Three Tourism Australia staff fired for spending $137k of taxpayers’ money on personal holidays

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Three Tourism Australia employees were fired for spending almost $140,000 of taxpayers’ money on private holidays. The National Anti-Corruption Commission has been appointed to investigate the incident.

Tourism Australia is the Australian government agency responsible for promoting Australia as a tourist destination and attracting international visitors.

The agency’s chief executive, Phillipa Harrison, confirmed during her appearance before a Senate committee in Canberra on Tuesday that three employees had been caught spending $137,441 on private travel.

In a statement read to the committee, Ms Harrison said she became aware of the agency’s travel policy violation in October last year when it was discovered by staff and “immediately reported and escalated”.

“The three employees undertook private trips which were booked through Tourism Australia’s corporate travel agency and invoiced to Tourism Australia,” she said.

“Tourism Australia demanded that the three people repay the entire cost of their trip.”

Ms Harrison said $137,441 had been fully repaid to Tourism Australia in December last year and that the three people were no longer working there.

She said Deloitte had been commissioned to conduct a comprehensive audit starting in 2021 “to ensure we understood the full extent of the problem” but “no further cases of misconduct were identified.”

“As a result of the audit, I have overseen a tightening of our travel policy processes to ensure that such behavior does not recur,” she said.

She added that the matter had been referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NAC) on January 25 and she was “awaiting a response”.

However, when questions arose about who was involved, Ms Harrison said she was unable to answer.

“The NAC has informed me that I cannot disclose further details about the roles and individuals involved until they have completed their investigations,” she said.

“They did not want me to disclose further information because it could jeopardise ongoing or potential investigations and cause premature damage to people’s reputations, in circumstances which the legislation passed by Parliament seeks to avoid by requiring that investigations are always conducted in camera and that the information in question must not be disclosed.”

Ms Harrison answered a question about the number of trips, their destination and the respective costs.

Senator Ross Cadell asked if the agency’s chief financial officer was involved in the incident and fired, saying he was baffled by the refusal to answer questions.

“I am shocked, shocked that I cannot ask these questions,” he said before a brief recess was called to discuss the concerns.

Upon her return, Ms Harrison formally claimed “public interest immunity” and was told that she would have to explain in writing the reasons and the harm to the public interest.

Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell said it was the first time he was aware of the National Anti-Corruption Commission ordering an official not to make a public statement.

“This raises some significant questions that I would like to have clarified myself,” he said.

“You and I both voted for this bill and it is obviously being implemented as such. I think the witness obviously has to comply with the NAC’s instructions. She has no choice and I think the public interest immunity claim is the appropriate way to deal with it in the circumstances.”

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