Politics

Tough questions on Qantas catch Albanese on autopilot

It was an embarrassing ploy and only advertised the minister’s anxiety about taking questions.

Qatar Airways needs no barrackers, given it is owned by an oil state that helps it undercut its rivals, but the deeper issue is the community’s growing frustration with Qantas.

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Albanese and his ministers are exposed to being too cosy with the airline and its former chief, Alan Joyce. The government does not deny that the prime minister’s son has a complementary pass to the airline’s chairman’s lounge. And it was only a few weeks ago that the prime minister and the airline boss joined up at an event to promote the Yes case at the referendum.

That has given Opposition Leader Peter Dutton an easy shot. “The prime minister has been happy to walk the red carpet with Alan Joyce at every top-end-of-town event,” he said this week. It is worth noting that Dutton is a member of the chairman’s lounge (as well as the equivalent club at Virgin Australia).

So when and why did King make her decision on Qatar? Who lobbied her before she made her call? The headlines played up the sense of “chaos” in question time over these details, but what happened in the past few days was logical.

The opposition asked questions of King about her decision. She obfuscated. The opposition asked the speaker, Milton Dick, to tell her to return to the question. Dick gave her the benefit of the doubt. The opposition moved dissent against his ruling. It knew it would lose the vote, but it wanted to highlight her evasion. And it was within its rights to do so.

The Coalition’s mistake was to get carried away with the shouting and yelling about something that was mostly about tactics few voters would ever notice. The member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, rebuked them for this “hostile and aggressive” behaviour, and Dick agreed with her message.

Dick is a good speaker, ruling over the unruly with fair and calm decisions, but ministers put him in a difficult position with their waffle. King was hedging on Wednesday in response to direct questions about whether she had spoken to Joyce. She seemed to assume the Speaker would shield her from having to give a direct answer.

King was better prepared and more direct in question time on Thursday, a sign she had learnt from the previous day. Yet she could not say when she told Albanese of her decision on Qatar – only that she made the decision on July 10 and the prime minister knew by the time it was announced on July 18.

Did Qantas get any favours? How much support does this airline deserve? These are fair questions for the Senate inquiry set up this week – established, by the way, when the Coalition gained support from almost all the crossbench. The Greens voted with Labor against the inquiry, days after they claimed they wanted more accountability.

Albanese and his ministry have been effective on most fronts since the election. They have avoided the “travel rorts” that cost John Howard so many ministers in his first term as prime minister, as well as any shocks like Tony Abbott’s call to give a knighthood to Prince Philip. The government is the most stable in more than a decade.

Why, then, was the government caught out on Qantas? Perhaps there is a sleepiness that comes from feeling that the next election is already won because the Liberals cannot recapture the “teal” seats. Maybe it is because ministers think they are as good as their press secretaries tell them.

There will be other storms like Qantas. Ministers will have to learn to stay awake, no matter how comfortable they feel.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent.

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