Pemberton Strong sets the scene for another bumper Qantas profit and lifts the lid on the man behind its Canberra influence-peddling, David Hawes. Also, read to the bottom for a strong response from Martin Ferguson

Good times are being forecast for Qantas when the country’s biggest airline reports on Thursday. Expect a sizeable profit and more bluster from CEO Geoff Dixon about the terrible nature of some competition.

More concerns about Singapore Airlines (the discussions between the Federal Government and the Singapore Government were held in Canberra earlier in the week) winning access to the Pacific routes, and no doubt a bit more doom and gloom to frighten employees and worry investors.

Dixon will no doubt downplay the profitability of the trans-Pacific routes dominated by Qantas and a struggling United Airlines of the US. There are also rumours of United being interested in selling some of its routes. Could Singapore buy those and do a deal on the access and join Qantas as a duopolist rather than a competitor?

No doubt he will repeat those claims of last month that it was Qantas under him that improved the returns from the Pacific routes, conveniently ignoring that it was Qantas under James Strong and Gary Pemberton as CEO and chairman respectively, who did most of the hard work in cutting costs and making the routes business propositions, as opposed to the loss makers they were under the old government-owned Qantas management.

Hopefully Dixon’s pronouncements at the Thursday presentation and subsequent interviews will be short on doom and long on some overdue congratulations for staff after news that Qantas employees are not feeling exactly loved at the moment. Check out this story from Tuesday’s SMH.

The key part of the story reads as follows:

A six-month survey of more than 8000 staff has thrown up mixed results about their ‘engagement’ with the company and its future. Though senior managers will not confirm the figures, staff briefed in a series of forums in Singapore last month say they have been told the results, which – in some areas – are among the lowest recorded by the international human resources company, Hewitt Associates.

Qantas, however, said the result showed that it was ‘stable’, there was a range of results and that this was the first such survey done. However, a former senior employee says it’s no wonder there are morale problems at the airline:

Qantas has taken over one airline (Impulse), launched three more (Australian Airlines, Jetstar and the Jetstar Asia), and has increased the CEO’s take home pay by more than 500 percent to around $6 million a year.

Jetstar and Australian Airlines serve as the vehicles for lowering wages and reducing conditions to level lower than the core airlines. Since they took off we have seen progressively more routes transferred to them from the core airline. Surprise, surprise!

The Qantas CEO has continued to insist that although the company can afford to pay him and his team more each year and provide bonuses, it has to cut staff costs by moving jobs offshore, hence the warning in January to shift up to 7,000 jobs offshore.

His remarkable assurance that permanent Australia-based attendants can apply for the London-based jobs must have them rolling in the aisles with laughter at Qantas.

That is, take a job with less pay in London than in Australia for senior attendants on international routes. In round terms the Australian dollar salary there would be around $A65 000 per annum. Try living on that in London, where a cup of coffee costs an arm and a leg.”

But another correspondent has written to chide us for being wide of the mark on that recent kerfuffle about the Singapore junket offered to members of the Federal parliamentary transport Committee. Here’s our report on that. The whistle was blown by Federal Opposition transport spokesman, Martin Ferguson, but our correspondent says this:

Make no mistake about it: if you ever thought John Anderson was the Minister for Qantas (he’s the Federal Transport Minister), he seriously looks independent against the custodian of the Left in the Shadow Ministry, Marty Ferguson!

Ferguson’s attack on Singapore Air was a neat set-up by Qantas, and Geoff Dixon is smiling sweetly behind the scenes. Geoff Dixon and Marty are good mates, and Dixon makes sure he spends a lot of good quality time with Marty.

Problem is it’s infuriated his own. Steve Gibbons was absolutely apoplectic at how Marty set him up, hook, line and sinker.

Geoff has been heavying hard. Last week he was camped in Parliament, trotting between Ministers and Shadow Ministers, backbenchers and his other friends in Canberra.

His talk to the Coalition Friends of Tourism was just a litany of anti-free-trade messages. Don’t let the world end (or at least not before we announce our billion dollar profit)!

The timing of Singapore’s invite was not great, but I am told the invite actually came well before the matter of the Government’s meeting with the Singapore Minister was set. And Marty would know that the Committee has absolutely zero to do with air talks.

But the real irking point for Marty’s colleagues was that this is a man who effectively sat on the Qantas Board for years, while he was Chief of the ACTU. His criticism of Committee members for perceived conflicts of interest did not go down well.

Did he declare in the same comments that Qantas was a major donor to his own 2001 re-election campaign? No. I mean, you want to talk influence, as Marty does, and perception, as Marty does: Qantas making a direct donation to the man’s campaign who would have been Minister for Transport in a Beazley Government (yes, I know that term seems strange), and he has the brazenness to suggest the perception of conflict of interest arises in Singapore inviting a Committee on a study trip? Crikey, you can’t be serious!!!

But did he say anything when Emirates Airlines brought one of their planes to Canberra and gave everyone a jolly – some MPs managed a jolly to Dubai with them too.

Pemberton Strong’s assessment is right that there’s influence peddling going on. He’s waxed lyrical about David Hawes before. This guy is extraordinary. Any MP who has a wait-listed flight, or wants an upgrade, they ring Hawesy and it’s all sorted, mate. He’s Geoff’s fix-it man around Canberra, and the influence he dishes is astonishing. MPs who need help with their constituency charities can always lean on Hawesy for a few tickets to that worthwhile cause. And he always delivers.

One former senior bureaucrat used to laugh that when most lobbyists come walking down the corridor, politicians turn out the lights and pretend not to be in. When Hawesy comes, they run out into the corridors and follow him like he’s the pied piper ….

A response from Martin Ferguson

Martin Ferguson writes:

I write in response to this article by Pemberton Strong concerning Qantas published on your web-site on February 15 2005 and request that you correct the record as far as the article relates to me.

Firstly, contrary to your claim, as President of the ACTU I never served on the Qantas or Australian Airlines boards. The facts are that, despite being offered by the Government of the day appointments to the boards of Qantas, Australian Airlines, ABC, Commonwealth Bank, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and a range of other bodies, I never accepted any such positions as they were paid positions. As ACTU President I accepted only the wage paid by the ACTU and never accepted as a matter of principle any other paid positions. I do confess to receiving from Singapore Airlines a travel bag whilst I was ACTU President.

With respect to your claims about Geoff Dixon visiting Parliament last week, thanks for the information, he made no contact with me. Further, it interests me to lear that “Geoff spends a lot of good quality time” with me. I dealt with him during my time as Shadow Minister for Transport on a professional basis and have had no contact with him since taking up my new portfolio. Perhaps your correspondent Pemberton Strong socialises with Geoff but I don’t.

It should also be noted that as Shadow Minister, I aggressively supported Singapore Airlines taking over Air New Zealand, as I believed it would have been of assistance in potentially saving Ansett. This was not something Qantas favoured. Alternatively, whilst I stated publicly I had an open mind on the review of the Qantas ownership provisions concerning foreign investment, I actually opposed, to the irritation of Qantas, the Australia-New Zealand Mutual Recognition Bill. This was reflected in the policy I took to the last election, as the Mutual Recognition Bill would have reduced the number of on-board flight attendants, which I believe is unacceptable from a safety and security point of view. Each policy issue was considered in my office on merit and in no way did my recommendations on a number of policy issues endear me to Qantas.

As to election donations, yes Qantas has donated to my campaigns in 2001 and 2004. The difference is that, unlike many members of political parties, I go out of my way to declare these donations in my name, on the public record, so as to guarantee transparency and accountability. I have also declared in Shadow Ministerial deliberations corporate donations, where relevant. Perhaps the Electoral Act should be changed so that all members adopt the same policy of declaring in their name donations received, rather than through their respective party structures, 500 Clubs and foundations so as to avoid the donation standing in their names.

With respect to Emirates, as Shadow Minister for Transport, I did not go on their joy ride around Canberra. Nor was I aware of some MPs travelling to Dubai. You should also note that Emirates has never lobbied me for any particular policy outcome.

The Singapore Airlines offer of travel was wrong as it was made at a time of very serious policy deliberations. People should not forget that federal politicians have very generous overseas study travel entitlements that they can use to travel to inspect transport infrastructure such as in Singapore, if they so decide. The perception of Singapore Airlines offering an all expenses paid trip to politicians at a time of serious policy deliberations would concern most in the community. Qantas had nothing to do with me raising this issue, contrary to your suggestion.

Please take the necessary time to check your facts in the future.

Martin Ferguson MP
Member for Batman
Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Resources and Tourism