Laura Jayes: Well, Anthony Albanese will meet with the Chinese Premier on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Jakarta today. This comes as he unveils a broader economic plan to strengthen trade relations in the region. Joining me now is the Assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres. Tim thanks so much for your time
Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister: G’day, Laura.
Laura Jayes: Do you know, is a visit to Beijing on the cards? It’s looking likely?
Assistant Minister: No, I don’t. I don’t know what the Prime Minister’s travel diary will include over the course of this year. I do know that the Prime Minister has been invited and he’s keen to, at the appropriate time, accept that invitation. This meeting on the fringes of this summit is another important opportunity at leadership level to continue the systematic and careful approach that Australia has taken in our national interest. That’s all about stabilising the relationship with China more broadly and, of course, in my own portfolio area in trade.
Laura Jayes: Okay, let’s talk Qatar now. Because we saw Catherine King face a lot of questions from journalists this morning. I don’t think we’re any the wiser as to why she made this decision about Qatar. If human rights is the reason and those violations - that invasive violation of five Australian women, why are we letting Qatar fly to Australia at all?
Assistant Minister: Well, the Minister has made a decision that is shaped by, as I understand it, a range of national interest considerations. She’s delegated with the authority to make these decisions. These are not discussions with Qatar Airways; these are bilateral discussions between countries. It was widely known that Qatar was seeking this in terms of a number of Australian airports. As you know, it’s not a ‘free-for-all’ competition in Australian airways. There are –
Laura Jayes: I know that, but I’m just asking about the human rights issue, because that is the issue that has been raised and nominated. There was context for that, as Catherine King put it in her media conference this morning. If that is such an important context, why is Qatar flying to Australia at all?
Assistant Minister: Well, if Australia – I don’t know that it would be right to comment on the human rights records of countries that Australia flies into and out of around the world or whose airways fly to us. I mean, it would be – I think what Minister King has said this morning is that that didn’t help. But, you know, it is context. It was there.
But this set of issues has been widely known, Qatar’s application widely understood, for quite some time. She’s made exactly the same decision that Michael McCormack made as Transport Minister just a few years ago. It’s not unusual for ministers to agree, reject or modify requests from foreign governments to open up airspace flying into Australian ports.
The Minister has made this decision. There’s a range of national interest considerations that the Minister would have taken into account. I’m not privy to what those were –
Laura Jayes: But neither are we. That’s the problem, isn’t it?
Assistant Minister: Well, you know what? These are bilateral discussions between countries.
Laura Jayes: That affect us, and we still don’t know the reason.
Assistant Minister: Well, bilateral discussions between countries quite often affect our interests.
Laura Jayes: You’re saying, “trust us”, and there has been no trust here along the way, because it seems that you’re not willing to – you’re really trying not to tell us the real reason.
Assistant Minister: What’s the inference here? Really? I mean, honestly, it’s pretty juvenile stuff some of this. I mean, there is an understandable –
Laura Jayes: Well, the inference is that it was made to protect Qantas and people are wondering why.
Assistant Minister: Well, it sits against the backdrop, Laura, of what happened in the international aviation industry over the course of COVID. Of course, airlines around the world, governments around the world, have been grappling with this as the airline goes from being utterly furloughed, essentially at zero, economies, countries, airlines have been working their way through these questions. There are a serious of broad national interest questions here that the Minister has obviously considered. She made a decision that’s very similar to the decision that Michael McCormack made. Now, he had a range of national interest considerations that he would have considered. Now, were they exactly the same? Well, the situation is different. You know, time has passed on, but the principle is the same.
Now, in terms of a sort of accounting for all of the reasons that – I mean, that is not normal in bilateral discussions between countries. There is an adult government in charge here. We are not like the last government that released text messages about controversial issues in their bilateral discussions in order to support their political agenda. We don’t reveal the ins and outs of every bilateral discussion we’re engaged in. That’s not a proper way of conducting these issues.
I understand the public focus on this. Qantas has let customers down, has disappointed its workforce. There is a series of controversies that have been well canvassed there. I understand that there is disappointment, and the new CEO has got a job to do in making sure we restore public confidence and customer engagement and engage the workforce properly. So I understand why there’s this set of issues around it, but at the heart of this – a bilateral discussion between Australia and Qatar. The Minister’s responsibility here is to accept or reject or amend the application that’s made, and she’s made a decision in the national interest.
Laura Jayes: Okay. Tim Ayres, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Assistant Minister: Good on you. See you later.