Senator Bridget McKenzie – Estimates questions regarding repatriation flights out of the Middle East following the 7 October attacks

photo of Senator Bridget McKenzie
October 26, 2023

Minister, when was the minister for transport first contacted regarding repatriation flights, and who made that approach? Was it office to office, was it minister to minister or was it department to department?

Senator McKENZIE: Minister and Secretary, I would like to go back to this morning’s testimony. Do you or the secretary have permanent delegated powers to actually approve—

Senator Wong: Which testimony? Which area?

Senator McKENZIE: This morning.

Senator Wong: Sorry, Senator McKenzie, we covered quite a lot this morning.

Senator McKENZIE: My last line of questioning, which was this morning.

Senator Wong: On which bit?

Senator McKENZIE: Repatriation flights.

Senator Wong: I don’t have the—

Senator McKENZIE: That’s why I’m not asking the questions that I would have had if the right officials were here.

Senator Wong: Okay.

Senator McKENZIE: But these are questions for both you and the secretary. Do either you or the secretary have permanent delegated powers to approve the procurement of special assisted flights, as were exercised, I’m assuming, in the repatriation flights?

Senator Wong: I would have to take on notice what the delegations are.

Senator McKENZIE: Maybe the secretary.

Ms Adams : We have delegations for procurement, yes, of course.

Senator McKENZIE: In that specific area, or a wide range that would allow these sort of arrangements to be—

Ms Adams : For implementing our portfolio responsibilities for consular.

Senator McKENZIE: Minister, when was the minister for transport first contacted regarding repatriation flights, and who made that approach? Was it office to office, was it minister to minister or was it department to department?

Senator Wong: I don’t know.

Senator McKENZIE: So it wasn’t you personally?

Senator Wong: I’m saying I don’t know. You asked the when it was first. I don’t know. I’ll have to find that.

Senator McKENZIE: When did you contact Minister King about getting repatriation flights?

Senator Wong: I would have to take that on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: Secretary, when did DFAT contact the department of infrastructure and transport about this issue?

Ms Adams : Likewise, for such a specific question, after several weeks of 24/7 intensity, it’s impossible to recall.

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that.

Senator Wong: But I suspect—I don’t know—that the officials—

Senator McKENZIE: I think Infrastructure is part of—

Senator Wong: I think Ms Spencer went through the procurement process and—

Senator McKENZIE: I’m talking about prior to that.

Senator Wong: My point is there’s not a single track, is there? There’s procurement, but there were also offers coming in or being sought et cetera. It had to be appropriately handled through that procurement process. I don’t know the sequence of when Mr Maclachlan might have contacted the department of infrastructure and transport.

Senator McKENZIE: So Minister King rang both Qantas and Virgin—

Senator Wong: I don’t know.

Senator McKENZIE: on the 10th.We were told, on request from—

Senator Wong: DFAT?

Senator McKENZIE: No—from you or your office.

Senator Wong: That may be the case.

Senator McKENZIE: That was the evidence on Monday. I’m just wanting to seek clarification around timing specifically around that. Were the Qantas flights part of the procurement process or were they negotiated separately, Ms Adams?

Senator Wong: We’d have to take that on notice. That’s Mr Maclachlan’s division. We don’t handle that.

Senator McKENZIE: Was the first flight scheduled a result of the procurement process or was it the result of a direct negotiation between departmental officials and Qantas?

Ms Adams : I think the reality is that there were a lot of conversations going on, and there was a procurement process, as was outlined this morning, in short time frames. This was all going on at the one time.

Senator Wong: Why don’t you go—

Senator McKENZIE: So DFAT reached out to our domestic airlines on Tuesday night?

Senator Wong: I’m really happy to assist, but I’m not going to be able, and nor is the secretary going to be able, to answer these questions.

Senator McKENZIE: Even if it’s your office to her office?

Senator Wong: Well, that is a question I’ve already taken on notice. But you’re not asking just about office contact; you’re asking about the series of decisions around assisted departures. We’re happy to answer them, but can I ask that you put them on notice, because, if we want to continue, I think it’s not going to be a useful use of the committee’s time.

Senator McKENZIE: Well, the committees exist so that senators can ask questions.

Senator Wong: Sure. If you want to spend the time asking questions without the people here, that’s a matter for you.

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that Qantas had a number of logistical issues in arranging their flights, including that it would take time to reach Tel Aviv. They’ve been very clear on their capacity constraints, particularly internationally. There were a range of offers on the table prior to the first procurement. I will ask on notice why there needed to be three separate procurement processes over a period of days. Some of those offers were from airlines and charter operators who had a deep and embedded knowledge of the Middle East and connections right through to Australia, which meant that we delayed our first repatriation flight by six days. So I am legitimately—

Senator Wong: No, that’s not right.

Senator McKENZIE: trying to work out—

Senator Wong: No, that’s not right.

Senator McKENZIE: Minister, that’s why I’m trying to work out the process.

Senator Wong: No, it was the opposite that was happening in government. We were trying to get flights as quickly as we could. It’s not that we chose to delay. So that’s simply—

Senator McKENZIE: I’m not saying you would choose to delay. That’s why I’m trying to unpack the process here in a calm and methodical manner about the—

Senator Wong: Methodical!

Senator McKENZIE: —interactions between you and Minister King, between your office and Minister King’s office and between DFAT and the department of infrastructure, transport and regional development, because there were interactions—

Senator Wong: So what’s the question?

Senator McKENZIE: When did you contact Minister King and ask her to ring Qantas and Virgin?

Senator Wong: I’ve said I will take that on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you also take on notice the interaction between your offices, if it wasn’t you personally—

Senator Wong: Sure.

Senator McKENZIE: and DFAT. My understanding is you contacted Virgin and Qantas on Tuesday.

Ms Adams : The days blur. I will get you the specifics—

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that, Ms Adams.

Ms Adams : I will just note for the record that—

Senator McKENZIE: I’m just trying to—

Senator Wong: Will you let her answer the question?

Ms Adams : Australia’s first flight out of Tel Aviv was on the same day as our Five Eyes partners managed their first flights too. So it was actually done extremely quickly.

Senator Wong: You have made an assertion also—

Senator McKENZIE: As you would appreciate, I’m just trying to get to the process.

Senator Wong: If can I add to the answer, you’ve made an assertion about flights being offered by some who have a deeper knowledge of the region. As you might recall and you would know, there are carriers who are national carriers of entities which may not have a formal diplomatic relationship with Israel, which therefore means they don’t access Tel Aviv. So—

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that.

Senator Wong: that is a complexity—

Senator McKENZIE: There are three commercial flights a day out of Tel Aviv—

Senator Wong: Yes, that is a complexity that we are aware of. When we went through the flights previously, obviously there were arrangements made to avail ourselves of the service that could be provided.

Senator McKENZIE: I look forward to the answers to my questions on notice.

Senator Wong: Was it about when I or my office contacted Minister King and when the department contacted the department of infrastructure and transport? Are they the two questions?

Senator McKENZIE: It’s with respect to contacting Qantas and Virgin specifically.

Senator Wong: Yes, sure, in that context.

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham, you’ve got a few more minutes, and then I’ll hand over to Senator Shoebridge.

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