Richard Marles has denied he is “running for cover” over the federal government’s Qatar decision as an exasperated Coalition slams the government for ending the week with “more questions than answers”.
Transport Minister Catherine King made the decision on July 10 to deny Qatar Airways’ bid to almost double their flight offerings to Australia.
She confirmed on Thursday that on the same day, she signed a letter to five women who had been subject to an invasive stripsearch at a Qatar airport in 2020 telling them of her decision, adding that it was part of the “context” for her decision but not the sole factor.
Ms King said she told Prime Minister Anthony Albanese before the matter was made public on July 18, but the Coalition is demanding she confirm the exact date.
The opposition has accused Ms King of making a “sweetheart deal” to protect the commercial interests of Qantas, and a senate inquiry into Qatar’s bid rejection is due to start next week.
Mr Marles – acting prime minister while Mr Albanese is overseas – backed Ms King again on Friday morning, saying she had made the call as she was entitled to.
“We have a transport minister who made a decision that transport ministers make,” he told Channel 9.
Asked at least three times by host Karl Stefanovic about whether Mr Albanese knew about the decision, Mr Marles reiterated that Ms King had acted as per usual protocol.
Pressed on whether he was “running for cover”, Mr Marles denied the claim.
The Coalition says the Doha airport incident was concerning but has slammed the government for hypocrisy.
Labor has told Qatar if they wanted to increase their presence in Australia, they could fly bigger planes or add routes to smaller airports.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said Australians wanted a “straight-up answer”.
“(The Doha incident) is not the reason that (Qatar’s bid) was knocked back,” Mr Dutton told Channel 9.
“Obviously, the Prime Minister is very close friends with Alan Joyce.
“I think after this week, there are more questions than answers.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley has exploded at Education Minister Jason Clare on Sunrise, saying Labor was chaotic and “helping out their mates at Qantas”.
“What this boils down to is the Albanese government has blocked flights coming into Australia that would have made airfares cheaper and we all know Sydney and Melbourne are the main places our commuters want to fly from,” she said.
“They can't explain the timeline and they can’t explain why they made the decision. It’s dodgy.”
Mr Clare shook his head in disagreement and firmly waved off Ms Ley’s slap-down.
“If Qatar airlines want more flights to Australia, they should fill the flights they're allowed to fly right now,” he said.
“This argument that Sussan is running – there are 30 different international airlines that fly to Australia right now. Singapore Airlines are putting more flights on, so are Cathay Pacific. You have more airlines flying into Australia, so that argument is rubbish.”