TopicsDan Andrews resignation; Senate aviation inquiry into Qatar Airways decision; Qantas board; Taiwan; Voice;

12:10PM AEST
27 September 2023

Ashleigh Gillon: Staying in Canberra, let’s now bring in the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Senator, good to see you. Thanks for your time. I do want to ask you about that inquiry, but firstly keen for your view on what is the big political story of the day, and particularly the hour, which is the end of an era of course, in Victorian state politics. We’ve seen some pretty predictable commentary along partisan lines after the departure of Dan Andrews as Premier. I assume you’ve crossed paths with him in your various roles over the years. What are your reflections on his time as Premier?

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Ashleigh. Well, I wish Dan Andrews and his family well for the future, as I do any departing leader and thank him for his service. He has clearly been electorally very successful, very impactful in ways that have been both welcomed and condemned by Victorians and reflected upon by others across the nation. But the situation facing Victorians has gone really from bad to worse through the course of this year, with the dramatic escalation in debt, the problems in a range of different projects and of course the humiliating cancellation of the Commonwealth Games. They’re all problems that his successor is going to inherit, whoever that may be, and they’re problems that will likely dog that successor all the way through to the next election in a few years time.

Ashleigh Gillon: Okay. We’re standing by for news as to who that successor is. We are expecting it will be Jacinta Allan, but waiting for confirmation after this caucus meeting wraps. On the aviation inquiry, as Joel just mentioned there, we’re seeing Qantas up this afternoon after a- well, it’s probably an understatement to say it’s been a rough few weeks for the national carrier. What is it that you want to hear from Vanessa Hudson and Richard Goyder this afternoon?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we particularly want transparency around the decision making and Qantas’ engagement in the decision making and lobbying of government for the rejection of these Qatar flights. That was the genesis for this inquiry. There are many other issues that have come up in relation to Qantas and it’s right that Qantas needs to address those with the public, with its customers, with its shareholders. But the focus of this inquiry is the Albanese Government’s negotiation or failure indeed to negotiate bilateral air services agreement with Qatar and updating it to provide for additional flights. And what drove the rejection of that this morning when Qatar Airways appeared at the inquiry? I asked them systematically about the many ad hoc reasons that have been given by the Albanese Government over recent weeks. The unacceptable incident at Doha Airport a couple of years ago, the claims by the Albanese Government that they should be flying bigger planes or into more gateway airports. Questions of sustainability or workforce management. And on each of those issues that was put to Qatar Airways, they were never actually raised by the Albanese Government with Qatar Airways during the 11 month period the application was before the Albanese Government. Now that’s just a remarkable revelation that shows that Labor has been making up excuses rather than detailing why they really rejected these extra flights. Of course it’s Australians who are paying through higher airfares. Our tourism industry, who’s paying through fewer seats and fewer visitors and our exporters who are paying through less access and higher prices for freight to get out of this country.

Ashleigh Gillon: Well, plenty more to run on that this afternoon. Alan Joyce won’t be there, as we’ve been reporting, but Vanessa Hudson and Richard Goyder will be. What do you make of Richard Goyder’s position as chair of the board? We’ve seen a lot of pressure for him to step aside from the shareholders association, from pilots at the national carrier. Is his position becoming untenable?

Simon Birmingham: That is a matter for shareholders. Those shareholders rightly will be interested in terms of how Qantas is going to restore its public reputation, ensure trust of customers and consumers maintain itself in a profitable position whilst having to respond to the various problems, legal reputation and otherwise that it’s encountered in recent times. And it is then up to the shareholders to assess whether Mr. Goyder and the board have the capacity, the plans and the ability to deliver those necessary responses and to make decisions about their futures from there.

Ashleigh Gillon: Very diplomatic. Senator, putting on your diplomats hat, as a former trade minister today, we’ve seen this delegation from Taiwan. They’re calling on Australia to support its bid to join that free trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Where do you stand on that?

Simon Birmingham: That economies and countries who seek to join should be judged on their merits and their merits alone. That politics, geopolitics should not enter into consideration of whether or not a country can join the CPTPP. And in the case of an economy like Taiwan, who are treated in their own independent way through the World Trade Organisation and a range of other trade settings, including also their membership of APEC, they ought to be assessed on the merits of their application and if they can meet the high standards of trade liberalisation and accountability that apply under the CPTPP, and then they should be welcomed as a member.

Ashleigh Gillon: Well, I’ve got you. Just one final one. I’m keen for your take on the Voice campaign. We are just a couple of weeks out now as a leading moderate within the party. Are you comfortable with the tone that the Liberal Party has been taking throughout this campaign? And if the Voice goes down, as the polls suggest, what would that mean for the country in your view?

Simon Birmingham: Well, there are, of course, many participants in the campaign on both Yes and No side. Some within the Labour Party, some within the Liberal Party, and many who are not within either party. I do urge all, particularly as people start to vote in these final couple of weeks, come through. To show restraint, to focus on the issues and also to ensure that there is a mindfulness for whatever happens after October 14th. The need for us to come together, whether it’s a yes vote or a no vote, to focus on how we focus back on closing the gap, on addressing Indigenous disadvantage, and also on recognising the important role that Indigenous culture and languages have in our history and how they should be preserved and recognised for our future. And so, there’s much more to do in this space after the referendum. Arguably far more to do than the referendum itself entails. People, Australians will make their own decision about the Voice. I urge people to think about it carefully, to consider the arguments, put carefully for those engaged in the debate, to remain respectful. But for all also to be thinking very much about what comes next, because they are big, big challenges that remain to be addressed, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Ashleigh Gillon: Simon Birmingham, appreciate you joining us live there in Canberra. Thank you.