Thursday 25 May
Senator RHIANNON: I have some questions about travel expenses. Department of Finance figures show the bill for the whole-of-government travel system totalled a bit over $420 million.
Senator Cormann: We literally went through that same line of questioning just now.
Senator RHIANNON: Seriously? I am sorry; I have been at other committees.
Senator Cormann: We have taken it all on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: How much was spent on flights to Christmas Island, PNG and Nauru?
Senator Cormann: We will have to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: So you took all the other ones on notice?
Senator Cormann: For this sort of specific detail we obviously have to review the data.
Senator RHIANNON: Is it correct that the department receives reports on travel patterns?
Mr Sheridan: What do you mean by travel patterns?
Senator Cormann: If somebody who works in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection were going to Nauru on a regular basis, is that what you would call a travel pattern?
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, a pattern where there are many people who travel to this destination at these times. Particularly with more teleconferencing, it is interesting that there is still such an increase of about $50 million in your travel expenses. I understood you were looking at the issue around travel patterns, and I want to know if that is the case.
Senator Cormann: There is a pattern, unrelated to that $426 million figure, where federal members of parliament come to Canberra on a regular basis, because that is a function of the job that we perform. There are patterns where other public servants, depending on their appropriate responsibilities, have to travel on a regular basis to certain locations that are related to their job. The key principle here is that obviously every official travel has to be for proper work related purposes. That is the way this is meant to work.
Senator RHIANNON: I was not actually casting doubt on whether it is for proper purposes; the question was, 'Is it correct that the department receives report on travel patterns, and if that is the case, can they be released?'
Mr Sheridan: We do not receive reports on travel patterns; we receive all the travel data. That is where that $427 million figure came from. We have all the flight data.
Senator RHIANNON: In that is it collated that there were so many trips to this destination, as well as the amounts?
Mr Sheridan: It can be collated.
Senator RHIANNON: Has it been collated?
Mr Sheridan: Not in the normal context. We would normally do that in the context of an approach to market where we want to establish with providers a particular way of doing something.
Senator RHIANNON: Can that data be released to the committee?
Senator Cormann: We will take on notice and assess what we can sensibly release without an excessive diversion of resources. We will consider what we can sensibly provide? S
Senator RHIANNON: How much has been spent on flights to Christmas Island?
Senator Cormann: We have already taken that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Why are MPs and staff not included in this overall amount?
Senator Cormann: Because they are separately reported.
Senator RHIANNON: Again, that was not the question.
Senator Cormann: I have told you. There is a separate report for members of parliament.
Senator RHIANNON: We are part of the cost of running things. What was the reason given, or is it the case that you do not know?
Senator Cormann: It would probably make the data less transparent. Given that there is so much self-evident travel required in the job we and our staff do, I would put to you that, if you were to merge the two sets of data, you would probably have less valuable information. If you want to look at the two numbers together, I do not think it is a difficult thing to do.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand there is increasing use of videoconferencing and a whole range of communications technology. Are you assessing that that needs to be promoted more, considering the ongoing increase in travel costs?
Mr Sheridan: The travel costs vary according to the operational requirements of agencies. In some years some agencies might need more travel. There may be a particular event that requires more travel. It is not just related to the normal, run-of-the-mill events. In some circumstances videoconferencing might be an alternative, and generally speaking agencies will choose that if they can. The travel figures reflect that things change from year to year. Some years it is up; some years it is down.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that the case? I did not know that it had gone down; I thought it has been a steady increase.
Mr Sheridan: No, it has not. If you go back to when we first did the figures in, I think, 2007-08, the number was $530 million, and that was not a comprehensive figure.
Senator Cormann: That was in 2007 dollars. Since then governments of both persuasions have made efforts to get efficiencies out of the travel bill by including whole-of-government travel contracts and the like, so a serious effort has been made for a number of years now to minimise that cost across government.
Senator RHIANNON: Talking about the serious efforts, what is the case with costs for government owned businesses? Are they included in this?
Mr Edge: Generally they would not be included in those numbers. The numbers cover non-Commonwealth entities, although some government business enterprises might be in the arrangement.
Mr Sheridan: They are not in those figures. Sometimes they can use the arrangements. It depends on the circumstances.
Senator Cormann: Government business enterprises obviously operate at arm's length from the government. They generally operate on a commercial basis. This is reported on a public sector wide basis.
Senator RHIANNON: But Mr Edge's answer was 'generally', so could you expand on what 'generally' means?
Mr Edge: Can I clarify that? Their travel is not in the numbers.
Senator RHIANNON: Not at all; no government business.
Mr Edge: No, but they can choose, if they wish, to access the travel provider at the prices that have been negotiated. But they are not in the numbers that have been discussed here.
Senator Cormann: That is because the answer to the question was the answer to the question. The question that was asked was in relation to flight across government.
Senator KITCHING: I just want to clarify: if any government-owned business accesses the whole-of government travel arrangements, do they pay a fee for that, or is it just accepted that they can? Is it just an option that they have?
Mr Edge: Mr Sheridan might have a little more detail, but they would access the arrangement on the same basis as any of the other Commonwealth agencies, I would imagine. Mr Sheridan: I would have to take on notice whether any of them do and what the arrangements are. I am not sure.
Senator RHIANNON: So you will take that on notice?
Mr Sheridan: Yes.