Yesterday’s post on travel rorts was about individual responsibility and the behaviour of individuals. But that isn’t the full measure of the extravagant and irresponsible behaviour that we can see in public life. Governments too can behave as though money did really grow on trees, and demonstrate a blindness to the effect of such behaviour on the body politic.
When Julie Bishop became Foreign Minister a month ago she told DFAT that she wanted to travel business class, not first class, and not stay in luxury suites in expensive hotel. Even then, she took 23 public servants, another Minister and a couple of private office people with her. I’ve no doubt she queried the need for such a party. The Department would have had perfectly good reasons, and the only way to deal with them would be to say that (for example) she wanted no more than a dozen, and the Department could decide which ones they were.
The Coalition was, after all, elected on a platform of reduced spending. I am perfectly happy with all of that, and it just makes me wonder why Ms Bishop hadn’t seen the comparison with her own past travel expenses, those that have been the subject of some questioning this week. Perhaps she has turned a new leaf.
One needs to realise that people — politicians, public servants — get used to the way things are done, and expect them to continue. The past Labor Governments were not noted for their determination to keep costs down, and overseas trips are an important feather-in-the-cap for public servants. It is hard work when you get there, but it beats the morning traffic in Canberra (not that it has any comparison to the gridlock in Sydney).
Ministers do what they think is necessary, and the expense is a secondary consideration, even though they know that the costs of these trips are routinely reported to Parliament. One Minister to whom I worked, having heard that I had not spoken to someone about something that he thought was important (as did I) sent me across Australia at once to do so. I rang my family to say that I wouldn’t be coming home for dinner, and set off for Perth, found the bloke, had a quick talk, and took the next plane back to Canberra. Cost — a few thousand dollars. Why not use the phone? The Minister wanted a person-to-person engagement; he got it, and was happy. Am I being discreet? Yes.
Big delegations tend to be called ‘junkets’, a term not known when I was young, when junket was something Mum made for dessert occasionally. Merriam-Webster defines its modern, political use like this:
: a trip made by a government official and paid for by the public
: a free trip by a member of the press to a place where something (such as a new movie) is being promoted.
My best -remembered ‘junket’ of recent years was the responsibility of our former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. He took a delegation of 114 to Copenhagen for that famous and disastrous Conference at the height of the global warming frenzy. The group did not include the Chief Scientist, as I understand it, but did include 12 of the Prime Minister’s personal staff, including his hairdresser, his official photographer, and a ‘dedicated baggage handler’. The UK delegation numbered 70.
Not surprisingly, the size of the delegation caused some criticism in Australia, to which the Prime Minister replied that he had extended an invitation to the State and Territory Governments. Their contribution turned out to be only 14 in number, and you could add to them five policemen with unspecified duties, and 22 from our Embassy in Copenhagen, which had probably asked for some help from other Australian Embassies in Europe.
OK, the UK doesn’t have state governments — well, perhaps it does, in a way. But why our delegation had to be one of the very biggest escaped me then, and escapes me now. Mr Abbott will have remembered this incident as well as I do, because he criticised it at the time; I hope he takes his own criticisms to heart. Mind you, it was an amazing junket generally, with 1300 limousines for the really important, and 140 private aircraft. No doubt the world’s leaders all wanted to strut their stuff on the stage of the ‘historic’ meeting that would sign the very first powerful global climate treaty. The outcome was as powerful as wilted lettuce.
I think our PM needs to rein in the Ministerial junkets from the very beginning. Their real cost is almost impossible to ascertain, because they include the opportunity cost of the work that those who go to New York or London or Tahiti or wherever, might have carried out back at base had they not gone.
And of course they won’t look much like strong evidence of a Government determined to rein in spending.