Topics: Qantas; Qatar Airways; Detained Australian Dr Yang Hengjun;

07:15AM AEST
Tuesday, 29 August 2023



Pete Stefanovic:  We will keep that conversation going now, because joining us live is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon, appreciate your time this morning, as always. So just we’ll just keep that conversation going. As I said, so confirmation from Stephen Jones yesterday that the government blocked extra Qatar Airways flights to keep Qantas profitable. Should that be the government’s job?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not the government’s job to automatically make Qantas profitable. Of course, we want to see the national carrier be profitable and for it not to need government intervention or bailing out. But there’s no transparency around the basis upon which the government formed this decision. And of course, it’s a decision for which the Government has given umpteen different reasons now. We’ve had reasons thrown up in terms of behaviour of officials in Qatar, we’ve had reasons about Qantas profitability, we’ve had reasons about questions around purchasing of new aircraft. There have been numerous reasons and the Transport Minister has been unable to give a clear answer and she certainly hasn’t given a clear answer as to what the Prime Minister’s involvement in the decision was either, and whether in fact he lobbied her or he urged her to reject that application. And that’s the type of transparency that there should be. It should be clear cut as to why they did this, the grounds upon which they did this so that everyone can scrutinise whether it was remotely in Australia’s national interest or whether instead it is just pushing up the price of air tickets for Australians along with all of the other cost of living pressures Australians are facing right now.


Pete Stefanovic:  Interesting. You just pointed to the behaviour of officials in Qatar that made some headlines earlier this year and last year as well. So, are you saying that there might be a little bit of revenge at play here against the Qatari government?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s only for the government to be able to say actually what the honest answer is. That was a line or a couple of remarks made by the Transport Minister and one of her many interviews trying to defend this. But she’s had no consistent rationale, issued no clear explanation publicly that people can properly scrutinise and analyse. Where is the analysis actually underpinning this? Because fundamentally this should be an economic decision about whether the transport routes into Australia can and should sustain these extra landing slots been allocated to Qatar. And if they can, then we should see that increased competition in our market to make sure that Australians get the best deal travelling internationally as we all want to see our national carrier remain in a strong position. As you just said, there’s nothing wrong with them making a profit. Indeed, that profit is returned to shareholders right across Australia, many of whom in their superannuation funds. But we want as much competition in our aviation market too. And this Government has gone through a decision making process completely lacking in transparency, completely lacking in analysis and not being clear at all about what the role of the Prime Minister was in that decision.


Pete Stefanovic: Is there any beef that you know of between us and Qatar?


Simon Birmingham:  Look, no, in broad terms, there were concerns in relation to the treatment of some Australian passengers at an airport check there. That’s well known and rightly the Australian Government expressed concerns at that time. There are some ongoing legal matters playing out from some of those customers who were affected and it’s quite right that we raise those concerns. But in terms of decisions about landing slots and those types of what should be technical decisions, there’s no reason for them not to be treated on the same grounds and same terms as you would any other decision about whether it is a fundamentally valid economic decision to make in Australia’s interests or not.


Pete Stefanovic: Okay, let’s go to China, Simon. Yang Hengjun. He fears he’ll die in a Chinese prison after doctors found a large cyst on his kidney. How can things be accelerated here?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the government needs to be doing absolutely everything it can here. Dr. Yang Hengjun has been detained for more than four and a half years, and yet we still don’t have transparency from China about why he’s been detained, what the charges were, what precisely he was convicted of, and the length and duration of his sentence. And it’s completely unacceptable the circumstances here. There was just a one day trial that he had for which the Australian ambassador was denied access to witness that trial. And now we have these very concerning reports in relation to his health situation. The Government needs to make sure that at every possible level they are urging not just transparency that I spoke about before around his trial and the circumstances of his detention, but that he get access to quality medical treatment and support in the circumstances that he’s in. And of course, this runs alongside the other case in terms of detained Australians, where we do need to see real pressure applied from government on Beijing to try to get a breakthrough in these cases.


Pete Stefanovic: Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, thanks for your time, as always.