Australia gets jumpy about outsourcing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 March, 2006, 12:00am


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The decision by Dubai-owned DP World to shed its US port operations was not the only blow to globalisation last week. Rumours that the airline Qantas was going to shift maintenance jobs from Australia to China unleashed a similarly large dose of xenophobia and economic nationalism.

In both cases, rationality and facts were jettisoned as emotional rhetoric and scaremongering took centre stage. And in both cases, there are warning signs that xenophobia on the part of developed countries can derail greater global integration.

In the US, DP World had to abandon plans to run six ports because an unholy alliance of media outlets and politicians in the US Congress managed to turn public opinion overwhelmingly against the idea. The fact that some of America's ports operations should be in the hands of a company that hails from a moderate, pro-western Arab country - the United Arab Emirates - was a threat to national security, apparently.

It did not matter, as many national-security experts observed, that ownership of ports is irrelevant to customs and security checks of containers of goods coming into the United States. In the current environment, the fact that DP World is an Arab-owned company was enough to light the fuse of American xenophobia and fears.

The hostility that Qantas has experienced over the past couple of weeks in Australia - over the mooted plans to move maintenance jobs to China - was on a smaller scale. But it shows that, if the conditions are right, it is as easy to undermine globalisation in Australia as in the US.

As Chinese and Australian officials were winding up their latest round of free-trade talks in Canberra, 300 union delegates marched to Qantas' Melbourne headquarters to protest against the supposed move to China. The Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU), which represents Qantas' maintenance crews, was just as shrill in demonising China as American politicians and the media were about the ports company.

According to AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron, Qantas would 'no doubt' compromise its excellent safety record by sending maintenance jobs to China. 'Qantas should be the spirit of Australia, not the spirit of China,' he said, referring to the airline's slogan.

He even went so far as to say that Qantas' record of having no fatalities would be at risk if Chinese - as opposed to Australian - maintenance workers serviced the airline's fleet. 'Why would you hand a 100-per-cent [no-fatality] record to someone else and put the Australian public in danger?' Mr Cameron argued.

But he and his supporters did not cite any rational reason why Chinese maintenance work on Qantas aircraft would not be as thorough as that performed by Australians. In fact, as Bernd Habbel of Luthansa Technik - one of the world's largest aircraft maintenance companies - observed recently, technical standards are just as high in China as they are in countries like Australia. Mr Habbel told The New Zealand Herald last month that his company has to 'look for quality guarantees', and that 'if you look at qualifications, [Chinese aircraft maintenance] workers are at the same level as European workers'.

For now, Mr Cameron can rest easy. Qantas announced last week that it would merely relocate workers within Australia, for the moment. But the case has lifted the lid on the barely suppressed anti-globalist, anti-Chinese sentiment that is alive and well in Australia. And, no doubt, those Australians like Mr Cameron, who fear the spectre of China playing a much larger part in Australia's economic future, will take heart from America's retreat from globalisation last week.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser