Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor, who has a history of disclosure failures and being embroiled in scandals, yesterday updated his pecuniary interests register to reflect thousands of dollars worth of gifts from Virgin Australia and Qantas. These disclosures were made only after questions for this story. Taylor’s office points the finger at alleged co-offenders in the ALP but just how many Coalition MPs have failed to report largesse from the nation’s two major airlines, both of which are now demanding the Government support them with billions in public money? Anthony Klan reports.
Late yesterday, embattled Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, updated his pecuniary interests register to disclose that he and his wife, Sydney barrister Louise Clegg, had each been gifted memberships to Virgin Australia’s exclusive lounge “The Club”, as well as memberships to the Qantas’s Chairmans’ Lounge, the flying kangaroo’s top tier equivalent.
Taylor has also now disclosed he received a first class upgrade on a Qantas flight between Dallas in the US and Sydney, although he did not report the date of the flight.
Yesterday’s changes relate only to the most recent Register of Members’ Interests, and Taylor has not included dates relating to the newly disclosed Virgin and Qantas memberships, so it remains unclear when he and Clegg first became complimentary members of the exclusive lounges.
After declining to respond to questions for most of the past two days, Mr Taylor’s office yesterday evening confirmed the Register of Members’ Interests relating to the minister was incorrect and that Mr Taylor had updated it.
“I note that this is an issue across all sides of politics,” Taylor’s spokesman Liam O’Neil told Michael West Media.
“For example the Shadow Transport spokesperson Catherine King and Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Financial Services spokesperson Stephen Jones also have not recorded these memberships on their gift register.”
It is unclear whether King and Jones have in fact received Virgin or Qantas club memberships and Michael West Media is seeking comment.
Searches show many Coalition MP’s and their spouses have been repeatedly gifted the exclusive memberships (they expire every two years) since the Abbott government won power in 2013, meaning the total value of the benefits Mr Taylor has failed to disclose could potentially run into tens of thousands of dollars if he and Clegg have been members for numerous years.
The disclosure follows an investigation by Michael West Media which, sparked by the latest calls for taxpayer-funded handouts from Virgin CEO Paul Scurrah, found Virgin Australia had gifted The Club memberships to at least 54 current Coalition MP’s, including PM Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and to at least 32 Coalition MP spouses.
Taylor was absent from the list, with his entry in the Register of Members’ Interests previously showing no disclosures of any airline club memberships, or of any flight upgrades whatsoever, since he entered parliament in 2013.
The Federal Energy Minister has previously come under fire over his failure to make disclosures of potential conflicts of interest, including allegedly failing to declare, when meeting with environment officials regarding endangered grasslands, that he had a financial interest in a company being investigated for poisoning them.
Along with the four ongoing airline club memberships and the first class upgrade, Taylor’s new disclosures reflect that Clegg is a director of a property company called Chesterfield Flats Pty Ltd, and that Taylor had received a “decorative tray” from the US Secretary of Energy, a gift which remained with the Department of Energy.
It is not possible to buy memberships to The Club, but such memberships, would likely be worth well over $1,000 a year.
Membership to The Club allows the member and two of their guests free entry to the exclusive lounges at any time – the member does not need to be flying anywhere – as well as flight upgrades, free top-shelf food and drinks, and other perks such as free limousine travel.
Only the Virgin Australia CEO himself can grant membership to The Club, meaning Scurrah, or his predecessor in the top job John Borghetti, personally signed off of on the 80-plus memberships held by current Coalition MP’s and their spouses.
It is very likely Taylor is not alone among federal MPs who have failed to report, or incorrectly reported, club memberships and other gifts or benefits they have received from Qantas and Virgin Australia, but there are key questions as to how any MP has failed to meet these basic governance, legally mandated, disclosure requirements.
Virgin and Qantas lounge memberships are, collectively, by far the most expensive gifts provided to MPs, detailed analysis of the Register of Members’ Interests by Michael West Media shows.
Critics of the largesse argue it can sway political decisions and that it potentially puts taxpayers at a considerable disadvantage when MPs are required to choose between the interest of taxpayers and the interests of the commercial entities providing the lavish gifts.
Those concerns are magnified when MPs fail to follow the law and don’t disclose the gifts — and at times, such as now, when the donors are seeking massive taxpayer favours.
Despite not having paid tax in many years, Virgin Australia is seeking a $1.4bn bailout from taxpayers, a figure which is double the current value of its shares.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has since said Qantas should correspondingly get $4.2 billion in taxpayer funds, however that request is widely viewed as part of Qantas’s lobbying against Virgin receiving any special treatment.
Mid-last month, the Federal Government announced a bailout for the airline industry, of which Qantas and Virgin comprise the vast majority, worth up to $715m.
Suggestions that Virgin Australia could receive even more taxpayer funds has drawn strong criticism, particularly given the airline is at least 91% foreign owned.
Its owners include Chinese Communist Party-linked conglomerates HNA Group and Nanshan Group, the wealthy governments of Singapore and Abu Dhabi, and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson.
None of those owners are willing to put in any money in to prop up Virgin Australia – and Scurrah has publicly said he hasn’t even asked them – raising the question as to why Australian taxpayers would be required to do so. It is noted that whilst other airline chiefs have taken a pay cut, along with their boards, Scurrah is yet to follow suit.
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Anthony Klan is an Investigative journalist specialising in corporate malfeasance and corruption. Klan's investigations into the likes of superannuation, Google Australia, financial planning and Pink Batts have informed government policy and brought reform in Australia.