Transport Minister Catherine King has been asked to appear before the inquiry probing her decision to block Qatar Airways’ bid to increase their flight offerings.
The invitation comes as Coalition senators were left exasperated after senior transport bureaucrats, who appeared before the inquiry on Thursday, were essentially “gagged” from answering “critical” questions about whether Qantas had been a factor in the decision.
Senators Bridget McKenzie and Simon Birmingham have also doubled down on their vow to summons former Qantas chief Alan Joyce to appear before the committee and committed to use every possible lever available to them if he refused.
Their demands came after the public servants told the inquiry that Ms King – who is on leave – was handed a brief from the transport and infrastructure department about the Qatari application in January but did not make a decision until July.
Senator McKenzie said the evidence presented to the inquiry suggested Ms King was, in January, “of a mind to approve those additional flights from Qatar”.
“Something changed, and that brief sat on minister King’s desk until July. For six months, no further consultations were done with affected parties, no information was sought by the department,” Senator McKenzie said in a press conference.
“The government is shroud of secrecy around this decision, and the fact that it has gagged hardworking public servants from providing evidence to a public inquiry so that the Australian travelling public can understand why they made this decision is unconscionable.
“There are three people who can provide that level information about Qantas’s involvement – the Transport Minister, the Prime Minister, and former CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce.”
The transport officials told senators that after Qatar Airways began the process of applying to almost double its capacity last August, Qantas and Virgin were invited to provide submissions.
The inquiry was already told in earlier hearings that Qantas was opposed to the bid, while Virgin Australia – a Qatar Airways partner – was in favour.
The department ultimately handed Ms King’s office a brief on the request on January 4.
It was not until July 10 that Ms King rejected the request, despite Virgin boss Jayne Hrdlicka telling the inquiry a day earlier than when she met with the Transport Minister in mid-January it was her understanding that negotiations would be entered in to.
The senators spent much of the morning trying to determine whether Ms King had been influenced by Qantas officials and whether she met with Mr Joyce, especially in the days after receiving the brief.
Department officials could not answer any questions about the brief on Tuesday because Ms King had already claimed public interest immunity.
“It’s clear that the official process of government was completely shut down once the brief was sent to minister King … And for six months it would lie in secrecy as she spoke to who? To Qantas? Probably. To the Prime Minister’s office about his wishes? Probably. But we don’t know that for sure because we can’t get straight answers about that,” Senator Birmingham said.
“That’s why, at the conclusion of today’s hearings, the committee has resolved to (ask) the Transport Minister to appear before this committee.
“Catherine King should front up and give us straight answers.”
If Ms King declined the invitation, Senator Birmingham said there was precedent for house ministers to appear before the senate, and if Ms King had nothing to hide, she should “turn up and answer the questions”.
DFAT told first
The inquiry learnt Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was told of the decision to reject Qatar’s application before Mr Albanese was told.
First assistant secretary for the Middle East and Africa Division, Ridwaan Jadwat, told the inquiry that DFAT was asked by Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong’s office to provide advice on Qatar’s request for her to relay to Ms King.
He said that was done via email on January 24 after a mandate for the government to negotiate with Qatar was prepared for Ms King to sign.
Mr Jadwat said the contents of the email were subject to “public interest immunity”.
He said DFAT was informed of Ms King’s decision to reject the application on July 12. The Prime Minister was made aware of the decision on July 13.
Senators seek to establish timeline
The inquiry was told that Qatar made the application to increase its flight offerings in August last year,
A brief in relation to the request was finalised by the department in early January and given to Ms King.
That brief was aimed to help the minister determine whether or not negotiations or consultations should be entered into with Qatar.
There were early indications that Ms King would enter into negotiations and make that public, but it was not until July she determined otherwise.
A day earlier, Ms Hrdlicka said she had met with Ms King in mid-January, and it was her understanding the minster would meet with Qantas on or around January 23.
Ms Hrdlicka told the committee that after her meeting, she expected a positive outcome to be announced by Ms King soon after.
The inquiry heard Ms King had been told Mr Joyce was “unhappy”, and the pair were expected to meet around January 23.
Inquiry chair Senator McKenzie pushed for the public servants to detail whether Ms King or her office had met with senior Qantas officials at or around that time.
She slammed the public servants for dodging the committee’s questions, saying the “protection racket” being run by the government was “incredible”, and asked the department to hand over a comprehensive list of meetings and discussions between the department and Qantas.
Senator Birmingham was flabbergasted by the lack of detail public servants had about meetings with then- Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, and called on them to urgently seek confirmation from Ms King’s office.
“Because if it did, we appear to have gone from a situation where the minister thought she was going to sign it off (in January) in the space of the next week or two and publicly released it, to one where she lingered for the next six months with no request to the department for further information,” Senator Birmingham said.
“With no further analysis provided by the department. seemingly nothing provided by any other department of state or government agency.
“So something happened at that point in time, and that is a critical juncture. So I hope that you can get that transparency from the office.”
The officials did confirm Mr Joyce had met with the government in November 2022, after Qantas lodged its submission.
Hours later, Ms Purvis-Smith confirmed there were no other meeting briefs pertaining to Mr Joyce.
She said there was one meeting brief from the Jet Zero conference where Qantas was in attendance.
“But there was no other meeting,” she said.
Earlier, Senator McKenzie hit out at the Qantas executives for showing a “level of arrogance that our once-beloved national carrier shouldn’t be displaying”.
“We are trying to get to the bottom of the Qatar Airways decision and the lobbying that they had done to government,” she told 9 News on Thursday morning.
“We know this decision has cost $3bn over five years.”
Why minister blocked the bid
Minister King has offered the public a host of reasons as to why she made such a decision, but it was public servants from the transport department on Thursday who gave senators the most comprehensive list yet behind the determination.
The senate committee, set up after Ms King repeatedly refused to answer the Coalition’s questions about the decision, had previously heard Qantas was an “aggressive” player in Canberra and vigorously lobbied government on matters that threatened the national carrier’s market share.
The transport leaders would not be drawn on how influential Qantas had been in the process, and could not provide answers about any meetings, but under intense questioning from Simon Birmingham, Transport Group Deputy Secretary Marisa Purvis-Smith offered the “range of reasons” as to why Ms King had made the decision.
“She took into consideration a range of factors. They included: what is happening in the aviation and international aviation market at the moment; what is happening with the Covid recovery; what is happening with the capacity coming back into the system, particularly from other aviation suppliers and where are they up to and the impact on jobs in the long term,” she said.
“That was a range, but not the definitive full set of factors she took into account. Ultimately, it is a decision for the minister.”
Ms King has also conceded that an incident in Doha airport in 2020 – where five Australian women were ordered off a plane at gun point and strip searched – had formed part of her decision.
Senator unleashes on absent minister
Senator Birmingham exploded at Ms Purvis-Smith about Ms King’s absence and lack of transparency.
The Liberal senator said it was “completely unacceptable” that ministerial officials had to answer for Ms King, who took leave before the inquiry began.
“Is that Minister King‘s office despite a request from her own department to help with evidence, unwilling to confirm whether or not she had a meeting or discussion with Alan Joyce”, Senator Birmingham said.
“If Minister King‘s office is saying get stuffed when their own department is seeking to provide information to this committee, then Minister King should front up herself.”