Topics: Albanese Government in transparency crisis; Qatar Airways decision; SPA flights; Julian Assange; Voice referendum; IR Bill; 

07:55AM AEST
5 September 2023


Simon Birmingham: Today the Albanese Government faces some real tests around its commitment to transparency and accountability, as indeed do the Greens and the Senate crossbench. There are multiple motions before the Senate that should be receiving support and cooperation to ensure serious issues get looked into.

Firstly, we have the ongoing saga in relation to how the Albanese Government came to make the decision to reject Qatar Airways application for additional flights. Mr. Albanese continually refuses to give straight answers about his involvement and his engagement. Whilst the Minister has come up with seven different explanations and keeps fumbling and bumbling around trying to find an explanation for her decision. The Coalition is moving for a Senate inquiry into this matter. A short, sharp, focused Senate inquiry specifically about this decision because this decision deserves clarity. Australians are paying higher prices for flights. We’re getting a tourism industry that’s suffering from struggling to get visitors in. Our exporters don’t have access to additional cargo holds. There are real prices being paid as a result of the Albanese Government’s rejection of this application and yet there are no clear answers being offered. So the Senate should support this Senate inquiry. The Government should be transparent in its engagement with it. It should release all modelling if there was any modelling to underpin the decision. It should release all advice and it should be upfront and transparent.

It should equally be more transparent about the way in which it has changed reporting on special purpose aircraft. Special purpose aircraft provided essential function for government ministers, particularly to represent Australia around the world. And I and the Coalition fully support the extensive use of those aircraft around the world. However, there should be reasonable transparency about how they are used and the Government’s changes that no longer report any information on the routes that have flown or the passengers on those aircraft are a complete subversion of the way in which transparency about their use should be applied. They change practice that has stood in place since the 1960s, and they make it next to impossible, not just for me as an opposition member, but for you as members of the fourth estate to actually scrutinise how government is using these planes and to ask proper questions about how they are being used.

Again, we are putting a motion to the Senate today calling for the Government to provide its advice, the security advice that it says justified these decisions in confidence to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security. This committee is well trusted to hold information in confidence, but it will enable some scrutiny by the Opposition and indeed by Government backbenchers over whether or not the Government is being genuine in the way it’s acting upon that security advice or whether it is using that security advice as a shield to make use of SPA aircraft so much less transparent.


Journalist: On the order of documents. Have you spoken with the Greens about this? Do you have their support?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I never like to pre-empt Senate votes. We will continue to speak with the Greens through the course of the morning until these votes happen. But these should be bread and butter yes votes for the Greens when it comes to transparency and accountability. The Greens, Senate crossbench like to hold themselves out there as accountability warriors. Well, on these instances the Government clearly has questions to answer on the use of SPA flights, on the way it made its decision around Qatar Airways and the Greens and crossbench ought to be supporting examination of those issues.


Journalist: Those SPA documents are released as security committee. Would you anticipate they will be released publicly, therefore after at some point?


Simon Birmingham: We’re taking it one step at a time. It may well be that the Opposition is completely convinced when we actually see that security advice. That’s why we’re asking for it to go into that confidential process first and foremost. Let’s see the advice and then we can assess without breaching or risking security considerations whether or not the Government has applied it in a fair way or whether there’s been gross overreach in terms of the way they’ve used that security advice to avoid transparency around the use of SPA aircraft.


Journalist: Senator, what do you make of this group of MPs heading to the US to lobby for the release and end of the prosecution of Julian Assange?


Simon Birmingham: We’re a rich and vibrant democracy and there have been a range of very strong and passionate views around Mr. Assange for some period of time. So, this is not the first time different MPs have chosen to speak up on the issue and the fact that some are travelling to the US is a matter of their own decision. I acknowledge that this case has gone on for a very long period of time, but much of that period of time, many of the delays have been a function either of the time Mr. Assange chose to be in the Ecuadorian embassy, which added years to these processes, or of course at present how the function of the different appeals that he is entitled to pursue, to decisions that have gone against him in the court processes.


Journalist: Will the Opposition continued to ask the Prime Minister who this conversation around Qatar and Qantas was with? Do you plan on using Question Time to get those answers?


Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister clearly still has questions to answer and his evasiveness on this is ill befitting the office of Prime Minister and completely inconsistent with what he promised to be before the last election. He promised to be more transparent. He promised to be more accountable. And yet what we’ve got is a Prime Minister who acknowledges he had secret conversations that influenced a government decision, but he won’t tell people who those secret conversations were with. That’s no way to conduct government decision making, particularly not when Australians and Australia’s tourism industry and Australian exporters end up being the ones paying the price.


Journalist: Senator, what are your thoughts on Peter Dutton’s calls for a second referendum if this October referendum does fail on simple constitutional recognition for Indigenous people, would you support that type of referendum?


Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s consistent with the position we’ve long held for there to be recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. Of course, you’d want it to occur in a process that far more successfully than this one has done. Built strong national support, cohesion and unity, perhaps even in a manner where it could then be conducted alongside a future election or the like in a truly nationally unifying way, but without the need to conduct a separate national ballot. But they’re all decisions that you would work through in due course.


Journalist: Do you think that’s what Australians and Indigenous Australian want to see?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll see what Australians want to see in relation to the current proposal when each and every one of us get the same vote on October 14th.


Journalist: Senator, is the Coalition’s opposition to the new IR bill in the Senate a given?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, this bill is outrageous. The trade unions are salivating at the prospects for them to have more power under this bill, while business owners and leaders across the country have every reason to be quaking at the consequences of it. Far from Tony Burke’s smooth talking in recent weeks and selective drops, this is a very consequential bill with real impacts for the way business operates. We have hundreds and hundreds of pages that have been negotiated in secret. Again, a Government that says it’s committed to transparency made all of those businesses who they consulted in the process signed non-disclosure agreements and not actually be able to engage in a proper consultative way whilst developing this legislation. And now we can see why, because there was so much for them to be concerned about and we will be looking to apply a real spotlight on it and so that hopefully the Senate can see the many serious consequences that will hurt the operation of the Australian economy, ultimately driving up costs and hurting employment. Thanks, everyone.