Transcript - Radio Interview - ABC with Sabra Lane

SABRA LANE: There’s been heated political discussion and a lot of speculation over why the Federal Government decided to not back a bid by Qatar Airways to increase its flights into several Australian capital cities.

There’s suspicion the Government’s protecting Qantas at a time when it’s copping a deluge of customer complaints and facing legal action for allegedly selling fares for cancelled flights.

While all of this whirls, the Government’s releasing a discussion paper on the future of the aviation sector.

Catherine King is the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure and she joins me now. Good morning, Minister, welcome.

CATHERINE KING: Good morning, Sabra, good to be with you.

SABRA LANE: You’ve said that extra Qatar flights into Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are not in the national interests. Can you just explain what went into that decision?

CATHERINE KING: Well, the first thing I’ll say is that it’s important to acknowledge that Qatar Airways can still fly to Australia as much as they like into those secondary gateway airports. I don’t know if people realise but we have four gateway airports and then we have secondary regional airports.

The reason the system is designed in that way is actually to get international tourism out into Darwin, into Cairns, into Gold Coast, into Adelaide, and as I said in Darwin as well and to really spread the international tourism coming into this country and grow our international tourism markets.

Qatar could do that today and we’d really welcome them doing that.


CATHERINE KING:  We also welcome them coming back to Canberra airport. They could also increase where they’re not flying their A380s in. They could increase the seats for passengers into and outbound for Australia at those four gateway airports immediately. They’re flying I think into Melbourne and into Sydney ‑ certainly into Melbourne and they’re only flying the 777s in at the moment.


CATHERINE KING: So that’s the first thing.

SABRA LANE: This particular decision, can you tell us, share with the listeners what went into that decision?

CATHERINE KING: So, the first thing in terms of the history of this bilateral international air services agreement with Qatar, and these are government-to-government agreements and it’s why, you know, I am a bit constrained on some of the things I can say. We don’t normally go out commenting about international bilateral agreements between governments.

The first thing I’d say is if you look at the history of this agreement it has seen a very slow, steady and cautious approach to increasing air rights to this particular airline. You saw that when we were last in government. In fact, the last time air rights to this airline were doubled was when the Prime Minister was Transport Minister. And then you saw under the previous Government a very cautious approach, in fact, they took four years to actually make a decision ‑‑

SABRA LANE: Sorry ‑‑

CATHERINE KING: ‑‑ about increasing any rights. So, in terms of my decision ‑‑

SABRA LANE: What, what ‑‑

CATHERINE KING: Sorry, I’m about to get to that.

SABRA LANE: You’ve said it wasn’t in the national interests. Just explicitly, what national interests?

CATHERINE KING: So, So, if you look at what I was being asked to do, I was asked to be ‑ to increase into the international aviation market, a market that is still in recovery in Australia, to literally approve four times the amount that had ever been asked for before of one particular airline, Qatar, into our international aviation market.

The factors I needed to take into account are obviously very broad. They are broad in terms of making sure that we have a long-term, sustainable aviation market in Australia, both domestically and internationally, and understanding that where we are in the recovery phase of aviation. And not just, you know, I can’t just make a decision in the short‑term, I have to look at what that means overall.

But to suggest I think, which has been suggested, that competition is solely ‑ in international aviation is solely reliant on this one decision, and a decision that no government frankly has made at that level before is complete nonsense. We already have ‑‑

SABRA LANE: The decision ‑‑

CATHERINE KING: ‑‑ increased capacity coming back in.

SABRA LANE: The decision, you made the decision on the same day that you rejected ‑ you wrote to five Australian women who were subjected to invasive strip searches at Qatar Airport, Doha Airport three years ago.  You advised them you weren’t considering extra flights. How much did that particular incident feed into your decision?

CATHERINE KING: Well, it wasn’t a factor in the decision, but it certainly provides context to the decision, and I can’t pretend that that didn’t happen and that I didn’t know about it. So, I would say to your listeners that it did provide context to the decision.

The lawyers for the women in fact wrote to me back in June very distressed that the Government was considering this decision. I felt it was right and proper once I had made the decision to let them know about that. But as I said, it was a context of the decision. You know, the reality is this terrible incident happened. It happened to Australian women who are currently before the courts in relation to this case trying to seek an apology and compensation. It wasn’t a factor in the decision, but it was certainly context for the decision. I can’t pretend it wasn’t there.

SABRA LANE: Other factors, protecting jobs, protecting profits, ensuring human rights?

CATHERINE KING: Well certainly in terms of national interests, now we make decisions, you know, these are very routine decisions I would have to say. Transport Ministers routinely make decisions about international bilateral agreements and access to our international air services market.

This one in particular, the reason this is even in the public domain, most people would not be aware ministers are making these decisions, is because the letter in fact that Marque Lawyers sent to me and that I sent to them was given to the Australian Financial Review. That’s why it’s in the public domain and that’s why people know about it.

But these happen all the time. We make decisions, Foreign Investment Review Board, for example, we make decisions in the national interests and rarely, you know, we’re not always asked about well what every factor about that. So, you know, that’s what I say ‑‑

SABRA LANE: Did you meet with or talk with Alan Joyce or any other Qantas representative before making this decision?

CATHERINE KING: I certainly routinely meet with the CEOs of all of the airlines, and of course that would include Alan Joyce.

SABRA LANE: Sorry, is that ‑‑

CATHERINE KING: So that [indistinct].


CATHERINE KING: I routinely meet with all the CEOs of the airlines, airports, peak bodies. But can I say that in terms of ‑‑

SABRA LANE: Specifically, ‑ sorry, it’s a pretty simple ‑ I’m sorry, Minister, it’s a pretty simple question. Did you meet with Alan Joyce before making this decision?

CATHERINE KING: I would have certainly met, you know, over the ‑ I have been a minister for 15 months. I would certainly in that 15 months have met with the CEO of all of the airlines, including the CEO of ‑ the former CEO of Qantas. But can I say from the best of my recollection when it comes to this matter in particular, I received more lobbying on behalf of Qatar, both from Virgin, but also into my office from a third party, than I did from Qantas on this issue.

SABRA LANE: In the immediate period before you made this decision did you meet with Alan Joyce?

CATHERINE KING: I always ‑ I’d have to go back and check, but I always meet with CEOs of airlines when they ask to do so. But can I absolutely make it very clear the discussions that Qantas had with me, and my office have on the whole been about same job, same pay, not about this decision? They have –

SABRA LANE: Surely though you would remember a conversation like this?

CATHERINE KING: What I’m saying is I don’t remember a conversation like this, but I can’t be 100 per cent sure they didn’t have a conversation with someone in my office or someone in my department. So, I am being careful to let you know very clearly that by the best of my recollection where I was lobbied about this issue was on the whole on behalf of Qatar. And Qantas discussions that I had, as I said in the Parliament yesterday, were primarily about same job, same pay.

I know that my department, as is proper processes, undertook consultation with the whole ‑ with industry about this issue and I was well aware, can I say very clearly, I was well aware of all of the stakeholder views in relation to this decision when I made it.

SABRA LANE: The Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell yesterday said that Qatar was welcome to apply again. Would you welcome a fresh bid?

CATHERINE KING: Well airlines do that routinely. Again, I am sure Qatar will bid. We’ve got applications ‑ I’ve got applications before me from Vietnam Airlines.

SABRA LANE: Specifically, would you welcome a fresh bid?

CATHERINE KING: I would make ‑ you know, I would do exactly as I do routinely with every single application, I have for international air services coming into our market.  I would take the national interest into consideration. Qatar is able to apply at any time. I’ve got applications before me from Vietnam Airlines at the moment, and contrary to some media reports I now have an application from Turkish Airlines. I have never knocked them back but they’re going through some processes, legal processes in relation to air safety. It is important that that is at arm’s length from me.

This happens routinely. Other governments come to Australia and ask for international access. This is very routine business of government.

SABRA LANE: You’ve released a discussion paper this morning on aviation policy. In it you would like stronger protections for consumers. That’s what you’re suggesting. Would you like to see a European-style compensation scheme?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think that’s ‑ I mean that is part of the green paper that I’ve discussed today. I mean I get very regularly when people have had, you know, issues that have happened at airports. I had one yesterday ‑ and on airlines. I had one yesterday which I’m going to chase up where someone said through an airport their husband, who has a stoma, stoma bag, was subject to a really embarrassing situation at an airport.

I think there is, you know, absolute evidence from the way in which flight credits have been dealt with by airlines, by the way in which consumers have not been happy with the services, I’ve got people with disabilities very distressed about some incidents that have occurred. I think it is time that there were better consumer protections. I am very determined to see that happen. But really the green paper is canvassing what form, what would that look like.

We obviously already have a very robust Australian consumer law here in this country but whether there needs to be some sort of consumer rights charter, some sort of obligation specifically on airlines and some other way in which people can pursue what often can be a very difficult and lengthy process is part of the green paper and has been exercising my mind.

SABRA LANE: Catherine King, the Federal Minister for transport, thanks for joining us this morning.

CATHERINE KING: It’s really good to be with you, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: Thank you.