Transport Minister Catherine King has insisted she was not protecting Qantas when she decided to block Qatar Airways’ expansion of flights into Australia’s major airports.
In a Q&A session at the AFR Infrastructure Summit on Tuesday, the Minister said she “did not take the commercial interests of either Qantas or Virgin into consideration” when making the decision, and continued to stress that it was based on “the national interest”.
The government announced in July it was denying the Middle Eastern airline the right to increase its frequency into Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth from the current 28 flights per week. Minister King later said that no single factor spurred the decision.
“That national interest, as I’ve said very publicly before, includes how is aviation overall recovering after Covid? What are the important elements of aviation [that] we as a nation need to make sure we have in times of emergency? We’ve had to use that recently with evacuating people out of Israel and out of Gaza,” she said.
“What do we need as a nation to be able to hold on to? What is happening in terms of competition overall? They are some of the things I took into consideration when we were asked for basically unprecedented amount of access by Qatar Airways into our aviation market.”
The Minister also rebuked the idea that the government is too close to Qantas, saying that the Flying Kangaroo is “letting customers down” with “incredibly frustrating” issues and needs to do better.
“They are issues that in Opposition we spoke pretty strongly about. I don’t remember any Government standing beside baggage handlers or people were being sacked from their jobs. I was standing there telling … how terrible Qantas was in terms of doing those things,” the Minister said.
“So they are things that are frustrating for consumers and they are issues that we are trying to address through the Aviation White Paper, particularly in terms of consumer rights, how airports are performing.”
Minister King last month branded a Senate inquiry into the Qatar issue a “ridiculous farce”, seeming to rule out revisiting the decision and pointing out that the previous Coalition government had also not increased Qatar’s access.
The formally titled Select Committee on Commonwealth Bilateral Air Service Agreements, chaired by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, was announced to allow senators to challenge high-profile figures involved in the federal government’s Qatar decision.