Travel and hospitality

Foreign governments and private groups subsidise 132 overseas trips over four years

Nearly 30% of federal parliamentarians have accepted sponsored overseas travel and hospitality since the 2019 election, raising questions about undue influence peddling from foreign and commercial interests.

Sean Johnson20 April 2023

Emirates Business Class (Shutterstock)

Crikey's coverage of analysis

67 sitting MPs and ten former MPs have accepted subsidised travel and hospitality since 2019 from foreign governments, airlines, think tanks, airlines, lobby groups, and private companies, Open Politics' analysis of the parliamentary interests registers reveals.

The leading destinations were the United States, Israel, and Taiwan, which collectively accounted for 61% of trips, while a clear majority (57%) was subsidised by foreign governments or foreign government owned or funded organisations.

Qantas provides the most sponsored foreign travel, in the form of first and business class upgrades, and the top funders of all-expenses-paid trips were the governments of Taiwan and the United States and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). AIJAC is the most generous, providing business class flights, accommodation, all meals, and ground transport.

The analysis shows a strong bias towards the party in power, with Coalition MPs - who were in government for three of the past four years - going on 64.8% of trips.

Also of concern is that nine MPs who accepted trips (13% of recipients) failed to declare them to the interests registers prior to being contacted by Open Politics and the media, raising concerns that other trips may not have been declared.

We have excluded from our analysis humanitarian travel sponsored by Save the Children, the Tuberculosis Caucus, and the Tibet Information Office, however details of these trips can be found in the table at bottom.

Destinations

Most travelled

Funders

Undeclared travel

Table of all foreign travel and hospitality

Destinations

Despite COVID restrictions on foreign travel for two of the past four years, MPs collectively managed to visit 23 countries.


The United States was the leading destination by a long stretch (31.5% of all trips), followed by Israel and Taiwan with 14.6% each. 60.7% of trips involved visits to one of these countries.

The most frequented regions were North America, Asia, Middle East, and Europe.

Most travelled

The most travelled was our erstwhile prime minister Scott Morrison, who's enjoyed five trips abroad, all business class, on someone else's dime since losing the May 2022 election. He and the family also received a heavily sponsored trip to Fiji in 2019 with business class and hotel upgrades.

A tell that sponsored trips are about influence is that MPs from the party in power are heavily represented out of proportion to their numbers in parliament, with those from the Coalition - which was in government for three of the past four years - going on 64.5% of trips compared to only 34% for Labor MPs. Only 1.5% were for independents - Helen Haines and David Pocock.

Funders

49 foreign governments or private organisations subsidised foreign travel and hospitality.

40 trips (30.7%) were funded by foreign governments (Taiwan, US, Qatar, Singapore, India, South Korea, Morocco) and a further 36 (26.4%) were subsidised by foreign government-owned organisations (state-owned airlines) or organisations that receive direct or indirect funding from foreign governments (ASPI, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China).

The three biggest funders of all-expenses-paid travel - the governments of Taiwan and the United States, and the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) - subsidised 36% of trips.


What do funders hope to get in return?

The purported aims of many of the trips are to foster cultural and economic exchanges and build relationships between countries. But only the most politically naïve or wilfully ignorant would dispute that the trips are funded in large part to try to influence MPs in some way, whether on a foreign policy issue or commercial matter.

Take the US State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program, the mainstay of junkets for Australian politicians dating back to the early 1960s. In January 2023 the IVLP provided 10 MPs with four nights accommodation in Washington DC, two nights in New York, a meal allowance, and an evening at Hamilton the Musical on Broadway.

The state department portrays the IVLP as some sort of benevolent professional exchange program to help upcoming foreign leaders to engage US officials, but the program is really a tool to push US foreign policy. As discussed in an earlier article, Michael Pignatello, a state department foreign service officer, was quoted in 2022 saying, "IVLP delivers tremendous value for U.S. foreign policy. Each program reflects participants' professional interests and supports U.S. foreign policy goals."

Let's hope Uncle Sam isn't using the IVLP junkets to promote its China containment policy as it's in Australia's national interest to have a healthy relationship with its biggest trading partner and not to be seen as the US's proxy.

Then there's the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia, Taiwan's de facto embassy in Australia and the biggest funder of junkets since 2019. In December 2022, six MPs visited the country for five days, with return flights, accommodation, meals, and incidentals thrown in.

Terry Young, one of the MPs who went on the trip, described it on his Facebook page as as an opportunity to meet government officials and learn more about Taiwan's parliamentary electronic voting. However there’s no denying Taiwan uses the trips to try to promote foreign support for the country as separate from the People’s Republic of China.

While it’s understandable that Taiwan wants to remain a free nation independent from an increasingly authoritarian China, Australia has not recognised Taiwan as a country since the Whitlam government established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1972. And that decision makes even more sense today with China's growing economic and military power.

So it probably was not sensible of former senator Eric Abetz to say, on his return from Taiwan in 2021, that Australia should restore diplomatic relations and is "duty bound" to defend Taiwan in the event of a war with China, despite Australia not having a security treaty with the island.

The biggest private provider of junkets for many years has been the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), which funded 14 trips over four years to Israel for MPs, all from Coalition parties.

And AIJAC's agenda? On one level the trips would be a wonderful opportunity for MPs to experience the virbancy of Israel society, but these are no mere cultural and political exchanges. AIJAC funds the trips to shape political and media opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favour of Israel. MPs hardly hear Palestinian voices.

We should be concerned too that several hawkish think tanks and groups with close links to foreign governments are subsidising trips. These include the UK’s Henry Jackson Society, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Israel’s Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

The Henry Jackson Society is the most disturbing: the necon think tank continues to defend the illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq, while one of its co-founders has denounced it as “far-right, deeply anti-Muslim [and] racist. And Murdoch's Sunday Times revealed in 2017 that the think tank took 10,000 pounds a month from the Japanese Embassy in London to run a secret propaganda campaign against China.

Troubling as well is the new Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a global group of legislators that says it is concerned about the People’s Republic of China's threat to the "rules based international order". However it's hard to see IPAC as anything but an instrument of the US and Taiwanese governments given the majority of its funding comes from the notorious National Endowment for Democracy, a foundation funded almost entirely by the US government (some say to do the CIA's propaganda work), and NED's close collaborator the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, which was created by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The public interest is also at risk when for-profit companies fund trips.

The most controversial was Liberal senator David Van’s unauthorised visit to the Ukraine in August 2022 courtesy of Defendtex, an Australian defence company that has sold drones to the Ukrainian government. As reported by The Australian in February, soon after returning from the trip Van “spruiked DefendTex and its drones in a speech to the Senate, without mentioning the company had paid for his trip."

Then there’s Pyne and Partners, a third party lobbyist with defence clients founded by former defence minister Christopher Pyne, which funded two politicians to visit the US in the past month on an "AUKUS defence industry delegation".

This god awful practice is almost never in the public interest as it leaves MPs indebted to return the favour. It's called the norm of reciprocity, but MPs seem to think they are immune from it.

If only. Better, in our view, to ban all sponsored travel and hospitality, foreign and domestic, and gifts above a nominal value.

Undeclared trips

Nine sitting MPs - 13% of recipients - did not declare their trips to the interests registers as required by parliamentary rules. Ten trips in all were not declared, with one MP failing to disclose two occasions of sponsored travel.

In the course of preparing this analysis Open Politics identified, largely through our social media monitoring, that seven MPs had failed to declare their trips were sponsored:

  • David Van, who visited COP27 in Egypt in November 2022 courtesy of the Coalition for Conservation.

  • Deborah O'Neill and Peter Khalil, who had their flights and accommodation reimbursed by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China to attend visited IPAC's Indo-Pacific forum in Washington DC in September 2022. Khalil also neglected to declare free flights from Hawaiian Airlines to attend a meeting of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Hawaii in October 2022.

  • Terry Young and Libby Coker, who visited Taiwan in December 2022 as guests of the Taiwanese government.

  • Helen Haines and Luke Gosling, who visited the US in January 2023 as guests of the United States government.

And last year we revealed Hollie Hughes failed to disclosed her trip to Israel from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

Finally, Richard Marles failed to declare his part-subsidised trip to China in 2019 courtesy of China Matters (which we had no role in exposing). The Defence Minister has also not declared who provided him with a round of golf at a top US course in December.

None have faced investigation, despite the register resolutions stating that a senator or MP who doesn't declare their interests can be found guilty of serious contempt of parliament.


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