Ansett: that other calamity
by Bob Briton and Andrew Jackson Last week was one in which a disaster threatening massive repercussions throughout the Australian economy might almost have gone unnoticed. Intermittently breaking through the blanket coverage of the terrorist attacks in the US were events that have had a catastrophic affect on Australian workers. The collapse of Ansett Airlines saw 17,000 of its employees sacked and at least another 100,000 jobs threatened as the loss of the carrier impacts throughout the tourism industry and the wider economy. Traveland, the wholly owned subsidiary of Ansett Holdings which employs 750, will close unless someone picks it up in the next few days. Another example of the knock-on effects is Gategourmet Australia, the caterer for the defunct airline, which employed 2000 people. It has now cancelled contracts with 43 other companies that supplied it with goods and services, and also been placed in the hands of an administrator. Across the Tasman, thousands of workers in New Zealand are bracing themselves, as Ansett's former 100 percent shareholder Air New Zealand also now teeters on the brink. The full extent of the largest corporate failure in Australia's history can only be guessed at. As The Guardian goes to press, the Federal and State Governments are frantically piecing together responses to the crisis. Ansett staff were phoned on Sunday night and asked to be "on call" for Monday morning, with the airline's administrator Peter Hedge, saying he hoped the airline would "rise like a phoenix through the ashes". Yet as new developments unfold almost hourly, the jobs and lives of the workers remain uncertain. Yet another fight for entitlements Late last week, John Howard gave a government guarantee that all Ansett workers would receive their entitlements. However, the fine print was that the offer included full annual and long service leave entitlements, but that redundancy pay would be capped at eight weeks. This would mean that workers lose out to the tune of $200 million. The plan is a particular disaster for Ansett's long-term employees — a worker with 20 years service is entitled under their agreement to 90 weeks redundancy pay, a 30-year employee to 140 weeks. ACTU President Sharan Burrow said that under these circumstances, the more dedicated and loyal an Ansett employee had been, the more they would be punished. Ms Burrow also accused the government of double standards — when the PM's brother Stan Howard's National Textiles collapsed, the government paid 100 per cent of workers' entitlements. Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott, said: "It's a comparison between apples and oranges". While the body is still warm... Last week, no other major carrier, including Qantas and Singapore (which had previously been barred from launching a takeover), was sufficiently interested at the time to pick up Ansett and its 40 per cent of the market. Suddenly, before the body is even cold, 50 "interested parties" are swooping in like vultures. Now Qantas, Virgin Blue, Singapore and whoever else is so inclined, will be left to pick over the carcass of the company — aircraft, terminals, its routes and airport slots — at bargain basement prices. Should Qantas, as some predict, pick up the bulk of Ansett's passengers, it would then control 90 per cent of Australia's market. It is scandalous that the Federal Government should allow this happen now that Qantas has been privatised; yet not allow this monopoly when the Australian people owned it. Tyranny of distance restored While Qantas has immediately taken over servicing some of the routes, it has committed to only picking up a fraction of the Australia-wide network serviced by Ansett's regional subsidiaries. How will the hundreds of thousands of people in rural Australia now tackle the enormous distances from relatives, markets, education and health services? State governments have been closing down country rail services for years under the pretext that superior airline services were available. And what of their fresh vegetable, chilled meat, fish, dairy produce and flower industries that service not only Australia's capital and industrial cities, but are exported around the world? These will be anxious times for regional Australia with many such doubts hanging in the air. One thing is sure, that if such services are to be restored in future, they will be on monopoly terms — a private buck-making monopoly with no ultimate commitment according to charters or legislation to anyone but stakeholders in the business involved. When in doubt, bash a foreigner! In the absence of any serious alternatives, the only thing left for the morally bankrupt to do is to resort to jingoism. The Federal Government is very keen to attribute all the blame to the management of Air New Zealand. The fact that Murdoch's News Ltd only off-loaded its 50% stake in Ansett last year (for a cool $580 million) is, presumably, irrelevant. Murdoch columnist Robert Gottliebsen has contributed the following: "If there is a levy, the Government should be harsh on travel to New Zealand given that Air New Zealand killed Ansett and dumped the body in Australia". This passes for serious analysis in spite of the fact that much of Air "New Zealand's" management is Singapore based. What worthwhile objective can be served by further punishing people maintaining contacts in New Zealand, a country whose size and location make it as dependent on air travel as Australia? Will New Zealand's working class then have to shoulder the huge financial burden of corporate losses to maintain their essential airline services? The real purpose of this jingoism is to convince onlookers that the failure of Ansett is an aberration, that with shrewd management a healthy, profitable airline service with improving standards of service and lower fares can be maintained in a deregulated environment. The message is that private ownership and market forces will meet the needs of the community and provide secure jobs. They hope that the overwhelming evidence to the contrary will be lost on this occasion in a flurry of "Kiwi bashing". Unfortunately, it would appear that too many sections of the organised working class have been persuaded to this "market forces" position. The trade union leaderships are certainly right to demand that Air New Zealand executives pay back the performance bonuses they paid themselves last year and to express outage at the $825,000 annual salary pulled down by chief executive Gary Toomey, for example. However, it is on the broader issue of what lies behind the current crisis and what the demands should be to ensure employment in a stable airline industry, the union movement should place its long-term focus. This whole debacle is the ultimate consequence of the "deregulation and competition" of the airline industry imposed on the Australian public in 1988. We should not forget that Australia has a proud history of public enterprise. Even under the old two-airline duopoly where privately owned Ansett flew alongside publicly owned TAA (later Qantas), there was never any threat to Australia's air services. We must firmly remember that public enterprise did not fail in Australia, it worked very well and it was betrayed. Instead of the Australian people being able to enjoy the fruits of public ownership, we are paying taxes to subsidise private corporate losses. It is also worth asking after HIH, OneTel and now Ansett, what will be the next casualty. Will it be Qantas, an electricity company or bus service? Our airports are being sold to the private sector. What would be the consequences of Sydney's or Melbourne's airports going bust? The task before the Australian working class and which requires leadership from the trade unions is to halt the privatisation and to restore public enterprise. The airline industry is a good place to start. The demand must be nothing less than a single, publicly owned national airline operating according to a charter which guarantees affordable services to regional Australia, optimal safety standards and secure, well paid employment.