Topics: Qantas; Qatar; Stage 3 tax cuts;

04:10PM AEST
29 August 2023


Stephanie Borys: So, to talk further about Qantas. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham joined us earlier from Adelaide. Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time on Afternoon Briefing. If we can start with Qantas. Do you believe that deadline of December 31 for people using credits should be extended or the deal should be changed in any way?


Simon Birmingham: Hi, Stephanie. It’s good to be with you. Well, look, I think Qantas need to ensure that they are being a responsible business, responsible in terms of meeting consumer obligations. And within those consumer obligations, it’s essential that people have a fair opportunity to be able to use credits that are available to them. Qantas themselves have acknowledged there have been problems in terms of the use of the credits, in terms of people being able to get through, make bookings, the availabilities and I think having a look at avenues to potentially extend that would be a sensible thing in terms of reputation for Qantas, in terms of their obligations and ultimately avoiding any particular issues either with their customer base or with consumer affairs type entities.


Stephanie Borys: So is it correct to say then you don’t believe the current set up is fair based on what you’ve just said?


Simon Birmingham: Stephanie, look, it’s not for me to to pretend to understand all of the details attached with the current set up. But I note that Qantas themselves have acknowledged along the journey troubles and problems that their customers have had in terms of making those bookings, accessing those credits, getting through to be able to do so. And with all of those considerations there, they should certainly be giving constant consideration to whether they have met an appropriate and a high level of consumer standard and service as everybody would expect them to do.


Stephanie Borys: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has gone so far as to suggest that people should get their money back from Qantas. That of course is not on the table at the moment. Do you agree with him?


Simon Birmingham: I think that depends very much on the terms attached to each and all of those credits. I mean, it’s interesting that the Prime Minister decides to weigh in with a line like that, and I’d be interested to understand what he genuinely means by that. Does he mean that every single credit that’s there should be able to be refunded in a cash payment? Is that what he’s genuinely calling for and is he asking Qantas to do that? Will he ask the ACCC or otherwise to look at powers to force that to happen, or is this just a throwaway comment? And if the PM is so happy to give commentary in relation to Qantas, perhaps he could clarify for all what role he had in relation to the Government’s decision to reject Qatar’s application for additional landing slots into Australia. Did he discuss that or have communications direct with Qantas and did he discuss that and have communications with his Transport Minister before she made the decision to reject that and therefore to limit competition in Australia?


Stephanie Borys: I’ll get to Qatar in just a second, but one more on Qantas and these credits. Virgin is actually in a similar position as well. This morning the suggestion is that there’s about $100 million in Virgin credits that need to be used by the end of this year. Why all the focus on Qantas? Shouldn’t Virgin be held to the same standard?


Simon Birmingham: There should be equal application in terms of standards. Now there may always be some credits that for whatever reason don’t get access to or utilised by customers. But each of the airlines should be ensuring that having accrued these credits during difficult times for customers as well as I note, for the airlines themselves, they make it as easy as possible for their customers to make a booking, to access flights, to use the credits up and to have had an appropriate time frame within which to do so. And of course, if they don’t do that, if they haven’t met those types of standards, well, then it would be entirely appropriate for either consumer affairs authorities or of course, people to take it into their own hands through legal action or the like, which is not helpful for anybody.


Stephanie Borys: Moving on to Qatar, which you mentioned before that decision. Do you believe that Australian consumers are paying more for their flights based on that decision made by the Government?


Simon Birmingham: Well, clearly providing additional landing slots that would see many extra flights in and out of Australia each week and therefore many thousands of extra seats available would create extra competition in the Australian market. That extra competition should serve to create greater incentive for lower prices, better deals, special deals at different times. So, there is a real risk that Australians pay more. But also let’s remember we rely on these spots, these tickets for tourists to come to our country. So it’s not just about Australians and whether or not we get cheap deals, it’s whether we can attract the tourists to help our tourism market recover. I was the tourism minister at the time Covid-19 struck. I just know how devastating it was for our businesses and the toughest decision I think I ever participated in as a government minister was the decision to close Australia’s international borders, knowing as the trade and tourism minister, the impact that would have. So the Government owes it to the tourism industry, to all those who rely upon competitive aviation access into Australia to explain honestly and transparently how this decision was made. What role did the Prime Minister have in this decision? Were there any attempts at undertaking proper economic modelling in terms of the impacts of the decision, both on prices for Australians, on prices for visitors to our country, on the tourism industry overall and indeed on the viability of our Australian carriers and their ability to continue to operate such services. The Government owes it to be transparent about the role the PM played in the decisions that were made, and we just haven’t had any of that type of transparency from Government. They should be releasing all of the evidence that underpinned that decision to actually clear up what has become a very murky situation, given the Transport Minister’s inability to give a clear and consistent response in defence of her decision to reject those slots.


Stephanie Borys: No doubt further questions will be asked of both the Prime Minister and Transport Minister on that matter. If we can change now though, to tax, while it may sound like a boring conversation, it’s one that’s very important to ensure that, you know, key services are funded here in Australia. There’s a number of crossbenchers that are now calling on both parties to have a serious conversation about potential tax changes, but it appears both major parties are a little bit scared of doing so. What’s wrong with a conversation?


Simon Birmingham: There’s nothing wrong with conversations and we should always be striving to ensure maximum competitiveness in our tax system. A system that, yes, has to fund essential services, but we should also make sure that we keep a lid on how much tax Australians pay. It’s why the Coalition was committed to having a cap in relation to the amount of tax taken out of the Australian economy and we remain deeply concerned that the Albanese Government has abandoned and abolished that cap. It’s why we also legislated for fundamental reform of the income tax system to ensure that income taxes in Australia were cut across three stages, starting with the lowest income earners and moving through to the final stage, which is due to take effect next year, which will see around 90% of Australians pay no more than $0.30 in the dollar as their top marginal tax rate, a significant lessening of the income tax burden for many working Australians. And it’s clear that those reforms that we legislated are now more important than ever in terms of ensuring that our income tax system is fairer for the long term and ensuring that Australians facing cost of living pressures and the impact of bracket creep have that better addressed.


Stephanie Borys: But going forward sorry to interrupt, but going forward, let’s look at potential tax changes into the future. Just briefly, do you think there should be a conversation, for example, around changes to the GST?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the GST is a state tax. It’s established by the Commonwealth. But the states and territories receive all of the revenue from the GST. And if the states and territories want to argue for changes to it, then they should bring that proposal forward through the mechanisms that are there. We should, as I say, be willing to have conversations, sure. But from the Coalition’s perspective, it’s about keeping a lid on taxes, keeping taxes as low as possible. The Labor Party, over the course of a very short time in office, has put extra taxes on superannuation, despite promising not to. They’ve put extra fees on our trucking and transport industry, despite promising not to. We’re seeing now all of these areas of increasing pressure in taxation because they’re adding to structural spending across the economy. And one thing I would say to the Teals and others talking about potential taxes as one means of productivity is to look at what’s on the table right now from the government in terms of economic reform, which is their industrial relations proposals. Those IR proposals are an anti-productivity measure. They’re going to drive competitiveness in Australia down, hurt many businesses. And so, if the Teals and others want to do something for productivity right here, right now, they should all be clear, each and every one of them, that they oppose Labor’s IR reforms.


Stephanie Borys: Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for your time this afternoon on Afternoon Briefing.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Stephanie. My pleasure.