Senior Labor figures have closed ranks to isolate a “freelancing” senator who derided a major Royal Australian Air Force project as Malcolm Turnbull’s $250 million “new private jet”.
During Senate Estimates hearings last week, Opposition senator Kimberley Kitching questioned defence officials over progress on the purchase of a new long-range tanker, capable of carrying passengers and VIPs.
Australia will soon receive the KC-30A tanker with a VIP interior, which once flew as a Qantas and Jetstar aircraft.
It was bought from the lessor in 2015 and modified by Airbus to include the new interior and tanker parts.
The aircraft will be one of seven RAAF KC-30As and will spend the majority of its time as an air-to-air refueller and freighter, and will only be used for VIP missions when the Prime Minister goes overseas with a delegation.
Over the weekend, Senator Kitching took to Twitter to claim the Prime Minister was spending $250 million on the soon-to-be-delivered aircraft as a “private jet”.
📈More than doubles federal govt debt to $615 billion (from $250B in 2013)
🙏Voted with Greens to scrap Labor's debt ceiling
🕷️Persecutes welfare recipients with false debt claims
✈️Spends $250 million on PM's new private jet #auspol https://t.co/3bM3CPSRBV
— Kimberley Kitching 🇦🇺 (@kimbakit) March 2, 2018
The ABC has been told the Victorian senator, who entered the Senate in 2016 at Labor leader Bill Shorten’s request, was “freelancing” with her comments.
“She was definitely speaking on her own initiative,” one senior opposition source told the ABC.
Privately, senior defence figures are also puzzled by the senator’s decision to question the project.
“Labor can’t afford to play these games on this topic,” a high-ranking military official said on the condition of anonymity.
In a statement, the Opposition has reaffirmed its support for the project, which is part of an upgrade to Australia’s Special Purpose Aircraft fleet which is flown by the RAAF.
“The Special Purpose Aircraft fleet plays an important role,” a Labor spokesperson told the ABC.
“Getting the right aircraft with the right capabilities matters so we get value for money.”
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne has taken aim at the Opposition Leader over Senator Kitching’s comments.
Shorten caught by an exploding cigar, having being briefed and agreed on the need for a new RAAF plane, now attacking it. I presume he and Senator Kitching will rule out using it if he ever manages to become PM? #auspol
— Christopher Pyne (@cpyne) March 3, 2018
Neil James from the Australia Defence Association says it’s unfair to characterise the aircraft as a “private jet”.
“Primarily these aircraft are airborne tankers for refuelling, secondly they are transport aircraft, third — they have a great 24/7 communications fit, and fourth because they’re long range they can be used for VIP transport when the smaller jets can’t,” Mr James said.