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Transport accused of running Qantas ‘protection racket’

Bridget McKenzie said the Nationals continue to support divestiture powers. Photo: AAP

Bridget McKenzie said the Nationals continue to support divestiture powers. Photo: AAP Photo: AAP

Top transport bureaucrats have stonewalled attempts to release internal documents about the rejection of extra Qatar Airways flights.

Senior officials from Transport Minister Catherine King’s department have faced the parliamentary inquiry grilling the government’s decision, but some frustrated committee members are still searching for answers.

Quizzed on a brief about international priorities, Transport Department official Richard Wood refused to even state if Ms King had agreed or disagreed with its contents due to a public interest immunity claim.

That’s despite coalition senators asking no questions to the specifics of the brief, prompting the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie to accuse them of running interference for the government.

“It is incredible, the protection racket that is being run,” she told the inquiry.

“The public interest immunity claim is over the documents … the questions are simply going to (ask), irrespective of what the recommendation was, did the minister agree or disagree?”

But another transport official, Jim Wolfe, conceded not publishing emails from Qantas on the grounds that it would cause the airline “embarrassment, ridicule or public criticism” was wrong.

Mr Wolfe said they would clarify their rejection to a freedom-of-information request.

“It might actually be better to put an extra ‘or’ into the document, because they’re not all necessarily relevant to each of the documents … we’re not actually saying exposure to ridicule is one of the reasons,” he said.

None of the five officials present at the hearing would reveal what meetings Ms King had with Qantas officials in the course of the decision on Qatar’s extra flights.

But one official did reveal the Transport Department only consulted with Qantas and Virgin on the decision to knock back Qatar’s bid to double its flights into Australia.

“One of the reasons we targeted Virgin and Qantas specifically is because it was an unusual request,” Mr Wood told the hearing.

“Typically when we have requests for negotiations … we’re looking at a wide range of issues, whereas in this instance it was very specifically about capacity issues, not about broader issues.”

Earlier, Australian Qatar Business Council chair Simon Harrison said the decision to block the additional flights was frustrating.

“The minister has effectively conflated what were alleged criminal abuses by certain individuals to human rights for the nation of Qatar, then equated that with a commercial decision between two sovereign nations,” he told Nine’s Today program.

Mr Harrison said there was a “high probability” based on evidence at the inquiry that there was a sweetheart deal between Qantas and the government.

Qantas has defended asking the government to deny Qatar additional flights, citing commercial considerations as Australian airlines recover from COVID-19 downturns.

CEO Vanessa Hudson said the airline welcomed competition, and entering markets led to growth and prices coming down.

“We determine our schedule and our frequency based on demand,” she said.

The committee is due to report by October 9.

– AAP

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