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Howard’s End: Qantas Lost On A Sticky Wicket

Today's news that Qantas has decided against Auckland in favour of Brisbane to establish its Boeing 767 maintenance base comes as a shock. But was Auckland competing on a level playing field, was it provided fair chance and fair opportunity and could Auckland claim damages from Qantas if investigations proved this to be nothing more than a cynical industrial ploy? John Howard writes.

In a globalised world, companies can literally pick-up sticks and move to any country they like. Countries desperately compete for that new business and the hundreds of jobs which go with it, sometimes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of community resources in the process.

How much time, energy and resources did Auckland spend in a genuine but failed attempt, to get this new Qantas maintenance base for New Zealand?

If the base were to be in Auckland it would apparently have meant 300 new jobs and a $10 million wage injection. The Australian media are reporting that the new base, now to be built in Brisbane, is worth $AUD 68.5 million. So this is serious stuff.

But Qantas chief-executive designate, Geoff Dixon, is reported in the Australian media today saying that it will only begin operations (in Brisbane) if unions back new work efficiencies. "The choice of Brisbane is subject to agreement with unions on work practices," he said.

Mr Dixon's statement raises a point already picked-up by both New Zealand and Australian unions.

Andrew Little, the national secretary of the NZ Engineering, Printing and Manufacturers Union, says he suspected that Qantas had used the threat of a trans-Tasman shift as a pawn in an industrial game.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union says his union called stop-work meetings because it would not endorse cost-cutting measures. The union believes Qantas raised the "Auckland threat" to extract concessions from it.

Interestingly, Boeing Australia the manufacturers of the 767, are already centred in Brisbane and they are also expanding their operations at Amberley near Ipswich.

Brisbane Airport Corporation chief, Koen Rooijmans says the aviation industry is recognising both Brisbane and Brisbane Airport as locations for aircraft maintenance.

So was Qantas genuine over its potential move to Auckland? It's a fair question. I don't know if the unions are right. Perhaps Qantas did raise the "Auckland threat" to extract concessions.

But that claim certainly needs official investigation.

Not the least being that Aucklanders have likely spent considerable time, energy and money believing they were competing on level playing field.

It was only last week that hundreds of corporate representatives attending the World Economic Forum in Davos gave solid assurances that they would act ethically following a backlash over globalisation.

Whether Qantas was genuine over its potential Auckland maintenance base for the 767, only an investigation will prove.

But the New Zealand and Australian union claims need official investigation, perhaps by the Commerce Commission, because no country can afford to have its leaders wasting time, energy and money if they are not competing on a genuine level playing field to start with.

I hope it proves that Qantas acted ethically throughout, but the New Zealand public has a right to know. Watch this space.

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