Simon Birmingham has confirmed former Qantas boss Alan Joyce could face jail time if he does not front up to a senate inquiry, but has watered down chances of the former chief executive spending time behind bars.
Speaking to Sky News on Friday, the leader of the opposition in the senate said that he hoped Mr Joyce would front up to a Senate inquiry when he returned to Australia to avoid any adverse consequences.
It follows an extraordinary escalation by Coalition senators on Thursday who confirmed they would summon Joyce when he returns to Australia and wouldn’t rule out further legal action if he failed to comply.
“I know everybody got excited ... yes, it could end in that scenario [Joyce going to prison]. But I would trust, it won't end that scenario,” Mr Birmingham said.
The former airline chief, who served as the head of Qantas for 15 years, stepped down from the top job at the beginning of September, and has not appeared before a Senate inquiry into the federal government’s controversial decision to block Qatar Airways from increasing its capacity into Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
But late on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Joyce’s lawyers said he was not available to appear as he was not in the country for “personal obligations”.
If he appears, Senators are expected to press the former Qantas chief over his supposed conversations with Transport Minister Catherine King, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, over the decision that advantaged the airline over its major domestic rival, Virgin.
The committee understands that Mr Joyce is currently in Ireland caring for his ill mother, Mr Birmingham said, adding that he had not refused to appear but would be summoned to appear upon return.
“To be very clear that when he gets back to Australia, the regular summons will be issued in terms of his attendance,” Mr Birmingham said.
“We would hope and trust that he will attend. He hasn't said that he isn’t willing to attend. So we trust he will, that he’ll front up and that he should be transparent about interactions.”
Jail time as a result of the refusal to appear before a parliamentary inquiry is not without precedent.
In the 1950s, two journalists were jailed for not adhering to a summons order.
On Thursday when pressed on whether the committee would seriously consider trying to jail Joyce if he didn’t comply with the summons, Senator Bridget McKenzie refused to rule it out.
“There are a whole raft of processes within the standing orders and the procedures of the Senate, which will eventually make it very hard for former CEO Joyce to not appear,” she said.
“He sought to rip his customers off, pocket over half a billion dollars worth of Covid flight credits, sold tickets to ghost flights and who indeed illegally sacked 1700 workers … this was no ordinary CEO.”
The Senate could theoretically jail someone found to be in contempt for up to six months.