Topics: Labor’s scandalous decision over Qatar Airways

12:59PM AEDT
Thursday, 23 November 2023


Alexandros Logothetis: Senator, the first question is, of course, are there any developments regarding the government’s decision to disallow Qatar Airways to increase its flight capacity in Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Thanks for the chance to speak with you today. And sadly, no, there don’t appear to be any more recent developments and that’s particularly unfortunate for the travelling public, be they people wanting to come to Australia or Australians looking to go overseas, because Qatar Airways had made clear that if the government reviewed its rejection of their request for extra flights, they would have been in a position to put extra flights on before Christmas. Now this means that by not reviewing this decision, Australians looking to head overseas and people looking to come to Australia over the Christmas, New Year period, we’ll all face more expensive flights, fewer flight options, all as a result of the government’s refusal to review a decision that it appears to have made for shabby reasons in the first place.


Alexandros Logothetis: And actually, you’re taking me to my next question. In your opinion, has the government adequately explained the reasons for this decision?


Simon Birmingham: The government’s had so many different reasons for why it made this decision, but none of them really stack up against any scrutiny. That’s the really devastating thing for Australia and our tourism industry and our exporters, who all rely on air capacity, that the government appears to have made this decision against departmental advice, that the independent officials and the Department of Transport assessed Qatar Airways application put a brief up to the Labor government minister that recommended they enter into negotiations that would have seen extra flights approved. And yet then for six months, that brief just sat on the minister’s desk until eventually it was rejected. And whilst they have given a range of different reasons, when they’ve been questioned at different times by different people, none of those reasons really seem to stack up. What appears to be behind this, ultimately, is they faced a lot of pressure from Qantas and their commercial partners to try to block competition in the Australian aviation market, and that just means that Australia and our industry pay the price.


Alexandros Logothetis: And of course, I have a question for that. But before that question, is the Opposition therefore ready to take some action?


Simon Birmingham: Our view is that this decision should be reviewed. We have taken a range of different steps. We initiated a Senate inquiry to really put the spotlight on this and the decisions that were taken, and to try to highlight or understand the reasons why those decisions were or were not taken. We also introduced a private Senator’s legislation into the Senate that deals with competition in our aviation market, and we’re going to continue to keep the pressure upon the Government to review the way in which bilateral air services treaties are negotiated to make sure there’s greater opportunity for Australia’s tourism industry, our exporters and others with an interest in this space to be able to have a say in the future and to make sure that these are more transparent and thorough processes than what clearly occurred on this occasion.


Alexandros Logothetis: Now, practically, Senator, how is this issue affecting Australians and especially ethnic communities like Greek Australians? I’m sure you have quite a few of them as your constituents.


Simon Birmingham: Yeah, I do. My electorate office in Adelaide’s western suburbs is home to some of South Australia’s largest Greek populations and communities and Greek Australians, but so many others with ties throughout Europe and also into Africa and parts of the Middle East who are suffering as a result of this. Visiting friends and relatives make up a big part of Australia’s tourism intake and are also a big reason why Australians head overseas. And if we look at the data post-Covid, there were 6.6 million visitors to Australia in the year to September 2023. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually still 30% less than was the case in the year to September 2019, pre-COVID. So we can see that there’s been a real struggle to have recovery in the travel market in getting people back visiting Australia, and that is bad for businesses and industry, but it’s also bad for Australians with ties and connections overseas. A key reason for that is that there just aren’t as many seats on planes available today as there were beforehand, and that means the prices are higher and therefore less people are able to either find a seat or be able to afford to travel.


Alexandros Logothetis: Finally, Senator, do you consider this decision to be a scandalous decision?


Simon Birmingham: The way this decision was taken does have an air of scandal about it. Because the minister, the Labor government minister, Catherine King, appears to have been influenced by the considerations of other airlines who stood to gain commercial benefit as a result of this decision being rejected. We know from the evidence of the Senate inquiry that her department briefed and recommended that she should proceed with negotiations. We know, she told one aviation industry executive she expected it to be approved within weeks, but then she took months and ultimately rejected it. And the only reason that seems to stand up to any scrutiny for that rejection is that there was pressure on Prime Minister Albanese, on Transport Minister Catherine King, and on the Labor Government to put Qantas’s commercial interests ahead of the interests of Australia’s travelling public and our tourism industry.


Alexandros Logothetis: Senator, I would like to thank you for your precious time that you have found to speak to SBS Greek.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you so much for the opportunity.