Press conference in Canberra to launch the Aviation Green Paper
STEVEN BYRON: Good morning. My name is Steven Byron and I’m the Managing Director of Canberra Airport. I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I’d like to introduce the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Catherine King, who’s this morning going to launch the green paper. It’s very exciting to have her here at Canberra airport. Obviously, we’re very proud of our facility and how we seek to look after passengers, and we’re delighted to have you all here this morning. So I’ll introduce the Minister. Thank you.
CATHERINE KING: Thanks, for coming out everybody, I normally don’t have quite as big a press pack so it’s lovely to see you all. Today can I first thank Steven Byron for welcoming us here at Canberra airport, one of the fantastic secondary airports we have here in this country. An airport that, as you can see, is incredibly busy, and behind us, which is great to see, we’ve got a clean board of flights. So not always the case across our airports.
Well, today the Australian government is taking the very next step towards reforming Australia’s aviation sector, and we’re releasing the aviation green paper today calling for feedback from the community and from the aviation sector overall.
This is – it’s been a decade since we’ve actually had an aviation white paper in this country, and this really is an important step in reforming aviation across the country. The last aviation white paper, there were some 100 recommendations out of that and about 90 per cent of those are completed or are close to being completed. The green paper does mark a very important stage in developing the white paper, and I would encourage people to really engage with this process.
We are, as I said, seeking to deliver a more competitive aviation sector. It covers issues of competition. It covers issues in relation to complaint handling process, particularly when it comes to canvassing whether we do need, a consumer bill of rights when it comes to aviation. It covers issues which have been at the forefront of my mind particularly around accessibility of Australians who have a disability in aviation where we’ve seen, again, problems with that over a period of time.
We know that the industry hasn’t been working as well as it should be, just like the travelling public knows that that is the case as well. It’s frankly because we’ve had an industry that has been allowed to drift for too long, and the white paper really is designed to do that.
The green paper, as I said, is really the next step in getting the aviation sector back on track as we consider not only how we want the domestic aviation market to look, what we want to see in terms of passenger and consumer rights, but also as we head toward net zero, how we help the aviation sector – which is a very hard to abate sector – how we actually help that sector to decarbonise.
So, again, as I said, very pleased to be launching today. We’ve been working pretty hard on this. It’s a complex piece of work, and I thank my department for the work that they’ve done on this and really encourage the travelling public and the industry to engage as we go forward to make sure we’ve got a strong, sustainable aviation sector here in this country out to 2050.
I’m very happy to take questions about that. I might just hand over. So very happy to answer questions.
JOURNALIST: Ms King, you took the Qatar decision on July 10. Three days later the Prime Minister still did not know of that decision. When did you inform the Prime Minister of your decision?
CATHERINE KING: Thanks very much. I did make a decision to not grant Qatar Airlines the request for 28 additional flights per week into the Australian international aviation market. I would point out that’s four times more than any previous request, that amount that has never been granted. I did take that decision on the 10th of July.
I informed the Prime Minister prior to the decision being made public. Normally these decisions are not in the public domain; they are routinely made by government. I informed the Prime Minister prior to this decision being made public, which was – the decision was made public on the 18th of July. If you remember, we had multiple media requests on behalf of the women who had been escorted at gunpoint off a Qatar Airlines flight and had been then subject on the tarmac in ambulances to invasive body searches. We had multiple media inquiries about that, and so by the 18th of July the Prime Minister was aware of my decision.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] of a factor was that incident at the airport in [indistinct]? How much of a factor was that incident at the airport in your decision to reject those extra flights?
CATHERINE KING: Sure. Well, as I said repeatedly, is I made this decision in the national interest. And there is no one factor that I would point to that swayed my decision one way or the other. In making this decision I did have the national interest, not commercial interest, at play when I was making that decision. Certainly – for context – this is the only airline that has something like that where that has happened. And so, I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of it. But certainly, it wasn’t the only factor, but it was one [indistinct].
JOURNALIST: What are the other factors? What are the other factors then?
CATHERINE KING: Well, again, as I said, I don’t think it’s helpful for me to point to any one factor. We make decisions in the national interest all of the time. But let me just again –
JOURNALIST: But you have just pointed to one factor. You have just pointed to one factor –
CATHERINE KING: I haven’t pointed to just one factor. What I’ve said is it provided context for the decision that I made. There’s a context there. That is there. That’s a fact. That is context that is there. I was not not aware of it, so obviously it was in the context of the decision that I made. But there was no one factor that influenced this decision.
JOURNALIST: Minister –
CATHERINE KING: Let me just say, Qatar could increase its flights into Australia today. It should be flying here into Canberra airport. The very reason we have four major airports and then we have regional airports, the very reason for that is we want to try and get international tourism into our regional markets. And Qatar could recommence flying back into this airport today. They could fly into Darwin. They could fly into Adelaide. They could fly into Cairns and they could fly into the Gold Coast and, as I said, into Darwin. They are choosing not to do so. They could also on the flights where they’re not flying the Airbus 380, increase passengers’ seats into those major airports immediately, and we could encourage them to do so.
JOURNALIST: Minister, what advice have you received that supports your decision to disallow Qatar?
CATHERINE KING: Certainly, my department would have undertaken consultations with all stakeholders, and I was well aware of stakeholder views when I took this decision.
JOURNALIST: Minister, [indistinct].
CATHERINE KING: One at a time.
JOURNALIST: What was the advice from your department [indistinct] decision was?
CATHERINE KING: Again, as I said, my department would have undertaken consultation with industry stakeholders and was well aware of all of those views part of the decision.
JOURNALIST: Minister it’s been reported that your department actually recommended that Qatar get these flights. It’s also been reported that the Trade Minister was negotiating a bilateral deal with Qatar to which this was a material component. Did you consult him in making this decision?
CATHERINE KING: I consulted colleagues prior to the decision that the decision was mine.
JOURNALIST: The Trade Minister is the person here who was negotiating –
CATHERINE KING: As you would expect, I consulted colleagues prior to making the decision, but the decision was mine.
JOURNALIST: Minister, what’s your plan on the Sydney airport legislation and updating it before it sunsets, or do you plan to wait until after the election? We haven’t been able to [indistinct] before the press conference, so we’re flying [indistinct]?
CATHERINE KING: Is this the Harris review slots?
JOURNALIST: Yes, the Harris review.
CATHERINE KING: Yes, so thank you. This is the context that we’re dealing with at the moment. We’ve had a decade where aviation policy has just lurched all over the place. We have not had a plan –
JOURNALIST: You’ve been in government for more than a year now.
CATHERINE KING: And so this is one of the things that is a legacy from the previous government. They received the Harris review, basically sat on it for two years – sat on it for two years – and we are now left to deal with that. I have undertaken targeted consultations on some slots reform at Sydney Airport, and we will have more to say about that shortly.
JOURNALIST: Before the white paper?
CATHERINE KING: Before the white paper.
JOURNALIST: Minister, there are reports that on the same day that you made the decision about blocking the Qatar Airlines bid that you sent out – that you signed a letter to some of the women who alleged they were basically strip searched, and you mention in that there would be an extension of the bilateral air flights agreement. You’ve also got Penny Wong yesterday calling Qatar’s Prime Minister and discussing that same issue. So it seems like this is a pretty substantial factor. Is that – were the women concerned about that specifically, and just why is this such a big issue right now?
CATHERINE KING: Well, I mean, the first thing I’d say is that we received, as is well reported in the media, I received a letter from Marque lawyers on behalf of those women detailing their experiences which are pretty awful. They are, frankly, not anything we would expect anyone, certainly no Australian travelling on an international airline, to experience. That is just a fact. And we received some media inquiries about that. I took the decision on the 10th of July. I signed a letter to them informing them that that decision had been made on the 10th of July. You can read what you want into that.
JOURNALIST: Minister, is this a final decision on Qatar or can the airline now make another submission for fewer slots, for example? And can you please answer directly the suggestion that this was done to favour Qantas?
CATHERINE KING: The first thing I’d say is twice a year there is – so airlines twice a year put out what their next season’s availability is going to be and they twice a year come to the Australian Government. I’ve got a number of applications before me at the moment. I have one from Vietnam Airlines. I’ve now have one for Turkish Airlines. Incorrectly reported that – and it was reported again on Channel Nine last night, that I have knocked Turkish Airways back. That’s simply incorrect. They’ve only just recently applied to CASA, they have to go through, as you would expect, ensuring that our safety standards are adhered to in this country. And so that’s before me as well. Airlines routinely – this is routine business of government. Airlines routinely request to participate in the international – Australia’s international aviation market. Ministers make these decisions routinely. This one I think has become – it has become public, as I said, because of requests from media who were leaked a letter from Marque lawyers. That’s the only reason this one has been particularly made public.
And can I just say in relation to Qantas, I have not taken this decision with any one airline’s commercial interest. I am interested in the national interest. I am interested in an aviation market that is still in recovery. It is still in recovery in this country. I am interested in making sure we have a strong domestic aviation market, a strong domestic aviation sector that, in fact, makes sure that we protect Australian jobs, good secure jobs. That is what the same job, same pay legislation is about. And so that is very firmly the reason why I’ve taken the decision. I am sure Qatar will apply again. I have no doubt they will do so, and I will take the some considerations into play that I take in every decision that I make in increasing international air services in Australia.
JOURNALIST: Minister, isn’t the national interest, though, also Australian travel public getting cheaper tickets? And doesn’t this mean they won’t?
CATHERINE KING: No, not at all. And I think it’s absolute nonsense, frankly, that competition in Australia’s international aviation market relies solely on Qatar. I mean, really, like, that is just an absolute nonsense. And somehow seems to be tied up with people’s anger about that. I get that. I get people are angry at Qantas. I get that people are angry about the service standards. I think certainly here at Canberra the cancellations have been pretty high. They’re angry about the way in which flight credits have been dealt with, and rightly they should be. And we have criticised Qantas about that as well.
But to suggest that competition in international aviation is solely hinged on Qatar is just an absolute nonsense. We have already seen Cathay come back into the market, Singapore Airlines, the last time I looked Singapore was a stop on the way to Europe. You can get lots of flights to Europe from there. We’ve seen China Southern come into the market. I’ve got other airlines asking to enter into the market as well. Yesterday the Prime Minister in launches the Southeast Asia economic strategy, recommendation 13, I will highly recommend to you. It is actually suggesting we pursue open skies agreements with Southeast Asian airlines, something I was very determined to see as part of that economic strategy. So to suggest competition in the international aviation market is entirely dependent on doubling Qatar’s flights into Australia is simply a nonsense.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] been any downside to consumers, though, if there were more Qatar flights [indistinct]?
CATHERINE KING: Well, I will point out Qatar could increase its flights today. It could do that today into our secondary airports. And I would encourage them to do that. I would like to see them come back here to Canberra airport. They could also increase seats tomorrow by flying the A380 into those airports where it’s only flying the 777s in now.
JOURNALIST: But isn’t the reality that they made those decisions, including to Canberra over many years because it’s not commercially viable for those flights to come here. It’s a bit short shrift to suggest that they should fly to places where Qantas can’t make a buck on extra flights anyway.
CATHERINE KING: The reason we have four major gateway airports and then we have secondary regional airports is because it is in Australia’s national interest to get tourists into those regions. That’s what that – that’s why those airports exist. It’s why we have the gateway airports, it’s why we have the regional airports. We want flights from Qatar. We want flights from Europe. We want flights from wherever we can getting out into those regions to get tourists in there, and I’d encourage Qatar, if they want to go into those airports, they should do that today. Canberra airport’s is a pretty good destination. It’s a pretty good place for people to travel to Europe. It’s a good market for Qatar.
JOURNALIST: We know that Alan Joyce wrote to you – the government, rather, in October suggesting that more Qatar flights would distort the market. So can you clarify the communication with that? Who was he writing to? Did you have a conversation with him? What was the communication about?
CATHERINE KING: So, I don’t know. I haven’t seen that. That would have been to my department, I assume, because I have not seen that. So I presume it went to the department as part of the consultation that they would have done in relation to that. But can I also say, as I said in the parliament yesterday, I received more lobbying on behalf of Qatar than I did on behalf of Qantas. That is just a fact in terms of my office.
JOURNALIST: But what conversations did you have with Qantas? If it wasn’t Mr Joyce, with another executive?
CATHERINE KING: As I said yesterday in the parliament, to the best of my recollection, the discussions I have had with Qantas were about Same Job, Same Pay.
CATHERINE KING: Again, as I said, to the best of my recollection the discussions we had with Qantas most recently, and before this decision was made, were about these concerns around same job, same pay and I received myself and into my office more lobbying on behalf of Qatar and on behalf of Virgin than we did on behalf of Qantas.
JOURNALIST: You’ve said your interest is in increasing competition. Does that include dramatically lowering prices? And there have been allegations from Rex that Qantas has been engaging in behaviour that has been classified as bullying and drowning out domestic markets and regional markets. Are you committed to stamping out that behaviour?
CATHERINE KING: Yes. And this is really what the green paper is all about. It’s about making sure we’ve got the competitive aviation market here in Australia. That is what this is actually about, and I really encourage Rex, I encourage Bonza, which is new into the Australian market, Virgin, Qantas, Jetstar, to all put submissions into that. I know every airport in the country will. General aviation will put in as well. I think that it’s long known that there are very different interests across this sector. My interest is to try and get a long-term, sustainable domestic aviation sector, good competitive pricing for consumers with protection for consumers, better access for people with disabilities into our airports and into our planes and being able to access the same sort of rights and enjoyments that everybody else has. And obviously I want to get prices down as well and I think that’s important.
JOURNALIST: Ms King, you said you discussed the Qatar decision with your colleagues. Which colleagues?
CATHERINE KING: Again, I’m not going to go into the – who I had discussions with. But it is fair to say I had discussions with relevant colleagues in relation to this decision. But it is my decision and the decision I took on the 10th of July.
JOURNALIST: Will you appear before the Senate inquiry into this matter?
CATHERINE KING: Members of parliament don’t appear before Senate inquiries.
JOURNALIST: But will you help the inquiry?
CATHERINE KING: Well –
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] by issuing correspondence.
CATHERINE KING: We will, we will participate in the inquiry, as we do all inquiries. But, frankly, can I just say the opposition is making – trying to make quite a bit of hay with this. But can I just say, as I said in the parliament yesterday, when faced with a similar decision, the then transport Minister, Minister McCormack, in 2018 took the decision – took a decision to not grant Qatar access to the Australian international market and, what it in fact did was put any decision on hold for four years. Eventually he did take a decision to increase by seven a week the access of Qatar into our major gateway airports, he was so concerned about that he put an anti-dumping clause for the first time into that international air services agreement. So, frankly, I don’t think the opposition has a leg to stand on when it comes to this particular issue. And I remind everybody – can I remind everybody – it wasn’t this government that stood by while Qantas took $2 billion of JobKeeper payments with no strings attached.
JOURNALIST: Did they pay it back?
CATHERINE KING: It wasn’t this government that stood by while hundreds of Qantas workers were outsourced, which has now been one of the catalysts for the Same Job, Same Pay legislation. It wasn’t this government that stood by while Virgin went into administration and then got bought out by foreign equity that is now trying to sell its part of that company as well. It wasn’t this government that stood by while Dnata workers were denied jobseeker purely because they had been outsourced previously. It wasn’t this government that denied Qatar back in 2018 access to the Australian additional services in the Australian market and then felt the need to put an anti-dumping clause into their air services agreement.
This is a shambles, frankly, that the previous government presided over. It’s why the green paper has been released today – to try and actually make sure we have a long-term, sustainable aviation market in this country.
JOURNALIST: Minister, have you paid the JobKeeper money back?
CATHERINE KING: Well, I think, again, that is a matter for Qantas. And I think, again, you had a previous government that designed a scheme – designed a scheme – of JobKeeper where billions and billions of dollars was paid to companies that were making profits. That is on the boards of those companies to perhaps reflect – perhaps reflect – on the way in which they want to participate in the Australian market, the faith that Australians showed in them during the pandemic. And I suggest that those boards reflect on that.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Alan Joyce? Have you spoken to Alan Joyce or Vanessa Hudson since the changeover?
CATHERINE KING: No. No, I have not spoken to them since the changeover. I did meet with Alan Joyce and Vanessa where Alan brought Vanessa to introduce her to me most recently.
JOURNALIST: I mean, it’s a pretty high-profile changeover. Are you trying to keep your distance?
CATHERINE KING: No, I’m not trying to keep my distance, and I wish Vanessa all the very best. I think it’s terrific that we now have two women heading up our – and very senior positions. It’s a great testament. I think they’ve both got very, very big jobs to do, I think particularly on the part of Vanessa. I think she’s got a lot of trust to rebuild in Qantas.
CATHERINE KING: Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.
JOURNALIST: Why would the Foreign Minister have made [indistinct] to Qatar’s Prime Minister yesterday discussing the issue of the strip search? What does the government hope to get out of bringing that up in a moment like this from Qatar?
CATHERINE KING: I think that’s a question you need to ask Minister Wong. But I would say really clearly that these are Australian citizens who had something pretty terrible happen to them – really terrible.
JOURNALIST: But why now?
CATHERINE KING: You’ll have to ask the Foreign Minister.
JOURNALIST: Do you deny that was a factor in the decision?
CATHERINE KING: As I said, it is – I’m not – I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Like, it exists. It’s a context. It’s a context.
JOURNALIST: Minister, on the broader issue of capacity in the market, is it time for a proper discussion? Will you consider a request from foreign carriers to fly more domestic routes, selling tickets on domestic routes in Australia?
CATHERINE KING: Cabotage is actually really important, and I think the green paper canvasses that issue. I think we’re happy with the current settings. Internationally, though, can I just say – and, again, it goes to the issue around competition – this week alone there was 1,857 international flights in and out of Australia. Like, that is – we’re doing pretty well coming back from recovery. We’ve got more to do. But just this week alone, 1,857 flights in and out of Australia.
JOURNALIST: Minister, when can we expect ticket prices to go down?
CATHERINE KING: Well, certainly we are starting to see that happen now. I would like to see it happen more quickly, of course. I would like to see it happen more quickly. We’ve got Singapore bringing on significant capacity again, more recently in September, but they’ll bring more back in – next year. We’ll have Cathay, we’ll have China Southern and, as I said, I’ve got applications from others. There’s also capacity that Etihad could bring back into the market, Malaysia Airlines could bring their capacity back into the market as well. And, as I said, we are still recovering from Covid. We are still recovering from Covid. Aviation was hit the hardest. It’s taking the longest tail get out of. And I have to take that into consideration in decisions I make about what is this going to look like into the future. And that’s really again been very important in part of my decision-making.
JOURNALIST: Minister, I think a lot of Australians would find this issue somewhat [indistinct] at least understand it if you explained to them what were the other factors involved in the decision? Can you give an explanation to Australians?
CATHERINE KING: Well, can I first say, you know, we make decisions in the national interest all the time. You know, the Foreign Investment Review Board, for example, does that. And rarely do we detail those, particularly when they involve requests from foreign governments. We don’t go into a lot of detail about that when they involve requests from foreign governments. And I’ve been very careful about that.
But what I would say is that I have had in mind absolutely and utterly the national interest which, of course, includes making sure we have a strong, sustainable aviation sector going forward, not just this year, not just for today but well into the future. And that is, again, what the green paper is focused on and what I am focused on as Transport Minister.
JOURNALIST: We don’t know what you mean by that, though. Can you explain what you mean?
CATHERINE KING: Again, as I said, there was no one factor that influenced my decision in relation to the national interest. And, again, I don’t routinely go into detail about these decisions. These are very routine matters that governments take and transport ministers take all the time. But what I would say very clearly, I am focused on the long-term sustainability of the aviation sector here in Australia. I am focused on making sure that consumers get good value for money out of aviation and that we have good, long-term sustainable jobs in aviation.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you made a point of saying that Qatar is a government-owned airline. Do you subscribe to this theory that because it is a government-owned airline it can fund losses to the degree that it might manipulate the market in Australia?
CATHERINE KING: Well, I haven’t said that. And, again, as I’ve said, I’ve been very careful about any commentary around what is, in a sense, a government-to-government agreement. But, you know, I point you to the quotes and comments that Michael McCormack made most recently. If you want to have a look at some honesty from the opposition, have a look at those comments.
JOURNALIST: So can you just clarify, is the profitability of Australian airlines, is that defined in your definition of national interest?
CATHERINE KING: No, no. No.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] of Australian airlines?
CATHERINE KING: I would certainly want to make sure they are sustainable, but I am not interested in [indistinct] one or the other. The commercial interest – and there are very strong commercial interests in one way or the other in terms of the decision I would have made. But, no, I want them to be sustainable. I obviously want them to be able to make money, but the level of profit is not something I would have taken into consideration.
JOURNALIST: You pointed to a number of different factors that have led you to make this decision. Is the 2020 incident in Doha involving those Australian women one of those factors?
CATHERINE KING: It is certainly – it is certainly part of the context in which I made the decision.
JOURNALIST: But not a factor?
CATHERINE KING: It is certainly a context in which I made the decision. Thanks, everybody. Thanks so much.