Former Qantas boss Alan Joyce to front Senate inquiry into blocked Qatar Airways flights

Former Qantas boss Alan Joyce will be called to front a Senate inquiry over his discussions with the federal government in the lead up to a ruling that blocked competitor airlines from offering more flights.
Other witnesses to be invited to give their side of the story include Joyce’s successor, Vanessa Hudson, along with officials from Qatar Airways, Virgin Australia and regional airline, Rex.
The Qatari ambassador and the chief executives of major Australian airports will also be called upon to appear before the Coalition-chaired inquiry.
Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie said she expected the “well-seasoned public figures” to show up and walk senators through their dealings with government.
“I want a profitable aviation industry here in Australia. I want our different companies to be profitable, to keep employing tens of thousands of Australians in great jobs across the country,” McKenzie told Guardian Australia.
“But we also need to make sure that Australians have access to an affordable and reliable and safe aviation industry and that’s what this inquiry’s about.”
The fresh details come as transport minister, Catherine King, faced a heated question time on Wednesday over the Albanese government’s reluctance to offer further details on its decision to not grant the extra flights to Qatar Airways.
King revealed she had spoken with Virgin Australia and a lobbyist for the Qatar government before making her decision to block the Gulf carrier’s request to fly an extra 21 services to major Australian cities.
King said she had also spoken to Qantas before her ruling in July but, to her recollection, it was related to “same jobs, same pay” and not Qatar.
The ruling against the airline has been at the centre of intense scrutiny by industry groups, the opposition and crossbenchers in recent weeks amid the high costs of air fares.
The opposition in question time asked the minister to reveal further details about her decision after repeatedly accusing the federal government of protecting its “sweetheart deal” with Qatar Airways’ and Virgin’s competitor Qantas.
“From my recollection, the main people lobbying me about Qatar came from Virgin, and a third party into my office on behalf of Qatar, and the discussions I’ve had recently with Qantas have been about their concerns about our same job, same pay legislation,” she said.
But King’s response was not clear enough for the Coalition. The manager of opposition business in the House of Representatives, Paul Fletcher, moved a dissent motion against the speaker’s ruling that King had answered the question.
The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, told the speaker, Milton Dick: “The question needs to be answered appropriately by this incompetent minister.
“She is a member of the executive and refuses to say, in response to questions, whether or not she met or spoke with [the then Qantas CEO] Mr Alan Joyce,” he said.
The debate lasted nearly 30 minutes and was briefly interrupted by independent MP Kylea Tink, who asked everyone to behave more appropriately.
“If we could please have this debate and have it reasonably, without yelling at each other, I think that would be in the best interests of everyone,” Tink said.
King’s admission comes one day after the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, confirmed he had also spoken to Virgin Australia, which counts Qatar Airways as its partner airline, ahead of the decision to block Qatar’s request – but not to Qantas executives.
Albanese later clarified his conversation with Virgin chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka had occurred on 13 July – three days after King’s decision to block Qatar Airway’s request.
The Coalition on Tuesday was successful in forcing a Senate inquiry into the matter after weeks of questioning whether the federal government was giving special treatment to Qantas.
The transport minister on Tuesday had defended her decision against Qatar’s “unprecedented” request as being inconsistent with the government’s “slow, incremental approach”.
Joyce, who on Tuesday brought forward his retirement date by two months amid intense scrutiny, has strongly supported the federal government’s decision to block its competition, saying the almost doubling of Qatar flights into Australia “would cause distortion”.
Hrdlicka has been critical of the government’s decision to block its partner airline’s request, saying there was “no understandable reason why [Qatar] were denied those rights”.
She said she had been unable to secure meetings with the government to discuss the topic.
The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, told reporters in Jakarta, where she is for the Asean summit, that she had spoken with Qatar’s prime minister on Monday over the phone.
Wong said she discussed the 2020 Doha airport incident where women, including Australians, were subjected to invasive searches.
Qatar Airways’ request for additional flights was not discussed, Wong said.
“Obviously, it was a very distressing event for the women concerned. I also wanted to raise some multilateral issues ahead of [the UN general assembly],” she said.

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