Qantas’ most elite club may run at a loss, but it seems to pay off

Some 70 per cent of voters disapprove of elite perks such as Qantas Chairman's Lounge memberships.

Some 70 per cent of voters disapprove of elite perks such as Qantas Chairman's Lounge memberships. Photo: Getty

Senators played musical chairs this week at Australia’s most elite club.

Disclosures show Greens’ Senator Barbara Pocock resigned her membership of Qantas’ Chairman’s Lounge, an invitation-only lounge the airline’s former boss Alan Joyce described as “probably the most exclusive club in the country”.

But Senator Jacqui Lambie has been welcomed back behind the unmarked walnut-panelled doors.

The Tasmanian independent was banned from the club (and the airline) after a 2021 incident at a Qantas counter allegedly involving explicit language and pain medication.

According to Open Politics, a website that tracks parliamentary disclosures, Pocock is the fourth MP to cancel their membership since the controversy erupted about the airline’s closeness to the government.

Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather and Labor Senator Tony Sheldon declined membership, which the airline offers to all elected politicians and their spouses.

Valuable perk

This makes 221 out of 227 MPs who continue to enjoy access to the perk, the value of which has been estimated at $10,000. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s son, Nathan, is also a member, it was revealed earlier this year amid a controversy about the denial of Qatar Airways’ request to increase flights into Australia, a significant boon for Qantas’ bottom line.

Chairman’s Lounge members enjoy privileges such as unlimited Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, steaks, and private bathrooms and showers –  Qantas runs it at a loss.

Joyce, who personally oversaw membership lists, declined to comment on Nathan Albanese’s membership but recently told the Senate the idea that lounge memberships influenced political decisions was “nonsense”.

‘Transparency has limits’

But Sean Johnson, a former political adviser who runs Open Politics, says politicians should not accept such valuable gifts from companies they regulate.

“The received political wisdom seems to be that it’s no big deal for MPs to accept gifts as long as they are disclosed,” he said.

“(But) transparency has its limits. The mere disclosure of a gift or free service does not necessarily negate its potential to compromise the recipient.

“When someone gives you something, it creates a psychological obligation to return the favour.”

Some 70 per cent of voters disapprove of such elite perks, too, a Resolve poll published in Nine newspapers last month found.

Ryan cancels membership

Perception drove independent MP Monique Ryan to cancel her membership recently; she intends to introduce a bill to Parliament later this year on lobbying.

Other teal MPs, who ran on integrity platforms at an election when surveys showed public faith in politics had reached a historic low, are yet to join her.

A handful of previous MPs, including Nick Xenophon and former PM Malcolm Turnbull, declined to join.

All current High Court judges were recently forced to disclose their membership before ruling against Qantas, confirming the illegality of the airline’s decision to outsource 1700 ground handler jobs.

Independent MP Helen Haines had proposed a bill to establish a standards commissioner for the Parliament.

But Johnson argues for an outright ban on such gifts, which he notes already exceeds the $300 limit set by the Albanese government’s Ministerial Code of Conduct.

Qantas was the largest beneficiary of the pandemic stimulus program JobKeeper, receiving $160.5 million in the 2020 financial year and another $695.5 million in 2021.

It also took an undisclosed amount from the $1 billion International Freight Assistance Mechanism and claimed most of a $715 million industry-wide regional assistance package.

The airline is back in the black; Qantas posted a record $2.5 billion profit for the financial year ending last June.

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