Topics: Qatar Airways decision; Qantas; Voice referendum pamphlet;

07:52AM AEST
6 September 2023

Patricia Karvelas: Well, let’s go back to that airline issue. The Coalition, with the support of some of the crossbench, narrowly won the vote for a Senate inquiry on the Qatar issue. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. He’s joining us also from Parliament House. And in fact, right now we’re doing what we do during sitting weeks that I know many RN Breakfast regular listeners know where we swap the minister for the shadow minister. And so that swaps going on right now. It’s in fact successful. Senator Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Patricia. It’s good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: Last night the Coalition with some of the crossbench, voted for a Senate inquiry into the Qatar decision. What do you want to find out?

Simon Birmingham: We want greater transparency, Patricia. The government is suffering a real crisis in terms of transparency on this issue, on its use of special purpose aircraft and on a range of other matters and in relation to the Qatar issue. We want to find out how and why this decision was made. Now, you’ve just had an extensive interview with the Treasurer, and nowhere in that and nowhere in any of the Government’s remarks are they clearly stating why they made the decision to reject Qatar Airways application, why they decided that it was not in the national interest to have more flights in and out of Australia, to have more competition in our airline sector and to create a situation that could have driven prices down for consumers, created more places for tourists to come to Australia and helped our tourism industry, created more space in the cargo holds of planes going out of Australia for our exporters. There are a range of things that were clearly in the national interest for them to approve this application. The Government says it was not in the national interest, but they are refusing to actually define why they found it not in the national interest. So we hope that this inquiry can dig through the entrails of that. I call upon the Government to release any modelling, any analysis to cooperate fully with that inquiry and also to be transparent about who influenced it, who lobbied it and what discussions took place for them to come to this decision.

Patricia Karvelas: It was your government though, that gave Qantas $2.7 billion, including almost $1 billion in JobKeeper should they pay it back?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, JobKeeper was structured to make sure that we kept businesses afloat during Covid, that we saved jobs and that they were able to return to profitability.

Patricia Karvelas: All of that’s true. And they legally got the money. Should they pay it back, though?

Simon Birmingham: They legally got the money. Now any business is free to pay back and that’s a matter for boards to consider.

Patricia Karvelas: Would you like them to?

Simon Birmingham: In the case of Qantas, I note that they recorded significant losses during Covid, very significant losses. They also had to go out and raise and did raise additional capital from private capital markets to sustain their operations. And of course they now need to provide a return on that capital and those investments and for all Australians on their superannuation investments. And so JobKeeper was designed to see businesses return to profitability and to keep Australians employed. And it worked very, very effectively in terms of ensuring Australia was able to have more people in jobs at the end of Covid than we had at the start, rather than the huge economic damage that would have occurred if businesses like Qantas or other businesses across the country had actually gone under during Covid.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So no, you don’t think they should pay it back?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there are a number of issues for the Qantas board. They can look at this one. They clearly have reputational issues at present. They have confronted most recently a terrible mistake they’d made in terms of consumer rights around the handling of credits that they had taken and were sitting on for travel from customers. So there are a number of things for them to look at. But I do stress in relation to JobKeeper that A, it worked as effectively as it was intended to in terms of keeping jobs across the Australian economy. And B, we have to look for companies like Qantas to actually have returned to profitability. Otherwise, we would have even more dire problems across the Australian economy than those that we’re facing at present, which you can clearly hear the Treasurer buttering people up for bad national accounts figures, for a weakening economy. It comes at a time when we’re facing further global headwinds around China and the real concern is that under the Albanese Labor Government, the biggest economic reform they currently have on the agenda are industrial relations changes that will only further weaken our economy, further hurt the competitiveness of Australian businesses and add to price pressures for Australian consumers.

Patricia Karvelas: Just briefly, your party’s been accused of dirty tactics by including QR codes in a pamphlet sent to voters that leads them to the party website to harvest their information. The AEC says it’s potentially misleading. This is around the Voice. Should that website be taken down?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I haven’t actually seen those stories, nor the pamphlet you’re talking about. But of course, all parties should operate in accordance with the electoral laws. There are entitlements in relation to being able to collect and keep data, but that should occur within any processes. If there’s been a breach that should be addressed.

Patricia Karvelas: Will you raise it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll go and have a look at the story you’ve raised now that you’ve mentioned it.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, good. Right. Well, that’s good a commitment to doing something because the AEC is certainly concerned. Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.