Qantas Burns Goodwill Reserves as New CEO Vanessa Hudson Adheres to Alan Joyce's Playbook

The saying goes that one man's loss is another man's gain, and this adage couldn't be more fitting when it comes to the approaches of Vanessa Hudson and Gina Cass-Gottlieb, two of Australia's most influential women, as they prepare to face off in court.

While Hudson quickly burns through all the goodwill she was given when she took on the poisoned chalice that is Qantas management, Cass-Gottlieb is slowly building her reputation as one of the country's most effective regulators.

Both have found themselves in the spotlight under challenging circumstances.

Cass-Gottlieb was relatively unknown when the Morrison government appointed her as the national guardian of consumer and corporate competition rights.

Despite being recognized in legal circles, many in the corporate world thought her appointment might provide some long-awaited respite after years of relentless enforcement by figures such as Rod Sims, Allan Fels, and Graeme Samuel. Some were hoping for a gentle touch.

Woman in glasses in an office building in Sydney's central business district looks out the window. Gina Cass-Gottlieb was initially perceived by some as more corporate than her predecessors, but subsequent actions have proven otherwise. (ABC News: John Gunn) Quietly, without fanfare, she put an end to those hopes, establishing the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) as a fearless defender of national interests.

Hudson, on the other hand, has charged ahead, making all the necessary noise in front of disgruntled customers, employees, and shareholders about reviving the airline's performance and reputation tarnished by decades of empire-building by her predecessor, Alan Joyce.

As a new CEO, almost everyone was willing to overlook her previous role as Joyce's offsider in his final few years, overseeing monumental underinvestment in planes, unlawful dismissals of thousands of workers, and a scandal involving an attempt to withhold nearly half a billion dollars of customer funds for flights they couldn't take during COVID.

There was a general feeling that since Joyce was gone, she deserved a chance.

Vanessa Hudson addresses the media One of Vanessa Hudson's first major decisions as Qantas CEO was to contest the ACCC's lawsuit against her. (AAP: Bianca De Marchi) For some reason, last week Hudson decided to undermine that bit of goodwill by presenting an unconvincing and technically complex defense to the ACCC's lawsuit, which alleges that the airline sold thousands of tickets for flights that had already been canceled to unsuspecting customers.

And, as anyone who has ever tried to get money out of the Flying Kangaroo can attest, it's no easy task.

Her actions didn't quite match her words.

Reading the room Undeterred, Hudson and her battle-ready Chairman Richard Goyder fronted up to a rowdy mob at the company's annual general meeting (AGM) at the Melbourne Convention Centre on Friday, using much of the same rhetoric.

There were vague acknowledgments that they might not have got everything quite right, general apologies, and promises to do better.

"As the new CEO, I'm committed to making Qantas one of the most trusted brands in the country again, committed to being a company that you, as owners, are proud of, one that benefits all stakeholders and strikes the right balance," Hudson recited from her prepared speech.

But the mood in the room didn't lend itself to platitudes and soured as Goyder struggled to suppress questions, particularly his decision to allow Joyce to offload $17 million worth of Qantas shares just a few months before his departure, as well as the ticketing scandal that has seen the share price plummet.

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Refuse to answer questions and blame external forces for everything that goes wrong. This became the defining theme of Alan Joyce's tenure at Qantas. And, it seems, that ideal has persisted beyond his tenure.

The Chairman failed to bring himself to admit that the ground crew sackings were unlawful, or to apologize, despite losing in three courts, right up to the High Court.

And while Hudson told investors that the company is currently actively looking at ways to reimburse customers, there was no mention or apology from her for her previous role as Chief Financial Officer, in the now discredited decision to pocket the funds and reserve them as a benefit.

The climax of the AGM came with an 83 percent vote against the airline's remuneration report, close to a record protest by a major ASX-listed firm, and the overwhelming first ever strike by its board of directors.