THURSDAY, 6 AUGUST 2015
SHADOW FINANCE MINISTER AND MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS, TONY BURKE: Yesterday, Josh Frydenberg put very squarely as to whether or not I would have the same standards applied to me as I have demanded of others. The answer to that is 100 per cent unequivocally yes.
I, during the period that we were having arguments relating to the Speaker's expenses over the last three weeks, very clearly, and I did three media conferences during those three weeks and in each of them made clear that the issue for me was I believed the rules had been broken.
The Department of Finance is currently doing a review of expenses relating to a number of travel areas that have been called into question relating to the former Speaker. Similarly Phillip Ruddock has submitted some of his for review. I will be doing the same. I don't want there to be any argument whatsoever where somebody claims that I am not willing to be held as the same standard as anyone else.
While I am completely confident that the questions, in particular relating to Uluru and Cairns, have been 100% within the rules, they have also been completely beyond community expectations. That's has been made clear. A view has been allowed to develop that these were holidays rather than work trips. I would like to deal with that directly.
For Uluru, I left the kids each day and went to work. In the evenings I was with them. Similarly in Cairns, I would leave to go to different sites, particularly in Cape York and in the Daintree, and would leave to conduct meetings. In each of these I had senior members of my staff and departmental officials with me.
You don't go on a holiday with the public servants from your department. The view that it was a holiday, it simply wasn't.
Now, there is a question that has been asked as to, quite validly and all the questions that have been asked are quite valid, as to whether or not rules of that nature should exist. With respect to that, that is why Labor is in support of the review that is taking place. Obviously after the scrutiny that’s here and the questions that have been asked and the way it has been allowed to be made to look like it was not in fact me taking the kids along for a work trip and being able to see them at night, then, obviously, it is not something that I would anticipate accessing any time in the future. But the review will work its way through on that.
I would like also to deal with a claim that was made by Eric Abetz and has been repeated in good faith in a number of places regarding repayments that I have made over the years.
They refer to, and Eric Abetz quite mischievously referred to, a false claim that I had to repay 15 times. Can I say in the first instance, every one of the repayments has been voluntary. There has never been a case where I have to repay and about half of them, the Department of Finance have found they were completely within the rules and I chose to make the repayments anyway.
There are also some instances where the repayments were made, in s ome cases before the trip was even taken, because the travel agent had mistakenly charged the Government rather than billing my credit card. Now, there were five occasions all up, all of them were identified by me. As I say, all of them were paid without question and they are roughly a decade old. It is important for that to be noted.
Finally, the two remaining questions that have been put a number of times. One relating to the class of travel that was booked. As you would expect, the class of travel that was booked, I think no-one can satisfy an argument that says that kids should have been flying business class. I accept that argument absolutely.
After having the repayments where there were some mistakes that I made when I was first elected more than 10 years ago, my instructions to the staff was always check and triple check was the instructions I always gave to my staff. In giving that instruction to the staff, they were checking that everything they booked was exactly as the rules were meant to be. So they made the booking with the Government assigned travel agent and the fares were put at that level.
But I have to say that is not something - that is not an instruction that I would continue to give to my staff to just check it in that way. There is a justifiable expectation that was unnecessary and shouldn't have happened.
The final question that is asked is 'why was the Uluru trip at that time? Why was the Cairns trip at that time?' Anyone who goes deeper into the public record into the visits I was making as a Minister would know, for example, with Uluru, the week before the Uluru trip, I think that was a week in South Australia on Murray-Darling work. The week following that was in Tasmania on Tasmanian forestry work.
Similarly, for the work that was done in the far north, when the flights went to Cairns, the week before that was in Brisbane, the weekend in between, I was working in Tasmania and the week after I was back in Victoria on Murray-Darling work. I don't say this for any reason other than to explain the particular visits when asked ‘why then?’ It was simply that was when that work was put into the diary. As straightforward as that.
For all of this, I hold to the point where I started, which is that it was completely within the rules and that is why I want to have it verified. But the application of those rules were completely outside public expectations. That is why we support the review. That is why the class of travel issue is something that I want to explain how it unfolded that way. But certainly not something I would seek to defend.
REPORTER: Will you repay that money?
BURKE: It was completely within the rules as the rules are set down –
REPORTER: But will you repay the difference in the fares for the children flying business class?
BURKE: What I will wait for now is for the Department of Finance to come back with their advice. I am sending that across to the Department of Finance. I will wait for them to come back with their advice.
REPORTER: Why not do it now? You have accepted that it is outside of community expectations; you have accepted that it is not the right thing to do, not in terms of the rules; I accept that you were within the rules, not within community expectations. But you can right now say I will pay back those kids' business class airfares? Why don't you do it right now?
BURKE: As I have explained, the booking was, and I presume this is the same for most Members of Parliament; the bookings are made by other people who checked the rules. They checked the rules, they did so and that was applied. That, having now happened, I am completely supportive of a review that says let's look at this and I expect it will be one of the things when recommendations come back for it to be changed.
REPORTER: Mr Burke, we’ve established and I’ve written this, that the Finance Department has said that members, when they ask for these bookings to be made for their children, and their spouse for that matter, they have the right to say to the travel agent, go for the cheapest possible economy fair. This happened not once but several times over years, three years. Why didn't you do that, why didn't you say, ‘look, it is not the right thing for my kids to be travelling business class, please sir Mr. Government Travel Agent, can you please book my kids economy class, why didn't you do that?
BURKE: I have given you the answer as to how the bookings were made. I have also given you the answer to explain the instruction that I had given to the staff and the reason why I had given the staff that particular instruction was because errors were made in the first term.
REPORTER: So you're saying it is your staff's fault?
BURKE: No, absolutely not. They were following the instructions that I had given and I am explaining to you today, while I am not expecting that - it is something that I may well not access again, and it may not even be there. But I am explaining to you how I would change the instructions to my staff now.
REPORTER: Why don't you give the instructions to your staff to please book my children economy class?
BURKE: What I am saying is I suspect there won't be a request to book flights for my children. I expect that is where we end up.
REPORTER: Do you feel like a hypocrite considering your comments regarding Bronwyn Bishop?
BURKE: My criticism of Bronwyn Bishop was always that she had broken the rules, always.
REPORTER: So you don't feel like a hypocrite?
BURKE: My criticism of Bronwyn Bishop was always, without exception, that she had broken the rules. When other issues were raised with respect to Bronwyn Bishop that were clearly within the rules, I did not criticise her for that at all. I was encouraged in interviews to speak specifically about other members of the Government who were acting within the rules and I did not respond on that either.
I have been completely consistent on this and, in my view, Bronwyn Bishop broke the rules. There is now an investigation into that.
REPORTER: Although she does say she didn't break the rules and while the helicopter trip was extravagant, she maintains it was still within the rules and that she was on official business even at that fundraiser.
BURKE: Yes, and, as I say, there is an investigation into that now. Please Ean I am going to finish the question. There is an investigation into that now. It’s also the case that the examples that I have given are examples of work visits that had to happen, that had senior staff of mine with me and senior members and relevant members employed by my Department with me as well. It was by any definition a work visit. Whether the kids were able to join me or not, they were visits that I had to do as Environment Minister.
REPORTER: Can you outline what was discussed at Uluru?
BURKE: Yes, I can now. I had to be careful at the time. We had a significant problem with the security of a number of deeply significant items of Aboriginal heritage there. When I had gone on an earlier visit, there were some private meetings with Aboriginal elders where they took me through this.
You need to remember for an Environment Minister there are only a very small number of national parks that are actually the responsibility of the National Government. Uluru-Kata Tjuta is one of them, Kakadu is another. They took me through the specific challenges that they had, where irreplaceable items were in an environment that you could only describe as completely insecure.
There was no budget within the Parks Division of my Department to be able to deal with this. So, the only way for it to be able to be fixed was for Ministerial intervention in finding the money and driving the project and making sure that it happened. As I understand, since I have left the portfolio, that keeping place has now been established. That is why I couldn't delay any longer the second visit to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, but also why, when the issue was about the security of the items being in an insecure place, it would have been wildly inappropriate to do media around, this is the reason for the second visit.
REPORTER: Are you on probation, has Bill Shorten - has he given you a bit of a talking to?
REPORTER: Can you establish - again Bronwyn Bishop says she didn't break the rules. She said she made an error of judgement. For the record, what is the rule you say she broke?
BURKE: Well, I have said it before and I will say it again. I do not accept and I am not going into new ground here. I will simply give you the words that I have used in previous media conferences if you want them fresh. I do not accept that part of the official business of being the Speaker of the House of Representatives is to attend a party political fundraiser. I also don't accept that part of the official business of being the Chair of a Committee is to attend secret meetings that the Committee never finds out about.
REPORTER: Can I just ask: there are suggestions this morning’s Australian that it could be a peace treaty between the Government and Labor on this sort of issue and potentially the inquiry may be expanded to include a former Labor MP and a former Government MP – or former Liberal MP – to look into this whole entitlement system. Do you support that or do you think that is appropriate?
BURKE: I have heard about that. I don't know whether it has been formalised or not when I saw the article in today's paper.
REPORTER: Among your charter flights, you were a Minister travelling around to different locations, but were there any charters at all over the past three or four years that related to you going to a party fundraiser, even one?
Can I say on the charter issue, and it might be unusual, I don't want this to be seen as evidence of a truce, but yesterday in the paper there was reference to Barnaby Joyce having the highest charter allowance in the Government. Can I just say on that, so he should. He is the Agriculture Minister. There are people with jobs, where if you try and do the job from a capital city, you are not doing the job properly.
I think in the context of all of this debate, we have to be just a little bit conscious as well as to where we are arguing that somebody is spending too much money because there is a problem with community expectations and where the bill is attached because someone is doing their job properly.
Anyone who thinks flying around in light aircraft is a good way to spend your day, it is not. Charter flights are where nothing commercial is available and if you have a job where your responsibility is for areas that are more remote, Barnaby Joyce has a job like that, Greg Hunt has a job like that, Warren Truss has a job like that. Their charter bills will be high.
REPORTER: Do we need a radical overhaul of the travel expenses system?
BURKE: I think when the Prime Minister used the words ‘root and branch review’; he got the description right of what the public expects.
REPORTER: When you were touring around Uluru with the park rangers and so on, people like that, did your children come with you on that trip?
BURKE: There were some times where they were with me and some times that they weren't. Most of the time they were not with me.
REPORTER: So some of the time you were touring around the park with the officials, with the park rangers and you took your children on, not all, not even the majority, but some of those trips? At Uluru, at that time?
BURKE: Certainly at Kata Tjuta. I was driving myself in the car and there were times when, for an extended time they were back at the hotel doing their own thing, while I was conducting meetings.
Most of the meetings that you conduct, it is just not appropriate to have children or someone there who is not part of the business of the meeting and when you describe - and I do have to take issue with your use of the word ‘tour’.
When you are responsible for the heritage values of one of the most iconic sites that Australia has, and the rangers who are taking you around are themselves members, traditional owners of that site, then the word ‘tour’ just doesn’t strike me as remotely accurate.
REPORTER: What word would you use?
BURKE: The other thing I’d just add is, because of the nature of the heritage items that I’m talking about, a lot of the discussion happens outside of offices. A lot of the discussion and the actual meetings happen while you’re walking, happen while you’re moving around and happen on-site.
And the meetings, some of them would happen in the areas that you might have, if you’ve been to Uluru, you would have seen signs where they are ‘men’s only’ areas, and if you’re not a traditional owner, you only go there if you’re invited. Now when I went to a site like that, obviously your children just can’t be with you.
REPORTER: But on some of them, it was appropriate to take your children?
BURKE: On some of them.
REPORTER: Is it a distraction, if you’re supposed to be working to have your family and your children there? Do you feel like you got enough of work done on a trip?
BURKE: Yes. Absolutely.
REPORTER: So there’s no blurred line about work and family holidays?
BURKE: What it means is, on a period of a number of weeks where, and I accept that this particular family reunion provision may not even exist by the end of the review. So I accept that that may be where we end up. But, if you have a look, and it’s all there on the public record, all of this has been on the public record for three years or more now. If you have a look at the amount of time I was away, and I chose that I wanted to deliver some big reforms and that meant being away a lot, you would see that even if the only outcome was I got to have a meal with my kids in the evening, then that was a significant shift.
REPORTER: Can I just ask: the other thing that you have been criticised for has been this Robbie Williams concert that you attended where you claimed $90 in car hire. Today the paper’s Michael Chugg has said that he had a general chit-chat with you, it wasn’t anything too official.
BURKE: I saw that. Look, on that one my view is that I’ll just pay the thing back. I’ve got a different recollection to Chuggy on that, I remember a series of security issues and costs for major events that we worked our way through. But if that’s his recollection, it’s silly to get into a tit-for-tat on it. I think it’s simply that it just gets paid back. It also involves constant conversations about Robbie Williams and I don’t know how helpful that is for any of us.
REPORTER: Are there any other expenses that you intend to pay back, in the near future?
BURKE: Obviously if – and there was a claim that I had charged for Justin Bieber which is just untrue. Yes, I did have to go: that was more of a confession than a declaration – but I drove myself, so why that headline appeared online is completely beyond me.
On the issue of whether – if I’m wrong and the Department of Finance comes back and says ‘we think it’s not one hundred per cent in order’ – then there may well be. But I’ve given to them in good faith and I’m very conscious of the claim yesterday that I wouldn’t put myself up for the exact same standard that I’d demanded.
I was very precise in what I was demanding and what I though was out of line with respect to the Speaker, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t forthright in demanding it. I was. They now have a Finance review, and I don’t agree with Andrew Wilkie that ‘let’s put the microscope under every single last human being’.
But I think I’m probably in a different position from everyone else. I think I probably am. As the person who was particularly prominent, holding three media conferences during that time, I do think that puts a higher expectation on me and that’s why I’m writing to the Department of Finance.
REPORTER: Can I just ask, it sounds as though you would be disappointed if the family reunion element of these entitlements is completely abolished as a result of the review. Am I reading that right?
BURKE: I have worked on the basis that there will be shifts to it. It may be abolished, it may not be, I don’t know. The thing that I do want people to understand: no-one should think that having a parent as a Member of Parliament makes childhood better. No-one should think that. I’ve always kept my kids completely out of scrutiny. They don’t appear in my leaflets, I don’t drag them in front of cameras. This is the first time there’s ever been a spotlight on them. I’m probably reacting in a way that is pretty protective of them.
REPORTER: How are they feeling, are they feeling under pressure? Has it affected the family, have they spoken about it?
BURKE: Having just said ‘I don’t put the spotlight on them’, I’ll leave it at that and I hope you respect that.
REPORTER: Just for clarity, the review by the Department of Finance will do what? Just technically, what are you asking them to do?
BURKE: I will be asking them to do a review on the same terms as what they’re doing for two members of the Government. I think to do otherwise would be to get back to the argument of ‘are you held to the same standard or are you not?’ As I say, I have gone through everything with a fine-toothed comb. I am completely confident. But in a context like this I think it’s not unreasonable at all to say ‘well, you should also put it forward for someone independent to go through it.’
REPORTER: Thank you.
BURKE: Thank you.