As Ambassador, I regularly meet with businesses in the United States and Australia. US companies are by far the biggest foreign investors and employers in Australia. The US is Australia’s second biggest trading partner.
I meet with airlines, hotel operators and travel companies, from Australia and the United States, that facilitate travel for around two million people between our countries each year.
After becoming Ambassador, I was permitted, like all public servants, to own shares and make investments, provided that they were appropriately disclosed. At all times, I complied with those disclosure rules, as has been noted by DFAT in Senate Estimates hearings.
In the United States, I had regular complaints from staff and, in particular, consulates, about the quality of travel services provided by local suppliers to the Australian Embassy and consulates across the United States. I subsequently learned that Embassy travel arrangements had not been reviewed for twenty years.
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.
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 twenty years. Our friendship is not a secret given that we undertook treks for both the Kokoda Trail and Mt Kilimanjaro with TV cameras present.
I decided to join the meeting since Helloworld/QBT was, and still is, the existing approved supplier of travel to DFAT. It is normal practice for Ambassadors to meet with official suppliers of services to their department.
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.
One week after the meeting, Mr Carstensen wrote back to me. I did not respond to his email. I forwarded it to my 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.
The US travel arrangements have since gone to tender, nearly fifteen 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.