Nationals’ Senate Inquiry Brings ACCC Focus to Aviation

The fall-out from the federal government’s decision to block Qatar from expanding its flights to Australia continued this week. In an effort to demonstrate a response, Transport Minister Catherine King announced on Wednesday that ACCC scrutiny over the airlines will be expanded.

“Key areas will include the level of capacity the airlines are putting on each route as well as industry performance, including on cancellations and delays,” said the minister. “We will ensure healthy competition plays a key role in shaping the future of the sector.”

The development may at least put some kind of dampener on airlines’ inflated prices since the post-COVID reopening. Like Coles, Woolworths, Santos and CommBank, Qantas announced record profits in February 2023. 

Labor has been under pressure on the issue since Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie moved to set up an inquiry on the Qatar decision. The Middle Eastern carrier wanted to run an additional 28 weekly flights between Qatar and the capital cities, but was blocked by the Transport Minister. 

“A wide range of witnesses, including key stakeholders in Australian aviation, submitted that they did not fully understand the basis for [King’s] decision,” the inquiry said in its final report earlier this month. “The weight of evidence before the committee indicates the national interest would have been well served by agreeing to Qatar’s request.”

King went on to dismiss the inquiry into her decision as a petty circus and, with a Kevin Rudd-like studiousness, deferred concerns to a white paper her department will release next year. She made no comment on the inquiry’s recommendation to introduce laws allowing Qantas to be broken up in the case of anti-competitive behaviour.

The Albanese government came to power on the back of a small target strategy. But in their desire to govern smoothly and avoid making waves, they risk underestimating the frustration with corporate Australia and the “elites” as interest-rates and profit-price inflation spike. 

This is what allowed Dutton to mock Albanese as part of “the big end of town” who “hang[s] out on the red carpet with Alan Joyce,” a reference to Qantas and Albanese campaigning for the Voice to Parliament. If the federal government isn’t perceived as taking stronger economic action, they may find themselves turfed out for an opposition that will in all likelihood do even less for the little guy.

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