Tourism Australia expenses scandal: NACC called to investigate

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has been asked to investigate the $137,441 travel expense scandal at Tourism Australia, first revealed by Crikey in April.

Managing director Phillipa Harrison claimed immunity from questions about the scandal at Senate estimates late Tuesday night, saying she had been advised by the NACC not to divulge too many details “until they have finished their investigations”. 

“Their advice was very, very clear to us that they did not want me to disclose any other information because to do so may compromise current or potential investigations and prematurely impact the reputation of individuals,” Harrison said, appearing to be reading from written advice.

Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison (Image: Senate estimates)

According to information previously made available to Crikey, the scandal involved a senior Tourism Australia employee and two of their China-based colleagues who were fired last year for blowing taxpayer money on personal holiday trips. 

Crikey asked Tourism Australia on April 17 whether the matter had been referred to the NACC, and, if so, when, but the agency refused to confirm.

“All reporting obligations were complied with within an appropriate time frame,” was the answer given at the time. 

Crikey had also contacted the NACC for comment, and a spokesperson replied that the commission was unable to comment on the existence of an investigation. 

The Australian Federal Police told Crikey on April 19 it was “not aware of this matter”.

At estimates, Harrison revealed the NACC had been contacted on January 25. She also said Tourism Australia had engaged the consultancy firm Deloitte to “carry out a thorough forensic audit stretching back to 2021”.

“No further instances of wrongdoing were identified,” she said. 

A ‘first’

Trade Minister Don Farrell told the hearing the immunity claim based on NACC advice was a “first” at a budget estimates session. 

“I have to say this is the first time in my experience where a direction from the NACC has directed an official not to make a public statement,” Farrell said. 

Addressing Nationals Senator Ross Cadell, who was asking questions about the scandal, Farrell went on: “This does present some significant issues which I myself would like to get clarified. You and I both voted for this legislation and obviously this is how it’s being applied. 

“The witness obviously has to comply, I believe, with the direction of the NACC. She has no choice.”

The minister went on to say he would seek to get “more information on what the government’s responsibilities, and the department’s responsibilities” are in instances where NACC advice would prevent the Senate from asking questions. 

While Harrison refused to divulge the identities of the three people fired, she did appear to inadvertently confirm parts of Crikey’s previous reporting. In response to a question from Cadell about who the corporate travel provider was that the three employees had used to book their holiday trips, Harrison let slip a comment that seemed to confirm the incident was related to Tourism Australia’s China office. 

“[The travel provider] is FCM in China… and also here in Sydney,” Harrison said. 

Asked by Cadell if any law enforcement organisations in China had been made aware of the incident, Harrison said: “I’m not saying that it was a China issue necessarily.”

Pressed further, she conceded no international authorities had been contacted about the incident. 

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