Transcript - TV interview ABC 7.30





LAURA TINGLE: After a week of sustained parliamentary attack over its decision to deny Qatar Airways more access to the Australian market, the Albanese Government today released a discussion paper on airline competition, possibly hoping to answer some of the criticisms. To discuss Qatar and the competition paper, I was joined a short time ago by Transport Minister Catherine King.

Catherine King, why wasn’t it in the national interest to give Qatar more flights into Australia?

CATHERINE KING: Well, the first thing I would say is that Qatar can increase its flights into Australia through our regional secondary airports today. They could fly more flights into Adelaide, they could fly more flights into Cairns, the Gold Coast, Darwin, Hobart eventually, they could certainly bring flights back into here, into Canberra, and they could also increase the size of the planes that they fly where they’re not flying their A380s in. So, we’d certainly welcome that.

But in terms of the request that was before me, which was for doubling of the Qatar flights under their bilateral International Aviation Services Agreement, four times more than has ever been granted before, I did take the view that it was not in the national interest. Now, we don’t routinely go into all of the factors that are part of the national interest. We don’t do that when we make FIRB decisions about international investment, particularly when they come to governments. But it would be fair to say that the things that I took into consideration is what is happening with aviation and the international aviation market at the moment, what is happening with COVID recovery, what is happening with capacity coming back into the system, particularly from other aviation suppliers and where are they up to. As well as obviously taking into decision – into consideration, the impact any decision I would have on jobs in the longer term.

Today we’ve released the Aviation Green Paper, which is an attempt to really look at how this aviation industry is to grow and develop sustainably out to 2050. And that’s the view I have to take when I’m making these decisions, in the long-term interest.

LAURA TINGLE: Let’s unpack a few of those things. Why, at a time when airfares are up 50 per cent and capacity is down by a third, you’ve talked about the fact that you’re taking into account the state of the industry, how on Earth is it in the national interest to not open up our international aviation market to more competition? And this is a bilateral negotiation with another country. You don’t have to just give them what they ask for, presumably, there’s somewhere in between that you could probably settle on a number, isn’t there?

CATHERINE KING: Well, they were pretty firm that they were asking for literally a doubling of their flights into the market. But what I would also say, as I said this morning, that to think that aviation competition, both domestically and internationally is completely and utterly dependent on this one decision with Qatar is a complete nonsense. We’ve already seen – 

LAURA TINGLE: How many other airlines are looking for capacity now?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, so we’ve already got Vietnam is before us. I’ve got now Turkish Airlines are before me. I think media reports earlier in this year claimed that I had denied them access. That is not true. They’ve in fact actually only just asked. We’ve already got Singapore Airlines coming back, more flights, more seats this month, but they’re also increasing next month. We’ve got capacity –

LAURA TINGLE: With respect, that Middle East route is completely dominated by Qantas and Emirates. I mean, if you’re looking at flights to Europe, it’s not a fair playing field. Why not give some more capacity to other competitors in that market?

CATHERINE KING: Well, Etihad also has more capacity that they are not using currently at the moment. And also Singapore Airlines, which again, last time I looked, is a significant route for flights into Europe as well. Singapore Airlines have increased their number of seats and have got more that is coming into the market as well.

This is really an industry that is still in recovery. It does have a long way, a long-term recovery, but what we are seeing is that we’re up to 91 per cent of pre-COVID capacity. We’ve got more capacity coming in just literally this month. There were literally, this week, 1857 international flights in and out of Australia. It is coming back, and we will start to see prices come down. But again, when I take this decision from one airline, this is not the only airline that adds to competition in the international aviation market in Australia.

LAURA TINGLE: You’ve said that the invasive strip searches of five Australian women three years ago provided context for the decision. What does that mean?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I can’t pretend that I don’t know that happened. When everybody in the country was aware that, back in 2022, there was a very traumatic incident that occurred to 13 Australian women. I can’t pretend that I don’t know about that. And obviously, the context of the decision, you know, it provides context for the decision that I made. It wasn’t a particular factor in the decision that I made, but I got asked by media this morning, was it a factor? It provides context for the decision. This is something that happened. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen and I can’t pretend I don’t know about it.

LAURA TINGLE: And you can’t pretend that it doesn’t influence your decision in some way?

CATHERINE KING: Well, certainly it provides context and I think you can read what you want into that, but it certainly provides context. I think what happened to these women was incredibly traumatic. It continues to be traumatic to this day and I think that, certainly, people would understand that I can’t pretend that I don’t know about it.

LAURA TINGLE: The competition Green Paper says, quote, “inbound and outbound aviation capacity should be ahead of demand, to ensure it is not an impediment to future growth”. Isn’t this the exact opposite of the position we’ve got now?

CATHERINE KING: No, not at all. I mean, obviously, we’ve got COVID recovery that’s part of that. And the reason we’ve released this Green Paper today, we’ve been working on this for a while, is, frankly, we’ve had a decade of neglect in aviation policy. It wasn’t our Government that saw $2 billion of taxpayer money go to Qantas without any strings attached. It wasn’t our Government that saw hundreds of workers have their jobs outsourced, something that we were highly critical of and has been a catalyst for the Same Job, Same Pay legislation that we’re seeing before the Parliament.

It’s a decade since we had a white paper that said, what do we want this industry to do? What are the settings we need to have to ensure that we’ve not just got competition, but that we actually have a consumer rights framework that people can complain about when they’re not getting good service? How is the aviation regulatory settings, all of those things to do with aviation. And that’s what the Green Paper is about. Of course we want –

LAURA TINGLE: It’s also said, I’m sorry to interrupt, but the paper also says that Qantas advocated against that approach of extra slots. But both you have said today, and Qantas said, we need to not compromise a strong local airline sector. Do we have a strong local airline sector or a virtual monopoly where Qantas can dictate terms of prices and supply of flights?

CATHERINE KING: Today we’ve got Virgin, we’ve got Qantas, we’ve got Jetstar, we’ve got Rex still in the market, we’ve got Bonza coming in. Obviously, we’ve got a plethora of general aviation as well. But we’ve got to look at what does this sector look like right the way out to 2050, and have we got the setting rights to develop and grow that? And I think that is really what the Aviation Green Paper is about.

LAURA TINGLE: So, you’ve got essentially two levers to affect competition. One of these, the international slots, the other one is the airport slots. Isn’t the current domestic market conditions right to be increasing and improving the position of other airlines like Bonza and Rex?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, well, look, certainly at Sydney Airport, the issue around slots are very closely linked to curfew and to noise. So, it’s not something that you can just go in and say, right, we’re going to do X, Y and Z. The previous government, again, this sort of legacy of neglect of the aviation sector was we saw, they commissioned the Harris Review, which is into the Sydney Airport slot system, and then basically sat on it for two years. We’re now left to try and make some decisions about that. We’ve taken – my department’s undertaken some really targeted consultation around Sydney Airport and we’ll have a bit more to say about that.

LAURA TINGLE: Also, earlier on, you were talking about those Same Job, Same Pay changes that Tony Burk’s introduced and the fact that you said this morning that Qantas’ main discussions with you have actually been about that legislation. Would you like to see Qantas actually comply with your proposed new laws, and start treating its workforce decently?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think it is absolutely fair to say, when it comes to Qantas, that their decision to outsource their baggage handling was something that I, you know, I was really shocked by. I stood with baggage handlers. I can absolutely remember it to this day.

LAURA TINGLE: So, you’d like to see Qantas bring all of its workforce back in house over time?

CATHERINE KING: Look, I would certainly like to see more jobs in aviation, and I would like to see Qantas do a much better job. A much better job. And this is incumbent on all our airlines, in making sure we’ve got decent, long term, sustainable jobs in aviation. But this race to the bottom that we’ve seen in jobs, I think was really the catalyst for the Same Job, Same Pay, and we’ve been highly critical of Qantas in relation to that.

LAURA TINGLE: Minister, we’re out of time, but thanks so much for your time tonight.

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