A question of when Catherine King informed the Prime Minister of her decision to reject Qatar Airways bid to increase capacity has thrice been left unanswered.
The embattled Transport Minister was again grilled about her rejection of the Middle Eastern carrier’s request to run 28 additional flights to Australia during question time on Thursday.
The refusal comes as the Coalition ramped up its accusation that Anthony Albanese had agreed to a “sweetheart deal” to protect Qantas from greater competition.
Both Ms King and Mr Albanese have repeatedly rejected suggestions the Qatar bid was knocked back to protect Qantas.
Ms King told parliament she had informed the Prime Minister of her decision but refused to give a date of the conversation despite being asked multiple times.
“I informed the Prime Minister prior to my decision being made public and normally these decisions are not made public,” she told the chamber, adding she informed him due to pending media reports.
“In that same conversation I had with the Prime Minister he let me know he had had a conversation with the Virgin CEO.”
Virgin is a key partner of Qatar Airways. Mr Albanese confirmed on Tuesday he spoke to airline boss Jayne Hrdlicka on July 13.
Ms King made the decision on July 10, the same day she signed a letter to five Australian women who were strip searched by Qatari authorities after the discovery of a newborn baby in a bin at Doha airport.
The incident, which occurred in 2020, Ms King claimed during a fiery press conference on Thursday morning, provided “context” for the decision but was not the defining factor.
“I made this decision in the national interest, and there is no one factor that I will point to that swayed my decision one way or the other,” she told reporters at Canberra airport.
But just six weeks earlier, Ms King claimed the incident was not the reason Qatar had been rejected.
The passengers say they were ordered off the plane at gunpoint, and were told to remove their underwear before being examined with no explanation for the invasive process.
The incident is subject to an ongoing legal challenge.
The Albanese government has been under pressure to justify the move, with the Coalition accusing Labor of wanting to shore up Qantas’ market position at the expense of cheaper flights for Australians.
In a rare moment on the floor of the house, the opposition chose to give up a chance to debate the government on its cost of living record, opting instead to use the time to put up a doomed motion to condemn the Qatar decision.
Mr Dutton said Ms King’s question time response “didn’t pass the pub test”.
“This chamber deserves honesty from the minister … The minister didn’t come in here and say, I don’t have my diary with me,” he said, adding she could have offered to check with her records.
“There was no sincerity in what the minister was saying.”
The Qatar decision is now subject to a Senate inquiry. Earlier, Mr Dutton said there was a “moral imperative” for former Qantas chief Alan Joyce to personally appear before the committee.
Mr Joyce’s successor Vanessa Hudson, officials from Qatar Airways, Virgin Australia and Regional Express could also be called to give evidence.