Joyce skips Senate committee that descends into heated row

written by Adam Thorn | March 3, 2021
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce delivers the airline group's 2018/19 full year results. (Seth Jaworski)
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce earlier delivers the airline group’s 2018-19 full-year results. (Seth Jaworski)

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce on Wednesday skipped his airline’s appearance before a Senate committee that descended into a heated row between senior executives and Labor’s Tony Sheldon.

Sheldon, who previously headed the TWU, said he was disappointed Joyce chose not to appear when his counterpart at Virgin, Jayne Hrdlicka, gave evidence at an earlier hearing.

He then proceeded to grill Qantas’ Andrew David, Andrew Parker and Andrew Finch over a number of newspaper claims, including that the outsourcing of 2,500 workers was planned years ago.

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“Qantas is not Alan Joyce, and certainly isn’t the three of you,” said Sheldon, who also accused the business of having a “cavalier” approach to its workers.

Wednesday marked the fourth hearing of the Senate committee examining “the future of Australia’s aviation sector, in the context of COVID-19 and conditions post-pandemic”.

It’s designed as a forum for top industry figures to discuss how the pandemic has affected the industry and to examine how it can best recover.

Qantas was represented by Parker, who heads up International and Sustainability; Finch, its general counsel; and David, the CEO of Qantas Domestic and International.

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Parker hinted Joyce was unable to attend because he was “on a roadshow this week talking to employees, as well as investors”.

Sheldon began his questioning by asking if the three were aware of an internal document, obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald last year, that appeared to suggest the airline had planned the recent outsourcing of workers years ago.

“Here’s the facts,” said David, “Last year, we were hiring people into the business, including into our ground operation business. We were invested in equipment to turn aircraft, we had a plan to invest $80 million over the next five years in equipment for ground operations. And indeed, every six months, I was attending internal roadshows with those staff to explain exactly that. And we had been rolling out equipment.

“COVID hit, we lost 11 billion in revenue, we ended up in a crisis situation, that meant we’ve had to recapitalise to resize the business. And we have to restructure to ensure that when we come through this pandemic, we are in a position where we can grow and start earning people back into the business.

“What we’ve done is we’ve looked at ground operations, and we’ve been very, very clear. Outsourcing to providers that we already used in 55 of 65 airports saves $100 million, it avoids $80 million of capital spend when we no longer have that capital, and it totally verbalises our cost base, which is proved to be essential in these uncertain times. Because as you would understand, we can’t afford to have high fixed costs to our business.”

Sheldon interrupted and said, “We aren’t talking about high fixed costs. We’re talking about 2,500 workers, many of whom have been there for decades, supporting the airline through thick and thin. So we’re not talking about costs.

“We’re talking about those people that have been doing it hard. Was it 10 years ago? Can you please answer this? I’m giving you a fair go. Was it 10 years ago, there was a document prepared by Qantas that there was an intention to exit ground services by 2020. Does that document exist?”

David responded, “I can tell you, Senator, I’ve worked at six airlines, every airline would have a document at some stage that would have looked at ground operations. All airlines around the world use external providers. I can tell you last year, we were hiring into ground operations. We had no intention of outsourcing ground operations.”

Sheldon also questioned the executives on the apparent suspension of a Qantas worker who raised coronavirus safety concerns and the business’ cleaning standards.

At one point, he told the committee, “Qantas is not Alan Joyce, and certainly isn’t the three of you. It’s the workforce and all of you. And the way this company has approached those individuals is an outrageous consideration after the billions of dollars we’ve given in support as a community as taxpayers to this airline.

“I don’t begrudge that support at all. What I begrudge is how you’ve used it, and the lack of responsibility that the company has taken for the way that they’ve approached these workers.”

Sheldon and Qantas have a long-standing bad relationship going back to his decade in charge of the TWU. At one point, The Australian reported that he said he would consider launching “a campaign of civil disobedience” over job cuts.

The disputed Qantas outsourcing plans, meanwhile, have seen the airline brand remove operations at the 10 Australian airports where the work is done in-house, which includes Adelaide, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Townsville.

The TWU responded by securing the services of Waterfront dispute lawyer Josh Bornstein, who is set to argue in the Federal Court in April that Qantas’ proposals contravene the Fair Work Act. If successful, a potential ruling could have major ramifications for other businesses.

Even though Qantas in the process of making the redundancies, current TWU national secretary Michael Kaine has told the Australian Aviation Podcast the workers could be subsequently rehired.

In response, Qantas has accused the TWU of not telling the truth. In particular, it has rejected accusations that it has transferred ground handling roles to “labour hire firms” and denied it has abused JobKeeper subsidies. It’s also hit back at the central claim that it removed in-house roles to avoid collective bargaining agreements.

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17 Comments

  • Rod Pickin

    says:

    Unfortunately, appearing before a Senate Committee these days is rather like appearing on the 9 Morning show. It appears that fact comes very last after headlines for either the committee member or the presenter/s concerned. In this case, Mr. Sheldon should realize that he now holds a very important elected office and he has to adjust his behavior accordingly and not continue in what appears to be an uncontrolled rant against management decisions that it would appear he has a minimal grasp for or of. With respect, he should take many leaves out of Sir Jack Egerton’s life experiences as both a union man and a director of QF. Tony, when your life changes, you have to as well.

    • Neil Hansford

      says:

      Rod,
      You are so right. Having been at Ansett in the 80’s the Sheldon vitriol hasn’t changed except now it is all directed at Qantas. The Union masterplan was for QF to be a monopoly so ACTU could have it as their pacesetter on wages and conditions so these conditions could become the Australian employment standard then along came Virgin. Let’s no forget that had the unions not voted down PWC as administrators there would have been Ansett 2. Shorten, Sheldon and Co didn’t want that and in was planted Korda menthe to make sure it didn’t happen.
      Did you notice Sheldon as a Senator in all the Jetstar TWU protests particularly at Tullamarine Airport pre-Covid. Not a worthy Senator representing the people of NSW

    • Ben

      says:

      Indeed, that sounded very much like he was the Senator for the TWU!

  • Warwick

    says:

    What an ignorant person Sheldon is.
    He’s got no manners, & he, & his TWU caused the problems’ at QANTAS in 2011, by daily snap strikes’, for THREE months’, Aug to Oct, inclusive, thus causing QANTAS staff to be physically & verbally abused at every turn. The problem was so bad, police had to man the entrance doors at each QANTAS Travel Centre, in every city. That’s why the QANTAS CEO & Board grounded the fleet. The idiot TWU never saw that coming!

    He should be ashamed of himself, but he could not care less.
    His ONLY concern is jobs for union bosses’, because people are deserting unions in droves’, due their thuggish, & disgusting behaviour.
    How disrespectful were they in the turning up of a mob of TWU knuckle-draggers’, to the home of QANTAS CEO Mr Alan Joyce, several months’ ago?
    This is their low IQ at work.
    And because of this, they won’t win the court case against the Company, next month, same as they lost the TWO previous court cases’ in the last six months’, when union members’ subscription funds in the 1000’s of $$$$ were wasted doing so.

  • John Phillips

    says:

    Under law, QF, being a public company, have a responsibility to their shareholders first. It is incumbent for the Directors of a public company to run the company as efficiently as possible.

    Thanks for pointing out the long standing animosity between Sheldon & QF; Sheldon, when in the TWU, has never forgiven QF for grounding the fleet, thus putting his petty power play, at the the time, to rest. He lost big time then, looks like he is still smarting about this?

  • Andrea Shearer

    says:

    The issue of the running of Jetstar and currently Qantas under the leadership of Alan Joyce, has been subject to much ongoing comment. Unfortunately, the aviation sector despite financial assistance, will be affected for a lot longer than other industries. It is the way the executives have shown their true colours during the last 12 months that has gradually surfaced by the media. It was simmering undetected for years before covid. What stuck with me is the ruthless, insensitive treatment of all the employees on the ground or up in the air. This very ” un” Australian behaviour will impact on which airlines will be supported by us all. On the financial assistance by Federal government, there were definitely “undertones” of preferential treatment.

  • Tony

    says:

    They may not have transferred ground handling technically to labour hire firms however the truth is that companies like Menzies, who operate Jetstar at MEL , use a labour hire firm to fill these rolls.

  • Andrew

    says:

    Tony Sheldon is a hard nosed union rep with views that are stuck in the socialist struggles in the 1970s. It is sad that he is in a position of power having such a background and inability to evolve.

  • Craigy

    says:

    Tony Sheldon is an idiot. He demonstrated his lack of understanding about the airline business when head of the TWU and continues along in this vane as a so called senator.

  • john

    says:

    All this coming from a man who purportedly said “we are going to bake you slowly” (in reference to a TWU dispute with QF). Now he is a duly elected senator in the Australian Parliament!! Sheesh.

  • Bernard

    says:

    I agree completely with the above comments. Mr Sheldon should start behaving as a responsible senator instead of a retired union boss.

  • Brendan

    says:

    Great work from Tony Sheldon for sticking up for the workers at Qantas.
    Qantas and Alan Joyce have shown over time that they feel their above the industrial relation laws of Australia and this latest instance of outsourcing ground handlers roles just show it again.

    • Warwick

      says:

      Try ‘they’re’…..

      In this post covid time, companies’ must do what they have to, for Company survival.
      QANTAS is not immune to this requirement.

  • Peter

    says:

    Governments deregulated the airline industry meaning its now game on for competition and airlines had to become a commercial business just like in any other unprotected industry. If Sheldon wants jobs then let see his proposal to re-regulate the industry….which I don’t see that he has…

  • Max

    says:

    What is Alan Joyce trying to hide by refusing to attend the Senate Committee? It seems his arrogance has no boundaries.

  • Bruce Blackshaw

    says:

    The TWU has been calling snap shutdowns in the baggage handling area for years and years. They brought this upon themselves. Sorry no sympathetic words for thugs!

    • Vannus

      says:

      So true, Bruce!
      The QANTAS CEO MR Alan Joyce, & the Board HAD to take some action in 2011, after THREE months’ of daily strikes’, by TWU, Sheldon, & Purvinas.

      Staff were being physically attached, & verbally abused, thanks to their disgusting thug like actions.

      So the fleet was grounded…..good! It sure gave the above instigators’ one hell of a fright.

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