Sky News, Afternoon Agenda

13 September 2023

TOM CONNELL: Let's get more on a big political day. Joining me now is the Assistant Trade Minister Tim Ayres. Thanks for your time. We'll start with Qantas, a big win in the High Court for them confirming the laws that are in place, and they do have a compensation route, but they can't get their jobs back. So, Labor's pushed for that to be possible. How feasible is that for people long out of the company with a lot of ill will to just pop back as employees?


TIM AYRES: Well, put aside the legal position, there is a strong moral position here isn't there? I see the new Qantas CEO has issued a statement that starts with, appropriately, an apology. Some thinking to do for the Qantas CEO and the Qantas board about how they respond to this decision. That's in the lead up to more proceedings that will be happening in the Federal Court that go to issues around compensation.


But what happened here was an injustice. Now it's pretty interesting what's happened today - Michaelia Cash has issued a statement endorsing the decision, castigating Qantas. But when it happened, she said, 'this is a commercial decision for Qantas'. Coalition ministers at the time lined up to applaud Qantas' decision.


CONNELL: Perhaps they know a bit more about it now, given the ventilation?


AYRES: Well, one thing you can say about us is we've been consistent all the way through...


CONNELL: What about the feasibility because most disputes, the worker wants compensation and then to move on. How feasible would it be if Labor changed laws to make it an entitlement to get their job back? But they, you know, that there'd be a good relationship between that worker and the company ongoing?


AYRES: Well, I'll leave the issues in terms of where Qantas is at and the future applications in the Federal Court to the court. I'll simply say that the applicants and respondents have got a bit of thinking to do, particularly on Qantas' side, about how it is that they are going to remedy this situation?


CONNELL: And would that sort of push you one way or another as to your view on Qantas because the CEOs gone but some of your colleagues have spoken about question marks around the chair. What's your view on the future of Richard Goyder, for example?


AYRES: Look, all those questions are a matter for Qantas.


CONNELL: Some of your colleagues have weighed in on it...


AYRES: Yeah, of course.


CONNELL: ... and said we need more of a clean sweep. What's your view on that?


AYRES: People have got very strong views. My view is that the CEO has got a big job to do to restore public confidence from customers and from workers. It's a matter for her and the board about how they proceed to do that.


CONNELL: And the current board is fit to do that, in your view?


AYRES: It's gonna be a matter for them to determine.


CONNELL: You can have a view on that, other colleagues have. I'm just asking if you think they're in a good position to turn it around?


AYRES: Well, Qantas is an important national airline. They employ a lot of people in Australia, less than they used to. They're an important national carrier. They've got a responsibility to customers. They've got a responsibility to the government, and they've got a responsibility to their workforce.


CONNELL: What do you make of Marcia Langton's comments because she's criticised parts of the No campaign. But she's also said there's a hard No that is going to vote on this, spewing racism. She says she hopes it's 20 per cent, as in it's at least 20 per cent. It seems like a lot of Australians she believes are spewing racism. Do you agree with that comment?


AYRES: I read the accounts of her comments last night. And I read some more detailed analysis of that over the course of the day. And I read her comments as pointing out what is obvious in terms of where the No campaign has been at. It is important to make this distinction. Australians have got a responsibility here in the referendum itself to exercise their vote and people will cast their vote for Yes, they will cast their vote for No. The responsibility that she, I believe, is pointing to - I understand claims have been made here...


CONNELL: These comments we've played today - if you haven't seen it fair enough, you've got a bit on - but she spoke about the hard No 20 per cent of the population being a hard No, spewing racism. That goes beyond the campaign, doesn't it? But maybe that's right, maybe people are fair to have their view on it. Do you agree with that? It seems like a big number to say are spewing racism?


AYRES: Well, I haven't seen those aspects of what is claimed about her comments. And I just say that qualification because immediately what happened here was a disinformation campaign about the comments. People are making claims and counterclaims about these things. I just say for my part, I think I along with many Australians have seen people like Gary Johns, people like the Advance Australia campaign, who have adopted an extremist approach to the way that they've propagated the No campaign.


Now, I've listened carefully to proponents of the No campaign. There are conservative cases for Yes and I've heard conservative leaders make the case for Yes. I've heard conservative leaders make the case for No; I've got no argument with that.


I don't agree with them. But what I do disagree with is extremist, imported, US-style politics being injected into an Australian campaign - disinformation and outrageous claims. Early in the campaign, I saw what that meant in country towns. In Tamworth, the kinds of things that Gary Johns and Pauline Hanson and others were saying in Tamworth did real damage in that community.


CONNELL: Real damage, how? What do you mean?


AYRES: Well, that they were deliberately inflammatory. They were incorrect. And they were designed to stoke division. And what you see from this campaign is they say the most outrageously divisive things. And then they say, 'Oh, don't be divisive'. I mean, you can see an attempt to 'flood the zone' as the Americans say…


CONNELL: Is it important for the Yes side to stick to the comments rather than go broad brushstrokes on this segment of voters or the whole No campaign because whatever frustration people might feel, it's not going to help, is it?


AYRES: I think what you'll see from Yes campaign is a continued positive message about the benefits of the referendum for the country.


CONNELL: Gotta leave it there. Tim Ayres, thank you.


AYRES: Good on you, Tom.