Topics: Richard Goyder; Senate aviation inquiry into Qatar Airways decision; Nagorno-Karabakh;

12:10PM AEST
27 September 2023


Cassie McCullagh: South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham is a committee member of this inquiry and he’s also the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Senator, before we get to the details, I’m curious to know whether it’s just a coincidence that Qantas appearance at the inquiry was running 20 minutes late, or were you and your colleagues giving them a taste of their own medicine?


Simon Birmingham: That’s entertaining, Cassie. No, I think it is pure coincidence, but there were a few jokes as the committee had hearings in Brisbane yesterday and was headed back to Canberra last night about the fact that even there the flight a few of us were on was somewhat delayed.


Cassie McCullagh: Well, there you go. Richard Goyder says he won’t be resigning in light of Qantas’ recent track record, including allegations of selling tickets for flights that had already been cancelled. Should he go?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that is a matter for Qantas shareholders. They have the power, the decision and the influence over that. There’s no doubt that Qantas has serious issues to do in terms of restoring its reputation with customers and consumers, with the public, in terms of addressing serious legal issues that have been raised as well. It’s up to shareholders to determine whether Mr. Goyder and the current board are the right people to be able to address those concerns of consumers. Those concerns in terms of reputation, those concerns in terms of legal issues. But they certainly do all need to be addressed in the interests of Australia having the type of successful, respected and profitable national carrier that we all expect and want to see.


Cassie McCullagh: Is it any clearer today what representations, if any, Qantas made ahead of the Qatar Airways decision?


Simon Birmingham: It is clear that Qantas made representations. They made a submission to the Government department, the Department of Transport, in that submission they’ve admitted they argued against the Qatar flights. They’re refusing amazingly to release that submission, even a redacted version of it. I’d urge Qantas publicly, as I just did in the committee, to reconsider that and to provide some transparency around that. It’s clear that other lobbying took place, but it’s very opaque at present as to what that lobbying was. I’ve made it clear on the record today to the government departments appearing tomorrow. The Department of Transport, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Treasury that they all need to come tomorrow ready to be clear about when they were lobbied, what interaction occurred between departments, ministers, minister’s offices and the lobbying that took place, because something doesn’t add up here. All of the reasons that the government has given in an ad hoc manner since the decision was made were put to Qatar Airways this morning, and none of those reasons were actually raised with Qatar Airways during the 11 months the government had the application. So, something else drove it other than what the government has peddled out as excuses in the time since this became a public issue.


Cassie McCullagh: In another interesting turn of events, both the Senate inquiry chair, Bridget McKenzie and United Australia Party Senator Ralph Babet suggested this afternoon that Qantas support for the Yes referendum campaign was somehow a quid pro quo arrangement in exchange for the government blocking Qatar Airways bid for more slots. Were you comfortable with that line of questioning?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it would be easy for the Government and for Qantas to knock any such suggestions on the head if they were just transparent about what discussions did take place between the representatives of Qantas and various government ministers, Prime Minister or Minister and Prime Minister’s offices. So, they could address and refute any such thoughts or suggestions that some of my colleagues may have if they were actually just honest and transparent about these issues. The problem with trying to keep secrets is that it does spark people starting to think about other issues, suggestions or implications.


Cassie McCullagh: But was it an appropriate use of today’s session? I mean, some might see it as opportunistic.


Simon Birmingham: Well, they are questions that those Senators have. They’re entitled to ask those questions. If there’s nothing to it, then it could be knocked on the head. If only there was actually transparency around the answers and the negotiations and discussions that took place.


Cassie McCullagh: Senator Simon Birmingham is with us. Today, you thanked Qatar Airways for their services during the pandemic. They argue they could bring $3 billion of economic benefits to Australia over five years if they were granted these extra flights. What do you think of that figure? Could it be that significant?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we have heard many witnesses to this inquiry over the last couple of weeks from the tourism industry, from various chambers of commerce and others, including independent academics and aviation experts and modellers, put similar or even higher figures in terms of the economic benefits to Australia. What we’ve got at present is a highly constrained route between Australia and the Middle East, which is the main connection point onto Europe for most travellers and Australians are paying higher prices because of those constraints. Visitors, tourists, business investors and others coming from Europe have got similarly higher prices, more constrained availability of tickets and that’s hurting our tourism industry. So, it clearly comes at a cost. Remarkably, we’ve got other Middle Eastern carriers, namely Emirates and Etihad, who have significant unused capacity under their rights. Yet Qatar is being denied a very modest increase in their capacity. When I asked the new Qantas CEO just a short while ago what the market share of Qatar was on that route. She said it was assessed by Qantas to be around 2%, so a 2% market share and Qantas was objecting to Qatar’s right to grow that to potentially 4%. Now why on earth would the Albanese Government stand in the way of a very modest growth in competition when the other Middle Eastern carriers aren’t even utilising the services available at present or the rights available to them at present?


Cassie McCullagh: We’ve heard the Qatar Airways argument today that it’s been a good corporate citizen for Australia, as it was the airline that actually brought the most Australians home while, quote, other airlines turned their back on Australia. But how did Qatar tackle sensitive questions about its human rights issues?


Simon Birmingham: Indeed, those questions were asked by various senators around employment practices, other human rights issues, and of course, the appalling incident that occurred at Doha Airport back in 2020. Now, Qatar sought to address those. They outlined elements of their work practices. They outlined the various women in senior leadership roles across the airline. They’re all factors they’ve at least sought to address transparently. We’ve seen in relation to the incident that occurred at Doha Airport that Qatari authorities, together with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, issued a statement quite some time ago acknowledging the wrongdoing and committing to put in place the types of reviews and practices to ensure that that does not happen again. Indeed, the feedback certainly is that the overwhelming majority of travellers who moved through Doha have a very positive and safe experience in doing so. If this is genuinely the reason why the government rejected the application, then the government should come out and transparently say so. But at various times, Transport Minister Catherine King has said that it was one factor, then said it wasn’t a factor and so it’s not remotely clear. But what was clear today from Qatar Airways was that it was never raised with them in the 11 months the application sat on Minister King’s desk. So, it would seem from that it wasn’t really a factor in the government’s decision.


Cassie McCullagh: Well, lots to be uncovered yet. Senator, before I let you go. We just spoke to the New South Wales MP Mark Courie, who’s on the ground in Armenia as part of a cross party delegation of seven Australian parliamentarians who were there. He was actually pretty emotional about what they’ve been seeing and hearing. What do you make of this effort a cross parliamentary one?


Simon Birmingham: I welcome the fact that that those parliamentarians have been able to go. And in fact, this evening I’ve got a zoom hook up with leaders of the Australian-Armenian community who are with the parliamentarians there to get some on the ground accounts myself. Today I’ve urged publicly the Albanese Government to follow other nations in terms of making strong public statements, calling for Azerbaijan to show restraint, to not apply any more force or military pressure in the Nagorno-Karabakh region to make sure that they do provide for free access of humanitarian supplies into that region; and fully reopen the Lachin corridor; to honour their commitment to respect the rights of those of Armenian heritage who are in that region; and to ensure their safety and well-being. Also, for the Albanese Government to follow the lead of other partner nations in committing some financial resources and expertise where possible, to help with the humanitarian assistance that is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of those who are fleeing into Armenia, as well as those who remain in this region. That has been the scene of such terrible troubles recently and has, of course, such a long and contentious history.


Cassie McCullagh: Yes, yes. And just awful to see what we are seeing unfolding. South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Cassie.