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Old 16th Oct 2014, 03:55
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Olivia Wirth is Qantas's high flyer






THE cocktail crowd is humming as talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres waits to step up to the podium at Melbourne's Grand Hyatt and greet the city's black-tie celebrities. Among the sea of eager guests Olivia Wirth is furiously checking her phone, champagne in one hand and partner Paul Howes by her side. She looks up and grins, her face etched in equal parts with relief and joy. "What a day, what a great day," she says, shaking her head in disbelief. "I think we got away with it. Qantas can never keep things secret, but this time we did."


Unknown to the journalists lining the red carpet outside, Wirth, the head of Qantas' government and corporate affairs, has spent the day hunkered down in crisis mode, preparing for a very bad news story to break. At 6am that morning she was woken by CEO Alan Joyce calling to tell her about a major computer malfunction that had knocked out the airline's ability to track the working hours of pilots and crew. This system is essential to ensure crew are legally able to fly, and while their hours could be calculated manually for a short time, bad weather or other delays would make it impossible to keep tabs, forcing mass cancellations of planes and potentially grounding the fleet.



oyce told her: "It's not looking good. Once it goes bad, it's going to go very bad." So at 6.30am Wirth sent a text message to her media team telling them to go straight to work. "I love a good crisis," she told colleagues as she breezed through the door, ordering a blizzard of contingency plans: press statements, background briefings and rolling updates on social media. But remarkably, news of the problem did not leak to the media and there was no need to enact her blitz unless planes were cancelled. "It turned out to be a silent crisis," says Wirth.As this was unfolding she was confronted by a smaller but still delicate issue. Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, who was due to speak at the black-tie function for the gay activist DeGeneres, had said in a morning radio interview that he didn't support same-sex marriage. Joyce, also gay, was due to attend the function and walk the red carpet with his partner. Wirth was worried he may be caught off-guard if reporters asked him what he thought of the issue.


She sent a text to Qantas media colleague Andrew McGinnes: "What do you think we could get away with? I think Alan needs to be prepared for the red carpet. He could simply say "of course I do!" [support gay marriage] and leave it at that?" McGinnes replied: "I reckon if Alan supports it he should say so. It's probably the perfect alignment of being able to say it and still not be the lead in the story!"
In the end, Joyce navigated the red carpet without being ambushed while Qantas ended the day without having to publicly reveal that one of its most important computer systems had melted down.


For Wirth, who has been the public face of Qantas throughout one of the most turbulent periods in its history, this is a day with a happy ending. By the time DeGeneres finally steps up to speak, she is ready to celebrate. Wirth and boyfriend Howes, the national secretary of The Australian Workers' Union, are laughing and flirting shamelessly with each other. The lovebirds - the chief spinner for an airline famously at war with unions, and the head of the nation's largest blue-collar union - are barely listening to DeGeneres' speech. They are lost in their own world.
Friends say it's been a long time since Olivia Wirth has smiled so much. The 37-year-old has morphed from a beach kid on the NSW Central Coast into one of the country's most powerful corporate players, responsible for protecting the brand of the flying kangaroo at a time when it's been under a hail of gunfire as it seeks to rationalise its loss-making international operations. But it's been a bruising journey for Wirth too, personally and professionally.


She has had to deal with a rolling series of crises at Qantas, from the near-disaster of QF32 as its engine blew up over Indonesia in 2010 to the bitter tussle with the unions in 2011 that culminated in the grounding of the airline. She has fronted the cameras to explain why volcanic ash from Chile grounded Qantas and not Virgin, and why thousands of Australian workers have to lose their jobs to guarantee the airline's future. Along the way she has endured a difficult marriage breakdown and, more recently, raised eyebrows over her controversial relationship with Howes.
That she is young, good looking and female in the blokey world of aviation has made her path tougher, forcing her to deal with a constant undercurrent of sexism from those she has taken on. "She has been subject to an awful lot of slander and sexism in the workplace," says her former boss Christopher Brown, who once employed her at the industry group Tourism and Transport Forum. "She is an attractive young woman and will always be the target of aggrieved pilots and trade unionists. She has had to battle all her life but she is a tough chick and she has toughed it out. She is one of the smartest people our industry has ever produced."
Another former boss, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, who seconded Wirth to work for him in 2002 while he was tourism minister, says she is "titanium tough". "It is typical of the male class to underestimate very talented women," he says. "Olivia is incredibly diligent, highly intelligent and intensely loyal; she is a fierce advocate for whoever she works with."
No one knows this better than Joyce. Many believe that Wirth's business card should also read "right-hand woman to the Qantas CEO". She clearly has Joyce's ear and his implicit trust. Theirs is a bond that has been forged in battle since Wirth became the public face of Joyce's stunning decision to ground the Qantas fleet in late 2011. Wirth has acted as a one-woman praetorian guard for the often-besieged chief, protecting his brand as much as that of Qantas. When news leaked in 2011 that Joyce had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, she persuaded a newspaper to delay publishing a story until he was ready to speak. She has even micromanaged public revelations of his sexuality. "I said, 'How do you want to manage this, what do you want to talk about, what don't you want to talk about?' It's not always easy for him, he doesn't want people prying into his life."


Wirth has been the driver - both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras - of an aggressive and pro-active Qantas publicity machine. She can be sweet as pie one minute, in your face the next. "Olivia has this very black-and-white perspective of how she sees the world," says a senior Qantas insider. "You are either for her or against her and once you are in the 'against' column it's very hard to get out of. She can be a smiling assassin." Adds another: "For a young person she has created a lot of enemies because she has a very aggressive, smack-'em hard style and she is very political. She knows where the bodies are buried."
But Joyce relishes having a bulldog like Wirth in his corner. "Thanks to Olivia, we don't sit back," he says. "Maybe some people think sometimes we are an aggressive organisation, but when you've got a brand like Qantas about which there are multiple stories every day, you have to have people who are willing to get out there and fight that case. Olivia is absolutely in that corner."


One of Wirth's regular sparring partners, independent Senator and Qantas critic Nick Xenophon, rejects Wirth's arguments but admires her chutzpah. "She has been a consummate communicator and while she hasn't convinced me, it's fair to say she has convinced those that matter - both the Government and the Opposition - of Qantas' approach. Whatever she's being paid, Qantas are getting their money's worth."


On a sunny autumn morning in Canberra, as Labor leadership tensions mount, Wirth arrives with Joyce on the early flight from Melbourne. She quickly scans the 12 voicemail messages that have arrived while she was in the air. Today she will shadow Joyce as he does the rounds in Canberra visiting the heads of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Transport Minister Anthony Albanese and US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich, among others. As they drive to their meetings, Wirth, who is also responsible for Qantas' relationship with the Government and regulators, runs through the topics to be discussed, predicting how the meeting might unfold. Joyce listens, nods and throws in the occasional question.


By the time they leave Parliament House Wirth has schmoozed MPs on both sides of politics, ministerial advisers, journalists and even unionists. She is younger than most of them but exudes a matey warmth, greeting everyone like old friends. It's not until 10pm that evening in the bar of Canberra's Hotel Realm that Wirth finally relaxes with a drink. She has just helped to host a Neil Perry-cooked dinner with a large chunk of the Coalition's front bench during which Joyce and Wirth pumped up Qantas' tyres for the likely incoming government.
The next morning she will partner Howes to Parliament to hear Julia Gillard's national apology for forced adoption, a speech that leaves Howes, who was adopted, and Wirth in tears.


In person, Wirth is warm, engaging and funny. She speaks quickly, cracks jokes against herself and is more feminine than you might expect given her street-fighter reputation. She hates make-up and rarely wears it but still exudes a smart sexiness which holds some men in thrall. Away from the cameras she seems more vulnerable and less secure than her confident public persona suggests. She admits she is a private person and shuffles uncomfortably when I ask about her personal life. Her close friends were surprised she agreed to this profile. Howes advised her against it and initially refused to cooperate. She said no for many months before reluctantly agreeing, telling me she is a backroom operator - "I shape the story but I'm not the story". Being a high-profile woman in the male world of aviation has been "a challenge", she says, and at times confronting.


Wirth has long been subjected to rumours and whispers about her love life, some of which she has been forced to categorically deny. She wonders if a man would receive similar scrutiny. "I think diversity overall is something to talk about, not just women, but I don't waste much time thinking about it, I just try to get on with it."


As Wirth drinks with Perry and Joyce in the hotel bar, Howes and Labor minister Bill Shorten are standing alone outside, the two Labor heavies deep in conversation. Within hours of this meeting last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard will call for a leadership spill, forcing Kevin Rudd to blink and shoring up her fragile leadership. Villains and heroes will be made.

Wirth carries the unique distinction of having been cast as both villain and hero by both sides of politics. The fact that she once worked for Hockey, combined with her passionate spearheading of Qantas' anti-union campaign, saw conservatives claim her as one of their own while Labor MPs like Shorten muttered darkly about her. Now her romance with Howes has confounded the conservatives. "I think everybody was stunned. It sent a terrible message to Qantas staff," says one Coalition frontbencher.
The romance has placed Wirth in some uncomfortable situations. She accompanied Howes to Queensland's Jupiter's Casino for the AWU conference, standing next to him while he and his fellow unionists sang the union anthem Solidarity Forever. Wirth stood mute, aware that the eyes of the reporters were on her and perhaps fearing the wrath of Qantas' conservative chairman, Leigh Clifford.


Wirth resents people trying to stereotype her on the basis of politics. "I am not involved in politics yet I had been put into this [conservative] box because I was seen as the face of the anti-union campaign and so you get classified as to who you are and what you stand for," she says. "Then it is like, 'The behaviour you are showing now [with Howes] is not the way we think you should behave'. It was fascinating and I guess I didn't see myself like that."


In truth, Wirth didn't see several things coming when she became an item with Howes late last year. For a woman who has built a career on managing controversy, she could hardly have fumbled the public unveiling of her union with a union leader more than she did. Wirth and Howes sent the chattering classes into a spin when they were seen together quaffing champagne in the five-star marquees at the Melbourne Cup Carnival. It was a gossip writer's dream. The union-buster Wirth and the union leader Howes. Sleeping with the enemy. What's more, Howes had only recently separated from his wife, the mother of his three children. The gossip-mongers' delight was made even sweeter days later when Qantas announced a further 400 job losses, including many from Howes' AWU. "Funnily enough, it wasn't the race won by Lloyd William's Green Moon that stopped the nation," said The Australian Financial Review's Rear Window column. "It was a story, the revelation of a romance between Qantas spinner Olivia Wirth and union leader Paul Howes."
In fact, the public outing of their unlikely relationship occurred by accident rather than by design. Howes was invited to one marquee, Wirth to another, then somehow they ended up together in the presence of journalists. "It was not a strategy," says Wirth, laughing. "In some ways it was very ill thought through - if I could take it back, I would. I just didn't think. That's why you should have someone managing your own personal PR," she says with a groan. Says Howes: "I didn't think it was a story, probably naively; I was surprised by the amount of attention it received."
Prior to the races, Wirth had told Joyce about her relationship with Howes. "I spoke to Alan because I knew it was going to be a problem, well not a problem but I knew it would draw attention," she says. Both Wirth and Howes deny there is a conflict of interest and Joyce says he has no problem with the relationship. "People have private lives and they are entitled to whatever relationships they want to have and I think organisations and unions are sophisticated enough beasts to manage the process to avoid conflict."


Not so, says Steve Purvinas, head of the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association. "This can't work," he tells me. "Because Olivia is going to have the ability to seek inside information on unions and how they operate and it's a conflict of interest. Qantas shareholders deserve someone who is independent of the union movement. She has not only successfully courted a union leader but she has successfully courted this Government into supporting anything Qantas wants."


In Canberra's Parliament House last month, Wirth bumped into Purvinas for the first time. "He came up to me and said, 'Sorry I had to go after you but you were the low hanging fruit', meaning he couldn't go after Paul [a reference to his union's previous criticism of their relationship]. I said, 'Thanks mate'."


Howes was reluctant to speak to me about his partner. Those close to him say he doesn't feel his relationship with Wirth is a positive for her career. Even so, he is smitten, head over heels. "She's an amazing person and I'm very proud of her," he says. "She is driven, compassionate, smart and capable. She is tough but also incredibly generous and warm. I'm very happy, there is a deep and loving bond between us."


Wirth is not from an overtly political family. Her father worked in real estate and her mother was a nurse, giving Wirth and her two younger brothers what she describes as "an idyllic childhood, very boring" in Terrigal on the NSW Central Coast. Wirth was a skateboarding, beach-loving tomboy who went to a small local private school. "She was just a normal kid," says brother Marty, "but I guess she was always an achiever. She was head prefect and house captain."


Wirth's parents told their kids to look beyond the Central Coast, sending them to Sydney alone by train at a young age to soak up the big city. Wirth initially wanted to be a journalist, studying at Bathurst's Charles Sturt University, before landing her first job in 1997 with the then Tourism Council Australia headed by former Liberal MP Bruce Baird. "It didn't take long before people recognised her talents," recalls Baird. "It was her first job but there were no nerves, self-doubt or insecurity - she generated stories, related well to the media, she just 'got it' and you felt she had been there before."


Wirth became intrigued with the strategy and politics behind media management and abandoned the notion of journalism. She was barely 22 and hungry with ambition. "I can never remember not feeling the fire," she says during an interview in a glass-walled office inside Qantas' Mascot headquarters. "I have always had a real fire that I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could do it. I am probably a bit of a perfectionist and sometimes controlling so that plays into it a bit."
In 2000, Wirth moved to the Australian Tourist Commission, working her way up to be general manager of public affairs. In 2002 she was seconded to Hockey's office which in effect saw her juggling the two jobs. "By the end of it all, I was just wrecked," she says. "I had been given incredible opportunities but they had taken their toll as well. I was burned out and I just wanted to do something different."


She moved to London in 2004 with her then boyfriend and found a job as spokesperson with one of Prince Charles' charities, Business in the Community, which encourages the corporate sector to engage more with local communities. She returned to Sydney in 2007 and was recruited back into the tourism sector by Chris Brown at TTF, where she was quickly promoted to executive director. But Wirth was restless in tourism and in mid-2009, when she got a call from Qantas about a job heading up its media team, she jumped at it.


The interview with Joyce was brutal. Wirth believed Qantas had been weak when it came to promoting its case in the media. She told Joyce she would give the airline a tougher, more proactive public face.


"Alan was pretty hard actually," she laughs. "He pushed back at everything I said - 'will you commit to that, how will you deliver, when will you deliver'. He tried to make me very accountable and so we got on from day one." Wirth got the job, but her big break would come 16 months later, in the most unlikely manner.


"I was in the office here and I got a call from The Sydney Morning Herald saying we've read on the wires that you've got a plane going down," recalls Wirth. "I said, 'Um, no, we haven't heard anything, I don't know what you're talking about'." It was November 4, 2010, and QF32, a new A380 and the flagship of Qantas' fleet, had experienced an engine explosion over Indonesia. Wirth made three calls before she confirmed the problem but already the incident had gone global.


"We were flooded because of the Twitter pictures of the engine debris [on the ground]. It spread like wildfire and we were inundated. We lost control and the whole thing went berserk." In those fraught early minutes as the crew struggled to bring the stricken plane back to Singapore airport, Qantas had scant knowledge of what had happened. But Wirth chose to go on the front foot. "We decided we needed to keep on communicating even though we didn't know exactly what had happened," she says. "The A380 is the flagship for us, it is core to our brand and if we left a void, then others were going to fill it."


Joyce did a press conference and Wirth arranged for rolling updates. Even at the early stages it was clear that the plane's Rolls-Royce engine was central to the incident. Wirth called up her counterparts at Rolls-Royce in Britain only to be told that Qantas should make no comment about the near-disaster. Wirth was stunned and furious. "We had a real stand-off because Rolls-Royce didn't want us to communicate until we knew what the problem was. I said we can't do that, it's just not possible. If we had said nothing we would have been crucified and people would have automatically assumed we were guilty." Wirth told Rolls-Royce they were wrong and that Qantas would not be muzzled. "Then they elevated it and got their chairman to call Alan to make a complaint [about Wirth]. 'Very Australian' they called our approach."


The story became global because it was the first near-accident involving the A380. Wirth fronted every TV camera she could find and then did round-the-clock briefings of journalists around the world to counter any suggestions that the accident was Qantas' fault. Her performance caught the eye of management. When her boss David Epstein left Qantas for BHP at around the same time, the airline briefly considered other candidates, but in Joyce's eyes Wirth had proved herself under fire.


In 2011, at only 35 years of age, Wirth was appointed to the Qantas executive team as group executive, government and corporate affairs on a salary believed to be around $800,000. "She was young, she was very young for that type of role, but to me she was clearly the person who could do it," says Joyce.


Wirth barely had time to slide her feet under her new desk before volcanic ash from the Chilean volcano floated across the Pacific, causing Qantas to ground its flights. "We didn't know the density of the ash cloud so it wasn't a risk we were prepared to take," says Wirth. The problem was that Virgin and Air New Zealand had come to a different conclusion and had kept flying. All Wirth could do was to front up on morning TV and radio each morning during the crisis and play the safety card. "I remember I did one interview with the Today show and they said, 'You've been accused that this [grounding] is a PR stunt'. I was like, 'Are you f ... ing kidding? Why would we want to put the airline on the ground?' It was an insane argument to run."


But Wirth's biggest test was yet to come. In mid-2011, as Qantas' battle with the unions was heating up, Wirth plotted the airline's public strategy. She examined Qantas' previous stoush with the unions in 2008, when it was not proactive with the media, and saw how much it had hurt the airline's reputation. "My take-out was that this time around we needed a voice," she says. "We also needed to educate the Australian public about why Qantas could not stay the same and why change was ultimately for the best. So it wasn't just about communication, it was a much bigger picture of educating the Australian public about our business."


Hence, Joyce began his series of apocalyptic public pronouncements about Qantas having an uncertain future if it buckled to the unions. Insiders say that behind closed doors Wirth has fought to limit job losses at Qantas, warning that the flag carrier rises and falls on the strength of its brand.
Wirth is close to Joyce but she is disliked by some at senior levels within Qantas, especially those who have pushed for greater cost-cutting. But few people, including current and ex work colleagues, are willing to go on the record to criticise her. "She uses her relationship with Alan in a very political way, to create her empire," says one senior insider who asks not to be named. "She doesn't confront people head on, but works in the shadows to achieve her desired outcome. She has that classic insecure, overachiever attitude, but she can often win people over when it matters."
Sometimes Wirth's strategy can blow up in her face. Last year, Qantas was furious about the United Arab Emirates-based airline Etihad being allowed to invest in Qantas' local competitor, Virgin Australia. Wirth's team distributed dirt sheets in Canberra about the UAE, criticising its record on democracy and human rights, among other things. But then Qantas unexpectedly struck an alliance deal with Emirates, also from the UAE. Overnight, the dirt sheets vanished and Wirth went back to Canberra to tell those same politicians why the UAE was now a wonderful place. "We had to go back to the drawing board," she admits sheepishly. "I guess you've got to be careful you don't become too cute."


The toughest time in Wirth's career was Joyce's infamous decision to ground the airline in October 2011, a time during which she and Joyce received letters at home containing death threats. Wirth called the Prime Minister's chief of staff Ben Hubbard to break the news to a stunned and furious government. "That day is all a bit of a blur to be honest," she says. "There was so much to do, it was such a tough day that we just tried to be calm, methodical. Then at the end of that day it was like, 'Oh crap, what are we going to do tomorrow?' "


Within days, Wirth was dispatched to Canberra to try to mend Qantas' fractured relationship with the Government. "It was very tough," says Joyce. "She went to Canberra into what would have been an unbelievable environment, meeting with people who were unbelievably angry." As Wirth was walking through Parliament House that day, she recalls a Cabinet minister hissing at her. "It was a lonely and confronting experience."
To make matters worse, at around the same time Wirth was going through a messy divorce with an Irishman 10 years her senior, now living in New York. "I wasn't happy, the whole thing was difficult," she says, although she won't discuss the issue further.


After years of turbulence at work and home, Wirth is now in love again. She has been instrumental in repairing, over time, Qantas' fractured relationship with the Gillard Government and has helped to ensure that the airline is on good terms with the Coalition ahead of the election. Earlier this month she took Howes to Dubai for the celebration of Qantas' alliance deal with Emirates. "I've never seen Liv happier [than] at the moment - and she's had her ups and downs," says Alison Crosweller, a friend of Wirth's from university days.


Wirth claims she is trying to wean herself off the workaholic routine that sees her criss-crossing the world on a seemingly endless cycle: "I have a life, I want to do more things." She says she has no idea what the future holds. "I've only been in this position since April 2011 and I absolutely love it and frankly, I really haven't given any time to thinking about what's next." But those who know her say the fire in her belly is still ablaze. Some believe she one day wants to run her own airline - maybe even Qantas.
Olivia Wirth is Qantas's high flyer gl
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