Christian Kerr broke the story (19 March) about the anger in the Canberra Press Gallery following the tragic crash of the Garuda flight which resulted in the deaths and serious injuries involving — among others — Australian journalists, police officers and public servants.

He reported that, due to a lack of seating on the VIP Fleet, “journalists are being forced to scramble in politicians’ wakes on commercial flights — often with dodgy carriers”. Mr Kerr revealed that Alan Ramsey had written a column about the issue for the Sydney Morning Herald which commenced “Howard crashed and burned this week”. Apparently the Ramsey piece was spiked by the Herald‘s editor. Mr Ramsey has declined to elaborate on his spiked column.

It’s true that the planes in the VIP Fleet are too small for proper overseas travel. This has led to a number of problems — including the fact that there are few (if any) available seats on VIP flights for journalists reporting on the overseas visits of the Prime Minister and senior ministers. In recent years some kind of agreement seems to have occurred between the two major parties whereby — when in opposition — neither Labor nor the Coalition attempt to score points about equipping or running the VIP Fleet. This has led to a situation where critics of VIP flights are now found primarily within the ranks of the minor parties and independents — along with, yes, some journalists.

And who has been the most vocal public critic of the VIP Fleet — during both Labor and Coalition governments? Step forward Sydney Morning Herald columnist Alan Ramsey.

A couple of examples illustrate the point. On 10 October 1987, Ramsey criticised Bob Hawke’s use of VIP flights for overseas travel and described the rationale for the very existence of a VIP Fleet as “mostly self-serving humbug”. Ramsey returned to the topic during Paul Keating’s prime ministership (26 June 1993). This time Ramsey’s criticism extended to the number of “reporters and TV crew” on one of Paul Keating’s overseas trips. In mocking tone, Ramsey declared: “It’s a nice perk travelling VIP overseas with the emperor, all expenses paid”. He also referred to the travelling media as “press hangers-on”. In time, Ramsey extended his critique of VIP Fleet operations to John Howard’s government.

One of the many reasons why the largest plane in the current VIP Fleet is the moderately sized twin-engine 737 Business Jet turns on the fact that politicians — Coalition and Labor alike — have been nervous about spending big on the VIP Fleet because of anticipated populist criticism from the likes of Alan Ramsey.

Peter Fray

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