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Will fixation on travel firm lead to integrity scrutiny?

February 25, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Helloworld can expect unprecedented scrutiny if Labor comes to power in the general election in May – with Opposition leader Bill Shorten pledging to make Helloworld the first target of his proposed national integrity commission.

Shorten told federal parliament on Thursday: “Australians do care about integrity. That is why, if we are elected, Helloworld will be the first item on the national integrity commission that we will set up.”

Debate about Helloworld continued in parliament for much of last week. It was probably the greatest concentration by MPs on a travel company ever seen.

On Thursday afternoon, a bombshell allegation by former Helloworld executive Russell Carstensen – which has been emphatically denied by Helloworld’s chief executive and managing director, Andrew Burnes – was tabled at a Senate estimates hearing.

Carstensen said that in 2017 he had been contacted by Burnes and told that he [Burnes] had arranged a meeting with Australian Ambassador to the US Joe Hockey “and I had to fly home via Washington to meet with him”.

According to Carstensen: “I asked Mr Burnes how could this be done so quickly he verbally advised me, ‘Hockey owes me’.”

Burnes denies he said any such thing.

Hockey is a shareholder in Helloworld which holds an Australian government accommodation and travel contract. Hockey declared all conflicts of interest in relation to Helloworld before the April 2017 meeting and he has since excused himself from all discussions and decisions relating to the procurement of travel services.

The two newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald and Age, later issued important statements correcting their story. See:  Papers issue corrections and express regret on Helloworld editorial

Last week Burnes, who is also the Liberal Party treasurer, issued a statement on what he said was “erroneous information” aired in the Senate.

“I did not organise any meetings between Russell Carstensen and Joe Hockey. Mr Carstensen’s own email of April 24, 2017 shows that he organised the meeting with Mr Hockey and I was simply CCed on the email,” Burnes stated.

“Further, Mr Hockey and I did not discuss the meeting in Washington at any time after it took place. DFAT employees were present at all times in that meeting and the meeting was disclosed by Mr Carstensen to DOFA [Department of Finance] at the time, as was appropriate and necessary under the contractual arrangements with DOFA.

“I emphatically deny ever having told Mr Carstensen that Mr Hockey ‘owes me’ or any words to that effect. Joe Hockey and I have been close friends for 20 years and it would be ridiculous to suggest I would say or imply he owes me anything.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Parliament on Thursday that Hockey had acted appropriately, citing a statement released by Helloworld to the Australian Stock Exchange.

Morrison said: “The statement to the Australian Stock Exchange from Helloworld Travel Ltd, says: At no time has ambassador Hockey or Helloworld CEO Andrew Burnes discussed the DFAT tender and neither Mr Hockey nor Mr Burnes have had any involvement in the tender process. Mr Burnes did not request the meeting with DFAT personnel in the United States.”

Morrison noted: “Companies do not make statements to the Stock Exchange lightly.”

Helloworld first hit front-page news headlines over a week ago, when the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age said that Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s flights for a family holiday to Singapore were paid for initially by Helloworld. See: Helloworld hits headlines over minister’s Singapore trip

Both papers made it clear they were not accusing Cormann or Burnes of any wrongdoing.

The name Helloworld cropped up frequently in Australia’s Parliament last week. A heated exchange between Shorten and Morrison took place over it.

Those interested can access the relevant Hansard page on the House of Representatives website here. If you then make a search on the page and type in the search-term “the Finance Minister abolished” (without the quote marks) it will take you straight to the action. Shorten’s motion was eventually defeated but the debate on it is colourful.

Written by Peter Needham

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