Topics: SPA flights; Qatar Airways decision; Albanese Government in transparency crisis; Voice referendum; ASEAN & G20;

07:45AM AEST
5 September 2023


Danica De Giorgio: Well Peter Dutton and Richard Marles have exchanged barbs over claims RAAF flights were requested for going on golf trips and to the Matildas games during the Women’s World Cup. The pair faced off during Question Time on Monday, with each accusing each other of using the planes for inappropriate reasons.




Peter Dutton: Can the Minister confirm whether he has taken his golf clubs with him on any defence, VIP special purpose aircraft flights? And if so, on how many flights?


Richard Marles: …says the now Minister for Defence. My office has logged numerous requests from the Leader of the Opposition about him going on special purpose aircraft, including in the last six weeks, two times at least in writing, to go to a game of the Matildas.




Danica De Giorgio: Joining me now live is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thank you for joining us. Do you think both have a case to answer here?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the Government has a clear case in terms of transparency. Let’s be clear the special purpose aircraft are a really important enabler of Australian governments being able to do their job. Particularly internationally and I fully support the use of the SPA fleet for the Prime Minister and ministers to be able to maximise Australia’s engagement with and influence around the world. But we also have had since the 1960s very clear transparency requirements around the use of the special purpose fleet and this government has recently junked those transparency requirements. No longer are there publications about where planes fly, what routes are flown nor is there publication of the passengers on those flights. And it’s that lack of transparency that leads to these questions. In the case of Richard Marles he’s spent more than $3 million, according to the way in which the RAAF calculate these costs. And there’s probably a bit left to be desired about that. But notably, even in the last quarter, he has flown more domestic flights around Australia in terms of hours on RAAF flights than the Prime Minister has. Now there are ample commercial opportunities out of Melbourne for Richard Marles to be on planes. So the question becomes what was he using these flights for? What was the need for them? And it’s very hard to scrutinise that with the absolute curtailment of transparency that this Government has undertaken in its reporting arrangements. Today, the Senate will get to consider a motion for the Government to provide the security advice that it says has necessitated this change in confidence to the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. The Government should do that to try to provide some justification and explanation, even if it is in a confidential arena for this absolute change in approach and this lack of transparency.


Danica De Giorgio: But you’re talking about transparency here. But it’s my understanding that the Liberals actually stopped reporting on this in 2021 without ever saying why.


Simon Birmingham: So, there was a pause in reporting whilst this security review was undertaken. And the Government, of course, only recently, very recently. So, for more than 12 months they didn’t report anything either until this review concluded its findings. But I find it extraordinary that there is no way within security advice for some information about the routes flown or the passengers on planes to be made available. And that’s why the opposition is asking for the government to provide this security advice in confidence to the Joint Select Committee on Intelligence and Security. That’s the place where confidential discussions in this building can happen between government and opposition. A range of much more sensitive intelligence and security is shared in that committee than this advice is likely to be. So the government should provide it and do it in a way where we can actually scrutinise whether they’ve taken that advice to an extreme end in terms of dodging transparency around their flights or whether there is some justification for the actions they’ve undertaken.


Danica De Giorgio: All right, let’s move on. Speaking of flights, the Prime Minister has refused to say whether he held discussions with Qantas boss Alan Joyce about the blocking of Qatar Airways flights. He said though he had a discussion about blocking flights with someone but won’t say who. Who do you think this person was?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s a real crisis in transparency engulfing the Albanese Government at present, and it’s a Government that was elected promising to have far greater standards. But now they won’t tell us how they’re using special purpose aircraft. Mr. Albanese won’t tell us how he engages in the decision making of government or who is influencing him over that decision making. And that is a critical factor here when it comes to government decision making. Transparency around the influences on prime ministers and ministers is an important part of the function of the scrutiny of Government. And for Mr. Albanese to come into the Parliament and say, yes, of course I’ve had discussions with someone, but I’m not saying who. That is just a laughable approach when it comes to transparency and accountability, and the nation should expect more of its prime minister.


Danica De Giorgio: Who do you think it was? Do you think it was someone from Qantas?


Simon Birmingham: Look, it’s almost inevitable that Mr. Albanese had discussions with Qantas prior to this decision being made and if he did, he should be honest about it and upfront about it and give clear answers and reasons for why. We’re now in the farcical situation where having had seven different explanations for this decision over recent weeks, all any government minister will say about the reasons for it is they’ll repeat the two words national interest over and over again. Well, what were the grounds? What were the national interest grounds upon which this decision was taken? National interest is just a catch all phrase, but they have to actually be specific grounds where it was deemed to be in the national interest to reject these additional flights, because certainly our tourism industry doesn’t think it was in the national interest. Certainly, Australia’s exporters don’t think it was in the national interest. Australians paying higher prices or finding trouble getting seats on flights don’t think it was in the national interest. You can hardly find anybody who thinks it was in the national interest except the way in which the Albanese Government is attempting to frame this.


Danica De Giorgio: All right, I’ve got two more topics and we’re running out of time, but let’s get through them both. Do you support Peter Dutton’s pledge for a second referendum? Should the October 14th Voice vote fail.


Simon Birmingham: Yes, it’s been a long-standing position that the Coalition supports constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples and first Australians. I would hope that if the Voice referendum fails, we can go through a proper process that ultimately builds the type of broad consensus and support across the country that enables it to occur without the type of problems that this referendum is encountering, and perhaps in a manner where it could even be held, maybe in conjunction with an election down the track or the like, to ensure that it is a unifying moment, but also one that minimises costs or other factors.


Danica De Giorgio: Just finally, the prime minister, of course, after ASEAN and the G20. What should the priorities be for him on this trip?


Simon Birmingham: We face a very fragile economic situation and very challenging global security circumstances. The Prime Minister, if he gets a chance to engage with the Chinese leadership, knowing that President Xi Jinping will not be there, he should still press the case around the detained Australians, around the trade sanctions that continue to be applied against Australia and seek to get breakthroughs in that regard. But his engagements with ASEAN nations will be essential to ensure that they maintain strong positions in terms of upholding regional security. Their work around code of conduct on the South China Sea is very critical, as well as pursuing far deeper economic engagement there and the work of Nicholas Moore in terms of developing further export strategies and building upon the work he did for government, the previous government during Covid, and now looking at a South East Asia strategy is very, very important and we welcome that type of initiative.


Danica De Giorgio: Simon Birmingham We have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us.