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Labor plays Qantas safety card

Labor uses question time to raise the spectre that foreign ownership of Qantas could threaten the airline's flawless safety record.

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Bill Shorten has remarked privately that his task would be more difficult were he facing a pragmatic government.

The context was the issue du jour, Qantas, the emergence of which at political centre-stage has marked the surprising realignment of old ideological roots in national politics.

Surprising because it challenges a drift away from ideology since the 1980s and 1990s when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating fractured Labor's big-government welfarist mentality, by pushing the nation to embrace deregulation, privatisation, and market liberalism.

More pointedly, it was the very era that delivered the previously unthinkable decision from a Labor government to sell off what had been two government-owned airlines, Australian Airlines and the international standard bearer, Qantas. As with floating the dollar nearly a decade before, the privatisation of Qantas was a reform that was bound to happen. But that didn't make it politically easy, especially for an ALP government whose electoral base fully expected protection from the harsh winds of the market rather than outright exposure to it.

Two decades later and the debate has shifted from one of state versus private ownership to one that inevitably flows from the political compromise set out in the Qantas Sale Act 1992: should the state continue to protect Qantas as a majority-Australian-owned airline?

Shorten's dig over ideology betrays his assessment.

He believes the Flying Kangaroo is so ingrained in Australian identity that voters will punish any government either sitting on its hands while its viability comes into question or presiding over its dismantling as an Australian company through foreign takeover.

On the face of it, this seems like a correct reading, even if it risks Labor's hard-won pro-market stance. The brand's association with Australia is undisputed. And then there is the whole question of jobs - 32,000 of them.

Here, too, Shorten's assertion is that voters are uneasy at a pattern of indifference by the Abbott government as a succession of major companies either leave our shores or go under, slashing thousands of jobs in the process - GM Holden, Toyota and Forge spring to mind.

Labor's charge is that Abbott is pursuing a scorched earth policy of market purism. Some of the ''drier'' market-oriented Liberals find this depiction amusing, given Abbott's past positions. But it is certainly true that since taking office, Abbott has hammered the theme that governments should not be the ''ATM of last resort'' for failing businesses.

In any event, Liberals across the board now caution against an assumption that the ideology of small government and zero-corporate welfare is inherently odious and therefore at odds with voter sentiment.

They argue, in fact, that what have been regarded as givens such as the assumed ''backstop'' role of governments, the permanence of ''iconic'' Australian brands, and even the attachment of people to the status quo, are open to argument.

Informing this view is the surprising equanimity with which voters absorbed the Holden withdrawal in particular - perhaps the only badge to rival Qantas as the quintessential Aussie brand.

Liberals braced for a backlash. What they got instead was a level of sophistication from voters who understood the arguments about the unsustainability of an automotive sector with its hand permanently extended. And this in turn has emboldened a new attitude in the Abbott cabinet on Qantas.

One sign of the dynamism of this debate is the sheer speed with which the government has adjusted its attitude to the airline's request for help.

While Abbott has been consistent, his two key ministers, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Transport Minister Warren Truss have both shifted. The former from arguing just a fortnight ago for the special treatment of the airline, and the latter from dismissing changes to the Qantas Sales Act as politically pie-in-the-sky earlier this year. Abbott rejects the criticism of having no ''Plan B'', arguing that governments should settle on the right policy and then pursue it.

If he's right, it will be the absence of Labor's Plan B that voters end up noticing.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political editor.