main problem with Qantas recently seems to have been bad management at the very top which has resulted in serious financial loss. Perhaps a sensible short to midterm assistance package accompanied by some departures from the Qantas board as well as the resignation of Mr Joyce may rectify the situation. I think we need to proceed carefully with this one.

Edward F | 03 March 2014  

Wanting to keep Qantas going has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with wanting to keep Australians employed. Basically a community should be able to produce the goods that that community uses. Our loss of a car industry, clothing industry, fruit-caning industry etc is disastrous for Austalian workers and their families. We should be able to produce in Australia the goods we use - rather than to have to import from countries with poor wages for workers, unacceptable working conditions, and non-existent environmental standards. No other country seems to play by the "level playiing field". Every other country still protects its local industries by subsidies, tarriffs and/or discouraging foreign ownership. I am not racist (I think our government's policy to refugees is insanely inhumane) but I think we need Australian industries and they need to be protected from overseas pressures because of Australia's size. Otherwise the Walmart situation will arise where we simply buy all our goods from sweatshops in other countries, and our population becomes unemployed.

David Crowley | 03 March 2014  

Sensible thoughts, Michael. It seems to me that Quantas deserves a debt guarantee, but only until the 1992 Act is abolished and it is set up as an "ordinary" commercial company; that will not be until there is a new Senate in July at the earliest. Quantas will contract until it gets a business plan that is profitable; if other counties want to subsidise their airlines i.e. subsidise our travel through their tax-payers,that`s fine by me.

Eugene | 03 March 2014  

I generally appreciate your articles Michael, but I think you have drawn a long bow on nationalism when you mention Pauline Hansen in the same paragraph as Qantas. Emirates , NZ and Singapore airlines are all government subsidized and perhaps there is a case for a temporary hand up for Qantas.

David | 03 March 2014  

David is accurate. You have drawn a long bow, and totally miss the nostalgia there is for Qantas by many Aussies.

angela | 03 March 2014  

A very good article altho the Hansen bits seem a stretch. Punctures the national carrier balloon well. Give Qantas level playing field by amending or axing the Sales Act and then it is on its own. But debt guarantee is dangerous precedent - they'd all be queueing up. It would not address the real problem and open up another. And if Qantas failed (perish the thought) taxpayer could be left with great debt. I worked in private enterprise and liked my company as I like Qantas and hope it flourishes but in the end they are only companies which are there to serve the public via a service - and if they can no longer provide an efficient economic service their raison d'etre goes. Emirates and Etihad are advantaged in that they don't pay corp or personal income taxes, To be fair this is hard on Qantas and other straight commercial airlines but not much we can do about that (in effect we consumers end up benefiting from that indirect subsidy through lower fares).

Bill Frilay | 04 March 2014  

This QANTAS saga is another example of Australia becoming a 'banana republic', which is an international joke. QANTAS is a poorly managed public company which does not deserve government support.

Mark Doyle | 05 March 2014  

For once, I do not agree with Michael. I don't believe the concern for QANTAS has anything to do with nationalism, racism or Pauline Hanson. Australia is still a very distant, European cultural, Western country. Yes, that is changing, but not enough yet. QANTAS, in my view, presents a very positive image of Australia, internationally. It's safety record remians excellent and admired around the world. Do we want that record eroded!? Surely not. I am certainly NOT a racist. Being proud and protective of our great national airline does NOT mean I'm racist. I believe the firing of Alan Joyce would be a positive step for QANTAS, for all of us. We must keep QANTAS Australian, internationally, at least.

Louw | 07 March 2014  

Leaving aside the nostalgia and nationalism, it would come down to Comparative Advantage. Well managed, I contend that Qantas does have considerable Comparative Advantage. The decision seems to be whether or not we follow the Air NZ route and temporarily assist Qantas then sell off the government share, or we allow the market to decide and lift the foriegn ownership conditions that distort the market for Qantas. Seemingly the government favours the second option, but I cant make sense of what the ALP are in favour of. The greens probably want us to swim or walk!

Julian Carson | 07 March 2014  

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