LAURA JAYES: The Government is being accused of running a protection racket for Qantas business leaders and now saying that they are quote-unquote disturbed by the level of Government support given to a public company. Yesterday, we spoke to Virgin Australia who's calling on a review for the Prime Minister to review this decision, not letting Qatar Airways add 28 flights. Joining me now is the Shadow Finance Minister Jane Hume. Jane Hume, welcome, thanks so much for your time. We've had so many explanations as to why these flights were blocked. We've heard from Qantas. We've now heard from Virgin Australia. What's the next step here, do you think?
JANE HUME: Well, that's a good question. There's so many questions that need to be answered by the Government. First, we heard from Stephen Jones, who said that it was a good thing that the Government protected Qantas’s privileged position and large profits that seemed very inconsistent with Catherine King's message, who then said that it was the decision was made to prevent Qatar taking on 21 additional routes in the national interest. Now, if it was in the national interest, you would have thought that it would have gone to cabinet, but in fact, we find out now that the decision wasn't one of cabinet, it was one of the Minister alone. The Minister said she consulted widely, but when you speak to her colleagues, Penny Wong, Richard Marles, Don Farrell, Clare O’Neil, all the people that you would imagine would be part of a conversation about what's in the national interest, haven't confirmed that they were consulted on this issue. So really what is going on? But the big question in all of this, Laura, is why is the Government in a cost of living crisis, making decisions that are costing Australians more. Because we know that the decision to block Qatar Airways from having an additional 21 routes, according to Virgin, means that prices are staying high, airline tickets are about 40 to 50%, higher than they would be if those routes were opened up? So there's a lot of questions to answer here. Because Australians are paying much higher record high prices for airline tickets now than they were pre- COVID. That's something that we need to unpack, understand and discover exactly why the Government is allowing this to happen in a cost of living crisis.
LAURA JAYES: Where are you getting this figure from? 40 to 50% cheaper, because 28 flights a week, would that really bring all flight prices down by that much?
JANE HUME: Well, we heard that yesterday from the Virgin CEO and in fact, it may be one or-
LAURA JAYES (INTERRUPTS) : Well, then the corporate offices said it would be somewhere between maybe 20 and 40%. So I'm just trying to figure out like?
JANE HUME: Well I do, and I actually think we do need to understand exactly what it would be, because Alan Joyce said that airfares were only 10% higher now than they were pre-COVID. That doesn't sound right to me. He also said that there was enough competition and capacity in the airline sector already on those routes. Now, if that's the case, why are airline prices still so high? It does seem like there are a lot of inconsistencies in this, which is why we want these questions answered. But it's economics 101, It makes perfect sense that if you bring in more competition, well then prices will fall.
LAURA JAYES: Sure. Okay, so Virgin has asked for a review. Is this something, of the decision? Is this something that you are pushing for as well?
JANE HUME: Well, I think that we want to hear from Catherine King and from Anthony Albanese as to why the decision was made. We've had such inconsistent messaging on this. If it really was in the national interest. Why is it in the national interest? Why is it in the national interest to have higher airfares at a time when Australians are paying more for their mortgages and paying more for groceries? You're paying more at the petrol bowser, when they're paying more for their electricity bills? Why is it okay to artificially inflate airline prices as well? Wouldn't you think that if the cost of living was really the number one issue for this Government, as they say it is? Well, that they would be doing something to alleviate the cost of airline prices? This is a Government that you can't look at what it is they're say, you got to look at what it is that they do. In this circumstance, the business community, you know, the media and indeed all parts or all parts of, you know, the Opposition and The Greens are now saying why are you making this decision? What is behind this decision? Why don't you come clean with who was consulted and why the decision was made because it just doesn't add up.
LAURA JAYES: Do you think Qantas deserves any level of protection?
JANE HUME: Not from competition. No company should be protected from competition, particularly when Australians are relying on an organisation like Qantas, which, let's face it, operates with a fair degree of social contract and we rely on an organisation like Qantas to, you know, deliver services too. Then they came out on Monday and said that there was nearly half a billion dollars worth of flight credits that were owed to Australians that if they weren't claimed by the end of the year, we're simply going to be reported back into Qantas’ bottom line. I think Australians deserve better than that from the national carrier, particularly if it's going to be given this very privileged position that simply can't be explained. What Australians want is to be able to travel, whether it be overseas or domestically, at prices that aren't artificially inflated, that actually represent the cost of travel, rather than represent a privileged position by one organisation that seems to be being protected by the Government.
LAURA JAYES: In retrospect, do you think during COVID, Qantas should have been given $2.5 billion worth of taxpayer funds?
JANE HUME: Well, you're talking about Jobkeeper, which obviously was a subsidy that went not just to Qantas, but went to hundreds of thousands of Australian businesses and kept millions of Australians in work during a pandemic, during a crisis. We needed to have a national carrier operating at the time, certainly, there was no doubt. But that said, you know, with those sorts of support comes obligations. We expect Qantas to be able to deliver the services that it promises to ordinary Australians and not run a protection racket with the Government to maintain its privileged position. Competition will reduce prices. Now the Government needs to answer questions about why it is preventing competition. It can't say it wants to reduce prices, it can’t say it wants to tackle the cost of living on one hand, and then do the exact opposite with its decision making that is so opaque, so untransparent. Let's be accountable for the decisions that are being made and who is accountable? Is it Catherine King? Is it the cabinet? Or is it Anthony Albanese? We don't know. That's why we need to have these questions answered.
LAURA JAYES: It was quite a hostile reception that Alan Joyce received the other day you were the chair of the committee, I believe Jane Hume. He's obviously on his way out. There is already a new CEO that's been announced. Do you think that will be a circuit breaker for the relationship with every Australian and Qantas because it's not a very happy one at the moment, is it?
JANE HUME: Look, I would hope so because I think that we have very high expectations of our national carrier, certainly. You know, the sense that right across the Senate chamber there, whether it be The Greens, the Coalition Opposition, or from the Government, that there was a disquiet and indeed, dismay and disappointment at Qantas’ responses and Qantas’ performance. This is an opportunity for them to turn a corner. But in the meantime, I do think that Alan Joyce had a lot of questions to answer. We didn't get the answers that we were looking for. There were more questions on notice. If we don't feel like we're getting those answers, the Committee will compel Mr. Joyce to come back and answer further questions. In the meantime, the Government needs to answer questions about why it has this very cozy relationship with Qantas that seems to be protecting it from doing what it should be doing. Doing right by all Australians bringing down the cost of air fares.
LAURA JAYES: I mean, he's not going to be in charge in the future. I think he's got a couple of months left. Isn’t it Vanessa Hudson, you should be questioning and shouldn't Alan Joyce perhaps go now?
JANE HUME: Well, Alan Joyce was there when the decisions were made. He actually said that Qantas was responsible for making representations to Government, about the decision around Qatar Airways. In fact, we heard from Jayne Hrdlicka that Virgin were locked out of those conversations that they didn't get a chance to get in front of Anthony Albanese or Catherine King about the issue around whether Qatar Airways should be allowed to open up those additional routes that would have brought down airline prices. So these are questions that need to be answered and I can understand why there is not just a growing disquiet around the Senate chamber from Senators but also from the Australian public who expect more.
LAURA JAYES: Ok, so do you back Virgin's call for a review of this decision?
JANE HUME: Well, I'm not entirely sure who is going to review the decision. If it's the Government reviewing the decision. I certainly think they need to explain how they got to the decision. Well, then this is the question: did cabinet make the decision in the first place, did the National Security Committee make this decision? If it was made in the national interest, did it go to the Prime Minister? Even Michael McCormack, the former Minister, said that he consulted with Anthony Albanese because he said that he was knowledgeable in the field of aviation. When Anthony Albanese was in Opposition, and Michael McCormack was the Minister in Government. Now, I find it very hard to believe that the minister Catherine king would not have even consulted and would not have even spoken to Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister when making this decision, which was ostensibly in the national interest, if it is in the national interest, how is it in the national interest? How's it in the national interest to have higher airfares costing Australians more?
LAURA JAYES: Jane Hume, thanks so much for your time. See you soon.