Prime Minister Tony Abbott has embarked on a risky political strategy.
Rather than his much-maligned three-word slogans, it is a pared-down, two-word slogan: “Trust me”.
Pushing ahead with repealing part three of the Qantas Sale Act – which ensures it cannot be majority foreign-owned – will not have immediate political benefits for the coalition.
In fact, Labor, the Greens and the unions are making it as damaging as possible.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says allowing Qantas to be majority foreign-owned will lead to thousands of jobs being sent offshore, unprofitable but vital regional air services being dumped and the national carrier being broken up.
Such a move comes at a time of rising unemployment and job insecurity – Holden and Toyota have announced their manufacturing shutdowns – and concern about the direction of the global economy.
Abbott is framing the debate in terms of his two election-night pledges: that Australia is open for business and under new management.
In practical terms, this has meant since the September 2013 poll the coalition has closed the chequebook for businesses seeking handouts and stopped playing favourites, especially with manufacturers.
The prime minister is adamant that freeing Qantas of legislative “shackles” will level the aviation playing field with Virgin, which has the financial benefit of three foreign investors.
Coupled with Qantas management’s own $2 billion in savings – including the shedding of 5000 jobs over three years – the government’s action will shore up the airline’s long-term future, Abbott says.
This week, the government added a second point to its argument.
The Air Navigation Act – a piece of legislation the government does not intend to repeal – says any international carrier that wants to fly from Australia must be majority Australian-owned and based here.
And the Foreign Investment Review Board would ensure the national interest was upheld when it came to the newly unshackled Qantas seeking overseas partners, most likely from China and the Middle East.
The government will have to wait until July to test its numbers in the new Senate.
Abbott is seeking the trust of voters that when they return to the polls in 2016, the events of early 2014 will look like laying down a new runway for an economy preparing to take off.
The immediate risk for the coalition is the April 5 West Australian Senate election re-run, as well as the Tasmanian and South Australian state polls in March, as Labor pours aviation fuel on the job insecurity message.
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