Transport Minister Catherine King will be called to front the parliamentary inquiry into Qatar Airways’ rejected bid for more Australian flights after her office was accused of hindering her own department’s attempt to find out if she met with former Qantas chief Alan Joyce about the application.
Amid ongoing speculation over whether Qantas plays an outsized role in influencing government decisions, the Coalition launched the Senate inquiry earlier this month into King’s decision to block Qatar’s application to add 21 flights a week to Australia, which experts say would have brought down airfares and added up to $1 billion a year to the Australian economy.
Transport Minister Catherine King will be called to front a Senate committee over her decision to reject Qatar Airways’ bid for more Australian flights.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Inquiry chair and opposition transport spokeswoman Bridget McKenzie said Joyce, who is overseas, would be “summonsed on touchdown” to face the Senate committee, and that he and King were among the few who could shed light on the decision after senior bureaucrats were gagged from going into detail about their advice due to a public interest immunity claim by King.
Liberal senator and foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said the committee had resolved to take the rare step of asking the lower house minister to appear before the upper house committee.
“If Minister King has got nothing to hide, then she should turn up and answer questions that the department cannot,” he said.
“We’ve waited until today to make this request because we had hoped that the ordinary course of asking departments questions would yield answers. But it turns out that the department is being stonewalled itself by Minister King’s office.”
Liberal senator Simon Birmingham urged King to front up to the inquiry when called.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
A usually placid Birmingham reacted angrily during the committee hearing when Department of Transport deputy secretary Marisa Purvis-Smith read directly from a text message from King’s office that the committee should contact them directly after she sought to clarify if King had met Joyce on January 23.
“If Minister King’s office is saying ‘get stuffed’ when her own department is seeking to provide information to this committee, then Minister King should front up herself, because that’s the situation we’re left with here,” he said.
King’s office said on Thursday afternoon no request to attend had been received. The minister is on leave and has claimed public interest immunity over documents, including departmental advice, relating to her decision, which bureaucrats fronting the inquiry said forbade them from going into certain details.
Virgin chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka told the inquiry on Wednesday she had spoken with King on January 20, and that King had indicated the mandate for negotiations with Qatar would be released the following week.
Hrdlicka, whose airline is a commercial partner of Qatar Airways, also told the committee King said she was expecting to meet with Joyce the following Monday, and that he had conveyed he was displeased the government was entertaining Qatar’s application for extra flights.
Transport officials told the inquiry on Thursday that only Qantas and Virgin were consulted before forming their advice, which was finalised on January 4 – six months before she made her decision to reject it.
King consulted Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong over Qatar’s application for extra flights on January 19, with the latter seeking advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Middle East and Africa division relating to the application.
The division’s first assistant secretary, Ridwaan Jadwat, said he was unable to disclose the content of the advice provided, and “the next time that we had any interaction about this issue was when we heard on the 12th of July, that Minister King had made a decision in relation to the request by Qatar Airways”.
It has previously been reported that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wasn’t aware of the decision by this stage.
Wong has previously spoken out about the treatment of Australian women who were strip-searched at Doha Airport in October 2020. It is not known whether that was part of the advice given King’s office.
Joyce, who has been overseas, will be summoned by the committee to attend a hearing at a later date after he declined an invitation due to “personal commitments”.
“And he will be required to attend to the committee’s questions,” McKenzie said.
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