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Grattan on Friday: Transport Minister Catherine King struggles to find a landing strip amid Qatar turbulence

A few days ago, the furore over the government’s rejection of Qatar Airways’ bid for more flights into major cities was all about cheaper tickets and additional seats.

Now the issue has doubled back to become, apparently, at least in part about the mistreatment of the Australian women who were hauled off a flight in 2020 and subjected to invasive body searches, after a newborn was found abandoned in Doha Airport.

Five of the women have a legal case on foot. It is back in the Federal Court on Friday for the 21st time.

Transport Minister Catherine King, in yet another attempt to explain, or dodge explaining, her rejection of the Qatar application, said on radio on Thursday morning that the 2020 incident “wasn’t a factor in the decision, but it was certainly context for the decision”.

This is as baffling as most of the other explanations King and other government members have given. Isn’t “context” a “factor”?

Well yes, it seems. Only an hour or so earlier, at a crack-of-dawn news conference at Canberra airport, where she released a green paper on aviation policy, King suggested the 2020 incident was a factor, although “there was no one factor that influenced my decision in relation to the national interest”. She argued: “I don’t think it’s helpful for me to point to any one factor.”

On Thursday night on the ABC, she did spell out some factors – what was happening in the aviation market, capacity coming back into the market, jobs.

While initially it was thought the 2020 incident might have been a reason behind the decision, King had subsequently indicated that it was not, finally settling on this nebulous concept of the “national interest” to justify the government’s stance.

But the 2020 incident has hung there in the background of the controversy. On July 10, the day she made the decision, King wrote to the five women, who had contacted her strongly opposing the additional access, to assure them Qatar was not being considered for more flights.

In their letter the women had said the airline was “not fit to carry passengers around the globe let alone to major Australian airports”.

“When you are considering Qatar Airways’ bid for extra landing rights, we beg you to consider its insensitive and irresponsible treatment of us,” they wrote. “We implore you to instead consider an airline that will uphold human rights.”

On Monday this week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong had a phone conversation with the prime minister of Qatar.

Wong has said that in the call, which she initiated, they discussed bilateral matters, as well as multilateral issues ahead of the United Nations UN General Assembly meeting later in the month. They did discuss the 2020 incident; they did not canvass the flights matter. That seems extraordinary. After all, the Qatar government owns Qatar Airways and flights involve country-to-country agreements.

Could this resurrection of the 2020 incident be one way of seeking to neutralise an issue that has been debated – to the Albanese government’s detriment – in terms of limiting competition?

King insists she made the decision herself. She says she consulted colleagues, whom she doesn’t name. She has fudged when probed about what her department recommended. She said she told Anthony Albanese of the decision before it became public later in July, but stonewalled when pressed in parliament for the date on which she informed the prime minister.

Before the attention focused on King, Albanese was copping the heat, because the decision was seen to be in line with his perceived closeness to former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce (who quit prematurely this week, as part of that airline’s attempt to quell public anger at it).

King, from the left, is one of the longest-serving House of Representative members, having won the Victorian seat of Ballarat in 2001 from the Coalition. She was briefly in the ministry in 2013, at the tail end of the former Labor government.

Transport wouldn’t have been King’s first choice of portfolio. She was shadow health minister (she had a background in health policy) for two terms under Bill Shorten, and looked forward to being health minister after the election Labor thought it would win in 2019. The unexpected loss meant major changes in the frontbench under Albanese, which saw King moved to infrastructure, transport and regional development.

King will survive this imbroglio, but the affair is salutary for the Albanese government.

Much of the trouble over the Qatar decision comes from public anger about Qantas and its poor service and arrogant attitude. The rejection of the Qatar flights, which benefited Qantas, became a lightning rod. The government failed to pick up on the strength of feeling about Qantas – if it had, Albanese might not have appeared with Joyce at the airline’s recent event to back the Voice, including with travel assistance for “yes” campaigners.

The Qatar matter shows the government can’t just expect to fob off questions by invoking generalities such as the “national interest”. It also reaffirms the point that while parliament’s question time is mostly useless, it can on occasion expose the weaknesses of a minister under pressure.

Finally, there is a lesson here about the role of cabinet. King might argue such decisions are “routine” and say she consulted (unspecified) colleagues, but the matter would have been better taken to cabinet. A cabinet discussion can tease out competing arguments for and against a decision, and reinforce a government’s case. In her defence in parliament, King tried to make a virtue of ministerial autonomy, but it doesn’t always serve a government.

Thanks to its own bungling, the government on Tuesday facilitated the Senate setting up an inquiry this week that will do a deep dive into its mishandling of the Qatar affair.

Nationals senate leader Bridget McKenzie proposed the inquiry. The government got the Greens onside to vote against it, by accommodating their push for another inquiry – into the Middle Arm export facility in the Northern Territory.

But it neglected to attempt to peel off other crossbenchers until the very last moment. McKenzie had already done the rounds. On Thursday, the government did manage to tweak the terms of reference to look back into some of the Coalition’s years.

Courtesy of the inquiry, a good deal more is expected to emerge about this imbroglio.

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