Qantas encounters turbulence as it flies its flag into big storm

Qantas seems unsure as to what it wants the government to do. Photo: Janie BarrettIt’s by no means clear what government can or should do for a Qantas, or any corporations iconic or not, in its position. By the end of this week, it seemed that Qantas itself did not really know what it wanted or expected from government either.

It’s clear the political game has changed, with Tony Abbott himself, rather than his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, now leading the charge against governments coming to the rescue of businesses in trouble.

This is projected as a virtue in its own right – in the sense of the government’s being against business or middle-class welfare. But it is also marketed as part of a complementary policy – the argument that the proper role of government is only to create the circumstances in which businesses generally can flourish. The market should decide; government should not engage in picking winners, tilting playing fields, making special deals, giving special incentives or regulating the market in such a way as to hinder enterprise, initiative, inventiveness and red-blooded competition.

Any critic can point to instances – particularly historic ones – where there are contradictions between what Abbott is saying and doing now, and what he has said or done in the past. Yet the government has been fairly consistent at least since the time a few months ago when, in Abbott’s words, it drew a line in the sand and decided to do nothing to further prop up Holden. So far it has maintained discipline on this, even against the pressures during the South Australian election (and to a lesser extent the Tasmanian election) to ”do something” of a regional pump-priming nature to help the local Liberals win. That polls suggest that the state Labor administrations are past their use-by date may help stiffen their backs. It might be more difficult when it comes, as it probably will sooner or later, to an election in Victoria, where, it appears, the Napthine Coalition government is in serious trouble with voters.

On Qantas in Parliament this week, Labor’s line was focused on some crude, even protectionist nationalism, pushing the idea that Qantas epitomises Australianness, and that its proposals threaten ”Australian jobs”. And not, apparently, only the 5000 or so jobs already announced as going in the latest double decimations. Also the very idea that the airline sees itself as Australian, and provides work and opportunities for Australians rather than, say, buying its staff, its maintenance and its services in lower-wage environments abroad.

Qantas has always marketed itself as some sort of Aussie – even (and with its kangaroo logo) as a symbol of Australia itself. Like Holden and Vegemite, perhaps, ignoring for the moment that both of these are the property of companies owned abroad.

Their marketing strikes a chord. In both tone and period it often reminds me of the phrase with which Mick Young’s mum sent her 14-year-old into the shearing workforce in about 1950: ”Now remember son: vote Labor, bank Commonwealth [then state-owned]; join the union, and go to Mass on Sunday.”

That Labor is playing with such imagery and nostalgia is not sheer cynicism, though there’s plenty of that. It was Labor which privatised Qantas in the first place.

But public fears about Qantas or Holden, or other ”iconic” companies in trouble are not merely about dilution of ”Australianness.” Labor is using it to tap into widespread public and personal insecurities about jobs, the state of the economy, the economic stability of local communities and fears that the little guy, even poor little Australia itself, is very vulnerable to shifting economic forces, entirely out of our control.

These are insecurities politicians on both sides of the fence, and on the margins, have manipulated for mostly cynical purposes in recent decades. They now have some life of their own, not necessarily well aligned with the present postures of politicians and parties.

Within those fears and insecurities tend to be beliefs that ”the government ought to do something”, that politicians have let us down and exposed us, and that, at the least, the

state could be doing a good deal more, actively and reactively, to help individuals, communities and regions cope with the changes. Just what, or how, or what effects could be hoped for is never, of course, entirely clear.

Those who argue that government is there only for a business-friendly environment often, unwittingly, make their case less attractive by dilating about the exhilaration of competition and the struggle for survival. Many Australians have no great appetite for life on the edge. They are cautious, conservative and don’t like surprises. They worry for their jobs and futures, and are heartily sick of change, constant reorganisation and the challenges and uncertainties of doing business in the modern world.

Yet there are big problems in ransacking the ”Australianness”. Many old institutions, including Qantas, have seriously damaged their brand in recent years, perhaps because of the rip-roaring capitalist jungle in which we now are. Indeed, some of the public insecurity comes from the very way in which once familiar institutions – in business, religion, commerce, culture and recreation – have changed. The past doesn’t tug on old affections when old loyalties have not been returned. In many cases, the very process of change has involved repudiation of old tribalisms, affections and mutual respect.

An RSL prostitutes the name and idea of Anzac to a beer company; sporting codes abandon followers and old tribal connections in search of TV loot; church leaders are seen to mismanage abuse allegations and are themselves implicated; union bosses are seen ripping off the money and power vested in them; judges are publicly abused by politicians and the media. Other old and comfy parts of the local landscape disappear to be replaced by disembodied voices saying ”your call is very important to us”. Wells of public appreciation, affection, nostalgia or inclination to give somebody or something the benefit of the doubt are drying up. Consumers may have old affections, but feel spurned – even insulted.

This need not mean that they want politicians to ”punish” those who have not returned loyalties they have been given.

First, public anxiety about the collapse of institutions includes anxiety about how politicians themselves are changing. To many, they now seem more venal, less empathetic, more generally disconnected from ordinary lives, and, apparently, less effective or able to make any difference. That very few politicians on either side of politics actually do anything much to articulate worthy goals or ideals, or deal much with ideas as opposed to abuse, does not help.

Second, neither public nor politician is consistent about the role and functions of government. We are invited to resent bitterly benefits for others, even the worthy, but hardly ever see that discretions, benefits, tax deductions and so on exercised in our favour are anything other than rights and entitlements – at the very core of what good government is all about. We deplore red tape and unnecessary regulation, but are first in line to demand, in the public interest, protection from competition.

Later this month, the government plans a public relations stunt about red tape, and its supposed plans to reduce the burden of it. Someone should ask Josh Frydenberg, who is co-ordinating the spending of huge sums of public money on the affair, just what he intends to do to abolish all of the regulation that protects pharmacists from competition, say, from supermarkets. Or lawyers from a market in legal services. Or other tightly regulated and protected groups who are not only natural Coalition constituents, but are often triumphed as the quintessential ”small businessmen” struggling under the burden of red tape.

One somehow fancies that the primary purpose of the exercise is to relieve such would-be ”natural monopolists” of their duties to the public while leaving the public’s apparent duties to them untouched.

The point is that voters are rather more sophisticated in their approach to such things than those who depend on focus groups readily see. Nor are they dumb about social, cultural and economic trends.

Holden had problems manufacturing to a domestic market that was very small in world terms. But it also miscalculated that market, and consumers were abandoning it in droves, just as they had been abandoning Ford. However cosy and comfortable Australians were with the idea of Australian car manufacture, they were increasingly buying imports. Qantas, likewise, has become quite unpopular in the marketplace, often used only through gritted teeth by people with little effective choice.

Its service (and, significantly to people of my size, its seating space) has massively declined. This is something aggravated for most passengers by the boasting of the very superior service provided to politicians, departmental secretaries and captains of industry approved by the Qantas chairman in the Chairman’s Lounge, or by accounts of the petty meannesses of operations.

The Qantas board, which, until recently included General Peter Cosgrove, soon to be governor-general, has done little to protect the company’s reputation or brand, least of all as words and deeds of the chief executive, Alan Joyce, have seriously damaged it. The airline has long been exporting Australian jobs abroad, modern aircraft do not have the staffing and maintenance needs of older ones, and Qantas, and its cut-price subsidiaries, operate in a very competitive market, with some passengers guided by price alone.

Meanwhile, as such matters are to be left to the market, government is preparing for a major public investment in infrastructure – an airport to deal with future demand near Sydney. Is this fundamentally different to intervening in the airlines market?

No doubt, once completed the airport will be sold, cheaply if history is any guide, with lucrative property development rights, to the private sector. The transactions will be saluted – by prime ministers and leaders of the opposition down – as a triumph of nation-building, infrastructure investment, modern capitalism, and the proper role of government in the marketplace.

Finally, there’s an aspect of government in the marketplace that no one much talks about. Government departments are major consumers of goods and services, mostly bought from the private sector. My guess, for example, is that about 30 per cent of all Australian air travel is by politicians and public servants, quite properly in the course of work. The modern trend is to insist that the power of government as a big buyer is not ”abused” or used to achieve secondary purposes (such as to prop up jobs, regions or industries). But there is no reason in principle why such a big natural player should be so neutral. In certain circumstances any number of rent seekers demand an actively consumerist government, if only to maintain continuity of work, or special favours at election time. Few ideologues, on either side of the debate, seem very active about creating a level playing field on such policy considerations.

$9m in bets for Black Opal Stakes day

An estimated $9 million will be wagered on Sunday’s Black Opal Stakes day, but a lot more is riding on Canberra’s most important race meeting in a decade.

Sunday’s Black Opal will determine whether the jewel in Canberra Racing’s crown will return to group 3 status.

Canberra Racing is also aiming to have the listed Canberra Cup (2000 metres) upgraded, to give it two group races on its biggest day of the year, now dubbed Super Sunday.

The Black Opal (1200 metres) for two-year-olds and $200,000 Cup form part of Thoroughbred Park’s biggest day, and are two of four listed races which also include the Canberra Guineas (1400 metres) and the National Sprint (1400 metres).

Super Sunday was born two years ago when Canberra Racing combined its two biggest races – the Black Opal and Canberra Cup – into one big meeting.

It has been a success and Canberra Racing plans to continue it. Crowds jumped from 7000 in 2011 to 10,000 for the first running of Super Sunday, and climbed to almost 12,000 last year.

Corporate bookings are up 23 per cent on 2013 and, at a time when TAB turnover is declining, the TAB’s betting turnover on Black Opal Day has risen 13 per cent since the merger.

Now more than $830,000 in prizemoney is up for grabs.

Canberra Racing has been thrilled with the turnaround.

”The formation of Super Sunday came about through an overall assessment of our feature race meetings,” Canberra Racing chief executive Peter Stubbs said.

”The Canberra Cup race was maintaining its status but the race day had lost its impact, the positioning of the day in October and then November meant it competed with the Melbourne Cup Day race meeting for corporate bookings and public attendance and generally the day was in decline and expensive to promote.

”Black Opal Stakes day, while it was still a significant race day and event, it was flat-lining and needed a boost.”

While the formation of Super Sunday has been a huge success, Stubbs wants a group race to return to the nation’s capital.

The Black Opal has been a group 2 and group 3 race in the past, but currently has a listed status – the third level below Australia’s big group 1 races.

It lost group 3 status after the 2005 running, when Al Samer saluted. A race’s status is determined by its prizemoney and rating – a number determined by how the first four horses across the line perform during the racing calendar from July 1 to June 30.

The Black Opal needs to rate higher than 100 for three straight years to be upgraded to group 3.

It has met that mark the past two years and if it does it again 2015 will see group racing return to the ACT for the first time since 2005.

With two-year-olds having their biggest races in late autumn, for the Black Opal to rate well its runners need to excel once they have competed in Canberra. The 2012 winner, Epaulette, finished second in the group 2 Todman Stakes and went on to win the group 1 Golden Rose the following season. Last year’s first two, Criterion and Sidestep, finished first and lost the rider respectively in the Todman, and then sixth and second in the $3.5 million Golden Slipper – the world’s richest race for two-year-olds.

If the Black Opal can have another strong field on Sunday it will be upgraded, because the prizemoney is enough to satisfy group 2 status. If it fails to make the required rating, then it is back to the drawing board. It makes this edition the most important Black Opal in the past decade.

”In terms of group 3, this year’s make or break,” Stubbs said. ”If we don’t get to group 3 this year, we’re back to having to reach that level for three consecutive years.”

Stubbs also has his eye on getting the Canberra Cup upgraded to group 3.

It needs to rate at least 105 over three years to achieve that, which is the mark it met last year when Court Connection saluted.

The Cup needs to achieve the same rating this year and in 2015 to be elevated.

”We need to get across the line this year before concerning ourselves with a group 2 rating in coming years,” he said.

”However, the upgrading of the Canberra Guineas to listed status in 2010 and the creation of Super Sunday with the Canberra Cup on the program has given the race meeting impetus and having two group races on the program is an objective I think we should set for the future.”

Papalii to meet Aussie teammates

Canberra Raiders’ Josh Papalii is ready to take on the Cowboys. Photo: Rohan ThomsonUltimate League: It’s not too late to sign up for our Fantasy NRL game League legends back Wighton’s switch to five-eighthRaiders rookies ready to roll in TownsvilleThurston, Morgan face nervous night against Raiders

Three months ago, Josh Papalii and North Queensland’s stars were teammates, helping steer Australia to a dominant World Cup final win over New Zealand.

Now the education and advice provided to 21-year-old Papalii by Cowboys Matt Scott, James Tamou and Johnathan Thurston, could come back to bite them.

Papalii said the World Cup tour had accelerated his development.

”I’ve come back with a lot of confidence and experience, spending a lot of time with the veterans and the great players up there,” Papalii said.

”I’ve learnt a lot and I’ve taken it back to Canberra. Not only are the North Queensland boys crucial for their club but also their country, I was feeding off how they play and train.”

Papalii burst into the Queensland Origin and Kangaroos squads last season, despite playing the first few rounds hindered by issues in both knees he had carried for two years.

He had surgery after round six last year and has not looked back.

”I had a minor operation last year, [but] both knees are going strong and I’m looking forward to the season,” Papalii said.

Papalii was man-of-the-match in the Raiders’ 26-18 win over the Cowboys at Canberra in round 17 last year.

The highlight was a brilliant solo try when he ran over the top of Thurston, but he now has his sights set on the match-up with Cowboys tyro Jason Taumalolo.

”He’s definitely hard to handle, but if we just work together on that right edge we’ll be fine,” he said.

”He’s even a bit bigger and stronger than me, it’s a task I’m looking forward to and hopefully I can do the job.”

Raiders rookies to make impression

Matt Allwood will make his Raiders debut on Saturday night.Ultimate League: It’s not too late to sign up for our Fantasy NRL game League legends back Wighton’s switch to five-eighthPapalii ready to bring down old teammatesThurston, Morgan face nervous night against Raiders

One player is as comfortable going pig hunting as he is running head-on into two of the game’s premier front-rowers.

The other is an up-and-coming centre who has overcome back-to-back knee injuries to become a defensive menace.

Raiders rookies, prop Shannon Boyd and centre Matt Allwood, will be thrust into the NRL spotlight for Saturday night’s season opener against the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville.

Boyd can hold his own physically against James Tamou and Matt Scott, weighing in at 122 kilograms to be the heaviest player on the field.

The 21-year-old Boyd has had that advantage over his rivals since he was a hulking 16-year-old tipping the scales at 110 kilograms and playing in the under-18 competition in Cowra in western NSW.

Under-18s coach Steve Sutton suggested Boyd attend a trial for Canberra’s SG Ball team.

”He’s always been a big unit; he was a bit sloppy back then and had a lot of puppy fat on him,” Sutton said.

”Given his size, it was just a matter of if he had the desire to play in the NRL and whether he would become the finished product.

”He’s probably more comfortable chasing pigs around in the bush than he is on the football field.”

Boyd’s father, Peter, said the arrival of coach Ricky Stuart had given his son more motivation to challenge for a first-grade spot.

”Ricky’s gone in at the start of the season and has said, ‘I don’t care if you’ve played 300 games of first-grade or none. Whoever is the best player, I’ll pick’,” Peter said.

”That’s what pricked Shannon’s ears up and he thought, ‘I’m going to give this a really good crack’.”

Both Boyd and Allwood are outside of the club’s top-25 NRL squad.

Allwood has come from the clouds to grab the right centre spot vacated by controversial NSW Origin star Blake Ferguson.

Recruited from Farrer Agricultural High School – the same school that produced Raiders captain Alan Tongue and prop Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – Allwood stood out in the club’s NYC team before spending 12 months on the sideline with consecutive knee injuries.

He returned last year to become one of the most consistent performers in the NSW Cup for Canberra’s feeder club Mounties.

Raiders recruitment manager David Hamilton said Allwood possessed a steely defensive game to go with the ability to break the line in attack.

”He’s jumped out of the ground in the past 12 months since he’s getting the confidence back in his knee,” he said. ”Playing against men in the NSW Cup really helped him last year.”

HUNTER INK: Studios feel the heat from war on bikies


HUNTER INK: $44,000 spent on a living canvas, photos, poll

The needle and the damage undone: poll

HUNTER INK: ‘Who looks good when they’re old anyway?’

NEW laws regulating tattoo parlours are punishing legitimate businesses while doing little to crack down on bikies, Newcastle tattooists say.

Since October last year, tattoo artists and operators have been required to get licences in a bid to crack down on organised crime.

A licence costs $699 for an artist and $2094 for an operator.

They require an individual to be fingerprinted and have their criminal background checked.

Newcastle Tattoo Studio owner Craig Nosworthy doesn’t think the rules are fair. “Why are we all paying the government to get rid of bikies out of tattoo shops?” he asked.

“We had to sign all this stuff saying we waive our rights – they can kick the doors down any time they choose. They’ve got no idea what they’re doing.”

Brad Bako from Fat Ink Tattoo said it was good something was being done to get rid of crime in the industry, but it wasn’t being done in the right way.

Bikie issues were known to exist at certain tattoo businesses situated outside Newcastle CBD and he was interested to see if they got approved.

“Licences are a good thing and everyone has got a number,” he said. “We need to keep track of who is tattooing.”

Mr Bako thought a more important focus should be banning the online sale of DIY tattooing kits.

Another tattoo artist, who didn’t want to be named, said he thought licensing should have a purpose – such as requiring the artist to do a contamination course.

A NSW Fair Trading spokeswoman said the laws were necessary because the strong links between the tattoo industry and outlaw motorcycle gangs needed to be broken.

“For this reason tattoo parlours have been the target of violence and malicious damage such as drive-by shootings, fire-bombings and arson,” she said.

“Police are also aware of numerous incidents where members of outlaw motorcycle gangs have stood over, threatened and attempted to extort money from owners of tattoo studios who are unaffiliated with bikies and only interested in carrying on their small business.

“There is also a real risk that tattoo parlours are used by bikies to launder the proceeds of crime.”

Only one studio had received its licence in the Newcastle region as of late January. Another 22 were still pending.