Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott charged taxpayers more than $95,000 for just over two weeks of travel to Indigenous communities while ‘Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs’, parliamentary expenditure records reveal.
The 16-days of travel appeared to constitute the only time Abbott actually spent on the ground visiting Indigenous communities in the eight months he held the position.
The revelations come in the wake of a separate scandal involving another Morrison Government-appointed ‘Special Envoy’, Barnaby Joyce. The former Deputy PM spent less than three weeks on the ground in drought-affected communities over a nine-month period, but claimed $675,000 in expenses.
Joyce never submitted a final report on his work as ‘Special Envoy for Drought’.
The figures for Abbott –the result of a Freedom of Information application to the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) and quarterly expenditure reports released by the Independent Parliamentary Expenditure Authority (IPEA) – take in travel allowances, scheduled domestic flights, private car hire and unscheduled transport, including charter flights and rideshare services.
They do not include additional travel costs incurred by Abbott’s ‘Special Envoy’ advisory staff who accompanied him on the trips.
Abbott held the role of ‘Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs’ for eight months, from October 2018 until May 2019, when he was ousted from parliament by Independent Zali Steggall at the federal election.
Abbott’s individual expenses are the result of five trips he took as ‘Special Envoy’ to Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Far North Queensland in late 2018, and South Eastern Queensland in early 2019.
Over that period, he was also assigned two staff to assist him – an ‘Advisor’ and an ‘Assistant Advisor’, at an additional expense to taxpayers of more than $200,000.
While Abbott was acting as Special Envoy between October 2018 and May 2019 he recorded additional employee domestic travel costs of $151,107, in addition to costs listed for the month of June 2019.
In response to a Freedom of Information application, the Department of Finance said it held no documents showing costs incurred by Abbott and his support staff relating to the last five months of the Special Envoy role, figures which are separate to publicly available parliamentarian expenditure reports published by the IPEA.
The IPEA advised that “parliamentarians must comply with the Parliamentary Business Resources principle-based framework when claiming any travel expenses,” and that “detailed questions in relation to expenditure are best referred to the parliamentarian”.
Abbott could not be reached for comment.
‘Not required to file reports’
Requested under freedom of information of law to disclose the reporting requirements and terms of reference that had applied to Abbott’s role as Special Envoy, the NIAA said that no documents, existed apart from the letter sent in September 2018 to Abbott by the Prime Minister.
“The Special Envoy’s role was established through a commission letter from the Prime Minister which set out the terms of reference,” the NIAA said.
Morrison outlined only a vague description of Abbott’s role in his letter, writing that Abbott’s job would be to “start with outcome of indigenous children attending and thriving in school in remote areas and go backwards from there and advise me [Morrison] what is getting in the way and what can be done about it.”Abbott-Special-Envoy-Appointment-Letter
While Morrison wrote that Abbott would “report directly to [Morrison]” and work closely with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, and the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, the letter did not confirm any timelines.
“I would welcome a monthly report on progress and insights,” Morrison wrote. “As a first step, and before any timetables are set for reporting, I would welcome your submission to me about how you would like to attack this task. This will provide a strong basis for our first regular working discussion.”
Morrison also stated in his letter that it would be valuable for Abbott to attend meetings of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council while Abbott was acting as Special Envoy. Abbott did not attend the inaugural meeting of the Council in October 2018, as reported by NITV.
As part of their response to the Freedom of Information application, NIAA revealed Abbott had not been required to file progress reports while Special Envoy.
Abbott made his public recommendations as Special Envoy on education in Indigenous communities in a speech to Parliament on December 6, 2018, after just 12 weeks in the role.
Abbott’s 5 envoy trips
Far North Queensland: November 2018
Unscheduled transport – a definition which includes charter flights – accounted for $32,424 of Abbott’s individual travel costs during his 3-day tour of Far North Queensland and surrounds, spanning Cairns, Coen, Aurukun Mission, Cooktown, Wondai and Townsville. After the addition of connecting flights from Sydney at $1,868, private car costs of $609, and a travel allowance of $1,137, Abbott’s trip to Far North Queensland totalled $36,038.
South Eastern Queensland: March 2019
Abbott took three days off from his Warringah election campaign to take a Special Envoy trip to Brisbane, Townsville, Palm Island, Wondai and Archerfield between March 18 and 20, 2019. With connecting flight costs from Sydney of $2,169, private car costs of $913, and chartered flights worth $11,154, Abbott’s individual costs for the three-day trip totalled $14,236.
Northern Territory & Western Australia: September 2018, November 2018
Abbott opted to use scheduled domestic flights over chartered for his three-day trips to both the Northern Territory in September 2018 and Western Australia in November 2018. His trip to the Northern Territory resulted in individual travel expenses of $4,632, and expenses for the trip to Western Australia came to $7,048, including travel allowances and private car use.
According to spending figures released by the IPEA under FOI in December 2019, it cost an additional $10,621.60 for advisory staff to accompany Abbott on the Northern Territory trip.
South Australia: October 30 – November 1, 2018
Abbott chose an inefficient itinerary in South Australia that saw him crisscrossing the state, relying on private chartered transport rather than scheduled flights and public highways, leading to travel costs of $33,813 for a three-day trip. It cost $5,684.50 for advisory staff to accompany him.
Departing Sydney, Abbott travelled from Adelaide to Ceduna, in South Australia’s south west.
On the same day, Abbott visited the Indigenous community of Yalata, located 200km west of Ceduna, before returning to Adelaide that evening. For his round trip from Adelaide to Ceduna to Yalata and back, Abbott listed individual costs of $11,347.05.
Commercial flights for the Adelaide-Ceduna route – a 90 minute flight – have long been available through regional airline Regional Express for less than $150 for a basic fare.
While in Yalata, Abbott was under 400km by air from one of his intended stops the next day, Coober Pedy. He chose instead to return to Adelaide for the night.
Before travelling north, Abbott made a quick trip to Murray Bridge, a town around 74km to Adelaide’s east – just under an hour’s drive away. By choosing to use chartered transport from Adelaide to Murray Bridge to Coober Pedy, Abbott generated costs of $18,962.
From Coober Pedy, Abbott’s last stop on his trip through South Australia was to the community of Pukatja in the APY Lands — one of South Australia’s most remote Aboriginal communities. He was greeted with a traditional welcome by Anangu elders, where he responded, “thank you for putting up with the invasion”.
A ‘reluctant Envoy’
Abbott told federal parliament after his appointment that he accepted the role of ‘Special Envoy’ reluctantly.
“You can appreciate, Mr Speaker, my reservations… when the Prime Minister asked me to be his special envoy for Indigenous affairs. How could a backbench MP make a difference in six months to a problem that had been intractable for 200 years?
“Yet perhaps someone who’s been wrestling with this for a quarter century and may have spent more time in remote Australia than any other MP, except the few who actually live there — but isn’t dealing with every lobby and vested interest, as the Prime Minister, the minister and the relevant local member invariably are — can bring fresh eyes to an old problem and perhaps distinguish the wood from the trees.”
“Amidst all the generally depressing indicators on Indigenous Australia, this one does stand out: Indigenous people who do finish school and who do complete a degree have much the same employment outcomes and life expectancies as other comparable Australians. And it stands to reason that to have a decent life you’ve got to have a job; and to have a job you’ve got to have a reasonable education.
“As prime minister for Indigenous affairs, this, always, was my mantra: get the kids to school, get the adults to work, and make communities safe.
“So the Prime Minister and I soon agreed that, as special envoy, my task was to foster better remote school attendance and performance because this is our biggest single challenge.”
New Matilda is currently compiling a larger feature on remote school attendance and government policy.
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