Albanese weighs ‘open skies’ deals with South-east Asian nations as Qatar debate rages

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Jakarta: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says the federal government is considering pursuing “open skies” agreements with South-east Asian nations such as Indonesia, a move that would allow unrestricted access for airlines between the relevant nations.

As the opposition continued to pressure the government over its decision to block a Qatar Airways bid for more flights into Australia, Albanese said boosting people-to-people links between Australia and South-east Asia was an important part of his plan to strengthen ties with the region.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and partner Jodie Haydon arrive in Jakarta for The Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN Summit in Indonesia.Credit: AAP

The government’s South-east Asia Economic Strategy, released on Wednesday, calls on the government to prioritise updating air services agreements and explore establishing reciprocal open skies agreements with South-east Asian nations where it is in the national interest.

The Australian Airports Association said in its submission to the report that particular focus should be given to increasing flights to and from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Australia currently has open skies agreements with a handful of countries including the United States, China, India, Singapore, New Zealand and Japan, a status that eliminates government interference in the commercial decisions of air carriers about routes, capacity, and pricing.

Albanese said the report’s recommendation about expanding air links between Australia and South-east Asia was an “important one” while stating that Australia already has “the most open aviation system in the world”.

“Australia has open-skies agreements with a few countries including the United States,” Albanese told reporters in Jakarta.

“We don’t have open-skies agreements with Europe, with most countries, so there are limits on where Australia can go and countries coming to Australia but if you look at our region it is very important.”

On Tuesday, Albanese argued that air route agreements were made between governments, not with airlines, and the Coalition had taken four years to agree to more flights with Qatar from 2018 to 2022 because of concerns about competition.

Transport Minister Catherine King has defended her June decision to reject Qatar’s request for more flights by citing figures showing that other airlines are adding 1100 flights per month on international routes.

The decision to block Qatar from more routes is now subject to a Senate inquiry.

Albanese, who met with Indonesia’s transport minister on Wednesday, said the government was working through the report’s 75 recommendations, and had established a process for annual reporting on progress on implementing them.

In a speech on the sidelines of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum, Albanese said his government was embarking on “the most significant upgrade of Australia’s economic engagement with ASEAN for a generation”.

“There’s so much potential still untapped,” Albanese said.

As part of a $94.4 million plan, Albanese said government would send taxpayer funded “deal teams” to South-East Asia to help identify and close opportunities for Australian investors, including for infrastructure projects.

“These teams will develop a pipeline of investment-ready projects and advise Australian investors on matters from regulatory approvals to finding local commercial partners,” he said.

He said the government would also create a new South-East Asia business exchange program to increase awareness of trade opportunities and establish an exchange program for young professionals.

Albanese said all ASEAN leaders would be invited to Australia in March when Australia hosts a special summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia relations.

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