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Qatar PM and Australia FM talk as Canberra faces backlash over Qatar Airways block

Alan Joyce is stepping down as Qantas’ CEO on Wednesday, amid heavy tarnish on the company’s reputation.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong instigated a telephone conversation with Qatar’s prime minister on Monday, with reports pointing to possible discussions on the controversial decision to block more Qatar Airways flights into Australia.

A statement by Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Ministry said the two officials “discussed bilateral cooperation relations between the two countries and regional and international developments” without specifying details of the call.

However, a Sky News report said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who also holds the position of foreign minister, said increasing Qatar Airways’ flight capacity to Australia necessitates a formal agreement between the two nations.

The call did not specifically address the topic of a bilateral air service agreement, sources within the government informed Sky News.

Similarly, arepresentative for Wong stated that the matter concerning Qatar Airways was not a topic of discussion during the conversation.

“The Minister initiated the call to discuss a range of bilateral matters, including in relation to the Al Hamad airport incident, and multilateral issues ahead of the UN General Assembly later this month,” Wong’s office said.

“The Bilateral Air Services Agreement was not raised during the call.”

The call comes as Australia’s government continues to face intense scrutiny since rejecting a Qatar Airways bid for 21 extra weekly flights to various airports across the country, including Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

Officials from the government, tourism sector and business groups are collectively advocating for greater transparency regarding the reasons behind the refusal to grant additional flights to Qatar, particularly in light of Qantas’ reported lobbying efforts.

Experts have long echoed calls for the reversal of the controversial decision, which they say would lower international airfare costs.

After weeks of backlash, the government is now set to face an inquiry into the decision, led by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie.

Senator Wong has herself faced intense questioning this week regarding the Federal government’s choice.

On Tuesday, Qantas Airways’s long-serving CEO Alan Joyce stepped down two months earlier than originally planned, as the airline faces mounting criticism and lobbying accusations. He is departing the airline on Wednesday.

Opposition frontbencher Michaelia Cash has suggested Joyce should be summoned to appear before the Senate inquiry regarding the government’s refusal to allow Qatar Airways to increase its flights.

McKenzie has been pushing for a formal investigation into the government’s decision and received backing with a narrow 32-31 vote on Tuesday afternoon.

The motion was opposed by Labor and the Greens, while the Liberal Party, Nationals, One Nation, David Pocock, and the Lambie Network voted in favour of it.

“Alan Joyce should be called to give evidence to the Senate inquiry into the Albanese government Qatar Airways debacle,” Cash said on Wednesday, according to reports.

“We need to hear directly from him about whether he or other Qantas executives had any discussions with the prime minister or anyone from the government about Qatar Airways applying for more services to Australia.”

“We need to know who from the government he lobbied and when,” Cash added.

McKenzie also garnered enough support to request the release of documents, compelling the government to either present them by next week or provide a rationale for their non-disclosure.

During Question Time, she accused the government of shielding and running a “protection racket” for Qantas, as the transport minister declined to provide further details regarding the decision made in the “national interest.”

“Who is the government really protecting when it says this decision was in the national interest?” McKenzie said on Tuesday.

During a Senate committee hearing last week, Joyce expressed concerns that allowing Qatar Airways to introduce additional services would disrupt the market, especially considering the anticipated increase in flights over the next year.

In the same hearing, Joyce detailed that he had sent a letter to the Federal government in October 2022 regarding Qatar’s proposal.

Assistant Treasurer Jones had cautioned against reducing airfares too significantly, as it could jeopardise the sustainability of the market for existing Australian-based carriers. This is a statement that he later denied as “absolutely taken out of context.”

Joyce was questioned on whether Qantas lobbied the Albanese government to prevent competitor Qatar Airways from securing additional flights to Australia.

“We do make representations on a lot of these issues,” he said, adding that “that’s the way the system works.”

“We think, given the nature of Qatar’s operations, what they will offer in this market would cause a short-term distortion which we didn’t think was appropriate.”

The Qantas lobbying efforts were brought under spotlight as the country’s prime minister was accused of giving in to the pressure.

Earlier this week, Australia’s prime minister rejected claims that the government had made an agreement with Qantas to safeguard the national airline’s market share following its controversial decision.

“I received no lobbying from Qantas about this issue,” Anthony Albanese said, adding “my government supports competition, but global aviation is not a free-for-all.”

“Qatar Airways can add more seats to Australia today, right now,” the prime minister said.

The PM has faced mounting scrutiny from the opposition, however the government has consistently argued that the decision was in the public’s best interest.

Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Michaelia Cash criticised Anthony Albanese alleging that the prime minister is prioritising the interests of his “mates in Qantas.”