The poor quality of political debate in Australia was perfectly demonstrated on the weekend by another outbreak — semi-regular in nature — of attacks on international travel by Government ministers. The staggering sum of $1.8m was spent on what Malcolm Turnbull (who alone spent $110,000 in the six months to June 2007 when Environment Minister travelling overseas) called “Whitlamesque” extravagance.
Putting aside for a moment the peculiarity of criticising Stephen Smith and Simon Crean for travelling overseas (since, as Foreign and Trade Ministers, respectively, extensive overseas travel is in the job description and almost certainly not particularly enjoyable for either), on what basis does the mainstream media believe overseas travel by Ministers should be assessed? Australia is a middle-ranking power several hours’ flying time from major regional capitals and a day’s flight to world centres of influence. Unless the alternative is North Korean-level insularity, Government Ministers and particularly senior ministers should be encouraged to spend time overseas, pushing the Government’s agenda, trying to influence outcomes in major fora and prosecuting the interests of Australia. And doing so in the middle of a global financial crisis is even more imperative. For $1.8m, that’s a bargain.
The media likes to have it both ways, though. If Peter Garrett had failed to travel to a Whaling Commission meeting in South America, one can only assume he would have draw criticism for giving up on Our Whales. Kate Ellis’s absence from Beijing would have been a sell-out of Our Olympic Athletes. And one can only wonder at what calumnies would be heaped on the Prime Minister and Joel Fitzgibbon if they did not visit Australia’s forces in Afghanistan (Our Brave Lads).
Surely we can do better than this.