LISA MILLAR: Welcome back on this Tuesday morning. You're watching News Breakfast. Well, outgoing Qantas boss Alan Joyce has faced a fiery grilling from politicians and been forced to defend his company's record profits and treatment of customers. He's appeared before a Senate committee in Melbourne, rejecting suggestions the airline's brand has soured under his leadership. Half $1 billion in customer Covid flight credits are still being held by the company and customers are now being warned they'll have just four months to use them. Opposition finance spokesperson and chair of the Senate Select Committee Into the Cost of Living. Jane Hume joins us now in the studio. Jane, good morning. Welcome to News Breakfast. Did you get the answers you were looking for yesterday from Alan Joyce?
JANE HUME: Well, we heard three things that stood out for me. The first was those outstanding flight credits, nearly half $1 billion worth of flight credits still outstanding. That if they're not used by the end of the year or booked by the end of the year, well, they will simply revert back to Qantas bottom line. We also heard that the Government had heavily been heavily lobbied by Qantas to prevent them making a decision around Qatar Airways request for an additional 21 routes to Doha and then obviously onto to Europe And that in fact we heard last week that the Department had made a recommendation to government and the government had made a different decision. Now, that's a real concern because obviously if you have more competition than it brings prices down. So this sounds like a deliberate attempt to bolster up Qantas and keep prices higher for longer. And finally, we heard that Qantas were very pleased to hear that the Government had taken its foot off the pedal when it comes to ACCC oversight of the airline industry. Obviously the ACCC monitors competition to make sure that prices aren't artificially high. That seems to not be the case any longer.
LISA MILLAR: Okay, well, let's deal with a few of those things as the credits that Qantas has given people until December. What happens now? I mean, you know, Alan Joyce is walking out the door and he says, well, this is the deal we've done.
JANE HUME: Well, let's hope that there were plenty of Australians tuned into this because we've also heard that it's really difficult for people to claim those credits. We wanted to know why we couldn't simply just ask for a refund. Qantas told us that was too complicated. I don't know whether that's good enough. I'm hoping that Qantas will now, after this Senate hearing, rethink their strategy about how to make sure that Australians get the credits for the flights that they booked that they haven't taken.
LISA MILLAR: Well, a lot of people are looking at all these figures being tossed around and we're talking about a lot, right? Profits of $2.7 billion. The JobKeeper that was given when you were in government, should some of that money be returned?
JANE HUME: Well, look, certainly we need a strong airline, but let's face it, during a cost of living crisis, we expect prices to come down for airline tickets as quickly as possible. I was in Alice Springs last week. They were telling me because airlines have now reduced the number of flights into Alice Springs and airline tickets have gone up in cost. That's increasing the cost of groceries and things that they're buying at the supermarkets because obviously some of that comes in by air. And it also means that there are fewer tourists and that it's getting harder to get workers because they can't get in and out of Alice Springs.
LISA MILLAR: But I wasn't talking about the prices then of flights. I'm looking at very clearly the profit that they've earned and the money they got from your government to stay propped up. Alan Joyce says there were 11 weeks from going under. Should some of that profit go back to government coffers?
JANE HUME: Well, to government coffers that's a decision I think, for Qantas. What we wanted to find out yesterday was whether Qantas were actually living up to the expectations of their customers as well as their shareholders. Obviously their shareholders expect a profitable return, but at what cost? If you're not delivering the services that Australians expect, well then we'd like to see some changes in attitude.
LISA MILLAR: Is it morally defensible to refuse paying back that money when Qantas got more money than almost any other company, if not the most support? And now the CEOs heading off with a $24 million handshake, is it actually morally defensible of Qantas? You say it's their decision to not pay it back.
JANE HUME: Well, certainly an organisation like Qantas that runs essentially almost as a monopoly or at least in a highly uncompetitive market, has a social contract with the Government that allows it to keep that almost monopoly status. We would expect that the Government would give Qantas its marching orders and make sure that it knows that competition is just around the corner. All it would take is a decision of government and airline prices could come down and customer expectations could be met.
LISA MILLAR: Yeah, you must have a view though you setting government you now sitting here you've gone through this committee hearing. Should Qantas pay the money back? Why don't you have a view on that?
JANE HUME: Qantas needs to be a functional airline but most importantly it needs to deliver for its customers and it needs to deliver on its promise. The government can change this with a stroke of the pen by allowing Qatar Airways to have those additional 21 routes that would bring in an additional 1 million seats into the system, pushing down the cost of airline tickets, particularly on that European route. It's just basic economics. If you increase competition, doesn't matter whether it's in airways, doesn't matter whether it's in energy, doesn't matter whether it's in housing, that's the only way to sustainably bring down prices and tackle the cost of living. Now Lisa, before I go. I want to say that the Cost of Living Committee continues to meet right around the country. If your viewers would like to contribute to that committee they can do so individually and speak to Senators directly by using the website cost of living yourcostofliving.au There's no '.com' No '.gov', yourcostofliving.au.
LISA MILLAR: I've got a couple of other questions for you before you do go, because we hear a lot about the Chairman's Lounge. Most viewers may not know what it is or even have seen inside it in their lifetime, but you know, it is a gift. It is a special treat for certain people. Are we at a point where politicians need to say no to access to that lounge? Because how do you then make decisions about companies when you are getting their largesse in this way?
JANE HUME: Well, that was one of the reasons why I made it very clear yesterday during the cost of living inquiry that senators, before asking about questions around Prime Minister’s and Prime Minister’s sons, that they had to declare their interest. It is something that Qantas then declared Qantas, Do you think it's something that Qantas gives senators, members of Parliament, senior business people? Well, it certainly gives to politicians when we're elected immediately.
LISA MILLAR: As far as you're concerned, it's okay as long as you declare it. You don't think it causes issues?
JANE HUME: If it's a conflict of interest, that is a concern. But if you declare a conflict of interest, that's how you make sure that you make decisions, that you make decisions in a very transparent and accountable way. There were some questions there yesterday about the chairman's lounge. Certainly it's very important that any conflict, conflicts of interest are declared before those questions are asked and I made that clear during the Cost of Living Committee.
LISA MILLAR: Okay. Just finally, I want to talk about tax reform, because there has been movement. We saw it from Allegra Spender on Insiders on Sunday. Now, David Pocock has said he is joining this push by the Teals to have a broader look at reform of GST. Is it time to do that?
JANE HUME: Well, Why is it that tax reform always seems to involve higher taxes? You know, during the last government reform does not necessarily involve it does seem to be the implication, though.
LISA MILLAR: Do you support reform?
JANE HUME: How about we reform our spending? How about we reform the spending that's going on to NDIS How about we reform the spending that's going on to aged care? Peter Dutton reached out across the aisle to Anthony Albanese and said if you can find ways to make sure that the spending on those burgeoning costs are sustainable, we will work with government and unfortunately that's been denied. I think that's a real shame because there's two sides to the ledger. It's not just tax. There's also the spending. And you have to spend within an envelope. If you tax your population too much, you simply suck aspiration and enterprise out of the system. Wouldn't it be better to reform your spending?
LISA MILLAR: Well, much more to discuss on this, I'm sure. Thank you, Jane Hume for coming in.