NATALIE BARR: Well, it's a new dawn for Qantas this morning with Alan Joyce departing the top job early following a turbulent few weeks for the airline. After 15 years at the helm, Joyce today hands over the controls to Vanessa Hudson, who's now tasked with rebuilding Qantas plummeting reputation. It comes as the Prime Minister faces fresh demands to explain what he knew about the blocking of Qatar Airways' bid for more flights into this country and when. Let's bring in Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil and Shadow Finance Minister Jane Hume, good morning to you. Clare, so during Question Time, Anthony Albanese admitted discussing Qatar's application with Virgin, unaware a decision had actually been made three days earlier to block the extra flights from Qatar. How can the PM be so out of touch?
CLARE O’NEIL: Oh, well, Nat, I don't think that's accurate. The reason that the PM didn't know was because it wasn't the PM's decision. It was the decision of the Transport Minister. She's entitled under Australian law to make these decisions in the national interest. I'm a minister who has some national interest powers and this always involves weighing a bunch of complex factors. But I think what's really going on here is Australians are really fed up with a bunch of things that have been happening in aviation and particularly the behavior of Qantas. We've got a new CEO taking the helm of Qantas today and they've got a really big opportunity here to reset their relationship with Australians and I desperately hope that they take it.
NATALIE BARR: Yeah, so you said the Transport Minister's role is to make decisions in the national interest. Was it in the national interest to get less Qatar flights flying in and out of this country and therefore bring down airfares and get the Australian flying public to pay less?
CLARE O’NEIL: Now, Qatar have lots of opportunities to bring more people in and out of the country. We've got other airlines which are increasing their flights in and out of Australia at the moment. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are in the process of doing that. What I think is really important here is to get Qantas to pick up its game.
NATALIE BARR: Well they know that, they have acknowledged that. The chairman has acknowledged that and the new CEO has acknowledged that. But onto this one, you've got business figures, you've got economists, you've got people in three Labor states saying this decision would have helped the Australian flying public. So was it the Transport Minister, was it a good decision by the Transport Minister to block Qatar?
CLARE O’NEIL: I absolutely support her decision, Nat, and I've made that point there that we've got a number of other things happening that will increase competition in aviation, and I get that. Remember, the Australian Government doesn't determine how much air flights cost in this country. We have a bunch of levers that can assist Australians with the cost of living crisis and we're pulling those. But I would just say again there are lots of opportunities for Qatar to already increase the number of people that it takes in and out of Australia. It would be great to understand why they are not doing that at the moment.
NATALIE BARR: But on that decision, did your Government restrict competition and damage the flying public in this country?
CLARE O’NEIL: Nat, the Transport Minister's made a decision. She's made a decision in the national interest.
NATALIE BARR: That's what I'm talking about, that decision, did that harm the Australian flying public Clare?
CLARE O’NEIL: Well, Nat the Transport Minister's made a decision in the national interest. What I would say to you is that there are other things happening that will increase competition. At the end of the day here we’ve got a very powerful Australian airline that has an enormously important responsibility to Australians that it is not meeting at the moment. We want lower airfare prices in this country. Qantas can make a change to that today and we've got a new CEO at the helm and I hope that they pick up their game there.
NATALIE BARR: Okay, look, with respect, you just haven't answered the question. We know what Qantas is doing. It's been on every news organisation for the last few days. But you still haven't answered the question. Jane, Let's talk about what's going to happen on Alan Joyce's pay. This is a big issue. The ACCC is investigating. Do you think Alan Joyce should be paid his bonus?
JANE HUME: Well, that's entirely a decision for Qantas shareholders and not something that the Government should get involved in. What the Government should get involved in is the decision to open up new routes to other airlines, Qatar included, that would bring down the cost of airfares for consumers and we want to know what it is that what that decision in the national interest was, because it looks to me like it was a decision in Qantas interest, not in consumers interests. At a time when airfares are 50% higher than they were pre-pandemic and capacity for seats is 25% lower. You've got to explain what national interest is here Clare and quite frankly, Catherine King said she consulted widely, but clearly she didn't consult with you and you're right, you do have a portfolio where the national interest is paramount. Why weren't you consulted in this decision? Why wasn't the Prime Minister consulted? What is behind Catherine King's decision here? Because consumers are paying the price.
NATALIE BARR: Okay, moving on. The Deputy Prime Minister has been given a week to hand over documents revealing the dates and the cost of every flight he has taken on VIP aircraft in the past year. In an unlikely alliance, the Coalition and The Greens have teamed up in the Senate to order the release of the documents amid questions of Richard Marles $3.6 million flight bill. The Defence Minister has so far refused to publish where he has flown, why and the passenger manifests. He cites security grounds. Clare, does the Deputy PM need to answer questions on the millions of dollars he has spent on these flights?
CLARE O’NEIL: Look, Nat, Richard Marles is a person of profound and utmost integrity, who is someone I am privileged to work very closely with and the performance he has undertaken as Defence Minister is absolutely unbelievable. He is working so hard every day to make our country safer. I don't have any questions about the way that he has used his travel here. He's a Defence minister. He is constantly on the road and away from his family and I don't think there will be anything to see out of this. I get that this is always of interest to the public, but I can just tell you this person is making a profound difference to the safety of my constituents and Australian citizens, and I'm very proud to work alongside him.
NATALIE BARR: Jane, do you think that there are questions to answer here?
JANE HUME: Well, no one's doubting integrity. We're doubting transparency. The number of flights, who was on them, all of these things can be revealed without breaking, without breaching security and if there are security issues at play, well, what are they? Because if you're looking at these flights retrospectively, surely transparency is not going to be a problem. It isn't a security breach to release that information retrospectively. So there are some questions to answer here, particularly about those flights that are going into Avalon, which of course, is the airport that is closest to Richard Marles’ home. We're not doubting his integrity. Clare, what we want is transparency and I think that the public deserve that.
NATALIE BARR: Yeah, Clare, that is a good point. If he's already flown on the flights, what's the security concern here?
CLARE O’NEIL: So Nat, I can't speak to the specifics of this particular example, but I think there's really well known national security issues around developing understanding of how and where people go and when. But I'll just leave that to one side because I don't want to get into the specifics here. I just say again, I mean, I don't think what Jane said holds together at all. If there are no integrity concerns, why are you and The Greens teaming up, as you so often do in the Senate, to try to create an issue here?
JANE HUME: Because you guys are hiding stuff. It’s because you're hiding stuff, of course you’re going to gang up.
CLARE O’NEIL: Jane, you've just said there's no integrity concerns and now you're saying people are hiding things. It doesn't make sense at all. I just say again, I just say again that this is a person of huge integrity. He is doing incredibly important work to help defend our country. He is on the road all the time. He is the Defence Minister. He is literally on the road all the time and I'm really confident that when more information comes out about this, there won't be any real questions to answer here.
NATALIE BARR: Okay. Well you're right Clare, the documents will be handed over and we will soon see, thank you both for your time.