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Prime Minister Unaware of Minister’s Involvement in Qatar Blockade

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has clarified he did speak to the Virgin Australia chief executive after the transport minister blocked Qatar Airlines’ bid for 28 extra flights into Australia.

Mr. Albanese corrected the record after the opposition challenged him on whether he knew about the decision made by Catherine King on July 10.

At issue is who knew what and when about Ms. King’s decision, which some on the coalition benches have suggested was made to protect Qantas from the competition with the effect of exposing Australians to higher airfares.

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Ms. King has previously said her decision was made on national interest grounds.

On Tuesday, during question time, Mr. Albanese was asked by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton if he had conversations with the CEO or any senior executive of Virgin Australia about Qatar “before” the government made its decision on the slots application.

Mr Albanese replied, “yes,” without elaborating.

Later he clarified his answer, telling parliament he spoke to Virgin CEO Jayne Hrdlicka on July 13—three days after the decision—by phone from Perth while travelling to Canberra.

“In that call, the CEO made representations relating to air services arrangements with Qatar,” he said.

“During that discussion, I did not know that the transport minister had made a decision on 10 July 2023, a detail that was only advised to me after question time today.

“I once again confirm I did not speak to the former Qantas CEO (Alan Joyce) before a decision was made.”

Asked if the government would review the decision to reject Qatar’s application, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said that wasn’t Labor’s intention.

Asked if he had met with Virgin executives, Mr. Chalmers said he hadn’t.

Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie has secured enough votes in the upper house to order the production of documents on Ms. King’s decision, giving the government until next week to table them or explain why they’re being withheld.

Senator McKenzie accused the government of running a “protection racket” for Qantas after Ms King declined to elaborate on why her decision was made in the “national interest.”

“Who is the government really protecting when it says this decision was in the national interest?” she said on Tuesday.

The senator on Tuesday also managed to set up an inquiry into the decision and its impact on the aviation sector and ticket prices after initially failing to get the votes.

LNP senator Matt Canavan said the inquiry will force the government to explain its decision.

“We need to get to the bottom of what’s gone on here,” he told Nine’s Today program on Wednesday.

“The Labor party seems to have a very cozy relationship with Qantas, and it seems to be Australian consumers who are paying the price for it.”

Virgin has a strategic partnership with Qatar Airways.

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