The eye-watering cost of Mathias Cormann’s RAAF jet to support his next election bid have been defended by the Prime Minister, but there’s questions why the former senator didn’t do a few Zoom calls instead.
The largesse of Mr Cormann’s globe-trotting election campaign and a squad of staff to help as he seeks the job at the OECD was revealed the same day the Senate heard how government cuts to welfare will affect actual job seekers.
Eyebrows have been raised over the cost of government support for Mr Cormann, who quit the Senate this month to run for election as president of the OECD, with a private jet to ferry him around the globe so he can press the flesh with various world leaders.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is one of the world’s most important financial bodies, and Scott Morrison said it would be a boon for Australia to have one of our own elected as its head.
The government had flagged taxpayers would bankroll the former senator’s election campaign, but revelations this week that Mr Cormann was being taken around the world in an RAAF Dassault 7X jet have sparked outrage.
Some suggested the jaunt – starting in Canberra before hopping through the Maldives, Turkey, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and more – could cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the jet costing about $4000 an hour to run.
The quantum of Mr Cormann’s COVID Contiki was defended on Wednesday by the PM, who said there “wasn’t the practical option to use commercial flights”.
“If Mathias was flying around on commercial planes, he would have got COVID. The risk of that was extremely high,” Mr Morrison told 2GB radio.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who Mr Cormann supported to become PM in the 2018 Liberal leadership spill, said it would be “a great win for Australia” for the ex-senator to be elected to the OECD.
“But there is always a cost associated with the visits and with lobbying that goes on to get the requisite votes to take that position,” he said.
The government also noted former Labor PM Kevin Rudd had spent millions lobbying to get Australia a seat on the United Nations security council, with Mr Dutton noting Labor MPs had jetted around the world in support of that push.
The cost of Mr Cormann’s campaign – the jet and a platoon of staff including strategists and policy advisers – was questioned by Labor.
The Opposition supports Mr Cormann’s bid on principle, saying it backs any Australian running for such international gigs, but queried why the campaign had to be carried out in person.
Labor’s shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek suggested he use Zoom.
No other practical option? Zoom, Teams, FaceTime…all pretty much free. This is the Liberal Party approach to spending that saw Australia’s debt double, before COVID. https://t.co/MEpRgl31Ac
— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) November 25, 2020
“There’s ways of doing things without having to charter aeroplanes,” Labor MP Anne Aly said on ABC TV.
“Why can’t Mathias Cormann campaign using technology and using telephone and using web facilities? I don’t see why that’s not possible.”
Some have pointed to former senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who recently won a seat on the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women by campaigning almost entirely on video calls.
The Greens have rubbished his campaign, with party leader Adam Bandt writing to the heads of every other OECD nation to criticise Mr Cormann’s record on climate action.
But as politicians squabbled over the cost of ferrying the former senator across the world, back in Canberra the focus was on millions of other Australians looking for jobs.
The Senate held a hearing on Wednesday into the proposed extension of the coronavirus supplement for the JobSeeker welfare supplement.
The payment will be extended to March, beyond its scheduled December expiry date, but at the rate of $150 a fortnight – down from $250.
Charities, social advocates and welfare groups have pleaded for this cut to be deferred, with analysis showing the change would put about 200,000 people into poverty.
Australian Council of Social Service CEO Cassandra Goldie shared emotional evidence from welfare recipients, who said that before the coronavirus supplement, they couldn’t afford to turn on their lights at night. She called the change “unconscionable”.
Kasy Chambers, from Anglicare, said the change had given people hope.
“A lady said to us, ‘this payment has been like lighting a dark room, full of promise and wonder … please ask the committee to leave the light on for us all’,” Ms Chambers recounted.
Mr Morrison said last month the payment cut was important because he “can’t allow our safety net to hold people back”.
But the Senate committee heard from University of Melbourne’s Professor Jeff Borland, who shared economic analysis that he said showed the increased welfare rate was not encouraging people to stay on the dole and reject work.
“I don’t see any evidence that the COVID-19 supplement has been a substantial or really any type of major disincentive for people to move into work from unemployment,” he said.
Professor Peter Whiteford, a social policy expert from the Australian National University, agreed.
“There’s a very large gap between what people receive on payments and what they would receive in paid work … There’s no reason to think this is necessary in order to incentivise people to actively look for work,” he said.
Australian Retailers Association boss Paul Zahra said it “doesn’t make sense to return people who do not work to the poverty line.”
On the same day it’s revealed Mr Cormann’s campaign costs might run into the millions, considering months of more staff and travel costs, it’s clear some job seekers might be doing it tougher than others.