David Epstein’s appointment as Qantas’s General Manager of Government and Corporate Affairs perfectly demonstrates the hole in the Government Lobbyist Register and Code of Conduct.

Epstein will go from being the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to representing a huge Australian company that depends heavily on our legislatively-protected closed shop of an aviation sector for its profits. The chief role of Qantas’s Government relations area is to maintain pressure on the Government to resist foreign applications for access to Qantas’s domestic and international routes. The aviation area of the Commonwealth Department of Transport (these days called Infrastructure) has for decades worked to protect the interests of Qantas against foreign competitors, to the detriment of Australian travellers.

This is a critical time for Qantas, and not just because of the impact of financial crisis and a slowing economy. The Government is in the midst of a major aviation review, with the goal of producing an aviation White Paper by the middle of 2009. One of the key issues is, in Anthony Albanese’s words, an international aviation policy that “balances the needs of an Australian based industry with international competitiveness.” That’s code for how much protection from competition Qantas will continue to get. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has already fired a shot across the bows of the protectionists in Infrastructure, calling for liberalisation in its submission to the review.

A handy time to have the Prime Minister’s former COS representing you in the corridors of power. In the PMO, Epstein would have been closely involved in the decision to establish the review, and working out what the Government wanted from it.

However, Epstein has not breached the Government’s lobbyist code of conduct. “Lobbying activities” under the Lobbyist Register and code of conduct apply only to third party lobbyists, not to the in-house variety like Epstein — a gap that Crikey has long lamented.

Working in the Prime Minister’s Office almost certainly means you are exposed to pretty much every issue facing the Government. If the Lobbyist code of conduct was extended to in-house lobbyists, staff from the PMO would be banned from any lobbying work for twelve months. Tough, perhaps, but a relatively small price to pay for avoiding the sort of blatant conflict that Epstein now has. Undoubtedly he will handle it professionally and with full regard for the strict confidentiality requirements placed on all former staff and public servants. But it’s not good enough, especially for a Government that has proved it’s the real thing about accountability in other areas.

Here’s the internal memo sent by Qantas management announcing the appointment of Epstein:

Message from the CEO and CEO Designate — Appointment of EGM Government and Corporate Affairs

We are pleased to announce the appointment of Mr David Epstein to the newly created role of Executive General Manager Government and Corporate Affairs.

Mr Epstein will join Qantas and take up the role on 1 December 2008, based in Sydney. He will report to the CEO, and will be responsible for government relations, regulatory affairs, corporate communication, and employee communication.

Mr Epstein’s appointment underlines the importance that Qantas places on maintaining strong relationships with external stakeholders.

Mr Epstein comes to Qantas with a strong background in government, media relations and public affairs, most recently as Chief of Staff and Principal Adviser to the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

David Hawes Group General Manager Government Relations and Belinda de Rome Group General Manager Corporate Communication will be leaving Qantas at the end of February 2009. We thank David and Belinda for their major contributions to the success of Qantas and their tireless efforts over the past seven years.

David Hawes has had a distinguished career with the Federal Government in Foreign Affairs and Trade, and for the past 14 years with Qantas. David has been an effective voice on behalf of Qantas to a variety of regulatory forums and various governments since before privatisation.

Belinda has been at Qantas for 13 years and led the Corporate Communication function since April 2005, a period characterised by intense and constant media scrutiny on a broad range of issues.

Geoff Dixon
Chief Executive Officer

Alan Joyce
Chief Executive Officer Designate