Federal Transport Minister Catherine King needs to cut the obfuscation and give domestic airlines, tourism operators and the public a plausible explanation as to why it won’t allow Qatar Airways to increase flights to Australia.
Qatar’s push for more flights has the backing of the tourism sector, and according to industry sources, it was also supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Austrade, various airport owners and all state governments.
Customers are having to swallow prices 50 per cent higher than pre-COVID for international airfares. And what inflation-fighting government would take a position that promotes prices remaining higher for longer?
Needless to say, Virgin supports Qatar given their code-share agreement, and Virgin would carry many of Qatar’s passengers on its domestic network.
Qantas is the only major stakeholder in this debate said to have not supported Qatar getting more flights into Australia. It is a logical commercial position for Qantas, which would not relish additional competition on routes to Europe.
The trouble is that without tenable grounds for its decision, the government has invited speculation that it is doing Qantas’ bidding. It conjures up an unlikely image of Prime Minster Anthony Albanese and Qantas boss Alan Joyce involved in some kind of mutual love-fest.
The optics around this are shocking, and Albanese’s judgment exposes his government to claims that it is in Qantas’ pocket.
Reports of Albanese’s son joining that rarefied clutch of rich and important people with membership of the airline’s Chairman’s Lounge haven’t helped remove that image.
The optics around this are shocking, and Albanese’s judgment exposes his government to claims that it is in Qantas’ pocket, which Joyce says is nonsense.
Allowing Qatar to provide more services is a no-brainer given that economists, such Tony Webber, have estimated doing so would have generated an additional half-a-billion dollars in tourism revenue and thousands of jobs.
King has provided a range of explanations for the decision – initially it looked like a government protest about the awful invasive body searches endured by female passengers at Doha airport in 2020.
The latest from King is that this wasn’t a factor – if human rights abuses were a factor in deciding which airlines we allowed into Australia, there would be other countries further ahead in that line.
Then there was a suggestion that King’s decision was a response to concerns about the environment given the carbon emissions generated by aircraft. That reason was seemingly abandoned or perhaps taken out of context during a press conference in which she was extolling the virtues of less air traffic and more rail travel.
The transport minister’s latest attempt at an explanation was to cite national interest, an overarching and somewhat catch-all reason. And by national interest, King told parliament this week, she meant Australian jobs.
As excuses go, this ranks high on the scale of weak. And I am uncertain this explanation will fly given shedding staff has been one of Qantas’ oft-used levers for cutting costs over the years, not to mention its illegal sacking of ground staff and recent use of New Zealand crew on its New York route via Auckland.
Moreover, allowing extra Qatar flights into Australia is a job-creating move, not a job removing one.
Among the reasons not quoted by King in the Qatar decision was competition or supply. But they are two of the real reasons Australians are paying exorbitant fares.
Qantas is still not back to pre-COVID capacity while international airlines are returning in a staged manner.
The hamfisted way the government has dealt with knocking back Qatar’s requests for more flights has understandably prompted any number of conspiracy theories about what is going on in Canberra.
Judged on merit, the benefits outweigh the fuzzily explained disadvantages.
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