Mr Burnes’s friendship with another senior Liberal, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, was the focus of a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday after The Age and Sydney Morning Herald revealed he had not been charged by Helloworld for a Singapore family trip in July 2017.
Senator Cormann admitted getting Mr Burnes to book family trips for him on three separate occasions, with the July 2017 Singapore booking, worth more than $2700, made just weeks before Helloworld was announced as the winner of a Finance Department tender to oversee $1 billion in federal government flight and accommodation spending.
In Mr Hockey’s case, DFAT documents seen by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald show that he asked embassy staff to set up a meeting between Minister Counsellor Justin McPhillips, who oversees the Washington embassy’s operations, and an executive from Helloworld subsidiary Qantas Business Travel (QBT).
At the meeting, Mr Hockey and Mr McPhillips were told that QBT could provide a better service than the embassy’s existing travel provider. One file shows that QBT promised to provide a 24-hour, seven-day-per-week-service.
At least one DFAT official later became aware of Mr Hockey’s personal interests in the company run by Mr Burnes, according to sources with knowledge of the matter, and expressed concern about a potential conflict of interest arising from Mr Hockey’s organising of the embassy meeting.
If QBT won an embassy travel service contract, Mr Hockey, along with Mr Burnes, could stand to personally benefit through extra revenue earned by Helloworld.
One source with knowledge of the conflict of interest concerns said it resulted in a decision that any embassy travel contract would be put out to public tender.
A DFAT spokesperson confirmed late yesterday that the April, 2017 meeting took place, but said there was “no follow-up from the meeting and it was completely unrelated to any procurement activity”.
However, The Age and Herald have seen DFAT documents that appear to show Helloworld did follow up from the meeting, pointing out what they saw as the deficiencies in the travel service being delivered to the embassy at that point.
The departmental spokesman said a tender process for the embassy travel contract had opened in August, 2018, 16 months after the embassy meeting. Mr Hockey had “declared his shareholding in Helloworld … and has no role in the tender”.
“Officials from the Embassy in Washington regularly meet with Australian and US companies, including travel providers, to discuss their operations in North America,” the spokesperson said.
It’s understood that nine companies submitted expressions of interest in the contract, and four have responded to final requests for tender.
In estimates hearings on Tuesday, Senator Cormann said he was introduced to Mr Burnes by Mr Hockey at a Parliament House function around seven years ago. He now regards Mr Burnes as a friend.
Mr Hockey’s wife, Melissa Babbage, was on the advisory board of Mr Burnes’s company, AOT, between October 2014 and May 2015. AOT is now a Helloworld subsidiary. Mr Burnes is Helloworld’s chief executive.
Mr Burnes, who has donated more than $500,000 to the Liberal Party as an individual and through his companies, did not respond to questions on Tuesday in relation to his role in the Washington meeting arranged by Mr Hockey.
Senator Cormann reiterated he had no involvement in or influence over the finance department 2017 tender won by Helloworld. The Age and Sydney Morning Herald do not suggest otherwise.
He said he paid the outstanding $2700 amount to Helloworld when the company confirmed on Monday to him that his credit card had not been charged due to an “administrative error”. He admitted it was his responsibility to check his credit card statement to ensure the flights had been paid.
The estimates hearing also heard how the senior Finance department official in charge of negotiating a new contract with Helloworld, John Sheridan, was moved from his role in July, 2017, after Mr Burnes first complained to Senator Cormann and then Finance Department secretary Rosemary Huxtable about his team’s emphasis on savings from the travel contract.
Senator Cormann said he had pointed Mr Burnes to the department in relation to his concerns about the negotiation process led by Mr Sheridan.
Ms Huxtable told the estimates committee hearing that, while she could not recall if Mr Burnes specifically complained about Mr Sheridan when they spoke on or around July 12, 2017, she did remember asking the Helloworld boss if he wished to register a formal complaint. She said he replied that he did not.
Mr Sheridan confirmed that 12 days after Mr Burnes’s call, on July 24, 2017, he was shifted to another role. Like all senior department executives, he told the committee, he worked at the direction of the secretary.
Labor’s finance spokesman Jim Chalmers said Senator Cormann’s use of Mr Burnes to book his private travel arrangements was an example of the “alternative universe” the Liberal Party inhabits.
“They want us to believe that it is entirely normal, when you want to book a trip for your family, to ring the CEO of the company and get your travel booking done by the CEO of a large company in this country,” he said.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.