Whatever happens in the labor dispute between Qantas and its pilots, licensed engineers and ground handling staff this coming week, the political context is about to fire up.

On Friday 4 November a Senate inquiry into two proposed bills will begin. They contain provisions that would frustrate the Qantas off shoring strategies, and  prevent the rotation of Asia based labor in pilots and flight attendants through domestic operations.

The implications for all the parties to the Qantas dispute should be obvious.

The unions will not win many if any of their job security claims either in negotiations with the company, nor in any compulsory arbitration before Fair Work Australia, as these lie outside the scope of industrial law.

But those difficult political issues can be addressed by legislation to variously strengthen or compel compliance with the original intentions of the Qantas Sale Act 1992.

Qantas then faces the likelihood that its claims to be making its full service brands stronger by cutting them back to fund an investment in an Asia based single aisle operation in either Malaysia or Singapore will be argued and questioned in a place much more difficult to orchestrate than press conferences held in airport terminals.

And that is despite all those gifted bottles of Grange, iPads and family upgrades provided to political, judicial and investment figures through the Chairmans Lounges.

A Senate Committee room is no place for 20 second sound grabs or patsy answers. It is a place where questions of national and sectional interest, such as those of the tourism industry, can be turned over for as long as it takes, session by session, and answers can be revisited if the numbers or other facts are called into question.

The risks for Qantas are obvious. It has already made itself of marginal relevance to inbound tourism by shrinking its network and making bad calls on fleet and scheduling. Yet it wants to somehow use a system of shareholder agreements in nominally minority owned Asia based entities to exercise the control that international law prohibits in traffic agreements, while presumably arguing against allowing the same opportunities to Asia carriers, like Singapore Airlines, to set up similar entities here, and directly serve non-stop services to London in the longer term and the existing Australia-US market in the near term.

The business plans made by Qantas could never be effectively discussed in the context of a labor dispute.  But all of the stakeholders, the public, the employees, the investors, and government,  and in particular its trade and treasury arms, can pursue these matters as they see fit in this inquiry.

Starting this Friday, whether the industrial relations matters are settled or not.


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