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Ministers and staff charged taxpayers millions to travel the country during election campaign

The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age analysed spending by cabinet ministers and shadow cabinet ministers during the campaign – excluding junior ministers and backbench MPs – based on official records released by the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority.

The records reveal that despite the government being in caretaker mode, cabinet ministers still claimed almost $550,000 in travel allowance, air fares and luxury car transport during the campaign period – for themselves alone.

Shadow cabinet ministers claimed about $385,000 in similar expenses. Ministers usually travel with multiple staff such as media and policy advisers, meaning the true cost of those trips is likely to be many times higher.

A detailed breakdown of staff campaign costs is not available. But across April, May and June, cabinet ministers’ staff racked up nearly $5 million in travel expenses, and shadow ministers’ staff had travel bills of about $1.6 million during that period.

Those figures include travel costs for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then opposition leader Bill Shorten’s staff. But the figures do not include the cost of flying Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten around the country on the Air Force’s VIP business jets during the campaign.

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National Party ministers spent more than most, with the outgoing Mr Scullion racking up more than $100,000 in taxpayer-funded expenses during the campaign, including $80,000 in charter flights. He declined to comment.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud billed taxpayers more than $65,000 for travel during the campaign period, including $46,000 in charter flights around regional Queensland.

But ministers who were under pressure in their own seats – such as Peter Dutton and Greg Hunt – stayed close to home to campaign, and recorded relatively little travel expenditure.

New Labor leader Anthony Albanese was the opposition’s biggest spender in the campaign, charging taxpayers $42,195 to travel the country as Labor’s infrastructure spokesman. He was followed by then deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, whose bills totalled $36,800.

The profligacy was not limited to the major parties, with Katter’s Australian Party leader Bob Katter spending $60,000 on travel during the campaign, including $50,000 on charter flights.

Former senator Fraser Anning, the far-right Queenslander who lost his seat, spent $11,250 on flights alone during the campaign, including trips to Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.

He spent another $3485 on flights after the election, while he was still a senator, including a trip to Melbourne and Hobart.

The rules allow all MPs to claim travel expenses for parliamentary business, official duties, electorate duties and “party duties” (limited to conferences and executive meetings) right up until polling day.

A long-standing convention provides that ministers do not claim travelling expenses between the Prime Minister’s official campaign launch and election day.

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However, travel for urgent cabinet meetings and “parliamentary business” is still allowed, and was used by many – but not all – ministers during the campaign.

A high level guidance note issued before the campaign says MPs who are not recontesting the election should contact the IPEA for guidance on their expenses.

Electoral law expert Graeme Orr at the University of Queensland said the rules enabled ministers and MPs to create “sham travel such as a faux meeting to justify an already-planned campaign trip”.

“It’s an obvious issue with frontbenchers, who are the face of the parties,” he said.

“Before the last election this was aggravated by ministers inviting LNP candidates to hand out community grants, but not local ALP members.”

In one instance, Resources Minister Matt Canavan charged taxpayers $5500 for a return charter flight from Townsville to Collinsville for “electorate duties” during the campaign.

A spokeswoman said Senator Canavan met with workers at the Collinsville mine, as well as businesses and the local council.

Professor Orr said an option was to ban all taxpayer-funded travel once an election is called and the government is in caretaker mode. However, he warned this would force the major parties to rely more heavily on big donors, and push travel forward to before an election.

University of NSW constitutional law professor George Williams said the current system was “convenient” for politicians, providing “rules that benefit them while still giving them a chance to fight each other”.

“The people who designed the system are our politicians so it’s no surprise that there is a self-serving aspect,” he said.

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