Topics: Senate aviation inquiry;  

05:10PM AEST
29 September 2023


Erin Molan: Well, it’s been another big week for Qantas. New CEO Vanessa Hudson and senior bureaucrats have been grilled by a Senate committee over the Federal Government’s decision to block Qatar Airways bid to increase flights into Australia. Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. He sits on the inquiry and he joins me from Adelaide now. Simon, thank you so much for your time. I note that you are normally mild mannered. I’m not sure if your family and close friends would agree with that or if that’s just your public persona. But something really made you quite angry this week. What was it?


Simon Birmingham: Hey, Erin. Thanks for the chance to be with you. Well, I like to call it professional or calm, maybe more than mild mannered. But it was a particularly remarkable moment yesterday when we had the Department of Transport officials at this inquiry. To recap, it’s an inquiry looking at why the Albanese Government and Transport Minister Catherine King in particular decided to reject Qatar Airways application for an extra 28 weekly flights in and out of Australia. We had evidence from the Virgin Australia CEO and from those transport officials that Catherine King had received a brief from her department recommending she start negotiations that would lead to the approval of some or all of these flights for Qatar Airways. She’d told the Virgin CEO she expected to sign it off and to approve it in the next couple of weeks, but that Alan Joyce wasn’t happy and she was talking to him in the next few days. So, we had asked for confirmation as to whether or not that discussion, that meeting took place and when those transport officials, those public servants, dutifully went back to Catherine King’s office while the hearings were happening and said, what’s the go? Did the meeting or discussion take place? The ministerial office messaged back to the transport officials saying if the Senate wants to know that it should ask Catherine King or Minister King herself. Now, that’s just outrageous. It’s showing complete contempt for the parliament, for the Senate, but most of all, for Australians who are paying the price of higher airfares, fewer flights. Australia’s tourism industry, who’s got the challenge that they can’t get enough low-cost seats out of Europe into Australia and our economy that’s facing a multi-billion dollar loss because of this inexplicable decision.


Erin Molan: Regardless of any of the facts, the optics on this are horrendous. Why won’t Catherine King front up?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s the test for her now. You know, we had gone through all the proper processes. House of Representatives ministers don’t usually come to Senate inquiries, but they have on occasion and Senate ministers, of course, have to front them all of the time. But we’d gone through the usual processes. Let’s ask the department, bring them forward, foreshadow questions, all of those sorts of things. So, having reached the point where Catherine King’s own office says if they want to know, ask the minister. Well, that’s what we now want to do. We want to ask Catherine King ourselves. That’s what she says we should do. So she should front up to this inquiry and answer the questions. Be transparent about why this decision was made and how it was made and who influenced it.


Erin Molan: Should Alan Joyce go to jail if he fails to comply?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re we are quite a few steps away from that. I know everybody got excited, sort of that. Yes, it could end in that scenario, but I would trust it won’t end in that scenario and that Mr. Joyce will front up. My understanding is that Alan Joyce is overseas in Ireland. Apparently, his mother is ill at present and so we respect that and we haven’t sought to make a big deal out of it during the course of the inquiry to date. But to be very clear that when he gets back to Australia, the regular summons will be issued in terms of his attendance, and we would hope and trust he will attend. He hasn’t said that he isn’t willing to attend. So, we trust he will and that will front up and that he too should be transparent about the interactions Qantas themselves turned up this week. They took a swag of questions on notice about what engagements they had with government. It was pretty poor form that they didn’t have their government affairs people at the table able to answer those questions, but they better come back with some direct answers as to what their engagement and lobbying and influencing of this was. Because, again, it’s about transparency of government, how the decisions are made, but ultimately the impact on the tourism industry, Australia’s tourism industry and the travelling public. We’re not doing this just for the politics. There’s a public policy end here and there are consequences for Australians. Anybody who has tried, whether from Europe to get to Australia or from Australia to get to Europe to book a flight in the last few months knows full well that they’re hard to come by. Prices can be steep and ultimately, many of the flights that Emirates offered that Etihad offered pre-COVID just haven’t come back. Qatar is willing to offer those flights and those services, and the Labor government ought to be giving that additional opportunity for our tourism industry and the travelling public.


Erin Molan: I hate dealing in hypotheticals, but if it does eventuate that there was a sweetheart deal, some kind of quid pro quo, a Yes livery on a plane for a rejection of Qatar Airways extra flights. Should that cripple a government? Should that bring down anyone who was involved in something like that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if there was some type of quid pro quo, whatever it may be, then I think that does enter very serious territory for the minister involved or whoever was involved in striking those types of deals. So, if it is at that stage and that level of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Well, that has a very bad smell to it and should warrant potential further examination where the ministerial codes have been breached, whether ethical standards have been breached or worse, and every effort should be made to look at that. It’s also possible that it’s simply just a pure case of a bit of protectionism. If it’s protectionism, well, the government should front up and be honest about that. Explain why they think that’s necessary and why they’re doing this for the national carrier. You know, we all want to see a strong, viable and profitable Qantas. That’s in Australia’s best interest. Qantas protected in opaque undercover ways that ultimately also leave Australians and our tourism industry paying the price for it. Now, Qatar have said that if this decision were reviewed quickly and reversed quickly, they could put extra flights on by Christmas. So, if the Government is feeling the pressure on this and if they want to release the pressure valve, then they could review and reverse the decision and put those flights on by Christmas.


Erin Molan: A more open and transparent government. That’s what we were promised. Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for your time.


Simon Birmingham:  Thanks, Erin. My pleasure.