High Court judges splash $80k on flights
EXCLUSIVE: JET-SETTING High Court judges splashed out almost $80,000 for business-class flights for overseas trips in the first three months of 2018 alone, while government bureaucrats racked up a $141 million travel bill in total.
More than a third of government agencies are already on track to outdo their travel spend from last year as public servants take advantage of perks which could see them cost taxpayers a record $600 million before the year is out.
Government employees racked up $27 million flying business class across Australia and abroad from January to March alone, while economy class flights cost $74.3 million.
Accommodation and car rental cost taxpayers a further $36 million and $3.8 million.
The High Court and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which has come under fire for controversial decisions to save rapists, killers and other criminals from deportation, were among more than 50 government departments and agencies on track to exceed their 2017 travel costs.
Some have spent between a third and half of last year's travel bill in just three months, including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet which splashed $4.3 million on travel from January to March or 42 per cent of its $10.1 million travel costs for 2017.
By the year's end, the travel costs for all public servants could surpass $600 million for the first time, given last year's travel spend was $593.6 million.
The AAT spent $235,752 in the quarter or 39 per cent of its $606,600 travel costs for 2017, including $118,053 on business class flights across Australia.
The High Court of Australia - which has just seven judges - spent $79,634 on international business class flights.
That contributed to a three-month travel bill of $194,107 or 32 per cent of the court's $606,892 travel spend for 2017.
A spokesman for the High Court said the judges took just three international trips between January and March this year; a joint trip to Malaysia by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and Justice Michelle Gordon to give talks at universities and meet with a number of organisations, and a trip to the United States by Justice Stephen Gageler to deliver a lecture at Harvard University in Boston.
He said the funds included all tickets issued and charged during the period, not necessarily for travel taken during that time.
An AAT spokesman said the tribunal was "under budget" for 2017-18, while a PM&C spokeswoman said the department had implemented video conferencing to minimise travel costs but face-to-face meetings were still required to fulfil responsibilities in regional Australia to indigenous communities.
The Department of Defence, which racked up $53.2 million in travel costs over three months - more than a third of the travel spend for all agencies, was the biggest spender overall.
But the department, which was required to limit non-operational overseas and business travel as a budget savings measure, was on track to spend less than the $228.3 million it outlaid last year.
A spokesman said Defence was progressing its travel reforms to ensure every dollar was spent efficiently.
Home Affairs, Human Services and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were the next biggest spenders at $10.5 million, $10.4 million and $8.2 million.
DFAT has implemented a crackdown on travel after its costs hit $38.4 million last year, with a spokesman saying it had introduced stricter controls on travel and more videoconferencing since 2017.
A Home Affairs spokesman said its international travel spend was "proportionate" given the scale of its international operations and that all trips complied with the federal government's travel policy.
Under the policy, all staff are entitled to business class travel on all international flights. Only senior executives are allowed the perk when flying within Australia and only on domestic flights longer than three hours.
All air travel must also be the lowest practical fare in economy class "unless there is a business case or entitlement to travel business class".
Human Services said its costs included travel for school students receiving ABSTUDY and for Australian Hearing services.
A Department of Finance spokesman said the current travel policies were expected to deliver savings, highlighting that annual flight costs had been "consistently lower" than the 2007-08 benchmark of $529.6 million.
He also said the travel spend for any year was directly influenced by agencies's activities, such as deploying ADF troops or assisting with natural disasters, and that spending in one quarter "could not be extrapolated to a full year outcome".