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An alliance of senators is pushing for the release of confidential documents concerning the Australian government’s decision not to approve new domestic flight routes for Qatar Airways.
It comes amid accusations of unfair competition practices and that the government was protecting Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas.
The Opposition, the Greens, and independent Senator David Pocock have teamed up to demand the Labor government provide more information about why it blocked the Middle Eastern airline from adding extra flights into Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane in July.
The decision was made after lobbying from Qantas.
The airline recently posted a profit after tax of $1.74 billion (US$1.13 billion) for the 2022-2023 financial year, a significant turnaround after accumulating around $7 billion in losses in the past three years.
Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie announced she would move a vote in the Senate to require the Labor government release documents relating to Qatar Airways’ application that Transport Minister Catherine King received in making the decision.
While the alliance is likely to pass the vote with the number of senators it has, the government can still reject the demand.
In an interview with ABC Radio, Ms. McKenzie said there was an accusation at the government level that Labor blocked competition to protect Qantas.
“I asked Mr. Joyce (Qantas CEO) yesterday around the assistant treasurer’s comments that the government had made a decision not to allow more flights out of Australia to protect the profitability of Qantas after they posted a $1.7 billion profit,” she said.
“We want our aviation sector to be profitable … but by not allowing and exposing it to reasonable competition, it’s the Australian consumer that ends up getting slapped at the end.”
Virgin Australia Questions Government’s Decision
Jayne Hrdlicka, the boss of Qantas’ rival, Virgin Australia, has also questioned the government’s decision to block extra domestic competition.
The CEO believed airfares would have been cheaper had Qatar Airway’s application been approved and criticised Qantas for lobbying the government.
Ms. Hrdlicka also expressed disappointment after Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones released a statement saying that any government effort to lower airfares would disadvantage Qantas.
Meanwhile, Qantas general counsel Andrew Finch rejected Ms. Hrdlicka’s claim as he told a parliamentary inquiry there was no way to find out how Qatar’s new flight routes would affect ticket prices.
“The reality is that no one has any idea what the counterfactual would look like if Qatar had been given permission to add the capacity that it had sought through the government,” he said.
In addition, the general counsel denied that the federal government was responsible for protecting the profitability of Qantas.
“The role of the federal government is to ensure a level playing field and competitive environment,” he said.
As debate continues, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his support for the transport minister’s decision, saying it was “nothing unusual” despite not disclosing the reason behind it.
He also argued that previous governments had made similar moves and that Australian airlines could not fly to wherever they wanted.
“In Australia, we have the most open aviation system in the world, bar none,” Mr. Albanese said.
However, Ms. McKenzie disagreed with the prime minister’s assessment.
“If you speak to anyone in the aviation system, they will tell you that it is very, very regulated space,” she said.
“That for good reason. Obviously, we have a very safe aviation industry. But what I want to say is that it’s more affordable and reliable, and unfortunately, it’s getting worse, not better.”
Meanwhile, Qantas executives admitted at the parliament inquiry that the airline currently held more flight credits than the $370 million it had reported.
The additional credit amount was around $100 million on top of the $100 million kept by its subsidiary Jetstar.
Celene Ignacio contributed to this article.