Helloworld whistleblowers police inquiry 'not at my behest', Cormann says

Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, says police are not acting at “my behest” by investigating whistleblowers who revealed he was not billed for international flights by travel company Helloworld, a major government contractor with close links to the Liberal party.

Leaked information from within Helloworld showed earlier this year that the company had not charged Cormann and his family for international flights worth $2,780.82 in 2017, not long before it won a $1bn contract with the finance minister’s department.

The Nine newspapers reported on Friday that two former Helloworld staff were now under investigation by Victoria police, and were visited on Wednesday for questioning. Victoria police confirmed in a statement that its fraud and extortion squad was “currently investigating allegations an employee accessed unauthorised data from a private company”.

“As the investigation is ongoing, we are not in a position to comment further on the matter,” a police spokesman said.

Related: Mathias Cormann booked holiday flights directly with Helloworld chief executive

Cormann has denied any suggestion that he lodged a complaint with Victoria police.

“It certainly hasn’t got anything to do with me, I wasn’t involved in any complaints, I mean I really don’t know,” he told Sky News on Friday morning.

The finance minister said he had only found out about the investigation in media reports.

“This is state police in Victoria, a Labor jurisdiction, I don’t think anyone can credibly suggest that anything there is happening at my behest,” he said.

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“I suspect that state police in Victoria, like police everywhere, act independently.”

Cormann also denied any suggestion he had received free travel from Helloworld. He sought to characterise it as an invoice that was simply not processed correctly.

“I booked travel, I supplied my credit card expecting obviously that the payment would be processed,” he said. “When it wasn’t processed, what I would have expected staff to do that became aware of that would be to either process the payment with the credit card details that were provided for that purpose or if there was any outstanding invoice and credit card payment couldn’t be processed, to chase me for it.”

Cormann booked the travel directly through the chief executive of the company, Andrew Burnes. Burnes was then the Liberal party’s federal treasurer.

Asked on Friday why he had booked the flights directly through Burnes, Cormann initially said it was for privacy reasons and to avoid him having to walk into a travel agency.

He couldn’t explain why he didn’t simply book the flights online.

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“I could have, that’s right, I could have, that’s quite right,” he told Sky News.

Cormann said he didn’t know why the fraud and extortion squad was investigating the matter. He said he had forgotten about the story.

Cormann has since paid the invoice.

The police investigation comes just months after the federal government enacted strong new corporate whistleblowing laws that extend protections to former company employees who speak out about misconduct.

Those laws give corporate whistleblowers protection in some circumstances for speaking out publicly, and create civil penalties for anyone who causes or threatens detriment to those who blow the whistle.

“It broadens the scope of who a whistleblower is, and so now it includes not just employees but former employees, contractors, volunteers, and even the spouses of employees,” the Transparency International Australia chief executive, Serena Lillywhite, said.

“It’s quite transformative really because it significantly broadens the scope of who can be deemed a whistleblower and … there is no longer a requirement that a whistleblower must first go internally to blow the whistle.”

The laws also require large companies to have a plan and policy or dealing with whistleblower complaints. Those plans must be in place by January.