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Transtasman relations take a dive

Published: 6:15PM Friday September 14, 2001

Transtasman relations have plummeted with the demise of Ansett Australia leaving 16,000 workers and numerous suppliers to the airline jobless.

Australians are blaming Air New Zealand and the New Zealand government.

Prime Minister Helen Clark felt the full heat of their anger when Ansett workers blocked her Air New Zealand plane from leaving Melbourne Airport.

Administrators have pulled the plug on Ansett Australia, leaving planes and passengers stranded and thousands more out of work.

The response across the Tasman has been swift and vitriolic, with Prime Minister Helen Clark learning for herself the depth of feeling over her handling of the airline crisis.

With 16,000 Ansett workers out of jobs, the finger pointing is all one way.

Federal Transport Minister John Anderson said the government could not afford to help keep Australia's second airline flying and joined Ansett unions in blaming the New Zealand carrier.

He said it would have cost $170 million to just keep Ansett flying until Saturday night.

"Its assets will now be put up for sale but the company itself has been completely and comprehensively driven into the ground by its New Zealand owners, Air New Zealand," Anderson said.

"It is just mindboggling bad and it just can't be resurrected in its current form.

"Nobody would touch it with the debt levels and the operating cost structures that the airline faced," he said.

Air New Zealand's Australian-born chief executive was on the receiving end.

Gary Toomey said he was "shattered" by what happened to Ansett, but declined to discuss its future under legal advice.

Ansett's grounding threw into chaos the travel plans of up to 45,000 passengers as the airline's administrator claimed there was simply no cash to keep its fleet of more than 50 aircraft in the air.

Stunned staff complained they knew nothing until they arrived for work.

Air New Zealand executives must give back their bonuses to help fund Ansett employees' lost entitlements, unions said.

It is estimated the total outstanding accrued entitlements of workers could exceed $500 million.

Unions demanded the executives return the undisclosed sums paid to them recently as a reward for their performances in the six months to December last year.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet described the payments as scandalous.

"Executives are lining their own pockets while taking off with half a billion of employees life savings," Combet said.

"Unions will be pursuing Air New Zealand for every last cent of Ansett employees' money through the industrial relations commission and through the courts," he said.

Employees have been told they may not be paid the two weeks wages owed before administrators took over the role of employer on September 12.

New Zealand may be taking the bulk of the criticism, but when the initial anger gives way to the reality of trying to get by from day to day, the workers will be turning to the Australian government for help and with an election due towards the end of the year, the Ansett collapse could prove to be make or break for Prime Minister John Howard.

The fallout extends well beyond Ansett employees, with thousands more jobs in catering and the travel industry set to disappear along with Australia's second biggest airline.

New Zealand's Prime Minister became an immediate target for disgruntled workers as her plane was blocked on the tarmac at Melbourne.

Clark was flown by police helicopter from the airport to avoid a confrontation.

Clark's odyssey began on Tuesday when she left the capital for Auckland.

Before the next leg of her trip she attended a press conference with Finance Minister Michael Cullen about the Air New Zealand crisis.

In the afternoon, Clark caught a 12 hour flight from Auckland to Hong Kong where news of the terrorist attacks on the US was conveyed to the Prime Minister during a stopover.

The next leg involved 13 hours in the air from Hong Kong to Rome where the PM held official meetings as arrangements were made to return her to New Zealand.

Clark returned via Bangkok to Melbourne where her problems escalated.

After 47 hours in the air, her final leg on an Air New Zealand plane to Auckland was grounded by angry airport workers and an Orion was despatched from Whenuapai to Sale Air Force Base near Melbourne.

Clark said from Australia that the situation at Melbourne Airport was very tense and it was made clear when she and her party tried to rebook on a Qantas flight that it would not move if she was on board.

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