As the prime minister claims he only went to Hawaii after a “very unfortunate series of events” forced him to change his NSW beach holiday plan, it can be revealed another cabinet member has been overseas during bushfire crisis talks.
Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann has been phoning in for emergency discussions while holidaying in Singapore.
Senator Cormann is one of eight leaders on the National Security Committee (NSC) which, as bushfires raged across Australia, had been called together in a snap meeting.
The NSC met again last week to discuss the Middle East after Iran fired missiles at bases housing US troops while on the same day 176 people died when a plane was shot from the sky in Tehran.
Mr Cormann’s office said his leave had been booked and approved “months ago”.
“Even though the usual acting arrangements were in place, the minister participated in every single NSC discussion and meeting from Singapore while on annual leave and remained in constant contact with his office and relevant colleagues,” a spokeswoman said.
The office did not answer questions about how many other cabinet members were overseas or whether other security committee members had not been attending bushfire talks in person.
It comes as Scott Morrison said on Sunday that he initially wanted to take wife Jenny and their two daughters to the NSW South Coast for their summer break – not Hawaii.
Mr Morrison said he was forced to change plans. He did not say why he chose Hawaii for the getaway.
“In hindsight, I would not have taken that trip knowing what I know now,” Mr Morrison told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
“I’d made a promise to my kids and we’d taken forward that break, as I explained when I came back… I thought I was very up-front about my contrition on that.”
When asked why he went overseas instead of booking a trip in Australia, Mr Morrison said “the irony of all of this was my original intention was to holiday on the South Coast for two weeks”.
“I had to change that arrangement because I was supposed to be on my way to India for that visit to see Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and then [Japan] Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe,” he said.
“I had to bring forward my holiday with my family, and that was the reason for the change to that date…so it was a very unfortunate series of events.”
Mr Morrison has faced fierce backlash over his holiday – and the fact his office initially denied that the PM was even in Hawaii when initially contacted by The New Daily.
It was then revealed last week that Defence Minister Linda Reynolds – who also sits on the NSC – was holidaying in Bali as the fires raged across the country and the Navy evacuated the residents of Mallacoota.
In NSW, emergency services minister David Elliott was forced to defend himself after it came to light he had been on a European holiday during the fire season.
Senator Cormann’s office said he was on leave from December 30. He returned to work on Sunday.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg acted as finance minister during the first week of leave, followed by Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham in the second week.
“The minister and his family went on a family holiday to Singapore,” the spokeswoman said.
“The minister is now back at work and in Australia.”
Last year, Senator Cormann revealed in Senate estimates he calls the CEO of one of the nation’s largest travel companies to book his family holidays which have included trips to Singapore.
Under questioning, he said that on three occasions he called Helloworld Travel chief executive Andrew Burnes to arrange his travel.
It came after revelations Senator Cormann had taken his wife and their two children to Singapore in 2017 but the family did not pay for the return flights.
At the time Senator Cormann categorically denied he had discussed free upgrades with Mr Burnes when discussing his travel and explained that the failure to pay was an administrative error.
He insisted there was no connection between his relationship with Mr Burnes and Helloworld receiving a multi-million dollar government contract.
“I had no involvement. I had no visibility of the process,” Senator Cormann said.
“I did not seek to influence the outcome of the negotiations.”
Scrutiny of leaders’ travel plans comes while Mr Morrison joined the chorus of voices calling for Australians to book local holidays to support bushfire-devastated communities.
Our tourism industry is among so many doing it tough in the face of these fires. As @ScottMorrisonMP said today, there are ways all of us can help the industry – take a listen #auspol pic.twitter.com/63CAHEafnF
— Senator Jonathon Duniam (@DuniamJonathon) January 8, 2020
Australia is experiencing the worst bushfire season in recorded history: 28 people have died, thousands of homes have been lost and it’s estimated that one billion animals have been killed or injured.
It’s not just local tourists worried about the growing crisis, with fears there is a misconception among international guests that all of Australia is under threat.
SOUTH COAST OPEN FOR BUSINESS After assessments today, it has been decided that visitors may now return to areas of the Shoalhaven & South Coast.
People wishing to take advantage of the tourist areas are advised to contact their destination before setting off. #NSWRFS pic.twitter.com/4VhRXJibBt
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 11, 2020
Last week, Mr Morrison told reporters on Kangaroo Island that Australia was still a “wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays” and that tourists should still visit amid the environmental crisis.
“Even here on Kangaroo Island, where a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two-thirds of it is open and ready for business,” Mr Morrison said.
“It’s important to keep the local economies vibrant at these times.”