Qantas chair Richard Goyder and CEO Vanessa Hudson stand firm after Senate grilling

Qantas chairman doubles down on staying

Qantas chair Richard Goyder has defended the illegal sacking of Qantas staff and resisted calls for his resignation in a defiant appearance before a Senate inquiry in Canberra on Wednesday.

Goyder told the inquiry that he had no plans to step down because he has the backing of major shareholders.

“But if that confidence [from major shareholders] isn’t maintained, then clearly I’ll review that,” he said.

Unions have called for Goyder’s resignation after a torrid time at the national carrier, that included the illegal sacking of 1700 workers in 2020 and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission allegations it ran “ghost flights”.

Under terse questioning from Labor senator Tony Sheldon, Goyder defended Qantas’ COVID sackings, even those that were found to be illegal by the Federal Court and High Court.

“The reality was we did have sound commercial reasons, and I do apologise and deeply regret the circumstances,” Goyder said.

But Sheldon hit back: “You are avoiding the answer about this was an illegal practice, and you have the hide to say that you apologise for nothing.”

Marathon hearing

Goyder and new Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson were subjected to a marathon grilling that tied up the pair in Parliament for more than four hours on Wednesday, quizzed by a bipartisan group of senators about everything from poor airline competition to cosy ties in Canberra.

Although it appeared Goyder and Hudson would miss the last flight back to Sydney, committee chair and Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie refused to allow them to leave.

“You are being kept at the committee’s discretion,” McKenzie said, sparking stunned looks.

Senator David Pocock queried Hudson on whether flyers deserved more transparency and compensation for cancelled flights.

“What do you say to Australians who are thinking, ‘jeez, these guys claim the spirit of Australia, and all evidence seems to be that they’re just using their muscle in a way that disadvantages me and my family’?” he said.

“They’re posting these enormous profits and not even paying back JobKeeper money.”

Hudson replied that she was focused on “delivering a better level of service”, echoing a line repeated frequently.

Joyce legacy looms large

But the shadow of Hudson’s predecessor Alan Joyce loomed large over the hearing.

“I think Alan Joyce did an excellent job as Qantas CEO over 15 years in what is a demanding industry,” Goyder said.

That left Hudson – just three weeks into the job after Joyce retired early – trying to sell senators on Qantas’s new direction as a more transparent, “customer-focused” aviation giant.

Pocock was sceptical, asking Hudson why Qantas opposes an ongoing aviation monitoring program from the ACCC that was set up during COVID but has since lapsed.

“If there’s nothing to hide, why are you concerned about scrutiny?” he said.

“We have the new Qantas saying ‘OK, we’re turning over a new leaf, I’m really sorry, but please don’t monitor us’. Can you not see how bizarre that is?”

Qantas distances itself from Qatar move

Qantas was at its most defensive, however, under sustained questions from Coalition senators about attempts to sour the Albanese government on a bid for additional flights by Qatar Airways.

Qantas has been criticised for lobbying Transport Minister Catherine King against Qatar’s bid for additional airspace capacity in Australia, which experts say would have lowered overseas airfares.

Virgin boss Jayne Hrdlicka told senators earlier on Wednesday that she initially thought Qatar – an international partner of Virgin – would succeed in its bid.

She believed the Albanese government soured on the deal after an aggressive lobbying campaign from Qantas.

“Our assumption was that this was an easy decision to make because the country is starved of capacity,” she said.

But Hudson later sought to distance Qantas from the decision, suggesting the airline made submissions against the move because of market conditions last October, not right now.

That response sparked a dumbfounded reaction from Liberal senator Simon Birmingham, who endured Hudson repeating herself as he questioned whether Qantas would still oppose Qatar’s bid.

“If domestic competition is so welcome, why not competition from Qatar?” Birmingham said.

‘Very protective of Qantas’

As Qantas tried to downplay the Qatar decision, two former ACCC bosses were heavily critical of the way bilateral agreements are regulated in Australia.

Allan Fels told senators that reversing the rejection of Qatar’s bid would deliver lower airfares for consumers.

“I don’t know exactly how the decision was made, or the motivation. But the effect is certainly very protective of Qantas,” Fels said of the decision to block Qatar’s bid for more capacity.

Rod Sims, who appeared before the committee in the early afternoon, offered a similar view.

He said that “from what I’ve seen” air services agreements were set to benefit incumbents.

“We should adopt the mindset we’ve now adopted with tariffs. We should do them in a way that benefits the travelling public and the economy, not the incumbent airlines,” Sims said.

“We do need more open skies arrangements, which other countries do.”

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