There seems to be a lot of anti-competitive behaviour in Australian skies these days. This is the centre of the political storm surrounding Qantas and the decision to limit Qatar Airways flights – and now Sydney Airport has been accused of allowing big airlines to hoard slots to the detriment of smaller airlines.
The Kingsford Smith criticism comes in an Aviation Green Paper launched by Minister for Transport Catherine King, who for weeks has been subject to pressure in parliament and media interrogation about her decision over Qatar Airways. She has backtracked and obfuscated, but her Canberra Airport press conference on Thursday descended into a political mess as journalists pursued her inconsistencies on the matter.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported on July 26 that King denied the reason for blocking Qatar from having greater access to Australia’s aviation market was related to the treatment of women at Doha Airport in October 2022. But she contradicted that version at the press conference on Thursday saying the invasive searches of the women were a factor – before denying that she had pointed to it as a factor, then eventually admitting the decision was made in the “context” of the fallout over the pandemic-era incident.
She says she took the decision to block Qatar Airways’ bid for extra flights to Australia on July 10, but will not reveal exactly when she told Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. The decision was openly announced eight days later. In the public mind, her decision came to be linked with protecting Qantas’ market share. The national carrier’s history of flight cancellations and lost luggage had already created a mountain of public anger and dismay and was exacerbated by the tone-deaf behaviour of retiring CEO Alan Joyce, who refused to honour flight credits and was leaving with huge bonuses.
The scandal edged towards Albanese after allegations that his son Nathan, 22, had been offered a Qantas Chairman’s Lounge pass. The opposition argued the prime minister’s close ties with Joyce showed the government put Qantas’ commercial interest before the national interest and had done a “sweetheart deal”. But as the Qantas/Qatar situation further unravelled, it is now clear Albanese has hand-balled the scandal to his transport minister to take the heat.
The day of her decision, King wrote to the five Australian women involved, reassuring them the government wouldn’t be offering the airline more flights. She told parliament on Wednesday she recalled lobbying on behalf of Qatar by Virgin and a third party but her discussions with Qantas had been about pay legislation. On Thursday, she said it was wrong to suggest more Qatar Airways flights would have made a substantial difference to competition, contravening the judgment of the competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which has often said allowing extra flights would result in cheaper fares. It also emerged that Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong called the Qatari prime minister on Monday and raised the invasive searches but did not discuss the airline’s bid for more flights.
So, the whole affair grows murkier as the imbroglio tilts toward potential scandal. The Albanese government has been surprisingly slow to realise that Qantas was on the nose. But irrespective of whether ministers or departments spoke with Qantas about the Qatar decision, many questions still remain about the closeness of Australian governments, past and present, to the national carrier.
For her part, King has failed to provide a credible and consistent account. She needs to provide a more definitive and clear answer on what transpired. Her fluctuating versions – currently nine according to the opposition – raise doubt about her continuing suitability as transport minister. If she cannot quickly douse the flames of this growing scandal, she is headed for a crash landing.