Qantas, Qatar execs tapped by Senate inquiry as airline ‘welcome’ to reapply for flights

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A Senate inquiry will ask Qantas boss Vanessa Hudson and her predecessor Alan Joyce to reveal their talks with federal ministers after a storm in parliament over the lobbying behind a decision that shielded the company from greater competition.

The inquiry is also likely to call Qatar Airways and the Qatari ambassador to give their account of the decision to block more flights, amid claims it led to higher prices for travellers.

Departing Qantas boss Alan Joyce and his successor Vanessa Hudson will both be asked to appear in front of a Senate inquiry.Credit: Louise Kennerley / Bloomberg

With the government under fire, Trade Minister Don Farrell said Qatar Airways was “welcome” to lodge a new application to add international flights.

The chair of the Senate inquiry, Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie, said she wanted the committee to hear from the Qatari government and its airline about their ability to add flights.

McKenzie wants the new Qantas chief as well as Joyce, who leaves the job on Thursday, to take questions about any talks with the government before the decision.

“We’ll be seeking to hear from both the former and the current chief executive, as well as the chiefs of the domestic aviation industry,” she said.

“What we’ve seen over the last few weeks has raised more questions about a government that seems to be quite dysfunctional, internally.”

Transport Minister Catherine King told parliament on Wednesday that her office had heard from Virgin Australia and Qatar Airways before the decision, but she said Qantas only spoke to her about workplace relations law.

In a fiery argument in parliament, the Coalition demanded more information from King and took the rare step of moving a dissent motion against Speaker Milton Dick to force the minister to give direct answers.

While Labor used its numbers to vote down the motion, the Coalition tactic highlighted the mystery about the lobbying after a series of vague and sometimes incorrect answers from the government.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had to correct the record on Tuesday about his talks with Virgin chief Jayne Hrdlicka, saying he spoke to her on July 13 but did not know that King had already decided against Qatar on July 10.

The government is expected to release a green paper on aviation imminently that will explore competition between airlines on domestic routes.

In Jakarta on Wednesday for the Association of South-East Asian Nations forum, Albanese said the federal government was considering pursuing “open skies” agreements with nations such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam in a move that would allow unrestricted access for airlines between the relevant nations.

Albanese said the report’s recommendation about expanding air links between Australia and South-East Asia was an “important one” while stating that Australia already has “the most open aviation system in the world”.

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.

Labor state governments in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have backed Qatar on the issue, while Labor Party president former treasurer Wayne Swan has suggested the decision should be reviewed.

Farrell appeared to clear the way for a new decision if Qatar wanted to try again.

“Companies can always put in a further application for consideration and Qatar is welcome to do that,” Farrell told Sky News.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said King should tell parliament who she spoke to before ruling against Qatar when the impact was to keep prices higher for travellers.

“This is a murky situation at best – the minister’s integrity is seriously in question,” he told parliament during a robust debate on the dissent motion.

“The prime minister had to come back into this chamber yesterday to correct the record when he misled this parliament.

“The minister could not be more evasive. We need to hear from this minister in a very direct way, whether or not she met with or spoke with Alan Joyce prior to making a decision to stop Qatar flying into our country, which was of commercial benefit to Mr Joyce, and to Qantas, and clearly to the detriment of the Australian public.”

King said Qantas was concerned about the government’s “same job, same pay” workplace laws rather than the Qatar decision.

“To the best of my recollection, [the] people who talked to me about the Qatar decision was a discussion I had with Virgin,” she said.

“A third party approached my office on behalf of Qatar.

“The meetings I had with Qantas were in fact about the ‘same job, same pay’ legislation because they had concerns about that.

“I stand by this is a decision I have made in the national interest.”

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