Inquiry Deepens into Transport Minister’s Rejection of Qatar Airways Expansion

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Transport Minister Catherine King is facing an inquiry concerning her decision to reject a move by Qatar Airways to ramp up their flight services. Disgruntled Coalition senators have now extended an invitation for her to testify following their dissatisfaction with senior transport officials. These government officials, having appeared before the current inquiry, were essentially silenced from fielding crucial questions about the potential influence of Qantas in Minister King’s decision.

The senators in question, Bridget McKenzie and Simon Birmingham, have further cemented their determination to call upon former Qantas chief Alan Joyce to testify in front of the committee. They assure they will resort to every judicial device available, should he decline.

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Official sources informed the inquiry that a brief concerning the Qatari application was presented to Ms. King in January, but her verdict was not forthcoming until July. This gap suggests an earlier inclination to approve the additional Qatar flights, a stance that shifted inexplicably over the following six months.

According to Senator McKenzie, this six-month delay, marked by a lack of consultation with key parties or further information gathering, indicates a potentially disturbing veil of secrecy surrounding the government’s decision. This secrecy seems to extend to preventing public servants from delivering evidence to the public inquiry, a move that McKenzie calls “unconscionable.”

Minister King, Prime Minister, and ex-Qantas CEO Joyce – these three, McKenzie feels, possess critical insights into Qantas’s involvement in the matter.

A perplexing detail emerged from the transport officials’ testimony; they revealed Qantas and Virgin were invited to provide submissions when Qatar Airways initiated its capacity increase application last year. The inquiry previously learned of Qantas’s opposition to the bid and Virgin Australia’s support. Interestingly, Virgin Australia is a Qatar Airways partner.

However, Ms. King did not reject Qatar’s request until July 10. This came as a shock, especially considering Virgin boss Jayne Hrdlicka’s prior interaction with Ms. King in mid-January where they seemed poised to reach negotiations.

The senators concentrated their efforts on discerning whether Ms. King’s decision was influenced by Qantas officials. It emerged that the Department officials could not provide details on the inquiry, as Ms. King had already invoked public interest immunity.

Senator Birmingham demanded that Minister King face the committee and give transparent answers. He cited past instances where house ministers have presented themselves before the senate and argued that if Minister King has nothing to hide, she should step forward and answer the questions.

The timeline of these events has proved critical in the inquiry. The application to increase flight services was first lodged by Qatar in August the previous year, with King’s department finalising an advisory brief on the matter in early January.

Veteran Virgin executive, Ms. Hrdlicka, appeared to have expected a favourable verdict from Minister King after their mid-January meeting. However, the outcome was anything but and has since thrown into sharp relief the significant influence of third-party interests, such as Qantas’s “aggressive” lobbying, in this affair.

As Minister King seeks to justify her decision for the denial of Qatar’s application, the Senators press on diligently. Only time can unravel the true intentions behind these series of political manoeuvres as the inquiry continues to delve into this layered issue.