Topics: Senate aviation inquiry

12:30PM AEST
27 September 2023


Bridget McKenzie: The Government is running a protection racket for Qantas. We’ve heard from the Productivity Commission. Last week we heard from the ACCC, we’re hearing from aviation experts and indeed our own airports that this Labour Government has got the advice from Qantas, rather than the advice from their own aviation experts. We heard again today that allowing the Qatar Airways into those additional flights into Australia would have meant cheaper. airfares for Queenslanders would have made more export opportunity for primary producers and more choice of destination for the Australian travellers. We also heard that the major airports supported in submissions to the government allowing Qatar Airways to fly additional flights. Whose advice did Anthony Albanese and Catherine King take in making this decision? Because it seems witness after witness shows that they didn’t take the advice of aviation experts and those heavily involved in the industry. But they had a very close ear personally and politically to the former CEO Alan Joyce, and indeed Qantas more broadly.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Bridget. We’re here in Queensland, Australia’s most tourism dependent state and we’ve heard very clearly that the tourism industry was one of the biggest to suffer as a result of the Albanese Government’s failure to approve additional flights from Qatar into Australia. The tourism industry is going to suffer, because it’s a constrained route between Europe and Australia and those constraints mean that fewer visitors can get here and Australians are paying more for those airfares to get overseas.

That’s the price that’s been paid. It’s a price being paid by Australians paying more for their airfares and by tourism industry by having fewer tourism opportunities, and the evidence has been overwhelmingly clear. Brisbane airport for example, making clear that on more liberalized air routes such as to China or to Singapore, the post COVID recovery has been quicker and faster than it has to the European market. Where the constraints mean that prices are higher, seats are harder to come by and that’s why it is so remarkable that given the opportunity to create more seats and more flights between Australia and Europe, the Albanese Government said no.

Yet the evidence of them saying no just isn’t there. The evidence coming from airlines from the tourism industry and frankly from nearly every submitter is that they would have been better off to say yes, that’s why they need to go back and review this decision. If anybody in the Labour Party is listening properly, to the evidence being given to the Senate inquiry, they can see and hear why they shouldn’t review the Qatar Airways decision. Go back to the drawing board rather than the type of restrictive practices they’re applying that it just leaves the Australians and particularly Queensland is footing the bill.

Bridget McKenzie: Can I just add something on that because I mean Minister King has been in the land transport part of her portfolio. It’s been cuts and delays her entire time as Minister and we heard from Turkish Airlines today that they’ve had, they’ve been in discussions with this government since November last year to provide additional flights and this Minister cannot make a decision.  It was very, very clear from the Turkish Airlines witnesses today that they have been absolutely confused with this government’s refusal to sit down and get their application dealt with. We know that this Minister has also had the Qatar Airways decision on her desk for in excess of seven months before she made a decision and yet in that seven months, she couldn’t pick up the phone to Brisbane Airport, the Productivity Commission the ACCC, any of the bodies you’d expect to actually give her advice on the economic impact of this decision.

What we did hear today from serious players in the aviation industry was the need for transparency around the decision making, that governments should be upfront with the Australian public and the industry about why they haven’t approved this application because of the significant impact it has on our tourism industry, on our exporters and on those who are wanting to get home to either the Middle East or Europe through COVID

Journalist: Part of the evidence from Brisbane airport by way of this admission was that they’ve been trying for nearly a decade to get these flights expanded. So why is it so important to do it now? Yeah, I mean your government, it was repeatedly blocked.

Bridget McKenzie: So one of the things that is misrepresented by those on the other side of the parliamentary benches about the decision made under the previous government while it’s not totally liberalizing that Qatar Airways application, there were unlimited freight applications approved and additional courts so it was a partial liberalisation but you’re right we’re in a post COVID world and in the evidence from not just the Brisbane Airport but all the airports around the country is that post COVID there is a need to get capacity ahead of demand which is actually how you should be approaching this not waiting till you know the Australian traveling public is paying sky high fares and not traveling at all, but to really get that capacity in the system ahead of demand, which is actually the decision the Minister could make today.

Later on today, we’ll be hearing from Peter Harris, the former Productivity Commission Chair who also did what we’d like to call the slot review into flights in and out of Sydney. What we heard in evidence from Sydney Airport last week and Canberra Airport again is the cancellation and delays out of Sydney are going through the roof under this government and she’s got that report sitting on her desk. Minister King could make a decision tomorrow to provide greater flexibility, according to Peter Harris’s report, and that would absolutely reduce cancellations and delays out of Sydney.

Journalist: Senator, I just wanted to ask Melbourne Airport they provided evidence saying that each international flight provides $150 million of benefit to their state. If you apply those rules across the flights from Qatar about $4.2 billion. Do you think the government made the right economic analysis within the national interest given how much they made.

Bridget McKenzie: You’d like to think so? In fact, I assumed that was the case when I put an order of production documents to the Treasurer around what advice did he give Catherine King prior to her making that decision? We’ve asked the ACCC, she didn’t seek competition experts’ advice. We’ve asked the Productivity Commission. She didn’t seek the Productivity Commission advise and Treasure Charmers was the only Minister with the Albanese Government to come back with an answer to that order of production documents which essentially said he was not asked, nor did he provide any modelling or advice to Catherine King. So in the absence of any other information, the only assumption I can make is that Catherine King did not consider the economic impact of her decision on Australians or the Australian economy in her decision to block Qatar Airways because we know Australians are paying higher air fares as a direct result of her decision. Direct result, they’re got less choice of destination our exporters are paying more to export, particularly their sheep products into the Middle East.

We know from evidence last week that this decision cost our economy a billion dollars across the board. So, I just can’t find I just find it reckless on her behalf that she didn’t seek those basic questions within her own cabinet.

Journalist: So are there any witnesses being confirmed for tomorrow.

Bridget McKenzie: The committee is considering our program for tomorrow at a private meeting later on today and as soon as we consider that it will be made publicly available. Throughout these hearings obviously it was a short sharp inquiry. We’ve got very important people with very busy diaries and our Secretariat has been working very hard to make sure that all four hearings have witnesses who give us the evidence that we need as a committee to consider so that we make significant recommendations to government as a result.

Journalist: It has been reported that Richard Goyder is confirmed.

Bridget McKenzie: It has been, and this is just how the Senate works.

Journalist: Accurate reporting you think?

Bridget McKenzie: All I can say is that we have invited a raft of witnesses as you’ve seen our last three days of hearings. We’ve got some fantastic witnesses to come this afternoon. We have invited both the former and current CEO of Qantas, the Qantas Chair and other airlines etc. So, they’ve all been invited. The committee will be considering later on this afternoon the program for tomorrow and once the Committee has formally adopted it, it will be made available.

Journalist: Two key players obviously representatives from Qantas and representatives from Qatar Airways.

Bridget McKenzie: What about Virgin?

Journalist: Sure. But without it hampering the ability of the Committee to…

Bridget McKenzie: I think you’ve heard a lot of scare mongering from Labor Senators on this Committee around the efforts of the Committee but each and every day we’ve had really significant evidence from right across the board whether it is airport operators, whether it is different airlines, whether it is academics in this space or indeed competition experts. So, each and every day we’ve discovered something new. It’s also been clarified that this Government is running a protection racket for Qantas to protect Qantas’s market share for what reason, remains unclear, but we’re looking also to look to ask questions of the government’s own departments as well as part of this inquiry,

Journalist: And when will it be confirmed?

Bridget McKenzie: Later on, this afternoon as soon as, as soon as the committee has adopted the program for tomorrow, but as you imagine this is like a massive game of Tetris. So earlier in the week or last week I did have to release a Chair’s Statement as draft programs that were still being considered by the Committee, not yet adopted were released to the media and reported on and then ended up not being anything like the actual program that was finally adopted. So, in the interests of everybody chasing the right horses, even if it is at the same time. We’ll release that publicly and then everyone will be on the same page. Thank you.