The flying kangaroo need not be a flying panda
“There Is No Alternative” was a favourite line of Margaret Thatcher’s whenever she was trying to push one of her ideas on to the public.
The “TINA” philosophy has become part of the armoury of governments, big corporations, and others who want to convince us that we are naïve, ill-informed or stupid when we try and question the wisdom of their decisions.
Qantas is the latest example of a major company trying to convince us that There Is No Alternative to its plans to shift its operations offshore, and to cut about 1000 jobs here in Australia.
Glossy advertising, and a vague promise of better service to customers, has been used to sugar-coat the bitter pill Qantas has given its workforce.
The airline business is a very competitive one. Qantas, like all airlines, is facing a tough commercial environment, and it is clear that it will need to change in order to survive.
I’m not opposed to change, and I want unions to work with management to ensure Australian companies stay competitive. But sometimes we need to point out that a decision that is being taken with an eye on the short-term can end up doing huge long-term damage.
Qantas trades on its reputation: both for service, and more importantly for safety. This reputation as the world’s safest airline hasn’t come by accident, or solely by the efforts of top-level executives and advertisers.
It has been earned over decades by the hard work and effort of a professional, highly-skilled workforce.
My concern is that by shifting operations overseas, Qantas is selling off its hard-earned reputation for short-term benefit.
The ACTU will seek to ensure that any Qantas services, either under the Qantas brand or a subsidiary, that fly in or out of Australia are still bound by Australian laws, and its workers should be employed under Australian wages and conditions - wherever they are based.
But I have a more general concern that there is a tunnel-vision in this country about how we can compete internationally, and an orthodoxy that There is No Alternative to reducing pay, conditions and job security, or to outsourcing jobs.
True, Australia has to compete with countries with lower wages that can outbid us on price.
But is there really no alternative to importing workers on 457 visas for major projects, even though companies are under no obligation to test the local labour market to ensure there are?
No alternative to skyrocketing executive pay, or huge bonuses for the bankers who should be taking the blame for the global financial crisis? No alternative to increasing amounts of casual and insecure work?
In my opinion the best way to win this kind of race to the bottom is not to turn up at the starting line. Our future should not be based on trying to compete with China and India on their strengths, but on ours.
Our advantages include a skilled and motivated workforce, transport and other infrastructure up with the best in the world, political and social stability, and a spirit of having a go.
As industries like manufacturing in Australia have changed hugely over the past few decades as tariffs have been lowered, those that have been prepared to innovate and reconfigure their operations have survived and thrived.
Take the motor car industry, for example, where, rather than compete with mass-produced small car imports, Australia has become a hub for engine design and production, and for a high value-added model of vehicle that has secured a significant market niche in the lucrative Middle East market. Decent, fulfilling jobs have been retained, and the high-tech knowhow is kept within in Australia.
Companies that tried to compete on wages alone might have bought themselves a few extra years, but eventually could not compete.
We need an increase in productivity in Australia that is based on technological progress, and investment in the infrastructure that makes workers able to produce more.
We need education and apprenticeships to make sure we do not leave potential workers trapped in unemployment and that we are not relying on short-term migration fixes to plug skills gaps.
For instance, the mining industry is held up as the shining example of the modern Australian economy, yet has failed to train its fair share of apprentices.
Mining employs almost 6% of Australia’s tradespeople, but relies on 457 Visas and poaching skilled workers from other industries, rather than training its own workforce. Remember that next time a mining executive bemoans the Australian workforce and says There is No Alternative to importing labour from a third world nation.
There was a time when the banks told us There Is No Alternative to closing branches and outsourcing back office operations, or sending them overseas. To object was to stand in the way of progress. Well, a couple of years ago ANZ woke up to a customer backlash and began re-opening branch offices.
The other big banks have followed suit, realising their brands and reputations had been tarnished by branch closures, and that while it may cost a bit more, customers often preferred to deal with a real person rather than a machine.
Westpac, for example, have brought their transaction processing back in-house after outsourcing because of service difficulties. Last time I checked, none of the big banks were struggling financially.
In the 1980s, privatisation of government businesses, like railways or telecommunications, was seen as inevitable, because the free market was more efficient. New Zealand led the world in privatisation, but in 2008 the Government decided to turn back history by buying back its privatised rail network, to ensure that it better served the national interest, than the interests of its corporate owners.
So, next time someone tells you There is No Alternative, take a close look at what they’re trying to sell you. There are plenty of alternatives if you look hard enough.
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