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Australian minister blocks release of ’embarrassing’ emails related to Qatar Airways flight block

Qatar Airways’ push to add more weekly flights into Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Brisbane has caused a political crisis for the Albanese government, which has struggled to explain why the bid was blocked.

Authorities in Australia have denied a request to release Qantas emails concerning Qatar Airways’ proposal to double weekly flights into Australia, saying disclosing such information could lead to “embarrassment, ridicule, or public criticism.”

The Australian Department of Transport, led by Minister Catherine King, also claimed the release of the emails could negatively affect diplomatic ties, including those with Qatar, reported The Australian Financial Review.

On 5 September last year, Qantas corresponded with Minister King’s department offering remarks on Australia’s “forward negotiating programme” for bilateral air services agreements. Another email was sent on 22 October about “Australia-Qatar air services arrangements.”

The emails have been withheld from public scrutiny, along with a briefing dated 4 January 2023 and another email from Qantas sent on 7 July 2023 concerning air service agreements with Vietnam and Turkey.

Assistant Secretary Jim Wolfe, responsible for the International Aviation Branch, blocked the freedom of information request to release the emails and briefings.

Wolfe stated that disclosing the emails would not only pose a “breach of confidence,” but could also “involve financial loss, embarrassment, exposure to ridicule or public criticism to the affected third party,” while potentially damaging Australia’s international relations.

Wolfe added that public disclosure could “prejudice or undermine the department’s relations with other countries” and impede the flow of confidential information between nations, causing a breakdown in trust.

The government’s decision to withhold information echoes Minister King’s earlier refusal to comply with a Senate order requesting documents related to the issue.

In a recent development, Perth Airport disclosed during a Senate inquiry that it only learned of Qatar Airways’ application to introduce seven additional weekly flights into Western Australia—a request declined in July—just a day before the announcement.

This week, the Senate inquiry is set to hear from a representative of Qatar Airways.

Invitations have been extended to former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, current CEO Vanessa Hudson, and Chairman Richard Goyder, although sources indicate that Joyce is unlikely to attend.

The issue has turned into a political quagmire for the Albanese government, which is struggling to clarify why Qatar Airways’ bid to operate more weekly flights into Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Brisbane was rejected.

The government is being accused of attempting to protect Qantas from competition on lucrative European routes.

Meanwhile, the Coalition has pressed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for details on whether his office directed or advised King’s department on handling the situation. King has declined to reveal which ministerial colleagues were consulted.

The hastily-established Senate inquiry, supported by the Senate crossbench, also heard last week from Sydney Airport CEO Geoff Culbert.

He criticised airlines operating from the United Arab Emirates for utilising only 84 of the 168 permitted weekly flights into major Australian airports. In contrast, Qatar currently has access to only 28 flights per week, all of which are fully utilised.

The Labor party has repeatedly attempted to discredit the Senate inquiry, describing it as disorganised and blaming the Coalition for issues discussed.