Topics: Catherine King refuses to front Senate inquiry; Voice referendum;

03:05PM AEST
04 October 2023

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s go live now to the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham. A few things to get your reaction to. I want to start with the news that Catherine King won’t be attending your committee, the committee that you’re a member of on the aviation sector. She says it’s a political stunt. Why would she show up?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kieran, this is the height of evasiveness. Now, why would she show up? Because that’s what her office said needed to happen. If this committee was to get answers. Last week when Catherine King’s department was sitting in front of a Senate inquiry and were asked some pretty factual questions, they said, we’ll check with the minister’s office. They checked with the minister’s office and the response they got was for the minister’s office to say – if the committee wants to know, they should ask the Minister. Well, then the minister should front up. Catherine King should front up, not evade, duck and dodge scrutiny, because the details here do matter. What we heard through this Senate inquiry was that Catherine King told the CEO of Virgin that she had received a recommendation from her department to enter into a negotiation with Qatar Airways for additional flights to Australia and that she expected to approve that recommendation in the next couple of weeks. We also know that she said Alan Joyce wasn’t happy about it and that she was talking to him in the next few days. Well, that recommendation never got approved. Instead, it was sat on for seven months and then rejected. So, we need to understand what happened and what occurred in the interim, because it’s Australia’s tourism industry that’s facing a multi-billion dollar hit and Australians who are paying higher prices.

Kieran Gilbert: You can compel Alan Joyce to attend though, can’t you? You can’t compel the Minister because she’s a member of the Lower House. So, Mr. Joyce will be able to answer a lot of those questions, or at least some of them?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Mr. Joyce may be able to answer some of those questions, and we hope and trust that he will. But Catherine King is the Minister who made this decision. She’s failed over months now of attempts at questions from journalists, in the House of Representatives, elsewhere to actually give detailed reasons for why she rejected this application. We now know that it was a rejection against departmental advice as well as a rejection that sees Australians paying a higher price. Today we’ve had the remarkable situation of Anthony Albanese saying House of Representatives ministers and members never appear before Senate committees. That’s just not true. The last one to do so was Scott Morrison as immigration minister. If it was good enough for Scott Morrison to be open and transparent, surely, given Anthony Albanese promised greater openness and greater transparency, then his minister, Catherine King, should front up.

Kieran Gilbert: The Opposition Leader was invited back in 2018 to appear at a Senate committee over that au-pair visa story. He refused that invitation. So at least there’s a precedent in terms of refusing these invitations as well, Senator Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: There are precedents, but that was mucky political muck raking. This is about an actual decision made by the minister. So, it’s the subject of a quite legitimate Senate inquiry. It’s the subject that is an inquiry that has seen tourism industry, aviation experts, other airlines all come out and say the minister made the wrong decision. It’s clear as well, very clear that her department recommended she go in the opposite direction. And when she was on the cusp of approving the departmental advice, something caused her to sit on it for seven months and to change her mind. What was that something? What influence was exerted? Was it from Mr. Joyce? Was it from the Prime Minister’s office? These are the unknowns and only Catherine King can really genuinely answer those questions. That’s why she should front up. If there’s nothing to hide here, then she should come along and actually be an open book about this decision making. But instead, it seems there’s plenty the government wants to hide about how and why it came to a decision that sees Australians paying the price through higher airfares and Australia’s tourism industry paying the price through ultimately billions of dollars of lost potential additional income from additional visitors to our country.

Kieran Gilbert: What do you say to the argument that this is a beat up to the extent that we’re going to see I think it’s in the next month or so, the schedules of not just Qatar, but all the airlines and those various slots that Qatar had requested, we could see overwhelmed by other demand from other airlines. So, to the extent that that might happen, is the opposition really trying to whip this up into more than what it is?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’d point to the evidence we’ve received, and that is Qatar cannot put on extra flights into the gateway cities of Australia because they’re at their allowed cap. So, the reason for this application was for them to put extra flights on. We know that Etihad and Emirates have not put back on the volumes of flights they had before. They’re not at their caps and they’re not flying the same number of flights they were pre-COVID. There’s a big gap there. The aviation experts, the airlines, the tourism industry, others who have fronted up to this Senate inquiry, have consistently and routinely said that there is absolutely demand for additional seats on those routes through the Middle East in and out of Australia, and that we ought to be trying to fill those spots and have more people able to fly because to do so will help our tourism industry who went through such hellish times during Covid-19 with the different lockdowns, shutdowns and closed borders. Now their recovery is being stymied because the government is standing in the way of this extra flights and these this extra competition, which of course also means that Australians are paying more when they are flying out of the country than would otherwise be the case. And critically, Qatar Airways told us when they gave evidence to the Senate inquiry that if this decision were reviewed and reversed and approval was given promptly, they could have extra flights on by Christmas. We could actually still, if the government stopped being so stubborn, reviewed this decision and changed its mind. Well, all the political mess for the government would go away. Australians would get the benefit of more flights and cheaper flights by Christmas and our tourism industry would get those dividends to.

Kieran Gilbert: The YouGov poll out today shows a real disparity between younger and older voters under 49, 49 and younger, a clear majority in favour of the voice to Parliament. Over 50 it is a totally different story and in fact much more in favour of the no vote and that will likely see the referendum go down. What do you put that down to that real polarisation between the age groups in this country over the referendum?

Simon Birmingham: Well it’s not an unusual thing in terms of politics for us to see on different issues, voting trends or otherwise differences between age cohorts and demographics. That’s long been the case, and I expect it will probably long remain the case into the future as people take different approaches and different elements of experience into consideration as well as different stages of life in how they vote or how they judge issues. Here, I see when I talk to Australians about this issue many different viewpoints and perspectives that come to bear and that people have. I encourage people to be as informed as possible about the issues and the complications and the concerns that have been raised around the voice and from there to make as informed a decision as they can as they vote from yesterday onwards over the next couple of weeks.

Kieran Gilbert: And can I ask which way will you vote?

Simon Birmingham: Well, my vote is going to be the same one vote as everybody else’s, Kieran. As you know, I’ve been clear, I don’t intend to campaign during the referendum. I’m urging people, as I just did, to be informed. I respect and don’t intend to act contrary to the position that the Coalition has taken. My colleagues, such as Senator Kerrynne Liddle have been putting a very strong, clear positions in favour of the Coalition position. I think it is at its strongest when this debate is being had and led as it has been frankly on both sides by indigenous Australians outlining their different perspectives to this issue, and that that’s informing the deliberations that all Australians get to have.

Kieran Gilbert: I know it’s a secret ballot and I’m not forcing you to answer it, but are you going to vote yes?

Simon Birmingham: Well, as I said, I’m not acting contrary to the party position, but I’m also not going to start arguing a position and as soon as I state positions, I’ll be arguing positions and then I’ll be in the business of campaigning. We’ve got good, strong voices on this issue. As we were just discussing, I’ve been busy in Senate inquiries prosecuting the case around government transparency, accountability and important issues to our economy. That’s what I’ll continue to do, as well as focusing on my portfolio space in foreign affairs.

Kieran Gilbert: Appreciate your time. Simon Birmingham. Talk to you soon.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Kieran, cheers.