07 November 2011

Lessons from the Qantas shutdown

Turn off all life support systems, I'm finished for the day
I'm on the midnight flyer and I've really got to get away
Shut down all your main engines, I'm going on reserve
There are things still undiscovered, oh I hope I've got the nerve

Shut down, turn off until the morning light
Slow down, splash down time to end the flight
Make way dream time, here comes another night
I wish I could remember where I've been

- Little River Band Shut Down, Turn Off
Qantas gave advance notice of their shutdown last week to the Coalition. Let the journos quibble about who knew what, when. The fact is when you get information like that you are meant to have an advantage: 'forewarned is forearmed' and all that.

What's also a fact is that the Coalition was no better off for having that information. Abbott just looked like a gibberer when he went on about how he expected the government to act under Section X of the Fair Work Act when he wanted them to have acted under Section Y. His whole modus operandi relies on him setting traps for the government who then falling into them, and when the government won't act to his initiative he's pretty much bereft.

The government seemed on top of the whole issue by mid-week. The person who should have alerted them to the Qantas shutdown was not only Qantas management but also the head of the Transport Workers Union, Tony Sheldon. Sheldon has been playing brinkmanship with Qantas management for weeks, warning of strikes then cancelling them at the last minute, causing uncertainty for Qantas passengers and management without looking like the bloody-minded union leader.

Old-school Qantas management would have kept the planes flying at all costs. The reason why Qantas employees have great job security and other perks can be credited to hardball unionists, but also to a management ethos that had the cash and would shovel it around to keep the business going. Sheldon thought he was dealing with old-school Qantas management, which is why he looked so rattled when management shut down the airline themselves.

Sheldon was dealing with Alan Joyce, a veteran of the shakeup of European airlines in the 1990s, and Leigh Clifford, who showed the mining unions that once management lift their game on pay and OHS the unions have little to offer prospective members. Old-school Qantas management took government protection for granted in a way that Joyce and Clifford clearly can't. He should have known that the game had changed. Sheldon was playing 1970s-style bash-and-barge rugby league in a game of Aussie Rules, where his opponent had sailed above him, taken the ball, booted a goal, and elbowed Sheldon in the eye for good measure; all without the ref seeing.

Sheldon did not look like a union leader who was outraged on behalf of his members. He wasn't doing the sort of confected bluster combined with lovin'-the-attention smugness you'd expect from Paul Howes in that position. He wasn't doing the quiet more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger determination thing that you might expect from the people currently running the ACTU. Sheldon had the sheepish look of a man who had been fucked and burned in a high-stakes game, and who then had to front the media and describe in detail just how badly he had been both, ah, fucked and, ahem, burnt, again and again.

Tony Sheldon is a big wheel in NSW Labor and is running for Federal President of the ALP. He may be the only union leader with a Chief Of Staff; a union leader needs a Chief Of Staff like your local mayor needs a goldie-lookin chain that makes them look like something from Gilbert & Sullivan. While Sheldon isn't entirely responsible for the predicament NSW Labor is currently in, it is there because he and a couple of others not only failed to stop the rot but even to identify it as such. This dispute with Qantas is not a case of teething problems, it is core business for a long-serving union leader.

The fact that he has failed to intervene effectively in his members' interests and warn a Labor government of a significant issue of policy and perception casts serious doubt over Sheldon's suitability for positions he holds now, never mind those to which he might aspire. Gillard and Albanese should refuse to have anything to do with him. What distinguished Labor powerbrokers of old from those of today is that they would have gently nudged Sheldon out of the running for the Labor Presidency, my members are priority number one, etc.

You can demonise Joyce all you like but he's given nothing away to Sheldon and the other unions involved, who are not reacting at all well to the situation Joyce and Clifford have put in front of them. Yes, Joyce and Clifford have played the game masterfully, but there's no grounds for CEO-worship there: if you are in a game and yours is the only team playing the game, how can you lose? Your opponent can shadow-box as much as they want but you only have to land a blow they're not expecting, and down they'll go. Joyce knew that, Clifford knew it - and now Sheldon's learnt the lesson good and hard, one he has no excuse for not knowing beforehand.
I wanna talk to the pilot, he's in charge of my dreams
But he insists on vanishing just as soon as he thinks he's been seen
I wanna recharge my batteries, leave me alone for awhile
We'll set off again in the morning on a wing and a prayer and a smile
But back to the Coalition (oh yes). They had the advance warning, and as usual they had a few snappy lines. What wasn't usual that it wasn't enough. The Qantas shutdown was a serious issue and in venturing comments on it, the Coalition invited serious comments. In the face of serious comments about a really important issue, the Coalition wilted.

The fact that CHOGM delegates were inconvenienced was a matter of significance for Australia, one they let slip by (showing that the Shadow Foreign Minister has little idea of the significance of such an event held in her home town, and/or little clout in Coalition strategy sessions).

They were wise to skate around the whole inconvenience to the Melbourne Cup - yes, racing is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but to most Australians it's a trifle and combined with the focus on pokies at the moment it would be a bad look for the Coalition to remind people how much they are in bed with the gambling industry.

This leaves them relying on policies on transport and industrial relations, which they don't have. It isn't good enough just to say that the details of those policies haven't been finalised, wait until the election etc. In the 1980s and '90s Liberal policies were constantly under review and when journo put John Howard on the spot he could come up with a coherent statement on most key issues, even if he was winging it, in general accordance with previously stated policy principles of the Liberal Party.

The difference now is that Tony Abbott has no principles to speak of, save the tattered DLP ones of his most callow youth. These included job security and perks for those in protected industries - the unions up against Qantas are fighting on much the same basis. They are fighting for qualities that retreated from much of the unionised workforce in the 1980s, and which the recession of the late '80s/early '90s pretty much finished off. By the late 1990s the only one gibbering about Aussie jobs for Aussies was Pauline Hanson.

Abbott could have gone for populism. I half expected to see him in an airport terminal egging on livid passengers stuck in Adelaide for four days, or strapping on the fluro to tell locked-out workers that he's the one who can guarantee cradle-to-grave job security. It is to his credit he did neither. What he needed to do was flick the switch to Prime Ministerial and show the nation what might have been, and what might be yet. He couldn't do that because he has no sense of what is in the nation's best interests, no reservoir of principle to contrast the present situation with the way it should be. This is where policy laziness bites you. Had this dispute taken place next November Abbott's position would be in question, if not in play.

There are still two years to go before an election (oh yes there are) which is plenty of time to develop some policies. If it's true that business is starting to take more of an interest in donating to the Liberal Party, then there's no reason why business can't donate time and resources to help develop some policies that go beyond dot-points. That's what a broad-based movement would do: a small, tightly-controlled outfit focused on the "news cycle" today and tomorrow won't, however. They see the Qantas dispute as an issue to be put behind them for the sake of unity and tomorrow's news cycle.
Shut down, turn off, until the morning light
Slow down, splash down, time to end the flight
Make way dream time here comes another night
I wish I could remember where I've been

Where have I been?
On a Qantas plane recently full of white-collar workers who are well and truly accustomed to contracting and outsourcing, it was at times quaint, funny and pathetic listening to pilots bleat about the perils of such an arrangement befalling them. You'll survive, guys.

The Qantas shutdown last week is the very sort of incident where people's perceptions become fixed in place: the very sorts of perceptions that are so hard to shift in election campaigns. Big industrial disputes usually go on for weeks, but this one was off the boil (if not fully resolved) within days. The whole idea that the incumbent government is incompetent is starting to look a little thin, while far from being comprehensively rebutted. The whole idea that the Coalition are no better, and may even be worse, is starting to take hold and the proof coming from this incident counts against the Coalition.

Qantas management knows what it is about and the unions up against them do not; the odd engine malfunction in some far-off place is having no impact on questions of safety, job security and engineering utility. The whole Aussie Jobs For Aussies thing is hard to distinguish from a toxic brew of self-interest and xenophobia. The only thing that will give that argument any currency at all will be the worst outcome possible, something that won't be dealt with by Fair Work Australia: a Qantas aircraft crashing to earth, with the sorts of people who were inconvenienced last week wedged among the wreckage.

Yes, Virginia, there are bigger issues at stake here than who might have phoned whom when.
Shutdown turn off until the morning light
Slow down, splash down time to end the flight
Make way dream time, here comes another night
Oh, I wish I could remember where I've been

Shutdown turn off until the morning light
Make way dream time, here comes another night

(Lyrics: Glenn Barrie Shorrock)


  1. The end is coming for Tony. The super backflip done without Robb in the room and while that jaapie corman was saying the opposite must mean his use by date is coming. the anti dumping policy he and Sophie cooked up and dumped at a business round table is a stinker. Although it does feed into the don't give money to the Imf theme given a run last week. and fud I hear him say today he would fund the super by scrapping the nbn. you can't make this stuff up. if it was a labor leader chucking this monkey pooh around the Australian would be publishing hourly. the biggest worry in this country should be an early election that puts Abbott and his rabble in office. what would happen if he believes even half the shite he is peddling and decides to run with it? hockeynomics loves to talk about sovereign risk . an Abbott govt would show Joe what it really means.

  2. Bushfire Bill7/11/11 8:16 pm

    "the odd engine malfunction in some far-off place is having no impact on questions of safety, job security and engineering utility. "

    You're kidding, right?

    Take it from this nervous flyer: once Qantas starts pranging planes, just like other airlines, then they'll be ... just another airline.

    The one thing they have going for them isn't the ging-ho "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" schtick. It's what Rainman said: "Qantas never crashed.".

    Anything that serve to break that spell - including getting rid of their loyal workforce - spells disaster for Qantas.

  3. Thanks bearspot.

    BB, my point is that it will only happen once planes start crashing - the bingles we're seeing now are having no impact. I agree that Qantas have been dumb in not securing workforce loyalty, and having stripped away the perks I don't think they have given nearly enough thought to what should replace it, given that they're not stuffing anyone's mouths with cash.

  4. Things are startign to go south for Tny Aboott and his merry gang of yahoos. I don't hold much stock in polls, but I'd be surprised if the turnaround seen in the past few isn't convincingly continued with tomorrow's results. I may be giving the general public too much credit, but it's possible that people are starting to learn that an opposition that acts like my 2 year old nephew may not be the best choice for the next government.

    And how was their reaction to Gillard's IMF anncouncements. Talk about sticking your gun in your trousers and blowing your own dick off. If the big end of town have any confidence left in Abbott and Hockey after this week, then they are bigger fools than I thought.

  5. I fly regularly. I will not fly Qantas in future as I cannot rely on them. A CEO who grounds all flights without warning and sends a woman on a fourteen hour car trip to make a meeting can get.........

  6. I think you have missed two important points here, Andrew.
    Firstly, the Australian public are on side with the Unions in this dispute with Clifford and Joyce, precisely because they can see the end run and they don't like the look of it. That is, driving down the wages and burning off the reasonable conditions the citizenry in Australia expect Qantas to give to their hard-working employees. Qantas want to treat their employees worse than the Cattle Class flyers. Which is pretty bad. That is, they want to pay them like 3rd World employees.
    If this Rubicon is crossed with Qantas, and the play by Clifford and Joyce succeeds, then it will be on for young and old throughout the economy. Which is what the Gen Pub don't like the smell of, and I don't blame them. 'Flexibility' my bum. The 'flexibility' is all the bosses way, and it starts with the workforce bending over and taking one for the team.
    Secondly, the travelling public don't like being used as pawns in the slimy capitalists game.
    You may think the Unions are so 1980s, but that's what makes Australia a beacon of decency in the world.
    Tony Sheldon, on the other hand, is a Drama Queen, like his dear old mum. And Gai Brodtmann got my vote for ALP President. If she can live with and marry a Liberal she must have incredible forebearance.

  7. Michael, it's one of the symptoms of conservative failure that they hop into Labor for doing things supported by conservatives elsewhere. Look at McMahon bagging Whitlam for going to China in 1972, shortly before Nixon went.

    Anonymous, I think Qantas have underestimated people like you (us?) in terms of loyalty. The heat from this issue will fade but so too will be loyalty to Qantas as a superior, more reliable airline.

    HS, there's a lot of sympathy to be sure - not a lot we can do to help, though. Flexibility, ultimately, means not being beholden to any one employer (or airline as a customer), whereas the drone who has a 'job for life' is somehow less beholden to their employer than the skilled professional who has options and will assert them.

    I don't think unions are "so 1980s", but I do think those that participated in this to-do have been inept. What is "so 1980s" however is your claim that "the Rubicon is crossed". Oh, please: the breakdown of protectionism was well underway by about 1985, and nobody has any excuse for not seeing this coming and taking better steps to counter it than we've seen from the unions so far.

    In terms of sympathy for featherbedded employees and porkbarrelled management: love to help you guys but I've got a plane to catch, here's some sympathy in the meantime.

  8. not totally in lockstep with you on qantas. Joyce is making a mistake taking advice from Clifford on this. mining companies and mining unions bashing each other up in the desert is a long way from a service sector company going to war with its members who have face time with members of the public. when Joyce grounded the airline he was on the air waves while the union members were up close and personal with the stranded public. and you say Clifford and his mob effectively bought off the workers with big pay rises. it is easy in mining where you are always short of workers and your customers are there to be milked. qantas can't buy off its workers. it has to deal with the unions and persuade them to take a haircut. The qantas problems go back to the Geoff Dixon era where bad decisions on aircraft were made and when a decision should have been made to get the workers onside for the changes that had to occur. I am a commmitted unionist and I know that you can bring in massive change if you take the time to get the workers onside. qantas also has to make a case against the vanity airline competition. those mid east airlines mostly who are hugely subsidized and don't have the same cost restraints. I would be making a case for government funding from the tourism budget to help qantas compete. I know that had you choking on your weeties but qantas is not competing on a level playing field. if we want a national flagship we should pay for it.

  9. '....and Leigh Clifford, who showed the mining unions that once management lift their game on pay and OHS the unions have little to offer prospective members.'

    Quite true, but surely it is a white cat, black cat, situation. And, in itself, driven by unions organising. I don't see that taking away their raison d'etre by adopting the same policies counts as a loss.
    I have sworn of Qantas because their service has become rubbish - but on the last flight I was on in August from Heathrow to Melbourne many of the passengers applauded on landing, because the landing was perfect despite the bad weather.

  10. Thank you, Andrew. Now, I do hope that you busy giving Ms Crabb one of your splendid forensic once-overs for this: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-11-08/crabb-carbon-legislation-abbott-demolition/3652544.

    I can hardly wait.

  11. The trouble with all this sound and fury is "work whatever" or "whatever work" did it's job.

    Why didn't Joyce go for arbitration; instead closing down an airline; and getting the government to do his job? Joyce just looks like a bloody fool.

  12. Doug Evans, if you insist on your pollster fanboy stuff, please post a link rather than the whole thing.


    "Joyce is making a mistake taking advice from Clifford on this."

    You might be right. I'm more than a little alarmed by all of these instant experts on brand management who've popped up out of the woodwork over the last fortnight or so.

    You'll find that many of the people who get on and off planes are neither management nor unionised worker, part of the workforce that the 19th century construct of unionism cannot cope with.

    This post isn't about who's wrong or right, but about who played the game with everything they had versus dilettantes who let their members down.

    "qantas can't buy off its workers. it has to deal with the unions and persuade them to take a haircut. The qantas problems go back to the Geoff Dixon era where bad decisions on aircraft were made and when a decision should have been made to get the workers onside for the changes that had to occur."

    I'm well aware that Qantas can't buy off its workers, and am sorry I didn't make that clear. Joyce, Clifford et al need to find something other than cash or perks to secure employee and customer loyalty, good luck with that.

    What's equally true is that the unions have let their members down. Union members have been screwed over because Tony Sheldon and his silly mates didn't understand what was going on. You may think that people are obliged to stick by a union no matter what: bullshit to that. If those turkeys are going to take your money and do this to you, they're no better than the SDA.

    "I am a commmitted unionist and I know that you can bring in massive change if you take the time to get the workers onside."

    I'm not a committed unionist and I knew that already. I'd know it if that dispute had never taken place. See Persse's comment.

    "I would be making a case for government funding from the tourism budget to help qantas compete."

    I wouldn't. Tourism is the only private sector industry that has the government foot its marketing bill, and it's doing a crap job of it. You're right about the subsidies but counter-subsidies haven't worked and won't work this time.

    "I know that had you choking on your weeties"

    If you knew as much as you need to, you'd know I don't eat weeties and that my breakfast went down just fine.

  13. Persse: you're right about how unions don't deserve all the credit they would hog for themselves. I think Qantas' problems are fixable but whether the current managers are the guys to do it is an open question.

    Fiona: all in good time.

    Anonymous: it is not clear what 'job' this government would do on Qantas. I suspect they would have just kicked the can down the road a bit. Joyce has shifted the debate, and he can only lose it if the worst outcome happens.

  14. Andrew - I note that you have consistently defied the commentariat and said for many months that Tony Abbott was a dead man walking with a big soft majority. Oh, how right you were. Surely in a just world you would be earning $300,000 a year as a pundit for a major newspaper. However, those jobs seem to be reserved for fools who get everything wrong, which means you are unqualified.

  15. Andrew - OK sorry about that. Last comment was made in a great hurry. On The Drum November 8 http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3650770.html Peter Lewis wrote about public response to Essential Media question about who was to blame for the QANTAS stoush. He observed that all players (including the Unions) were blamed for the stuff up except Fairwork Australia which got a fairly favorable response. He was maybe making too much of this but it seemed a reasonable extrapolation of a bit of polling. Having just read HS comment above about public support for the Union stance in this mess I thought Lewis' piece was relevant. I hope I haven't outsourced my brain to poll results yet, but I do find them interesting pointers in the fog of online political opinion to what is actually happening. I see they are beginning to show that the tide is turning as you have predicted. May the trend continue.