Joe Hockey has denied an allegation he met with a now former Helloworld executive because the travel company’s CEO said the Aussie ambassador to the US “owes” him.
Ex-Helloworld executive Russell Carstensen claims Andrew Burnes arranged for Hockey, and other embassy staff to meet with him two years ago in the US.
According to Carstensen, the Helloworld boss organised the meeting because Burnes said “Hockey owes me”.
However, Hockey said in a statement that Carstensen’s allegation was “absolute nonsense”, and that it was “deeply regrettable” that the meeting was “misrepresented”.
“On 24 April 2017, I received an email from Mr Russell Carstensen from QBT. He indicated he would be in Washington DC and would be available to visit the embassy to discuss travel business,” he said.
“QBT and/or its associates in the Helloworld Group had been providing various travel services to the federal government since 2012.
“Prior to the scheduling of the meeting, I had made the Minister Counsellor (management) and Consul General in the embassy aware of both my friendship with Mr Burnes at Helloworld and my shareholding.
“Mr Burnes and his wife Cinzia are close personal friends of my family and have been for nearly 20 years. Our friendship is not a secret given that we undertook treks for both the Kokoda Trail and Mt Kilimanjaro with TV cameras present.”
Hockey said he decided to join the meeting since Helloworld/QBT was, and still is, the existing approved supplier of travel to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
“It is normal practice for ambassadors to meet with official suppliers of services to their department,” he said.
“The meeting was a general discussion about current arrangements for the delivery of travel services in the United States and Australia. There were no commercial opportunities with the embassy offered or available.
“After the meeting, I noted to the Minister Counsellor (management) and Consul General in the embassy that I wanted no further engagement with Helloworld/QBT on this matter.
“It is deeply regrettable that the circumstances around the meeting between the embassy and QBT have been misrepresented.”
According to Hockey, Carstensen wrote back to him one week after the meeting. However, Australia’s ambassador to the US claims he did not respond to the email, instead forwarding it to his executive assistant, “and heard nothing more”.
“Since that time, I have excused myself from all discussions and decisions relating to the procurement of travel services,” Hockey said.
“The US travel arrangements have since gone to tender, nearly 15 months after the meeting in April 2017 with Mr Carstensen. The chief financial officer of DFAT in Canberra is the decision-maker for this ongoing tender.
“The allegation that I somehow ‘owe’ Mr Burnes is absolute nonsense. It is also and, most importantly, irrelevant to the conduct of the tender process run by DFAT, which I am not a party to.”
Hockey’s statement comes shortly after Burnes denied Carstensen’s “ridiculous” allegation.