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Federal agency takes on The Australian over executive pay

Airservices Australia has taken on one of the nation’s most influential newspapers over a series of recent articles suggesting its senior staff received unusually large payrises and bonuses in recent years.

In two letters to The Australian editor Clive Mathieson, the air traffic control agency’s executive general manager of corporate and industry affairs, Mairi Barton, has accused the newspaper of repeatedly making false claims. She says the journalists misread the organisation’s annual report.

Barton maintains it is inaccurate and misleading for The Australian to report the agency’s “salary pool” for executives had grown by more than 40% to nearly $4 million last finan­cial year, and that a “bonus pool” had grown by 60% to almost $800,000.

The claim was first made in a June 15 article, and Barton says Airservices Australia advised the journalist that it was incorrect in the agency’s view, prior to publication. In her first letter she said the average increase to senior executive remuneration was 2.25% in the period in question, between 2012-13 and 2013-14, and added:

“We also advised prior to publication that during the two-year period in question, there were several changes to the composition of the executive and it is not accurate to do a simple dollar comparison from year to year. This includes partial year data for new members of the executive in 2012-13, while the 2013-14 remuneration data includes one-off entitlements such as accrued leave and long service leave paid to a departing long-serving member of staff in 2013-14.”

Barton said the figures were also explained by the fact there were only eight executives included in the 2012-13 data, while the 2013-14 data covered 11 executives. “Other considerations include that the CEO was only employed for part of the 2012-13 year compared to a full year of remuneration in 2013-14,” she adds.

But it seems unlikely The Oz is going to back down at this stage, at least based on comments from corporate accountant John Leece included in the June 15 story, which state the agency did not answer questions “which could have sorted out the inconsistencies” and that the responses it did provide were insufficient to explain how the newspaper’s reading of the annual report was wrong.

After the June 15 letter fell on deaf ears, Barton wrote to Mathieson again last Friday:

“The information that you have relied on from our annual report relates to remuneration data that is presented in accordance with required accounting standards and it is not a salary or bonus pool.

The number of executives included in the reported figures was different between 2012-13 and 2013-14 and it is inaccurate and misleading to make a direct comparison between the two years and imply this is a change to a ‘salary pool’, ‘bonus pool’ or to imply that individual members of the executive have had big salary increases.”

Barton also took issue with two other points in the article published by The Australian last Friday. Firstly there were these two lines:

“Airservices initially claimed the average rise in “remuneration” was 2.25%, but under further questioning yesterday admitted this only covered base salary. With the rise in bonuses, it now claims total average remuneration rose by 5.2%.”

The agency says this assertion is “wrong” because it never made a statement to that effect. At this point, it may be a game of semantics, but, according to Barton’s most recent letter to the editor:

“We maintain that prior to the pay freeze, the executive remuneration increase in 2013-14 was 2.25% on average. Subsequently, Airservices implemented an executive pay freeze for the 2014-15 financial year and for the upcoming 2015-16 financial year. This pay freeze continues the restraint in executive remuneration by Airservices for many years.”

Barton also questions the way The Australian has reported on a case of credit card fraud in the agency that was not reported to police. The June 19 article refers to a now months old and misleading discussion in a Senate Estimates hearing last October, when an Airservices Australia manager thought, from memory, that “$10,000 to $20,000” could have been stolen — but soon after confirmed the fraud amounted to less than $2500.

The performance of the agency is the subject of a current inquiry by the Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, which last held a hearing in late November, 2014.

Airservices Australia has asked The Australian to refrain from repeating what it says are variously incorrect, inaccurate and misleading claims, and to publish corrections. One hopes its executive is not collectively holding its breath.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.