Joe Hockey and Matthias Cormann’s enjoyment of quiet cigars after the savage 2014 budget once sparked outrage but it’s Mr Hockey’s current job as US ambassador that could soon be up in smoke, according to Labor.
Opposition figures have made clear Mr Hockey, a former federal treasurer, is on notice after the HelloWorld scandal that has engulfed both men.
They say Mr Hockey is on his “last legs” and will not be reappointed to the $360,000-a-year ambassador’s job unless he’s cleared over the travel company scandal.
First, it was revealed Senator Cormann, the Finance Minister, had failed to notice that HelloWorld – whose chief executive, Andrew Burnes, is the Liberal Party treasurer – had paid for his private travel. HelloWorld had also recently won a lucrative government contract.
When that was exposed this week, Senator Cormann promptly paid the outstanding $2700, insisting he gave the company his credit card at the time but never noticed it wasn’t charged.
Senator Cormann also admitted this week that he had booked private travel three times by calling Mr Burnes directly. He denied he had been offered special deals.
Mr Hockey was drawn into the scandal, amid revelations he was involved in a meeting where a subsidiary of HelloWorld pitched for a government contract involving the official travel of embassy staff.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied reports that Mr Hockey instructed staff to meet with HelloWorld subsidiary QBT.
“I can advise the Australian embassy staff meeting … on 26 April, 2017, I’m advised, was not in relation to the tender process,” Mr Morrison said.
However, it was revealed on Thursday that Mr Hockey attended that meeting as US ambassador – despite also being one of HelloWorld’s top 20 shareholders.
In Senate estimates hearings on Thursday, Labor’s Penny Wong asked if “there is a possibility of saying to the person ‘I have got a financial interest in you and you will have to approach the embassy separately. I am one of your top 20 shareholders, it is not a good look for me to be asking people who report to me to meet with you’ “.
DFAT’s chief people officer Daniel Sloper said “that certainly is an option but it did not occur”.
“He didn’t choose to do that. He chose to be in the meeting? He chose to be in the meeting?,” Senator Wong said.
On Wednesday, HelloWorld issued a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, stating: “At no time has Ambassador Hockey or HelloWorld CEO Andrew Burnes discussed the DFAT tender and neither Mr Hockey nor Mr Burnes have had any involvement in the tender process”.
“Mr Burnes did not request the meeting with DFAT personnel in the United States. At all times HelloWorld and Mr Burnes have acted properly in the tender process,” it said.
Mr Hockey was dumped as treasurer by Malcolm Turnbull when he took over from Tony Abbott as prime minister in 2015. He was then appointed US ambassador.
As a former minister, Mr Hockey is also a double dipper; he is allowed to claim a reduced annual parliamentary pension of an estimated $90,000 if he chooses to do so.
His dumping as treasurer followed an annus horribilis for Mr Hockey, in which he also attracted censure for claiming that fuel excise increases hit the rich more than the poor because “the poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases”.
Mr Hockey also axed the baby bonus – on Mother’s Day – and accused mums who claimed workplace maternity leave and government payments they were legally entitled to of being “double dippers”.