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Airline Passenger Protections Pay on Delay Bill 2024, second reading debate

I rise to speak on the Airline Passenger Protections (Pay on Delay) Bill 2024. Firstly, I want to congratulate Senator McKenzie on this excellent private senator’s bill. This is a profound demonstration of the work that the opposition is doing because the government won’t stand up for airline passengers. The government won’t do the work that Australians deserve, and this bill brings justice to airline passengers who have been systematically ripped off by airlines, particularly by Qantas. But there’s a long and sordid history to this. It is disgraceful when you consider the background, because it’s clear why the government won’t support this bill, this excellent bill, which I’ll discuss shortly. The government won’t support this bill because the government has been doing dirty deals with Qantas.

This is payday for Qantas. This is payday in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars—in fact, it is probably more than that; it’s probably many millions of dollars—as a result of the blocking of flights from Qatar and as a result of the dirty deal over the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, where Qantas delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in free flights, flying campaigners around this country, with no regard for the many Indigenous Australians who did not support the Voice, who did not support the overreach, who did not support a change in our Constitution which would have profoundly divided Australia. The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has been more concerned with swanning around on the red carpet with Alan Joyce, pumping up his personal and political relationship, than in standing up for Australians. Frankly, Australians have had a gutful. They’ve had a gutful of the elites. They’ve had a gutful of the special deals.

Catherine King is not saying to the Prime Minister: ‘Prime Minister, this is not appropriate. We’ve got to stand up for airline passengers. We’ve got to do the right thing.’ She hasn’t had the courage to say to the Prime Minister, her factional ally, ‘Prime Minister, we can’t keep doing these dirty deals with Qantas.’ We know that Catherine King is a weak infrastructure minister. You only have to look at the budget last night, and you only have to look at what she has delivered for the people for Ballarat, her local electorate. Shame on Catherine King. In going through the budget papers last night, looking at the local investments for the people of Ballarat, there was zero. Regional Victorians have been betrayed by the Albanese government on Catherine King’s watch, and, for the third budget in a row, there is nothing of any note—

Ms King, the member for Ballarat, has profoundly betrayed the people of Ballarat—not one single new project, no investment. No wonder she’s so weak on this bill. No wonder she has betrayed airline passengers across this country. I will not be silenced in standing up for Victorians, I will not be silenced in standing up for airline passengers, and I will not be silenced in commending the work of Senator McKenzie, who is saying enough is enough. Enough is enough. So thank you for firing me up, because, I tell you what, I as a regional Victorian am disgusted—not one new project in Geelong, in Ballarat, in Bendigo or in Wodonga. The current member for Corangamite tries to say that $6 million for a basketball stadium is a new commitment. What a load of rubbish! It was taken out of the funding round and then had to be shoved back in, but it will never be built because there’s not enough money. So, frankly, when it comes to infrastructure, this government is a disgrace. Contrast that with what we did under our government and you can all hang your heads in shame.

The Airline Passenger Protections (Pay on Delay) Bill is a great reflection of how we are standing up for Australians. For many Australians, plane travel is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. With hundreds of thousands of people travelling across Australia every day for medical appointments, business trips or leisure, and often under very dire circumstances—after the loss of loved ones, attending funerals. When you purchase a plane ticket, you expect to leave on time and arrive on time, and often there are very serious consequences if you don’t. If you don’t, airlines need to be held to account, as they are in so many other parts of the world.

And it’s getting worse. The red-carpet swanning around between Anthony Albanese, the Prime Minister, and Alan Joyce has taken Australians backwards. The long-term average rate of flight cancellations prior to COVID was 1.5 per cent. In January 2024, passengers endured 3.1 per cent of flights being cancelled, and the long-term average rate of cancellations has blown out to 2.2 per cent. What a disgrace! What a disgrace—the ghost flights. The ACCC has now stepped in and fined Qantas. We’re not just talking about a slap on the wrist. It’s an $80 million fine for grossly misleading Australians, and $20 million in compensation. What a disgrace! And what does it say about the values and ethics of this company? It’s about not just the gouging, the delays, the lack of consideration and the lack of care but grossly misleading conduct and negligent conduct, where, of course, they’ve been caught out and they’ve copped a very significant fine.

I want to just go through this bill because there are some important provisions in it. The bill includes the protection of minors. Recognising the vulnerability of minors, the bill would require the transport minister to make rules which mandate that minors under the age of 14 are seated next to their guardian or their parent at no extra cost. Can you imagine an airline charging extra so a child can sit next to their parent or their guardian? This provision is crucial for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of young passengers and providing peace of mind for families and caregivers.

The bill also provides minimum standards of treatment. The bill would require the transport minister to make rules which establish minimum standards of treatment for passengers who experience delays, cancellations or denial of boarding, which can often happen when a flight is overbooked. These standards are intended to ensure that passengers are provided with essential amenities such as food, water, and accommodation during such disruptions, which, of course, would mitigate the inconvenience and this discomfort. The minimum standards may also set compensation for significant delays, cancellations or denial of boarding.

The bill also provides for compensation for lost or damaged baggage. This would require the minister to make rules which introduce provisions for passengers to seek compensation. It is absolutely unacceptable for passengers to suffer severe financial losses due to mishandling of their baggage, and so this bill establishes a framework for them to seek compensation for the loss or damage of their baggage. And, of course, it holds airlines to account for property entrusted to their care. There are also obligations for refunds to be provided in a timely manner—no kicking the can down the road. In the case of tarmac delays of over three hours, the bill provides for rules for carriers, including the obligation to provide timely information and assistance to passengers, as well as providing for minimum standards of treatment of passengers that the carrier is required to meet. This closes any loophole that allows a carrier to board a flight to avoid penalties, knowing that the aircraft cannot depart within a specified time.

The carrier will also be required to provide timely information in language that is simple, clear and concise. This includes any information regarding recourse against the carrier in terms of the carrier’s obligations. Also in the bill is a requirement to establish an airline code of conduct in direct response to the ongoing concerns by the ACCC and other consumer advocacy groups regarding the carrier’s pricing strategies, which include inconsistent fare types and the experiences of third-party purchasers of airfares. So the purpose of the code is to ensure the fair and proper treatment of passengers and that passengers reach their intended destination as booked.

This bill includes some very, very important provisions. The code that I just mentioned will ensure transparency in pricing by ensuring a consistent definition of ‘a ticket of carriage’ and the terms and conditions of carriage, preventing hidden fees and charges and ensuring that consumers are fully informed at the point of purchase. I think we’ve all had the experience of trying to book an airline ticket thinking it’s a certain price, only to find that we are pushed into a certain direction on the website and required to take on extra packages or elements of the ticket, only to find that the ticket price increases very substantially. This bill addresses the poor performance of the aviation sector, which has a very significant flow-on impact on the Australian economy. I think it’s fair to say that Australians are sick of being gouged by the airlines due to a lack of competition. Australians are sick of being taken for granted. Australians are sick of sitting on the tarmac or in a terminal in distress because they can’t get to where they need to go, with no accountability by the airline.

I really have to say, in seeing this bill put forward and hoping that the government will have a change of heart, that I feel for the hardworking flight attendants, pilots and ground staff of Qantas and Virgin because they often cop the brunt of passenger grief, and they are doing their very best. We salute those workers because they are working extremely hard, often under very difficult circumstances. Why should employees of Qantas or Virgin have to cop grief from passengers because Qantas or Virgin don’t do the right thing or—let’s cut to the chase here—because the government doesn’t do the right thing? The Prime Minister is more concerned about swanning around on the red carpet with Alan Joyce and squandering millions of dollars on the Voice. Let’s not forget that, for the first 18 months of this parliament, all we spoke about was the Voice. The Prime Minister had absolutely no regard for the cost-of-living pressures that Australians are facing. He talked about bringing Australians together, but all he did was divide Australia, and we paid a very, very high price—in excess of $460 million.

I want to reference the very good Senate inquiry last year, which was of course fiercely resisted by the Albanese government at every turn. We’re still waiting for Alan Joyce to appear. Why is the government running a protection racket for Alan Joyce? He has questions to answer. He has treated this parliament with contempt. This is the pinnacle of our democracy here in this parliament. Everyone must comply with the law and everyone is accountable under our democracy. It is a shocking reflection on this government that they keep voting to protect Alan Joyce from appearing before the Senate inquiry and answering very important questions.

I commend this bill. I commend what it would do for Australian airline passengers and for competition in the airline market and I again plead with the government to have a change of heart and to stop worrying about its deals with mates and start standing up for the Australian people.

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