Senate debates

Monday, 11 September 2023


Aviation Industry; Order for the Production of Documents

5:38 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I present a document relating to an order for the production of documents concerning Qatar flight services to Australia.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This document is in relation to Qatar flight services to Australia. As anyone who is following this from home will see, our Treasurer has tabled what he was told by Transport Minister King. Did she seek his advice on competition matters? Did he advise her of the impact economically that her decision would have on the aviation industry, the freight task, jobs and the profitability of Qantas—another one of the nine reasons this government has given for their Qatar Airways decision? Were our Treasurer and his department asked for any advice? You'd think they would be. Academics have actually suggested that this decision alone has cost our economy $1 billion.

Even today, we saw the Minister for Foreign Affairs unable to answer very simple questions about when she was consulted, when she found out about the decision and what her role was in informing the Qatar ambassador and Qatar government of the decision of Minister King. We then had to watch our flailing trade minister go through the dictionary of excuses in his affable way and yet singularly refuse to provide a response. Because what we know is his department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—it's my understanding—has advised the infrastructure department and the minister for infrastructure and transport to agree to the request from Qatar Airways. When Catherine King stands up and says she consulted all relevant ministers but—

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The senator will use correct titles.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

When Minister King, the transport minister who made this decision, stands up and says she consulted all relevant ministers, she did not consult the minister for trade. It begs the question of his relevance. She consulted all relevant ministers, she didn't consult the Minister for Trade. It begs the question of his relevance. She consulted the Minister for Foreign Affairs but that minister is unable to tell us when she was informed of the decision.

Going to the very basics of the economic impact of the decision, not just on Australians' affordability of international airfares, we know this decision would have meant international airfares would have dropped in excess of 40 per cent. That's a lot of money for people who are struggling to pay mortgages and energy bills right now. The last thing they are thinking of doing is actually going on an international holiday. That decision alone not only had a significant impact on airfares but it also had an opportunity cost to our tourism industry of in excess of $788 million, to our freight industry and beyond. So you'd think Minister King would have sought the expertise of the Treasury, sat down with the Treasurer and had serious discussions about the impact of her decision on competition—domestic and international—on the freight task, on the tourism industry, on jobs, on the profitability of Qantas and beyond.

When you look, the Treasurer has complied with the order, unlike the other ministers, unlike Minister Farrell, unlike the Prime Minister, who was supposed to at 5.30 today also provide this chamber with the documents, consultations, briefings and advice he had received when it came to this Qatar Airways decision. But he has again treated this chamber and the Senate with disrespect, as has the Deputy Leader of the Government in this chamber, Minister Farrell. Now, I have my hunch about why the trade minister has not given us the advice, the briefs, correspondence that he and his department have had with the transport minister about this decision, because it would have included advice that she has made the wrong decision, that she has overruled the minister for trade's own personal view and the view of his department. But again, it is disrespectful of this government to this chamber that is actually elected to hold the executive to account. As someone who has had the great privilege to be in executive government in this country, to thumb your nose at the only oversight that this parliament and our people have on executive power—that is, this chamber, our estimates process, the orders for production of documents and other systems we have in place—is just incredible and goes to a culture of secrecy and shutdown by Anthony Albanese and his ministers when it comes to being upfront with the Australian public.

This is what this chamber received. These are the briefings. This is the correspondence. These are the documents that the Treasurer has had in his possession to do with the Qatar Airways decision. One is completely redacted. The second is his question time brief that says, 'If asked, why was the Qatar request for additional services not been approved?' The Treasurer, if he is asked that in the other place is to respond: 'The Australian government at this time has decided not to approve the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority request for additional services, taking into account all national interest considerations.' If we're playing bingo—tick!—that's one of the eight, right there: national interest considerations. We don't quite know what that means. I know the Deputy PM, Richard Marles, who was the Acting PM on the weekend, created another category of national interest on Sky when he called it 'the national aviation interest'. I'm looking forward to seeing that quantified somewhere in official documents. It continues, 'The government will continue to monitor market developments and explore opportunities to build bilateral trade and investment.' That is the only advice, correspondence or information the Treasurer of this country has to provide to this chamber as a result of this OPD.

So it is clear that the Treasurer wasn't briefed on this decision. It is clear that it is a failure of the transport minister, Catherine King, to keep her colleagues informed, and if the Treasurer of this country isn't the relevant minister to be consulted with a decision like this than I am not sure who is. It certainly shouldn't be the Assistant Treasurer, who thinks that Qantas needs to be renationalised and that the government's job is to keep it profitable—not while it's busily pocketing half a billion dollars of its customers' money through COVID flight credits. If it weren't for this chamber and its representatives holding Alan Joyce and his executives to account, that money would still be on Qantas's balance sheet and not heading back into the pockets of hardworking Australians who, in good faith, paid that money. Because of a global pandemic, it has been sitting, earning interest for Alan Joyce and his retirement package and for the board of Qantas, instead of going back where it belongs, which is the bank accounts of hardworking Australians struggling with the cost-of-living situation.

It is a failure of Catherine King, the transport minister, to consult and also to actually think of the basic questions. When you are making a decision that's not going to cabinet, the responsibility falls on you as the minister to do your due diligence. What impact will it have on competition? Will it impact foreign affairs and trade? There is a long, bureaucratic process that exists around these decisions where departments talk to departments before the brief comes up to the minister for signing, and I find it incredible that the transport department didn't talk to Treasury or the ACCC, particularly on the economic issues,.

I wrote to Treasurer Chalmers over two weeks ago when this government halted the ACCC monitoring of our aviation sector, calling on him to reinstate that monitoring and to make sure it went further, because right now cancellations, delays and prices are going in the wrong direction. Australians deserve an aviation industry they can afford to travel on, where planes take off and land on time and your bags arrive at your destination. This government just isn't up to regulating aviation. (Time expired)

5:48 pm

Photo of Ross CadellRoss Cadell (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to play poker with this government, because it's got a tell—a big tell. Something is wrong here when you can't give the date for when you met and when you spoke, when you can't be sure if you spoke, and when you give an OPD document where there are seven dot points and they are all blacked out. For all that we know, they were options A, B, C, D, E, F and G—the seven original answers that might have been given individually for the single reason that we had to cancel this. Then we go to the back page and we have two more crossed out. I imagine they are options 8 and 9 that we can't say were the reasons for this. The only thing not blacked out is 'in the national interest'. This government thinks: 'We floated all these answers. Let's try this one and this one. This one sounds good; let's keep with that. So that's this week. Now we'll get some different dates out. We'll see which one holds and doesn't embarrass the Prime Minister too much.'

I note that before the election Prime Minister Albanese said:

… when I make a mistake, I'll fess up to it, and I'll set about correcting the mistake. I won't blame someone else. I'll accept responsibility. That's what leaders do.

What leaders do is take responsibility. So we're in a parliament without a leader. It's the old original take note I gave: dodge ball—duck, dive, dodge, weave and dip. That's what's happening here. We can't nail the date for when these people did or didn't speak. We can't name a reason that was actually the reason. We can't get an answer out of all these blacked-out dot points. It's simple if this is an honest, easy decision and you're sticking with it. Come clean. It's not that hard: 'I met with so and so on this date. We discussed it. We thought 'national interest'. Get rid of it. This issue is gone.' This should have been a one-day or two-day issue. It is a five-week issue because when you lie you get caught. Sorry, when you're untrue, you get caught. I withdraw.

When you are part of a cover up, you always worsen the sin. It's footy finals time and the Newcastle Knights won on the weekend. I was corporate manager for the Newcastle Knights. Always the cover ups are worse than the sins for the players. We have it here, the same thing. It is a document that says nothing. This document doesn't even have a date stamp on it. When was the last time you saw a government document without a date stamp? Just come out. Who met whom, who said what, when did it happen, what was the truth?

That is why it is really intriguing for those on this side. It is really simple, but we get nothing but this duck, dive, dodge, weave and dodge, or whatever it is. We get this simple answer: 'Mr Michael McCormack, when he was the minister, did the same thing.' There weren't these slots available. We didn't have one-third of capacity coming into Australia to give up. We didn't have flights the price that they were. My wife was in tears as she said goodbye to her parents from Wales, who were visiting at the beginning of COVID as they got on a Qatar Airlines flight to get home, because they were the last ones flying and getting people home from Australia. They were doing the right thing by this nation and by the people. They were bringing people back. They were taking people to Europe. They were getting people home. But it's not in the national interest to let people know how we came up with this decision.

We've got one OPD back to date. There are many more on this. People all through the government have got their black crayons out, scribbling: don't want to know the date, don't want to know the reason, don't want to know the time. People are paying more for their flights than they should be. People have fewer destinations for their flights than they should have. The only thing this has increased is the stress on the Australian people and the stress on the staffers who have to try and cover up decisions that are bad for the government.

I look forward to the other OPD things here. I look forward to playing poker with the government, topping up our wages with the money from your till. I look forward to the truth being free in this place, eventually, because it will come out, and every person that has said a thing that is different will be tied to that decision. The first scalp of the government is a big one, but people are tying themselves to this. It just feels like someone did something wrong and we're covering it up. With that, I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.