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Us and Them: Qantas execs and RoboDebt instigators are them

by Rex Patrick | Jun 22, 2024 | Business, Latest Posts

FOI reveals ASIC and ACCC officials spent as much time talking about sanctioning Qantas executives as it takes a customer to rebook one of their 86,000 ‘ghost flights’. Rex Patrick reports on the untouchables.

No criticism is made of the judicial system in this article. The judiciary deal with the cases bought before them. But they have no business in deciding who gets charged and placed before them. That’s the role of government.

And that’s where the problem lies. It very much seems that whether you get charged by the government depends on who you are and whether you are among the ranks of the powerful and privileged, say a company executive.

The RoboDebt let-down

The RoboDebt Royal Commission report, handed down in July 2023, was scathing of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former government services minister Stuart Robert and former department of human services secretary Kathryn Campbell. 

Despite the deaths that resulted from RoboDebt, despite all the terrible harm caused by the unlawful scheme, no-one at the top of the political and bureaucratic tree has been sanctioned.

Since the report was handed down, Scott Morrison has moved on to become a non-executive vice chairman of US consulting firm American Global Strategies and has also assumed a strategic advisor role with AUKUS investor DYNE Maritime, to assist the firm benefit from the $368B submarine program that he orchestrated when he was Prime Minister.

The only public news in the last 12 months that intersects with Morrison’s RoboDebt past was a revelation that Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus gave approval for the taxpayer to continue covering his RoboDebt legal fees.

Qantas, FOI

Taxpayers to cover Scott Morrisons ongoing RoboDebt Legal Fees (Source: FOI)

Stuart Robert has moved on, as has Kathryn Campbell – both without sanction. Ms Campbell got an extra year on a top public service salary for very little real work, effectively a paid holiday, and still holds entitlement to wear an Order of Australia medal for “distinguished service to public administration”.

The that’s it.  

News on June 6 that the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has decided not to pursue those individuals referred to it by the Royal Commission will come as a huge relief to anyone that might have been named in the sealed section of the Commissioner’s report.

Any further inquiries by the Australian Public Service Commissioner aren’t going to amount to anything more than a slap with the proverbial wet lettuce leaf, and indeed even that.  

Untouchables

It just seems to be the way.

If you’re a large player in breach of the tax code, the Tax Office’s fear of a deep pocketed defendant will ensure a prosecution won’t go ahead, and its business as usual for the tax dodger. If you’re a small player in breach of the tax code, look out. Ask Richard Boyle.

If you’re a general in the Army and war crimes occur under your watch, feel free to pursue your career with immunity. After you leave the Army, you’ll come back regularly on contract work and maybe get a Vice-Regal appointment.

But if you call out the war crimes, you’ll find yourself doing a 5-year stint in an ACT jail (the Government will spend $2.4M in legal fees ensuring you get a bed there). Ask David McBride.

If you’re a large company who received millions in taxpayers’ JobKeeper funds during COVID, in circumstances where you were actually making a bigger profit in the pandemic than before it, enjoy the gift. But take just $50 more JobSeeker than you were entitled to and they’ll spend tens of thousands pursuing you.

The lesson is, don’t be the little guy.

Qantas misleading conduct

And that brings us back to Qantas.

In late August 2023 the ACCC lodged an application in the Federal Court alleging Qantas engaged in conduct that was “misleading or deceptive, or likely to mislead” and “made false or misleading representations” to customers and “engaged in conduct that was liable to mislead the public”.

In support of the application, the ACCC advised the Court that, despite having cancelled flights, Qantas continued to: 

  • offer for sale tickets for over 8,000 cancelled flights for 2 or more days after cancellation. On average, such flights were offered for sale for approximately 16 days after cancellation;
  • display the details of over 10,000 Cancelled Flights for 2 or more days on the “Manage Booking” page of consumers who had purchased tickets on those flights, with no indication that the flight had been cancelled. On average, it took approximately 18 days for consumers who had purchased tickets on those flights to be notified of the cancellation of their flight.

The proceedings have been discontinued after Qantas admitted it misled tens of thousands of travellers and agreed to pay $120 million made up of remediation payments of $20 million to customers and a $100 million fine. Those penalties will not be paid by the Qantas executive, but by the shareholders (who include a bunch of little guys).

No penalty for Qantas executives

So, what of the senior executives purportedly responsible for the conduct of the company?

FOI reveals … not very much.

On September 12, 2023, ASIC did ask to speak to the ACCC about the Qantas action being taken in the Federal Court and whether the ACCC had looked into the involvement of Qantas officials and executives.

Qantas, FOI

ACCC meeting request (Source: FOI)

The ACCC and ASIC met on Teams at 930 on Tuesday 19 September. They had another short Teams meeting on 27 September and a final meeting on 15 November. From there on in there’s been deafening silence. Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Some have left the company with millions in bonuses. Others have been promoted to new positions. Everyone has moved forward, untouched.

The message that flows from this Qantas saga is that directors of large companies can engage in egregious conduct against their customers, and whilst there is risk for the shareholders who foot the bill for executive blunders and malfeasance, nothing will happen to them.

No punishment, no deterrence

There is no action from the corporate regulator and no deterrence either. It’s a free for all (except the paying public).

Like so many others that sit high in the chains of command in our society, they’re unaccountable and untouchable. Politicians could act, but it’s not really in their interest to do so. After all, what’s good for corporate goose must be good for political gander.

Over time, this sort of injustice destroys public trust in our regulatory institutions. It destroys faith in the system. At some point the price to be paid by all will be very high indeed. But by that time today’s privileged fat cats, members of a business and political elite who think they are above and beyond accountability, will have moved on.

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Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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