Topics: Senate aviation inquiry

01:45PM AEST
28 September 2023


Bridget McKenzie:  Well, the protection racket continues for Qantas by the Albanese Labor Government. Departmental officials today were gagged by the Foreign Affairs Minister and indeed by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Catherine King.

Hardworking public servants who take their job very, very seriously, I know that because I’ve worked very closely with many of them, have effectively been gagged by their Ministers from providing evidence to the Committee as to the real reason this Government blocked Qatar Airways’ application for additional flights. It seems against the best interests of the Australian travelling public. We know over the evidence we’ve heard through this Committee that the decision would have meant cheaper airfares through the Middle East to Europe, a greater choice of destination for the Australian travelling public, our freight task would be better handled and more efficient and cheaper for our exporters and primary producers. Indeed this decision has cost our economy $3 billion over the next five years. They’re the facts that have been delivered to this Committee.

Yesterday, we heard from the Virgin CEO that it was her understanding that once the Minister had the brief from the Department on the 4th of January, that the Minister was of a mind to approve those additional flights from Qatar Airways. Something changed and that brief sat on Minister King’s desk until July for six months with no further consultations done with affected parties, with no further information sought by the departments. This Government’s shroud of secrecy around this decision and the fact that it has gagged hardworking public servants from providing evidence to a public inquiry, so that the Australian travelling public can understand why they made their decision, is unconscionable. There are only three people that can actually provide that level of information to the inquiry and indeed to the broader Australian people. They are Minister King, the Transport Minister, they are the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and they are former CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much, Bridget. The Albanese Government was elected on a promise of transparency and openness, but instead we’re just getting secrecy and evasiveness. That’s what we’ve had time and time again through this inquiry into their decision making around Qatar’s request for extra flights to Australia and the Albanese Labor Government’s rejection of those additional flights to Australia.

What we’ve learnt over the last couple of days of hearings here in Canberra is that for six long months a recommendation from the Department of Transport to Minister King to approve a negotiating mandate for extra flights sat on Minister King’s desk. We’ve learnt that in January, just a couple of weeks after receiving that recommendation, Minister King said to the Virgin CEO it would be approved and released within the next couple of weeks. But then miraculously nothing happened and it lingered for the next five months and ultimately got rejected. During that time, did Minister King consult further with her department? No. Did she seek further information from her department? No.

It’s clear that the official processes of government were completely shut down once the brief recommending Qatar got extra flights was sent to Minister King, and for six months it was mired in secrecy as she spoke to who? To Qantas? Probably. To the Prime Minister’s office about his wishes? Probably. But we don’t know that for sure because we won’t get and aren’t getting straight answers from the Government about that.

That’s why at the conclusion of today’s hearings and the committee has resolved to call the Transport Minister to appear before this inquiry. Catherine King should front up and give the straight answers that nobody else can give because as Bridget said, it’s Catherine King, it’s Anthony Albanese, it’s Alan Joyce. These are the people who know what really went on behind closed doors in the six-month period where Catherine King sat on the advice of her department and ultimately rejected the advice of her department.

Bridget McKenzie: Any questions?

Journalist: You said that you’re going to summon Alan Joyce when he lands back in Australia. Have you gotten an indication whether that will be before the reporting period of the committee?

Bridget McKenzie: Well, irrespective of whether it’s before or after the reporting period, we will be summonsing Mr. Joyce to assist the Committee with our inquiries because he is the only one that can go to conversations that he’s informally had with his bromance partner, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese and indeed Minister King.

I’ve spoken to five different former Transport Ministers and they all speak about the muscularity and the aggressive nature of Qantas’ advocacy and desire and determination to protect their dominant market share. They don’t leave any stone unturned.

For us to sit here over the last couple of days and believe that nobody spoke to Qantas, which was Qantas’ evidence to us yesterday, beggars belief, goes against Qantas’ own cultural behaviour over decades. Particularly given that close personal relationship between the Prime Minister and the former CEO, I find it incredible to believe. He will be summonsed on touchdown and he will be required to attend to the Committee’s questions.

Journalist: Will that be the first time a private citizen like that has been summons?

Bridget McKenzie: No, no, not at all. We don’t always make it public that we’re summonsing individuals. But the Senate has Senate committees, and the Senate has power to summons individuals and corporations to assist with Senate inquiries. I think the House of Representatives jailed someone in the 50s who refused the summons. Anyway, let’s hope we don’t get there.

Journalist: When are you expecting Minister King to come back?

Bridget McKenzie: Great question. The Department today didn’t even know who was the acting Infrastructure and Transport Minister.

For a portfolio that is in charge of in excess of $120 billion of taxpayers’ money I find that incredible. Because it’s not just aviation competition issues that Minister King’s responsible for. She is responsible for our rail network, for our road network, and as well as our infrastructure and regional development investment as a Commonwealth. For her to leave the country at a time like this, as a Cabinet Minister, it’s incredible that the PM signed off on it. It’s unbelievable.

To find out today that Kristy McBain is the acting Minister, I find very curious because she can’t sit around the Cabinet table, she can’t make the types of decisions that Minister King would have been able to make.

Journalist: So you have to ask this one. This morning we heard that on the bilateral agreement was [indistinct] that only Qantas and Virgin were asked for consultation. Does that debunk this kind of theory that the national interest was taken into account, given only two airlines were consulted?

Bridget McKenzie: Well, it would seem so. I mean, to only ask Qantas and Virgin their views of opening up competition in our aviation sector kind of leads you to the end road. Your government will end up favouring Qantas. We found evidence, particularly from independent experts, wanted to see the reasons behind why Government has made these decisions be transparently available, understanding what the national interest means, and what is the criteria the Minister use to assess the national interest? The fact that we heard evidence that this decision has cost our economy in excess of $3 billion over the next five years, the fact that you wouldn’t ask the ACCC, that you wouldn’t ask the Treasury, those sort of impacts, I find quite incredible.

Journalist: Just to clarify, you mentioned someone who was jailed in the 50s, but a summons doesn’t mean that someone is compelled to appear, is that right?

Bridget McKenzie: Well, if they don’t show up, there are further steps that can be taken. I’m sure the parliamentary library can get you the details on that. But that was my advice.

Journalist: What further steps would you be looking at if Mr. Joyce didn’t appear?

Bridget McKenzie: Well, I hope Mr. Joyce assists the Committee with its inquiry. He wasn’t refusing to come. He’s obviously got personal reasons. He’s had to be overseas. We understand that. And we look forward to his compliance with the Committee’s wishes when he returns. We hope we don’t have to summons him, but if he continues to refuse when he touches down, of course we will.

Journalist: And then in terms of Minister King, she would be invited with precedence? Do you have any comment on if she chose not to?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there is precedence for House ministers to appear before Senate committees, and this one is a clear case as to why she should. We’ve waited until today to make this request because we had hoped that the ordinary course of asking departments questions would yield answers. But it turns out that the department is being stonewalled itself by Minister King’s office.

It was a remarkable piece of evidence today when the deputy secretary and the Department of Transport read the text message she had got from the minister’s office, saying, if they want to know that about when the minister and her office engaged with Qantas, they’ll have to ask her. So, if that’s the degree of helpfulness, if that’s the degree of respect that Minister King and her office are going to show for Senate processes, then she should expect nothing less than to be asked to attend and for us to pursue all avenues for her to attend.

Now, ultimately, there are questions that could be asked of Minister King’s staff or the like as well. But customarily, this building doesn’t do that, and I don’t want us to get into the territory of doing that. Minister King should follow the lead of other Ministers, including the one standing right beside me, previously front up to an inquiry. There are other precedents for House ministers, but indeed Senate Ministers routinely front up to Senate inquiries. If Minister King has got nothing to hide, then she should turn up and answer the questions that her department cannot.

Journalist: Other than the public anger at Qantas. Now, regarding this decision, what actually differentiates this from the previous Government’s decision to block Qantas request for additional flights back in 2018 and the four-year period that that.

Bridget McKenzie: Well, it’s fundamentally changed post Covid. I mean, the aviation sector globally has changed and is in a capacity deficit. We’re in a global race to get planes and seats into Australia to really assist us. What is unique, what isn’t unique, I guess, between now and then in Qantas lobbying efforts, is that they will leave no stone unturned to get the desired outcome. The reality for the previous Government’s decision in this matter was to open up additional ports, was to ensure that there was an unlimited freight capacity et cetera.

So, to suggest that the previous Government completely blocked additional capacity from Qatar Airways is wrong. And my understanding is the Qatar Airways application made sure it was very clear in the benefit that this arrangement at this time would provide to the Australian travelling public, inbound tourism and indeed our freight task.

Simon Birmingham: Let me just let me just add to that, if I if I can as well in terms of Qatar and their servicing of Australia. It’s now proven service since those earlier stages, services have ben operating there, have been operating under the types of safeguard clause inserted by former Minister McCormack, and indeed they’ve provided valuable service in our national interest during critical times, which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade today acknowledged themselves in terms of the benefit and gratefulness to Qatar in repatriating Australians from overseas during Covid, in helping get people out during the fall of Kabul.

Serious big challenges Australia has faced, and Qatar Airways has been there to help Australia respond to that, as well as of course the huge economic benefits and needs that are there and clear now. Emirates haven’t put the flights back on to Europe to the degree to which we’re available previously edited had happened. The demand is huge. Australians are paying a price; the Australian tourism industry is paying a price. Australian exporters are paying a price and the way to alleviate, alleviate that price is for in those costs. For Minister King to review her decision and reverse her decision.

Journalist: Just on Alan Joyce, let’s be clear. If he refuses to front your inquiry, are you seriously threatening to try and have him locked up?

Bridget McKenzie: There are a range of processes that we as a committee will go through to make sure that the Australian public gets the answers they deserve from the former CEO of Qantas. I mean, this is a man who just didn’t muscle in with elbow to block Qatar Airways. This was a CEO that sought to rip his [the Qantas group] customers off pocket over half $1 billion worth of Covid flight credits who sold tickets to ghost flights and who indeed illegally sacked 1700 workers. I mean, this was no ordinary CEO and so on. A whole raft of measures, this former CEO needs to front up and face the questions of the Senate from a range of senators, not just Coalition senators. The crossbench wants to see this guy and indeed I know Labor Party Senators would also support talking to.

Journalist: But Jail? [inaudible}

Bridget McKenzie: Well. There is a whole raft of processes. There is a process within the standing orders and the procedures of the Senate, which will eventually make it very hard for former CEO Joyce to not appear.

Journalist: Senator McKenzie, do you believe personally that Qantas and Jetstar should be split up as companies?

Bridget McKenzie: Look, I’m a Nat, you know, so when you have consolidation of corporate entities, it’s always the customer that misses out. I’m a huge fan of competition because it leads to better results for Australian customers.

We had some great evidence from former chairs of the ACCC in Fels and Sims yesterday and indeed former chair of the Productivity Commission, Peter Harris as well, talking about the importance of competition in particularly in our domestic aviation sector. I mean this is a market that’s consolidated to the tune of 95%. I mean that is incredible. If that was Coles and Woolworths, we’d be ripping them up right now.

I am interested in looking at what measures under competition law we can recommend in our report around ensuring corporate big corporates don’t have the level of sway that they currently do because it’s the Australian travelling public that misses out. We’ve got cancellations and delays going in the wrong direction. Airfares aren’t where they should be, and you can’t even guarantee that your bag is going to rock up at the same place you are.

That tells me something is incredibly wrong with our aviation industry and all the evidence we’ve heard other than from Qantas, I might say, backs more competition.

Journalist: So is Richard Goyder’s position as Qantas chair still tenable?

Bridget McKenzie: Well, that’s a matter for Qantas shareholders. I mean, if I’m a shareholder, I’m not a shareholder, I’m a chairman’s lounge member though. I’m not a Qantas shareholder, but if I held shares, I’m more interested than going up, not down. So, if that’s what you measure a chair or a CEO’s performance on, then I think shareholders will be seriously considering their vote at the upcoming AGM.

Journalist: The third person you mentioned who might be able to give you some answers as well is the Prime Minister. Will you be inviting him as well?

Bridget McKenzie: Let’s start with the Minister. I mean, we would have loved… if wants to come, we welcome it, Albo, come on down, you can come with Alan.

But we wouldn’t even have to hold this inquiry if over the last three weeks of sitting weeks, the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Trade Minister or the Treasurer or the Competition Minister could have answered basic questions. Instead, we have a Government that’s running a protection racket for Qantas and they are covering up the real reason they made this decision.

It’s as clear as day to anybody who’s listened to the evidence we’ve heard over the last four days, but for them to still be gagging public servants to try to pretend it isn’t what it is, just means that things like having to summons Mr. Joyce, things like inviting Mr. King to appear are required.

Journalist: Can you just can you just clarify if the Minister King doesn’t accept that invitation, what can or will you perhaps do to try and get her to appear?

Bridget McKenzie: We think Mr. King owes her government because they’ve been who like we are still talking about a Qatar Airways decision by a Transport Minister for weeks. You know, for weeks we’ve been doing this because Australians care about it and they don’t buy it that this government didn’t make it to protect Qantas. 56% of Australians either strongly agree or agree that the Government should reverse this decision. That’s a fact. That’s Redbridge polling, that’s not Coalition polling.

In the light of that, the Minister needs to review the decision. If she keeps refusing, she has to front up. This is an opportunity for Catherine King, an opportunity for her to explain the decision and the context in which she made it in, because there has been nine different reasons from this government on why they made the decision. We just need one and we need it clearly enunciated.

Journalist: Labour senators have criticised the committee for travelling to areas like Perth and Brisbane when a lot of the witnesses are appearing via video conference. Do you have any sort of response to that? And additionally, did you fly Qantas?

Bridget McKenzie: Sometimes I did fly Qantas and sometimes I flew Virgin, and the staff of both airlines are amazing, and I thank them for safely getting up and getting down and bags did arrive on time.

I think it’s important for Senate committees to actually travel the country, and I know the people in Perth welcomed the fact that their airport could give evidence that the freight task that Qatar Airways being allowed to fly would have actually really helped the WA economy, particularly in light of the Government’s other decision to shut down the live sheep export trade.

We were able to hear from primary producers and Perth Airport really clearly about what this issue meant to them. I think that’s important. That’s part of doing the people’s work. I mean, Labor senators might like to hang out in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, but most of the Australian public doesn’t live there and they like to see their senators doing the people’s work in their communities.


Thanks everyone.