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Home Affairs, Austrade’s hospitality spending revealed

Government departments spend thousands on hospitality each year. Photo: AAP
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Bureaucrats in Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs department spent $175,000 on hospitality to entertain foreign government officials and other groups last year.

But the spending on food, drinks and venue hire paled in comparison to the government’s trade promotion arm AusTrade, which shelled out $850,000 over the same period.

Unlike Austrade and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs detailed how much it had spent per event in documents provided through the Senate Estimates process.

The spending at Home Affairs, which is not unusually high, included a $61,000 outlay in October to host the four-day World Customs Association event in Cairns, a function the department said was rotated between countries each year.

Home Affairs bureaucrats spent more money to entertain US officials –particularly from the Department of Homeland Affairs – than those from any other nation, the documents show.

Overall, the department spent $12,850 on hospitality to maintain “stakeholder relationships” with Trump administration officials and US figures, holding 17 events in total.

That included $1147 for an event in Canberra with officials from Homeland Security, the department that is responsible for overseeing the asylum seeker resettlement arrangement with the US, including vetting potential candidates.

The issue was politically awkward for the Australian government last year after US President Donald Trump blasted Malcolm Turnbull over the deal during an infamous phone call on January 28, 2017.

After the call, Home Affairs officials appeared to redouble their efforts to get the US government back on side.

They held two events in Washington DC on January 30 and March with members of US Homeland Security, charging the taxpayer about $800 in hospitality costs.

Throughout 2017, Home Affairs shelled out $6500 on hospitality for 11 events held with Chinese officials, mostly from Beijing’s customs agency.

Money was also spent on hospitality for visiting officials from the UK Border Force ($2600 on a week-long event in Canberra and Sydney), and Indonesia’s customs agency ($2800 for a one-day function in Melbourne).

The figures were made public in response to a written question from Labor senator Louise Pratt.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) refused to outline how much it spent on hospitality.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade hosts many official functions, receptions, events and gatherings to advance Australia’s foreign, trade and development interests, both in Australia and at Australian government posts overseas,” DFAT said.

“To attempt to provide all of the information requested would entail a significant and unreasonable diversion of resources.”

Austrade, which promotes Australian trade opportunities around the world, spent $850,000 on hospitality and entertainment last year.

That was enjoyed by “Australian clients, overseas customers and potential customers of Australian companies, as well as others external to Austrade”.

The agency came under fire in 2014 when it was revealed it had spent $44,000 on premium seating for a small group of Austrade officials and contacts during the World Cup in Brazil.

Defending its hospitality spend this year, Austrade said: “Hospitality/entertainment has a role to play in the support of Austrade’s objectives of promoting Australia’s international trade, tourism, education and investment interests.

“Costs range from light refreshments (eg coffee when meeting with clients) to gala lunches or dinners associated with large-scale Austrade managed whole-of-government promotional events held offshore.”

The agency would not provide a breakdown of costs for each event it hosted in 2017, but argued that “all staff are required to account fully for, and justify, their use of the funds”.

“They must maintain written records of purpose, attendees, venue and final costs of each item of expenditure, and certify the criteria for expenditure have been met,” it said.

“There are several thousand records for the period.”

While Home Affairs provided the cost of each event, it would not provide an itemised list of spending to explain how much taxpayers’ money went to food and drinks, venue hire, nor provide a list of attendees.

The amount spent by each department on hospitality is calculated separately from travel costs.

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