Transport public servants grilled at senate inquiry into Qatar decision

Senior transport bureaucrats have repeatedly dodged questions about what role Qantas had in the government’s decision to block Qatar’s bid to double its flight offerings.

Public servants from the transport department offered senators a list of reasons to why Transport Minister Catherine King decided to deny the application.

The senate committee, set up after Ms King repeatedly refused to answer the Coalition’s questions about the decision, had previously heard Qantas was an “aggressive” player in Canberra who vigorously lobbied government on matters that threatened the national carrier’s market share.

The transport leaders would not be drawn on how influential Qantas had been in the process, but under intense questioning from Simon Birmingham, Transport Group Deputy Secretary Marisa Purvis-Smith offered the “range of reasons” as to why Ms King had made the decision.

“She took into consideration a range of factors. They included: what is happening in the aviation and international aviation market at the moment; what is happening with the Covid recovery; what is happening with the capacity coming back into the system, particularly from other aviation suppliers and where are they up to and the impact on jobs in the long term,” she said.

“That was a range, but not the definitive full set of factors she took into account. Ultimately, it is a decision for the minister.”

Ms King has also conceded that an incident in Doha airport in 2020 – where five Australian women were ordered off a plane at gun point and strip searched – had formed part of her decision.

The inquiry heard that Qatar made the application to increase its flight offerings in August last year, just weeks after the department had set up an independent process of “establishing advice to government on our international priorities” for the year.

The transport bureaucrats told the senators they had a list of 57 stakeholders they routinely went to for submissions, but in this instance it was only Qantas and Virgin who had been specifically consulted.

“Typically when we have requests for negotiations or we make requests for negotiations, we look at a wide range of issues. Whereas in this instance, it was very specifically about capacity issues about broader issues. So it’s a narrower range of issues on which to consult,” they said.

The advice on international priorities had been formalised by November, and given to Ms King by December.

Pressed as to whether there was a brief that could be made available to the committee, the public servants said such a document potentially came under the public interest immunity claim made by Ms King.

Earlier this month, Ms King refused to provide documents explaining her decision to deny Qatar’s bid to the Senate, citing public interest immunity.

Inquiry chair Bridget McKenzie slammed the public servants for dodging the committee’s questions, saying the “protection racket” being run by the government was “incredible”.

The inquiry heard that simultaneously, a brief in relation to Qatar’s request was finalised by the department January.

That brief determined whether or not negotiations or consultations should be entered into with Qatar.

Ms King did not make a final determination until July, when she decided not to enter into negotiations.

Earlier, Senator McKenzie hit out at the Qantas executives for showing a “level of arrogance that our once-beloved national carrier shouldn’t be displaying”.

“We are trying to get to the bottom of the Qatar Airways decision and the lobbying that they had done to government,” she told 9 News on Thursday morning.

“We know this decision has cost $3bn over five years.”

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