Topics: Senate aviation inquiry into Qatar Airways decision;

07:35PM AEST
27 September 2023


Sarah Ferguson: The heads of major airlines face questions in a Senate inquiry today. The federal government remains under pressure over its decision to prevent Qatar Airways from flying 28 additional flights into major Australian cities, a move criticised as favouring Qantas. Senate Opposition Leader Simon Birmingham was on the committee pushing Qantas for answers today. He joins me from Canberra. Simon Birmingham, welcome to 7.30.


Simon Birmingham: Hello Sarah, it’s great to be with you.


Sarah Ferguson: Now do you now have a clearer picture of why Qatar’s request was rejected by the Federal Government?


Simon Birmingham: Unfortunately, Sarah, at the end of today, we’ve got less idea than we had at the start of today when Qatar Airways had each of the reasons that the government has released in a very ad hoc fashion over the last couple of months put to them today, it turned out that none of those grounds had been raised with Qatar Airways during the 11 months the application sat on Transport Minister King’s desk. So, it’s remarkable in that sense that as the government has sought to come up with excuse after excuse for why it rejected the application for these 28 extra services into Australia, all of those excuses turn out not to have even been raised with the applicant during the 11 months it was under consideration.


Sarah Ferguson: So, at the bottom of this, do you think there is something improper in either the way Qantas handled itself or how that decision was reached?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the onus now falls well and truly back on the Albanese Government and their departmental officials who will appear before the committee tomorrow to actually be transparent about what the real reasons were and what the grounds were. If they didn’t raise any concerns with Qatar Airways, then what were the reasons for the rejection of this? Why are Australians paying higher airfares? Why is our tourism industry paying the price of fewer seats into Australia? Why are freight exporters faced with less capacity, particularly into the Middle East and European markets? These are all part of what turn out to be multi-billion-dollar lost opportunities for Australia’s tourism industry and our economy overall as a result of a decision to not approve and allow those extra flights.


Sarah Ferguson: Now as I understand it, Qantas’ argument is that other airlines were going to put on more capacity as indeed they are. I think it’s something like 50 airlines that are adding capacity and so putting more flights into the picture at the time that Qatar was making the request would have distorted the market. Is there any truth to that argument, do you think?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Sarah, there’s a couple of points to to that argument. I think the first is a very practical one, that whilst some prices may have trended down in recent months and that is welcome. In the end, anybody who is trying to get a seat on flights through to Europe or more importantly for the Australian economy, people in Europe trying to get seats to Australia will find they’re still very hard to come by and they’re still more expensive than people would wish them to be or relative to pre-COVID stands. However, I do acknowledge that the Qantas CEO said today that circumstances have changed since the October submission that Qantas made opposing these flights being approved and in acknowledging that circumstances had changed, she also acknowledged that Qantas would take a fresh look at it if the Albanese Government were to review this decision, which is why the Albanese Government should review this decision. If even Qantas is willing to take a fresh look at the evidence now, well then certainly the Albanese Government should be willing to take a fresh look at the evidence too.


Sarah Ferguson: Were you able to get a straight answer in your questioning as to whether or not Qantas would change its position about those extra flights for Qatar?


Simon Birmingham: No, sadly the closest we got was a willingness to at least take a fresh look at it. But that is some progress, an acknowledgement that the circumstances have changed and when the circumstances change, therefore we should all be willing to consider changing based on that changed evidence. And if Qantas is willing to look at that, the Albanese Government should be willing to look at that. I wish Qantas had come today with a clear position. I wish they had also brought the right witnesses to the table to actually be clear as to what lobbying they undertook of the Albanese Government. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those questions were taken on notice by Qantas today and that’s not acceptable.


Sarah Ferguson: Who should they? Who should they have brought to the committee today? Who is missing that you wanted to question, who you wanted to question?


Simon Birmingham: Well, they clearly should have had representatives of their government affairs team here. It is not clear at all as to who in the Prime Minister’s office was lobbied, who in Minister King’s office was lobbied, what interactions actually occurred with government, and then across and between government. Once more, that onus will now fall on the Albanese Government when their officials front up to this committee in the inquiry tomorrow, to be transparent about all of those interactions and how this decision was made. Ultimately this comes down to a couple of factors. One is a lack of transparency in government around decision making and the fact that no clear reasons have been given. The other is the consequences for Australia, which are multi-billion-dollar consequences for our economy, for our tourism industry and in the prices paid by travellers.


Sarah Ferguson: When you were in government, what was your experience, if you had any yourself of the way Qantas does goes about its government business?


Simon Birmingham: Qantas is highly engaged with government and look; I was the trade and Tourism Minister and can I say that I welcomed many elements of that engagement. We want to see a strong, profitable, viable Qantas. That is critical in terms of the way in which our tourism industry and other sectors get the best and the most for the nation and they play a key role there and they should be profitable and viable. And of course, during Covid-19, Qantas faced enormously challenging circumstances and we worked very closely with them as a government through JobKeeper, through other programs, including freight and export subsidy. But notably so too did Qatar Airways. They didn’t receive the type of JobKeeper subsidies, but they absolutely stepped up and played a role in helping Australians return from spots all over the world in helping our freight continue to get to markets. It’s appalling for them to have been treated in this way and particularly to not even have clear reasons given as to why their application was rejected. To put it in in terms of scale here, when I asked the Qantas CEO what Qatar’s current market share was in terms of that European and Middle Eastern travel out of Australia, she said it was about 2%. So, we’re not talking about a very big player here, but it can make a difference in giving a bit more competition, a few more seats, a bit more choice, all of which actually in totality adds up to billions of dollars of benefit to the Australian economy if this were approved. That’s why the Government should revisit and review the decision.


Sarah Ferguson: We’ll follow on tomorrow. Simon Birmingham, thank you very much indeed for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sarah. My pleasure.