A number of MPs and senators are handing back their access to Qantas’ prestigious chairman’s lounge in the name of integrity, following a series of sagas that have painted the domestic carrier in negative light.
It comes as the airline has come under fire in recent months over its influence in federal government and a recent high court ruling finding it had illegally sacked workers during the pandemic.
Two senators, the independent senator David Pocock and the Green’s Barbara Pocock, updated their registers of interest this week to reveal they were no longer members of the invite-only airport lounge.
The senators are the latest in a string of independent and minor party politicians who say they are putting their integrity before the perks of the job.
The Qantas chairman’s lounge is one of those Canberra bonuses, offering its small but elite group of members free food and refreshments in a restricted section of the airport. The lounge’s membership list is discreet, but membership is often reserved for politicians, top business executives and lobbyists.
Importantly, membership cannot be bought or earned through frequent flying.
Qantas said it also extended invitations to secretaries and deputy secretaries of federal departments, agency chairs, CEOs and commissioners, as well as senior military officials in an answer to a Senate inquiry on Thursday.
David Pocock, a first time senator for the ACT, said access to the lounge was symptomatic of the “cosy relationship” between government and companies.
“I just don’t think it’s worth it,” he told Guardian Australia. “It’s kind of an example of what’s wrong with Australian politics when it comes to lobbying.
“The use of sort of soft power and little benefits here and there that over time add up.”
It is a similar reason for Greens senator Barbara Pocock, who has been at the centre of the charge against consulting companies such as PwC in recent months.
The senator said even a perceived conflict of interest was a good reason to rip up her golden ticket to the lounge.
“I just felt uncomfortable being involved in work which holds others to account while I have a potentially perceived conflict of interest,” Barbara Pocock said.
“Perception is important. You don’t have to be taking a cash kickback or … be in consultation with [former Qantas CEO] Alan Joyce to have a perception of conflict.”
Barbara Pocock’s colleague, Brisbane MP Stephen Bates, said relinquishing his privileged access to the lounge “wasn’t a big deal” because he “wasn’t using it much anyway”.
“I don’t want to have to rub shoulders with politicians and CEOs any more than I’ve been forced to during a sitting week,” Bates said.
The Greens member for Ryan, Elizabeth Watson-Brown, has gone a step further and ditched her access to the Virgin equivalent – Virgin Australia Beyond – in addition to the chairman’s lounge.
A Senate inquiry has been examining the decisions behind a federal government ruling to block Qatar Airways’ bid to double its flights to major Australian cities.
Led by the Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie, the committee has also been looking at whether Qantas’ lobbying efforts influenced the federal government in its decision-making process to the detriment of consumers and the wider economy.
When asked whether McKenzie saw her membership to the lounge as being in conflict with her role as committee chair on the inquiry, she said it did not.
“If Qantas wants to kick me out tomorrow, so be it, you know, it’s been a lovely experience over a period of time,” she said in September.
“But at the end of the day, it should stop none of us doing our job and that is holding them accountable.”
The battle against ‘corporate lobbyists’
Last month, Kooyong’s MP, Monique Ryan, told Guardian Australia she had ditched her coveted access because it was “inconsistent” with her plans to introduce a private members’ bill later this year to regulate lobbyists who “swarm parliament”.
Ryan, another first-time MP, said she had been “stunned” by the culture in Canberra.
“Large corporations and their lobbyists are deeply engrained in political life: corporate lobbyists swarm Parliament House during the day, take politicians out for dinner at night, and as a result can influence laws much more than everyday Australians can imagine,” Ryan said.
Qantas revealed six of its staff had been granted passes sponsored by politicians to access Parliament House unaccompanied.
The passes are sponsored by senators Simon Birmingham and Andrew Bragg as well as Barnaby Joyce, Michael McCormack, Julian Leeser and the transport minister, Catherine King.