Topics: Taipan helicopter fleet grounded; Senate aviation inquiry; Qantas board; China commentary on parliamentary delegation to Taiwan;

09:20AM AEST
29 September 2023


Laura Jayes: Welcome back. Australia’s troubled Taipan helicopter fleet will be permanently grounded. That has been confirmed this morning. Joining me live now, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for your time. This is the right decision for Richard Marles?


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Laura. Yes, this is a decision that we support. We have supported the transition to the new Blackhawk fleet, and we would urge the government to make sure they bring those on as quickly as possible as part of this transition and following this decision to ground the existing fleet.


Laura Jayes: Do you accept that there might be a capability gap here? Is that something you’re willing to wear?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if there is a very small change in timing given, of course, the fact that this decision has been prompted, as I understand it, by advice that the reviews are inquiries into the tragic crash that occurred recently wouldn’t be complete until essentially the timeline for the scheduled date of cessation of using the Taipans would have been reached anyway. So, the Government’s making a practical decision here. It’s one that we support. Ultimately, it’s about making sure now that the replacement is in place as quickly as possible and for the ADF to make sure that where there is any capability gap in that regard, that they are adjusting operations and activities in ways that minimise the impacts of that as much as possible.


Laura Jayes: Let me ask you about Qantas and Qatar now, because I know you’ve been involved in those inquiries. Some of your line of questioning was the most effective that we saw last week at the end of this week. We what are we seeing here? I mean, there’s a bit of political back and forth, but are we going to see any improvement in the aviation industry?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s actually a really good question. I think one of the most important points, a little bit lost in much of the coverage this week, but one of the most important points of evidence was when Qatar Airways said if the government reviewed this decision quickly and reversed its decision quickly, they could put additional flights and services on by Christmas. So, Australians, travellers to Australia, our exporters could all see the benefits of increased competition, lower airfares by Christmas. If the Albanese Government actually just got off its high horse, listened to the overwhelming weight of evidence from the tourism industry, from the airports, from independent aviation experts, from competition policy analysts, all of whom say that the Albanese Government’s decision to reject these additional flights was wrong. If they reversed that decision, if they swallowed their pride and did so, Australians and travellers to Australia could be enjoying the benefits by Christmas. So, there would be one good way for the Albanese Government to end the pain and anguish over this and how they got this decision wrong, let alone the big questions that linger over how it was made. That would be for them to front up, reverse it and then we can get on with life.


Laura Jayes: How can these two statements be true? One from Richard Goyder saying Alan Joyce did an excellent job as CEO of Qantas and Vanessa Hudson, saying she understands that customers are frustrated and that Qantas need to do better.


Simon Birmingham: In some ways that’s really for those leaders of Qantas to address. I suspect that Richard Goyder in fact I know because I heard him give evidence this week, would point to seeing Qantas through some of the most challenging times for international airlines being of course the massive shutdowns of Covid. I do acknowledge the work that he and Alan Joyce and others did there. It was not faultless, quite clearly, because many of the problems they’re now dealing with in terms of the management of flight credits, the decisions around staff were also taken during that period. So yes, they managed some difficult things, but also there are some real problems that are problems for Qantas to address in terms of its brand, its reputation, its relationship with staff. For Qantas shareholders they’ll have to make their decisions about their chair, their board and how they handle that. They, though, shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Albanese Government is the one standing in the way of competition being enhanced in terms of access to and from Australia. The big question mark that hangs over how it is that Catherine King, the Transport Minister, came to receive a brief from her department recommending that negotiations be entered into for more flights from Qatar. She got it in January this year. She told the Virgin CEO she expected to approve it within the next week or two, but that she expected to have a conversation with Alan Joyce in that next week or two. Then, lo and behold, nothing happened for six months and eventually it was rejected without any negotiations with Qatar. That’s where the big gulf in terms of transparency from the Albanese Government lingers. That’s why Catherine King should front up to this inquiry herself.


Laura Jayes: Okay. There’s a lot of delays of decision making over the last ten years of your when- not you personally, but when your government was in power as well. And whilst there has been a lot of focus and there should be on the Albanese Government’s relationship with Qantas and the closeness of that, I think, you know, the Coalition is getting away with the fact this not being highlighted that Qantas got $2.5 billion worth of taxpayer subsidies and support during Covid. Other competition in the market, such as Virgin, didn’t get that from your government. Should there be questions asked around that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Virgin did receive and I don’t have my fingertips on the figure but did receive hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper payments. It did receive payments under the same domestic aviation network support program that Qantas received payments under. We absolutely supported both airlines as we supported Rex as well and as we contracted in terms of our freight assistance programs and others other willing airlines to provide assistance to Australians such as Singapore Airlines, such as Qatar Airways, who played big roles in helping keep our export channels open, helping repatriate Australians in difficult circumstances. All of the airlines received taxpayer payments at a time when government had decided to basically shut down much of the international aviation market. State governments had shut down much of the domestic aviation markets, so there were genuine reasons for airlines to receive these payments. I stand by the fact that those payments kept many Australian businesses afloat, including in this case, Qantas, who also had to go out and raise significant additional private equity and capital themselves and undertake significant refinancing as a result that most of their commercial income channels were simply cut off.


Laura Jayes: Finally, let me ask you about China and the Chinese ambassador’s comments regarding a government cross-parliamentary delegation to Taiwan. They seemed intemperate.


Simon Birmingham: Well, they’re certainly an unwelcome comment in relation to the rights of Australian parliamentarians to travel where Australian parliamentarians choose to and to engage with officials as Australian parliamentarians may choose to. And we have had delegations travelling from Australia to Taiwan engaging with officials there for many, many years and it’s entirely appropriate that continue. That’s part of our free engagement and activity. It doesn’t change the nature of Australia’s policy standing, doesn’t change our willingness to work with China where we can, but equally in terms of the concerns we have in other areas of engagement. I welcome that parliamentary delegation having travelled there. I respect their rights to do so, and I fully expect the Parliament to support other delegations to travel to Taiwan in the future.


Laura Jayes: Senator, thanks so much for your time as always.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.