Australia’s transport minister dismisses Senate probe as “political stunt” while questions linger about her decision to block Qatar Airways’ flight expansion bid.
Australia’s transport minister has vehemently declined calls to appear before a Senate inquiry investigating her rejection of Qatar Airways’ bid for additional flights to Australia, branding the probe as nothing more than “a political stunt.”
The Senate committee was launched in response to growing discontent within the aviation and tourism industries regarding the Albanese government’s refusal to grant Qatar Airways’ request to nearly double its flights to major Australian cities.
Questions have arisen about the extent of rival airline Qantas’ influence in the decision-making process and its alleged lobbying efforts.
Transport Minister Catherine King and government officials have consistently refused to disclose the reasons behind the rejection, claiming it was not in the “national interest.” King has previously cited public interest immunity to withhold details regarding her refusal, reports said.
Committee chair Bridget McKenzie has called for both King and Joyce to testify before the inquiry.
However, on Tuesday, King said that “it is longstanding practice that House of Representatives members do not appear before Senate committees,” and highlighted that opposition leader Peter Dutton had previously declined to appear before Senate inquiries.
“While Senator McKenzie is wasting time on a political stunt, I am spending time doing the hard work the Coalition never did to set our aviation sector up for the future,” King noted.
Meanwhile, Qantas on Wednesday called on the federal government to refrain from revisiting Qatar Airways’ application to double its flights to Australia.
The airline has also staunchly defended its decision to withhold information regarding its communications with the government prior to the initial rejection.
Qantas submitted a nine-page document to the Senate a week after McKenzie criticised the airline for not making a submission before its recent appearance.
McKenzie expressed her confusion, saying “if Virgin and Rex can do it, I do not understand why the largest and most dominant carrier in the country can’t respect this committee by putting pen to paper and addressing the terms of reference.”
Within its submission, Qantas contested claims made by much of the aviation and tourism sectors that Qatar Airways’ increased flights would have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional tourism revenue, branding such assertions as exaggerated.
Qantas former chief economist, Tony Webber, estimated that Qatar’s extra flights would have yielded approximately $500 million, while University of Sydney Professor Rico Merkhert argued that the rejection would result in an annual revenue loss exceeding $1 billion.
However, Qantas asserted that Qatar Airways primarily carried a “disproportionately high” number of Australians out of the country.
“On that basis, suggestions that granting the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority application would have materially advanced the Australian tourism industry’s recovery are overstated,” Qantas said.
In defence of its refusal to disclose details of its communications with government officials regarding the Qatar Airways situation and other matters, Qantas said in the submission: “It is our view that a critical hallmark of a robust democracy is the ability of parties to convey their perspective on issues to the government and the opposition without hesitation, and particularly without fear of (lawful and appropriate) confidential disclosures being disclosed inadvertently or deliberately.”
Bridget McKenzie and other Coalition members, including Opposition Leader Dutton, have repeatedly hinted at a potential quid pro quo involving the Qatar Airways decision, suggesting that it was granted by the Albanese government in exchange for Qantas’ support for the Voice to parliament ahead of the 14 October referendum, reports said.
The Senate committee, after two weeks of hearings with stakeholders and government departments, is expected to deliver a report on the country’s bilateral air rights next week.
Notably absent from the hearings were former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who abruptly left the company at the start of September, and Transport Minister Catherine King, who was on leave.
Meanwhile, Coalition Senator Simon Birmingham, a committee member, strongly criticised King’s refusal to participate and accused Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of failing to deliver on his promise of an “accountable and transparent government” before the election.
Birmingham maintained that “this is the height of evasiveness from a minister who should be accountable for the decisions she makes but is instead hiding from scrutiny.”
“It was Catherine King’s refusal or inability to explain her decision to deny Qatar Airways additional flights which led to a select Senate committee being established in the first place. The minister then refused to provide her own department with the relevant information requested by the committee and now refuses to even turn up to provide that information herself,” he added.
Birmingham maintained that the Coalition would seek alternative means to push the transport minister to reveal the lobbying efforts that resulted in her rejection of departmental advice in favour of approving extra flights.
The ongoing inquiry, which has conducted five hearings throughout the month of September, heard testimony from Virgin CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, who disclosed a meeting with King in January before Qatar Airways’ request was officially denied in July.
Hrdlicka claimed that King had informed her of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce’s dissatisfaction with the Qatari bid and his request for a meeting with the minister.
Last Thursday, senators asked officials from the Department of Infrastructure and Transport about King’s discussions with airline executives like Joyce. Marisa Purvis-Smith, the department’s deputy secretary, said that they had requested details of King’s calendar regarding a possible meeting with Joyce on or around 23 January but were instructed not to respond.
A text from the minister’s office conveyed: “The MO [minister’s office] view is not for the department to answer re the minister’s diary. The question should be directed to the minister.”
The hearings also featured an extensive interrogation of Qantas chairman Richard Goyder and the airline’s new CEO, Vanessa Hudson, regarding their lobbying efforts to persuade the government to reject Qatar Airways’ request.
Alan Joyce was called upon, but his legal representatives informed the committee that he was overseas and unavailable for remote participation.
Committee chair Bridget McKenzie warned that Joyce would need to testify before the inquiry upon his return to Australia or face potential legal consequences, including the prospect of facing jail time.