17 April 2020

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

DOORSTOP INTERVIEW

BRISBANE AIRPORT

FRIDAY, 17 APRIL 2020

SUBJECTS:  Urgent support needed to save Virgin Airlines, impact on Queensland jobs and accessibility, tourism, Queensland Federal Labor issue call to action on LNP counterparts.

ANIKA WELLS MP, MEMBER FOR LILLEY: Good morning everybody.  My name is Anika Wells, and I am your Federal Member for Lilley.  We are here today as the Queensland Federal Labor team to call on our LNP colleagues to step up and make the Prime Minister step in and save Virgin Airlines.  Queensland is the most decentralized state in the country.  We have more people living in the bush, than any other state.  It is Queenslanders that rely on the intra-Queensland routes from Brisbane to Gladstone, or from Cairns to Proserpine.  It is Queenslanders that rely on the aviation industry.  It is Queenslanders that rely on the tourism industry, and all of the regional jobs that they support.  But I’m here today to speak to you as the local Federal Member, because the Federal electorate of Lilley is the home of the Brisbane Airport, and 6,600 aviation workers, many of whom remember the collapse of Ansett all those years ago.  What they remember in particular is how long it took the community to rebuild after Ansett collapsed.  So I am here on their behalf today to ask the Prime Minister to step in and save Virgin Airlines.  When we talk about the decision whether or not to save Virgin Airlines, the language that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have been using often sounds like an Economics 101 theoretical exam answer about whether or not you should step in, and whether a business is viable, and what criteria surround that.  This isn’t about that.  This is about real Queenslanders, their jobs, and their families; and it’s about a decision from the Prime Minister about whether he will step in and save those Queensland livelihoods.  I wanted to share with you a couple of stories from local workers who wanted to be here with you today, but can’t because their jobs are at risk.  Dave is a local, he’s single, he’s paying rent, and he’s been stood down after five and a half years at Virgin.  He has a really highly-skilled job and it took him a lot of training to get there. He’s worried he’s not going to get that job back and he’s been told that for every job vacancy at the moment, there are now 4,000 applicants that he will be fighting against.  I’ve been talking to a local mum in Northgate.  She rose up to the position of crew supervisor, she’s been with Virgin for thirteen years.  Her husband has also had his work cut as a result of COVID-19, so now they’re worried about their mortgage and their two school-aged kids.  Finally, from a Nundah local who is ground crew here at Virgin and has been stood down after nine years.  He had a message that he wanted me to pass along to the Prime Minister, so I’m here to do that for him today.  He says, and the Prime Minister might remember these words, “there are no blue teams or red teams.  There are no more unions or bosses.  There are just Australians now.  That’s all that matters – Australians working together.”  So on behalf of these local aviation workers, I call on the Prime Minister to step up and save Virgin Airlines. 

MURRAY WATT, SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Thanks very much Anika, my name is Murray Watt, one of the Queensland Labor Senators.  As Anika said, we’re here today as a united force from Queensland Labor to call on our Federal LNP counterparts here in Queensland to step in and get on the phone to Scott Morrison to save Virgin.  Virgin is a Queensland company.  Virgin was attracted to Queensland in the first place by a Queensland Labor Government, under Peter Beattie, about 20 years ago, and since then it’s gone on to great success and now employs about 5,000 people here in Queensland.  Of course that’s everyone from pilots, to ground crew, to flight attendants, to baggage handlers to caterers, and with Virgin now in serious danger, that puts all of those jobs at risk, but it also puts airport jobs generally at risk.  You can see today, this airport is a ghost town.  None of the shops are operating, all of the jobs in the coffee shop are gone; all of the security jobs are gone.  So this is having a very serious impact on Queensland’s economy right now and will continue to do so if Virgin were to collapse.  Now I’ve been very disappointed by some of the comments that we’ve seen by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister about Virgin.  Just this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister did an interview where he said “well let’s just see if Virgin survives.”  It’s that kind of flippant attitude from this Government that caused our car industry to close down in others states of Australia and we don’t want to see that happen to a big Queensland company like Virgin, which is so important here in Brisbane and right across our state.  Now, the LNP makes a big deal about the fact that they won the last federal election on the back of Queensland, and the truth is that they do dominate the federal seats here in Queensland.  Twenty-nine of Queensland’s Federal Members of Parliament or Senators are from the LNP, and I’m saying today it’s time they did their job and stepped up for Queensland.  Virgin is critical to Queensland’s economy, not just here in Brisbane but in every major regional centre across Queensland.  The tourism industry is the backbone of so many regional economies across regional Queensland, and I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when we only one airline in place, and what that meant for airfares and for lack of services into Brisbane and into every regional centres.  Now the reality is that the LNP holds every regional seat in Queensland.  It holds the seats around Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, the Whitsundays, Rockhampton, Gladstone, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast, and it’s time for these Members of Parliament to actually do their job for their communities, step up and step in to save Virgin.  The other reason this matters is obviously not just the Virgin jobs that are on the line now, and the tourism jobs that are on the line right across Queensland, but getting Virgin operational again and getting a second airline up and running as quickly as possible is critical to our state’s economic recovery.  It was really pleasing yesterday to see the Prime Minister make a number of comments that we could be looking at some of the restrictions changing in coming weeks, and we want to make sure our tourism industry is ready to go.  I might leave it at that, but we’ve got a member of Virgin’s ground crew, Trish, who has just taken a redundancy, here to talk to you about her experience and what this means for her colleagues.  So I’ll introduce Trish to come and have a chat to you now and then happy to take any further questions.

TRISH BOWERMAN, VIRGIN GROUND CREW MEMBER MADE REDUNDANT: Thank you, hello everybody.  I would just like to say that Virgin has been my life, and is my family.  We’ve spent many years together, and there is a whole lot of people out there who are really hurting at the moment.  I do want to ask Mr Morrison to please, please, don’t let this airline go down.  There’s too much to lose.  We have a beautiful country, we have a beautiful airline, and there’s a whole lot of people out there really, really hurting at the moment, and I just ask that we really consider very seriously the impact of losing our airline.  Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Senator, Virgin hasn’t made a dollar in about seven years.  Its share price has fallen considerably in the last ten years, so if the Government is going to put in $1.4 billion, which is the figure being touted to save the airline, should the taxpayer then have a stake in Virgin?

WATT: Federal Labor is certainly not calling for any hand outs to Virgin or to any other big company, regardless of their profitability.  What we’ve said is that any contribution from the taxpayer must have some protection for the taxpayer.  That might be by taking an equity stake in the company, taking shares in the company, which could be sold at a later date, and I note that’s what occurred in many countries in relation to banks at the time of the GFC when government bailouts were backed up with the Government taking shares, which were then sold later down the track.  Other ways that it could be done is via a loan, where the Federal Government gets first priority in terms of any repayment of debts over other creditors.  So there are a range of ways that the Government could approach this, but the net result would be that we would continue to have a second airline, we would continue to have Virgin jobs, and all of those jobs in tourism right across Queensland. 

JOURNALIST: I suppose another one, again, in the hypothetical situation that the Government does foot Virgin’s bill, should there be a caveat or price cap on those, particularly around Queensland jobs, because prior to this the duopoly between Qantas and Virgin from time to time would hike up their prices, and I think both could be accused of that.  Could there be a restructure in legislation about capping that?  Because prior to this, Longreach to Rockhampton would have cost me $800 return.

WATT: Certainly, for a long time airfares to many parts of regional Queensland have been far too high, and I know my colleague here, Anthony Chisholm, was part of a Senate Committee that recently did an inquiry into how we can get regional airfares down.  All I would say is that if regional Queenslanders are worried about the airfares that they’re paying at the moment, imagine how bad it would get if we only had one airline in place.  As I said before, I remember those days when we only had one airline and airfares were even more expensive than they are now, with a lot fewer services as well.  A decentralized state like Queensland needs to maintain air connections.  It’s partly a matter of the fairs, but it’s also a matter of having the services in place as well.  We think the best way to deliver that is from having two functional airlines, being Qantas and Virgin.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to commentators who say Australian taxpayers shouldn’t be bailing out foreign companies, and shouldn’t pressure also be applied to the likes of Etihad and Singapore to prop up their own company?

WATT: I’d certainly like to see some of Virgin’s shareholders kick in for this as well.  But the reality is that most of those shareholders are themselves airlines that are in serious financial trouble of their own.  Only in the last day or so we’ve seen the US Government come up with a multi-billion dollar airline rescue package that is assisting some of those very airlines.  So I don’t think that it’s realistic for those airlines, the foreign shareholders of Virgin, to be able to do this on their own.  The other thing that I’d point out is that just in the last week or so, this very Federal Government has decided to kick money in to another foreign owned airline in Australia, being Rex.  Now we support that.  We think that it’s important to keep Rex operating as well to service a lot of the regional parts of the country, but this would not be the first time that the Morrison Government would have chipped in for a foreign owned airline.  They’ve done so already.

JOURNALIST: Just a question for our friends in the regional centres, you mentioned their tourism.  Also, obviously the fly in-fly out workforce for the resources sector is going to be impacted if we only have one airline as well?

WATT: That’s right, I mean there’s obviously a lot of focus on the aviation and tourism jobs that are at stake here, but as you point out, it’s many other industries as well that rely on affordable, accessible airline services.  The resources industry, the construction industry, there are many infrastructure projects that are getting built around Queensland right now which requires a workforce to be flown in from other parts of the state.  So if we enter into a situation where we’ve only got one airline, it won’t only be the tourists who miss out, it will also be all of those resources and construction workers and others who would be facing much higher airfares and much fewer services. 

ENDS