The government should immediately review its contentious decision to block Qatar Airways from flying additional routes to Australia, a Senate probe into the matter has recommended.
For the past month, a Coalition-led senate inquiry has been investigating the federal government’s rejection of Qatar Airways’ request to run 28 extra weekly flights to east coast capital city airports.
The inquiry’s final report, released on Monday, calls on government to reinstate airfare price monitoring and task the competition watchdog with conducting a fresh investigation into anti-competitive behaviour in the domestic aviation market.
The report additionally recommends the probe be re-established so it can hear evidence from Mr Joyce, who is in Europe and has not appeared before the Senate committee, over allegations that the he had exercised significant influence over the government’s decision to block increased capacity from the Gulf carrier.
“Despite lengthy questioning of the Qantas chair and new chief executive officer, there were questions unable to be satisfactorily answered for which the evidence suggests Mr Joyce will likely hold the answers,” the report states.
Separately, it recommends the Senate should request that Transport Minister Catherine King be required to attend to provide public evidence and also calls for Qantas’ government affairs representatives to appear before the committee, with the final report noting “that Qantas answers to questions on notice from senators were unsatisfactory”.
The committee additionally calls for the development of new consumer protections to address significant delays, cancellations, lost baggage and devaluation of loyalty programs.
A previous review into airport slot hoarding should also be acted upon, it says.
Committee chair Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie said the evidence heard by the committee supported the conclusion that the government had rejected Qatar Airways’ request due to interventions by the former Qantas chief.
“Unfortunately, the government sought to prevent the committee from fully investigating the reasons why additional Qatar Airways flights were rejected by refusing to release documents and placing a gag on the infrastructure and foreign affairs departments,” Senator McKenzie said.
At a time that consumers were facing soaring costs, the government made decisions that have protected Qantas’ market share and kept the cost of airfares higher for Australian families and exporters, Senator McKenzie said.
“The committee heard evidence that Australians could have been enjoying cheaper flights to Europe and the Middle East as early as April this year had the government approved additional Qatar Airways flights, and that Turkish Airlines had planned to offer additional flights in time for families to reunite overseas this Christmas,” she added.
But the committee’s recommendations were not unanimous with dissenting reports filed by Labor senators Tony Sheldon and Linda White, and Greens senator Penny Allman-Payne.
Senators Sheldon and White said there was “obvious bias” in the Coalition’s report and opposed the inquiry’s extension.
“Indeed, throughout five public hearings and nearly 150 written submissions, this inquiry has not revealed any information that was not already on the public record before the inquiry began,” the Labor senators wrote.
Greens senator Allman-Payne reiterated her call for the government to take a stake in the national carrier and develop a high speed rail line between Brisbane and Melbourne.
The government’s decision to block Qatar’s application has become the subject of intense criticism by industry groups, rival airlines, alongside the aviation and tourism sectors through the inquiry process.
Amid surging airfare costs, it has also fuelled allegations from the Coalition that the government had agreed to a “sweetheart deal” to protect Qantas from increased competition in a return for support for the Voice referendum.
Minister King had previously given several reasons for blocking Qatar’s request for additional capacity, including that it wanted to protect jobs at Qantas, support Qantas’ profitability, allow Qantas to purchase new planes, enable the aviation sector to decarbonise and because it was in the ‘national interest’.
In response to the committee’s request for documents, Minister King declined, claiming public interest immunity.
Ms King, who was called to appear before the inquiry and ultimately refused to do so after labelling the probe “a political stunt” has also pointed to the treatment of Australian women subjected to bodily inspections at Doha airport in 2020, saying it provided “context” for the government’s decision to reject Qatar’s application.
The women are seeking compensation from Qatar authorities who operate the Doha airport, and Qatar Airways, and have taken legal action in the Federal Court.
Qantas chief executive Vanessa Hudson and chair Richard Goyder previously fronted the inquiry, along with representatives from Australia’s major airports, the travel industry, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and rival airlines including Qatar Airways.
Mr Joyce, who strongly supported the government’s decision to block Qatar’s request when he was chief executive, on the basis it “would cause distortion” in the aviation market, was previously called upon to front up to the inquiry when he returns to Australia.
Senator McKenzie warned that if Mr Joyce fails to comply, he will face “a whole raft of processes”, including the possibility of jail time.