Gold Coast based Liberal MP Steven Ciobo copped a serve in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail for taking a taxpayer funded study tour to Britain and the USA (allegedly at a cost of around $10 000) to explore issues relating to national identity cards, when he “could have taken a $225 flight to Canberra for a briefing on the Federal Government’s Access Card from Human Services Minister Joe Hockey.”
Probably the most interesting thing about the story isn’t a politician getting chided for flying overseas – I’m sure stories criticising politicians for junkets have been around since before aeroplane travel was invented. Rather it is the fact that the editorial in the same paper says that while “Mr Ciobo blamed political rivals for his troubles, it was actually Human Services Minister Joe Hockey who blew the whistle.”
If, as is suggested by this line, Joe Hockey has encouraged a media beat-up about a colleague flying, allegedly unnecessarily, to London and Washington, then the ID card debate could be one that causes the federal government a bit more public and political discomfort than is being anticipated.
Mind you, I’m not sure exactly what the whistle has been blown on. I am sure I had already read that Steve Ciobo was travelling to the UK to examine matters about ID cards. Regardless of how in-depth his trip is, the notion that flying to Canberra to be assured by Joe Hockey “that the Government had no plans to introduce a national ID card” is ludicrous.
Debate about an ID Card is worth having, as there are arguments on both sides. However, trying to silence debate by pretending that calling it an Access Card means it’s not an ID Card is just likely to make people more suspicious. Not surprisingly, I’m no great fan of Steve Ciobo’s politics, but from my experience, he’s not an idiot. He wouldn’t be fooled by such a ludicrous fob-off, and I doubt many in the wider community would be either. Frankly, it’s mildly reassuring to know that at least some Liberal MPs don’t just swallow glib reassurances from government Ministers.
The fact that some aspects of the British ID Card will be different to Australia’s proposed de facto ID Card does not mean that there is nothing useful that can be learned from what they are planning. There will still be a lot in common between the two, not least the large increase in data sharing that will happen, and the potential for large cost blow outs which already seem to happening both here and there.
No doubt it’s a politically stupid thing to do to defend a politician against media criticism about junkets. There’s no easier story to run and understandably you will never get public sympathy trying to defend taxpayer funded overseas travel by any politician, regardless of the nature of the trip. I recall one short delegation I went on was described as a jaunt and a waste of money before we’d even left the country.
I haven’t done a lot of overseas travel compared to most federal politicians, but I have done some. Rather than hide it and hope no one notices, I’ve tried to be open about it, including writing on this blog about some of my trips. I can only say that I have found most of my overseas travel to very useful and extremely interesting. Being exposed to different ideas and perspectives outside the often very narrow and parochial context in Australia can really help broaden your understanding and provide some fresh ideas. I’m not defending all overseas travel by any means, and I have no doubt that some trips are little more than junkets – particularly some of the delegations. I’ve been told as much by more than one MP.
I don’t know much detail about Steven Ciobo’s trip beyond his own statements that he’s looking at government ID cards and counter-terrorism and intelligence issues. However, I am sure that if he used his time to meet a wide range of people and assess information, ideas and opinion about ID cards, it would be a much better use of resources than many of the other things MPs can spend their money on (and if he flew economy as he says he did, I’d be surprised if his trip cost anywhere near $10 000). (I could mention the need to cut back on long-haul air travel because of the high greenhouse emissions, but that’s a wider issue).