Senator Bridget McKenzie – Estimates questions regarding repatriation flights from the Middle East following Hamas’ attack

photo of Senator Bridget McKenzie
October 23, 2023

I want to go to repatriation flights for Australians trapped in Israel. Can the department advise what airlines have repatriated Australians out of Israel in recent weeks?

Senator McKENZIE: Right. So the minister accepted the department’s advice in this instance? Yes. I will take that as a yes. I want to go to repatriation flights for Australians trapped in Israel. Can the department advise what airlines have repatriated Australians out of Israel in recent weeks?

Mr R Wood : There have been repatriation flights from Dubai with both Emirates and Qatar, and there was also—

Senator McKENZIE: Qatar Airways?

Mr R Wood : Yes, that’s correct. There was also a flight via Qantas from Tel Aviv to London and a further flight from London to Australia. There have also been a number of flights out of Israel by the ADF and some commercial flights.

Senator McKENZIE: When you say ‘commercial flights’, do you mean in the course of regular aviation—

Mr R Wood : No, sorry, there have been charter flights from Israel to other locations as well. There’s a small number of those which we haven’t been involved in.

Senator McKENZIE: Charter flights, yes, thank you. Can you please give me the dates and passenger numbers on each flight?

Ms Purvis-Smith : Senator, I’ll just let you know that we’ll provide you with what we can.

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that.

Ms Purvis-Smith : DFAT takes the lead on this; we don’t have all the details for all the flights or the passenger numbers. We will—

Senator McKENZIE: But what you have would be really helpful, thank you.

Mr R Wood : I’m just checking my notes, Senator. Just to add to what Ms Purvis Smith—

Senator McKENZIE: It’s alright; I’ll ask the assistant minister something while you’re finding your notes.

Mr R Wood : I’ve found them now. There was an Emirates flight arriving in Sydney on Sunday 20 October. The advice I have is that it had 44 passengers on board, but that’s to be confirmed.

Senator McKENZIE: That was Emirates flying from where?

Mr R Wood : From Dubai.

Senator McKENZIE: From Dubai into?

Mr R Wood : Into Sydney. On Tuesday 17 October, there was a Qantas flight from Dubai world airport in the UAE with an indicative passenger load of 252.

Senator McKENZIE: Was that into Sydney?

Mr R Wood : That’s correct. And there was a further flight from London—no, sorry—

CHAIR: You said there was a Qatar flight?

Mr R Wood : There was a Qatar flight, that’s what I was looking for. A Qatar flight arrived in Sydney on 17 October—again, from Dubai. The estimated number of passengers on board was 222. I’ll just clarify that: because these are non-scheduled flights we don’t have to approve them in advance, so we don’t necessarily have the forward details of them. Airlines which are doing these flights are required to report within 14 days, although in these instances the airlines have provided advice in advance.

Senator McKENZIE: I only have three flights here: a Qatar Airways, a Qantas and an Emirates. Is that correct?

Mr R Wood : I believe that Qantas has done two flights: Dubai to Sydney and also London to Dubai. Sorry, that’s—

Senator McKENZIE: Is the Dubai-London then London-Sydney one—

Mr R Wood : Carriage? Yes. Sorry, I’m just going to my notes. There was a Qantas flight that went from London to Dubai and then from Dubai to Sydney. The further flight by Qantas was a flight from Tel Aviv to London, leaving Tel Aviv on 14 October with an estimated 237 people on board.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. Was there a London-Sydney flight?

Mr R Wood : Yes. There was one Qantas flight from Tel Aviv to London and another flight which went London-Dubai-Sydney. It had passengers from London and then picked up more passengers in Dubai.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. There were 237 out of Israel into London. I assume that we took most of that passenger list into Dubai and then—

Mr R Wood : The number I have is 104, so about half that number—obviously.

Senator McKENZIE: So 104 went London-Dubai-Sydney?

Mr R Wood : That’s correct. I’ll clarify: 104 went on the leg from London to Dubai and from Dubai to Sydney there were 252. One would assume that all or most of those 104 stayed on board.

Senator McKENZIE: They didn’t get off at Dubai.

Mr R Wood : You wouldn’t have thought so.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. What briefings did the department provide Minister King with in the last three weeks about the airlines available to assist with repatriation?

Ms Purvis-Smith : Because this is led by DFAT, the minister worked with the minister for foreign affairs and trade, Minister Wong, and called the airlines. We know that the minister called Qantas and Virgin, asking whether they or their international partners could assist in the efforts to repatriate Australians looking to leave Israel.

We understand the minister’s office also kept in close contact with the airlines and with minister Wong’s office. We kept in contact because things were moving so quickly. We kept in contact with DFAT on a real-time basis and we kept in contact with the minister’s office as things were moving quickly. DFAT had the lead in the sense that DFAT handle the procurement arrangements with the airlines. They also know, through their consular services, where people are and how many people have registered to be repatriated to Australia. They took the lead but we kept in contact with them. The Minister directly contacted the airlines and we kept in contact with Minister Wong and her office.

Senator McKENZIE: Who contacted the charter flight proponents?

Ms Purvis-Smith : I think that was DFAT. The other issue is defence: there were some ADF personnel. DFAT would have liaised with the Department of Defence and possibly also Home Affairs.

Senator McKENZIE: Probably Home Affairs?

Ms Purvis-Smith : They did liaise with the Department of Home Affairs—I do know that. Because they were the lead, we kept in contact. We didn’t want to duplicate, for example, because things were moving so quickly on the need to talk to the same people about the same things.

Senator McKENZIE: When were those airlines contacted? You said the minister rang Qantas and Virgin; what was the date of those two phone calls?

Ms Purvis-Smith : I think they were on 10 October.

Mr R Wood : I believe that’s the case.

Senator McKENZIE: And then from the 10th, her office kept in contact with them?

Ms Purvis-Smith : That’s my understanding.

Senator McKENZIE: Can I get an understanding of the cost of those flights?

Mr R Wood : We don’t have that information; it’s a matter for the Department of Home Affairs. They own that part of the process.

Senator McKENZIE: I am just trying to understand the process. If DFAT’s doing the procurement, aren’t they also in charge of bearing the cost?

Ms Purvis-Smith : Yes, I think it’s DFAT.

Senator McKENZIE: Who pays for this?

Mr R Wood : To the extent that there is cost involved, it’s a matter for DFAT. They hold the appropriation.

Senator McKENZIE: Not Home Affairs?

Mr R Wood : No, DFAT. Consular services are a clear responsibility of DFAT, and that falls within that area of responsibility.

Senator McKENZIE: Assistant Minister, there has been reticence, shall we say, from the government. There has been a lot of clapping for Qantas’ role in the repatriation of Australians from a war zone. There has been little or no mention of Qatar Airways’ involvement in getting Australians out of a war zone safely and securely. Are you thankful for Qatar Airways’ involvement?

Senator WHITE: [inaudible]

Senator McKENZIE: You don’t need to run a protection racket—Assistant Minister Brown is well across the brief.

CHAIR: It’s not a protection racket.

Senator WHITE: We commend all carriers that—

Senator McKENZIE: ‘All carriers’ is the language we use unless we’re talking about Qantas.

Senator Carol Brown: Not at all, Senator. Of course all carriers that were involved in bringing Australians home safely are thanked.

Mr Betts : My understanding is that it was Qatar Airways who asked that the flight not be publicised by the government, so we respected that.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, but now it is public, as are all—

Mr Betts : We were respectful of the request.

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that.

Senator WHITE: [inaudible]

Senator McKENZIE: Senator White, you do not need to run a protection racket.

Senator WHITE: I’m not running a protection racket    [inaudible]—

Senator McKENZIE: It’s enough!

Senator WHITE: [inaudible] you publicised it.

Senator McKENZIE: The whole Australian public are very clear on the protection racket that’s being run, and I’m pretty sure Qantas has shown itself to be big and bad enough to stand up on its own. Honestly!

CHAIR: Order! Just ask the questions.

Senator McKENZIE: I am, Chair, but I keep getting interrupted.

CHAIR: You don’t—there was one little spat there.

Senator McKENZIE: I’ll let the Hansard reflect Senator White’s significant interruptions.

CHAIR: Senator McKenzie, you have the call, will you just ask the questions, please!

Senator McKENZIE: When did Qatar Airways contact DFAT or the minister for transport’s office?

Ms Purvis-Smith : I don’t have that level of detail because DFAT were the lead. I know that DFAT put out an expression of interest process, and that they were in contact with Qatar Airways.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard