Albanese declares he did not get lobbied by Qantas on Qatar Airways decision

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The federal government is under pressure to reveal the documents that could explain its decision to shield Qantas from greater competition, as state governments and tourism groups back calls to let overseas rivals such as Qatar Airways operate more flights.

The Coalition and the Greens are demanding the disclosure in separate moves that heighten the political row over the government’s decision to reject Qatar Airways’ request to increase its flights to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, while experts forecast a $1 billion economic gain from the extra flights.

An expert estimated the decision to block the additional Qatar flights would cost the Australian economy $1 billion a year.Credit: iStock

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton accused Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of a “sweetheart deal” with Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce and argued the decision would push up prices for Australians who wanted to travel for holidays or to see family.

Albanese dismissed the claim by telling parliament he had one “substantive conversation” on the Qatar decision and said it was not with Qantas, although he did not say who it was with.

“I received no lobbying from Qantas on this issue,” the prime minister said in question time.

Albanese argued that air route agreements were made between governments, not with airlines, and the Coalition had taken four years to agree to more flights with Qatar from 2018 to 2022 because of concerns about competition.

Transport Minister Catherine King has defended her June decision to reject Qatar’s request for more flights by citing figures showing that other airlines are adding 1100 flights per month on international routes.

But the Queensland Labor government has urged the federal government to allow more international flights from Qatar, while the South Australian Labor government is also supporting the Qatari request.

“Qatar has serviced South Australians far more than many other international airlines,” said a spokesman for the South Australian government, noting Qantas had stopped international flights to Adelaide.

The political pressure is building after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission took action in the courts last week to claim Qantas deceived customers by selling tickets to flights that would not operate.

In a statement to the ASX on Monday, Qantas said the business understood the consumer watchdog’s claims had caused significant concern to its customers.

“We openly acknowledge that our service standards fell well short and we sincerely apologise. We have worked hard to fix them since and that work continues,” the statement said.

Coalition transport spokeswoman Bridget McKenzie is seeking support from the Greens and crossbenchers for a Senate inquiry into the Qatar decision, while the Greens want the government to disclose the documents that underpinned the decision.

“The public deserves to know whether there was ministerial intervention to protect Qantas,” said Greens transport spokeswoman Elizabeth Watson-Brown, the party’s MP for Ryan in Queensland.

“The Labor government appears to be protecting a company that is now being sued for allegedly breaching consumer law.”

The formal move in the Senate would order the government to disclose key documents about the decision on Qatar, setting up a question for Coalition and crossbench senators against the government.

The Greens are not calling on the government to allow the Qatar flights, saying the first step is to gain accountability over the decision, but Greens leader Adam Bandt said the issue raised questions about whether Labor was acting in the interest of big companies rather than consumers.

Dutton accused the government of letting down Australians who had to pay more for their holidays because Qatar was not allowed to increase its flights.

“If you bring in additional people, it’s going to help tourism in regional communities, in cities, and it’s going to reduce prices because of the competition for Australians who want to fly overseas,” Dutton said on Monday morning.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton accused the government of letting down Australians who had to pay more for their holidays.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“I just think the PM – I don’t know what’s happened to him – but he’s got to start listening to Australians.

“If you want to go and visit family overseas, or you want to go on a holiday, you don’t want to be paying thousands of dollars more for the airfares – but that’s the decision he’s taken.”

University of Sydney professor Rico Merkert estimated the decision to block the additional Qatar flights would cost the Australian economy $1 billion a year on the assumption the overseas airline brought in 300 to 330 people per flight.

Merkert, a professor in transport, said the Qatar proposal could have added 21 flights per week, or about 332,000 additional passengers each year for Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Assuming half of those passengers were tourists who could spend more than $3200 each on their travel, the spending in Australia could be worth $582 million, he said, but he added that this could be increased if Qatar flew A380 aircraft on the routes instead of Boeing 777 aircraft.

“The above calculations would result in $882 million,” he told this masthead.

“If one then adds the additional loss of lack of business travel – easily $100 million – and visiting friends and family and freight – easily $100 million – the figure becomes $1 billion relatively quickly.”

With Emma Koehn

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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