Topics: FOI for advice on Qatar Airways blocked

03:50PM AEDT
Monday, 13 November 2023

Kieran Gilbert:
We bring in Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham now for some immediate reaction. Andrew Clennell’s story earlier, the FoI bid with the transport department blocked. A departmental submission has been confirmed. It was given to the minister. The reason why the FOI decision maker has blocked it. The person writes – I am satisfied that there is a reasonable expectation of damage to the international relations of the Australian government. And he also references that it would – disclose information about relations with Qatar. What do you make about this revelation today?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran. Firstly to the blocking and then to the detailed reason given. The blocking itself is a demonstration that all of the Albanese Government’s rhetoric about being more transparent, more open amounts to nothing. Because if people think back over the last few months of this episode surrounding the decision to reject Qatar Airways application for additional flights into Australia, the Government has never stitched together a consistent, coherent rationale for its decision and now continues to fight to keep information secret. It hid details around when the minister met and talked and spoke with representatives of Qantas or others. It put an entire veneer of secrecy over this entire episode. The reason itself, though, if you think about it, is, of course, the Government’s already said a big fat no to Qatar Airways. The only way releasing this information increases the embarrassment or creates issues for Australia’s international relations is if the brief itself shows that officials recommend that it be approved but the Albanese Government rejected it. And that is the most likely situation because in the Senate inquiry that was undertaken, it was very clear that officials did send a decision brief to the minister which recommended entering negotiations, and that then spent six months sitting on the minister’s desk before it got sent back quite clearly rejected and overturned against departmental advice.


Kieran Gilbert: The FOI decision maker saying that I have consulted with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and have regard to the advice provided by DFAT on this matter, and also pointed out it would have the capacity to prejudice or undermine the government’s relations with Qatar. So in that context, you believe the department said, open up flights. The government said no, hence the damage done?


Simon Birmingham: The combination of the advice to the committee as well as the release of this information withholding the FOI makes it pretty clear. The only point of embarrassment for this Government is that the department clearly recommended to negotiate to have the extra flights for Qatar Airways. The minister overturned it, and to reveal the department’s advice would clearly create real embarrassment for the government domestically and internationally.


Kieran Gilbert: And in terms of the blocking, you’ve said that it undermines Labor’s commitment to open and transparent government. But fundamentally, if it were to cause problems between us and another nation, one that we deal with quite regularly in terms of aviation, isn’t the department right then to take that course?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the caution may be justified from the pure perspective of international relations, but of course it’s a mess of the Albanese Government’s own making. If they have rejected and overturned the independent expert advice of the Department for Infrastructure and Transport, then they’ve created this mess that is requiring them to act with undue secrecy. And of course, underlying all of this, the situation where Australians and Australian businesses are paying the price that these extra flights are not operating to Australia. Australians are paying more for their airfares. Our tourism industry is suffering by not having as many accessible, available and affordable seats coming into Australia and there’s not as much room in the bellies of planes for Australian exports out of the country.


Kieran Gilbert: Simon Birmingham on that breaking news today. I appreciate your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Kieran.